Visiting the Magical Mont Saint-Michel
It has long been a dream of my husband Ken’s to visit the magical Mont Saint-Michel in the Normandy region of France, and I was happy to help make his dream come true last September. It turned out to be a trip that neither of us will ever forget… Not only were we stunned by the views of the island and abbey in person, we were lucky to have had good weather and beautiful sunsets during our three days, two nights trip. I dreamed of seeing the abbey with sheep grazing in front of it and we were so lucky to have spotted them on our second day there. In addition, we timed our visit with the tides and were able to see the abbey surrounded by water during high tide!
About Mont Saint-Michel
Because of it’s location on a small island and because of it’s distinctive castle-like shape, many people have mistaken the Mont Saint-Michel abbey for a fairy-tale castle. In fact, Mont Saint-Michel is a rocky tidal island and mainland commune (town) with a fascinating history as an abbey, a center of pilgrimage, a symbol of resistance during the Hundred Years’ War, and even as a prison. The island features a stone monastery spiraling to a distinctive point with the archangel Saint Michael at the top, sitting inside fortified walls that protect it from high tides. It is one of France’s most recognizable landmarks, visited by more than 3 million people each year. The Mont Saint-Michel was added to the list of UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1979.
The abbey was designed and built in the 11th century with the main facade added in the 12th century. However, the first foundations of the abbey were laid in the year 708, when, according to legend, bishop Saint Aubert of Avranches received an order from Saint Michael in his sleep to erect a chapel there. Because the 11th century design placed the transept crossing at the top of the mount, many underground crypts and chapels had to be built to compensate for this weight. This design is what gives the abbey the distinct upward structure that can be seen today.
More information regarding the island and the abbey, and also useful information for visits, can be found on the Mont Saint-Michel Abbey website.
Visiting the Mont Saint-Michel Abbey
After taking evening photos (and missing dinner!) the first evening we were there, we woke up early the next morning in order to catch an early shuttle to the island. We arrived at the island before 9 a.m. and it was still quiet with the shops and restaurants not yet open. It was a wonderful opportunity to explore the streets and take some pictures with few people in them. The medieval character of the entire island, with the stone ramparts and cobblestone streets, brought us back in time as we soaked in the ambiance and history.
The climb up to the Abbey winds along a very scenic terrace walk. It took us awhile to get to the top since we stopped for photos of the views and the interesting architecture so often! From the terraces, you can see the waters surrounding the island and the farmlands beyond for quite a distance. It was quite a climb up to the abbey with steep, small stairs along the way, so comfortable shoes are definitely recommended!
When we finally arrived at the Abbey, we were stunned by how large and impressive it is. There are rooms with soaring ceilings that are incredibly grand and beautiful, in addition to rooms below with large supporting pillars, a famous courtyard, spirals steps, and some mysterious doors and passages. There are also displays explaining the history and construction of the abbey along with a scale model. It is a fascinating place to explore. However, because it took us so long to get up there, it was also crowded and difficult to take pictures without a crowd in them. If I had an additional day, I would head straight up to the Abbey without stopping, in order to enjoy it with less crowds.
By the time we finished our self-guided tour of the Abbey and headed back down to the main street, it had already been several hours and the main street, including the restaurants, were full of people! We were interested in trying the famous giant omelets on the island, but due to the long lines and high prices (55 euros for a set with an omelet!!), we decided to go back to the mainland and had lunch at a bakery/cafe instead. We also purchased some of the famous butter cookies at the market/tourist shop next to the cafe and enjoyed them quite a bit and brought some home also.
Aside from early morning, evening is also a good time to visit the island with far less people! The abbey is also lit up in the evening from nightfall to midnight, a spectacular sight not to be missed!
Getting To and Around the Island
We visited Mont Saint-Michel as part of our road trip through Normandy. We rented a car after arrival at the CDG airport near Paris and first drove to Giverny, where we visited Monet’s Garden and stayed in a beautiful and charming historic farmhouse near the garden. The drive from the airport to Giverny was approximately 1 hr 15 minutes. The next afternoon, we drove approximately three hours west to Mont Saint-Michel, arriving in the late afternoon. The town is accessed via a gated entrance, which we received a gate code for via email from our hotel a few days prior to arrival. There is a main street in town, the Route du Mont Saint-Michel, that leads to the island and where most of the town hotels and restaurants are located.
Access to the abbey on the island is not allowed by car and is only accessible by the free shuttle, by foot, or by horse-drawn carriage(!). The shuttles run fairly often, from 7:30 am to midnight and are quite modern and clean. There is a shuttle stop across the street from our hotel, and also a stop just before a gate that restricts access to the 1.5 mile causeway leading to the island. The shuttle ride is 12-15 minutes from our hotel to the Abbey and walking takes about 35-40 minutes (which Ken did one evening coming back from the Island!) Information on visiting and getting around the area, including useful maps, can be found on the Mont Saint-Michel website and also the tourism website.
Our hotel, Hôtel Mercure Mont-Saint-Michel, is located in a very good location along the main road in town, with our room set back a distance from the main road and facing the river leading to the island. The rooms, while not fancy, were clean and quite satisfactory for our stay. The buffet breakfast in the restaurant was also decent and a great convenience. We had considered other lodgings, including nearby AirBnBs and other small hotels with more unique character than a chain hotel; however, we wanted to stay within walking distance of the abbey because we knew we would be going back and forth several times a day, including in the evening. We noticed that other hotels along the main street in town looked a bit older and were closer to the road.
Since we had planned our trip around the high tide days, we were able to see the island become surrounded by water several times during our visit. However, the fairly new bridge leading to the island was never submerged by tidal waters, so it did not become a true island. Nevertheless, the abbey lit up in the evenings and surrounded by water is a magical sight indeed!
On our last morning there, we saw a few surfers heading out towards the island from our hotel window facing the river, so Ken followed them and sure enough, he was able to see them surfing the tides and paddling towards the abbey! We were delighted to leave having witnessed this “only in Mont Saint-Michel during high tide” moment!