Mont Saint Michel is a bucket list destination located in the Normandy region of Northern France. The picturesque island rises majestically from the sea during high tide and is accessible to the mainland during low tide. The uniqueness of the island is one of the reasons the site has been occupied since 708. If you’re joining the more than 3 million people per year to visit, read our Mont St Michel travel tips before booking your vacation.
A Brief History
Mont St Michel has had a long and complicated history. Until the 8th century, when it was converted to a monastery, it was called Mont Tombe Legend says that the archangel Michael appeared to Aubert of Avranches in 708 and instructed him to build a church on the rocky island. Later, it was seized by the Vikings and then in the 10th century, the Benedictine Monks settled here building and expanding the church. During the Hundred Years’ War, the Kingdom of England attempted to capture the island but was unsuccessful due to the abbey’s improved fortifications.
The abbey was closed in the 17th century and used as a prison until 1863. Finally in 1874, the mount was declared a historic monument and has been listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1979. Obviously, this is a quick overview of the sites fascinating history. Take time during your visit to learn more.
Mont St Michel Travel Tips
Be Prepared for Mud
When the island isn’t surrounded by water, the area is a muddy mess. It’s still beautiful, but this is not the time to be wearing your new shoes. We were lucky that, when we arrived, the area was fairly dry. We could walk around the site, but did have to avoid some areas. Derrick tried again later that evening and almost lost his shoe! Bring old flip-flops or be prepared to walk barefoot while traipsing around the island while the tide is out.
Guided tours are available during low tide to explore the sands. Tours are required if you plan to venture far from the mont, as it can be dangerous with the rapidly changing tides. We saw many people coming back from the tour wearing mud covered shoes or just walking barefoot with their pant legs rolled up.
And Prepared to Walk Uphill
Pack your walking shoes and be prepared to walk up hills and steep stone steps during your visit. The highest point of Mont Saint Michel is 302 ft (92 m) above sea level with winding streets lined with stone and half-timber buildings.
Wandering the charming streets should be on your itinerary. There are tons of shops and restaurants to spend your money in, but keep in mind they are pricey.
Pack Warm Clothing
It can be quite chilly (and windy) at Mont Saint Michel, even in the summer months. Dress in layers for your visit and ensure you have a coat, scarf and gloves. A compact umbrella is also worth packing.
Check the Tidal Calendar
The water level can change up to 46 ft between high and low tides. At certain times, the island may be inaccessible due to an extreme high tide. You don’t want to arrive only to learn you can’t get to the island for 2 hours! There are also times of the year when the tide hardly changes. We stayed overnight on the island in October and the tide never came in!
On a positive note – we now have an excuse to return 🙂
Tour the Abbaye Mont Saint Michel
While you may be tempted to skip the abbey due to the extra cost (and possibly long line), we highly suggest a tour. In addition to the rich history of the abbey, you get great views of the countryside and the town below. We took a ton of landscape and rooftop photos from the west terrace. During the tour you can visit the areas for receiving pilgrims and religious rooms such as the church and crypts, as well as the areas dedicated to everyday life of the monks, such as the cloisters and refectory.
The kids were fascinated by the wheel in the Monk’s Ossuary. It was installed in 1820 to hoist provisions to the prisoners that were held in the abbey during the time when the abbey was being used as a prison. The Great Pillars Crypt was another interesting room for the kids. It was built in the 15th century to support the Gothic chancel of the abbey church. We also liked the Knights’ Hall, which wasn’t used for knights at all. It was built to hold up the cloister and was used by the monks as a room for work and study.
*Purchase tickets in advance online to avoid the queue. There is a separate line for ticket holders. When we visited, there was only one couple in this line. Everyone else was in line to purchase tickets.
Audio guides are available to hear a detailed history and descriptions of each room during the tour. There is an additional fee, but it’s worth the cost.
Visit During the Off Season
As with other tourist destinations, the best time to tour the island is during the off season. The busiest time of year is July and August, so avoid planning your holiday during the summer, if possible. You will find tourists packed into the streets year-round but you can avoid some of the crush by visiting outside the summer months. You’ll also be able to save on accommodations if you plan accordingly.
Arrive Early in the Morning or in the Evening
The best time to visit Mont Saint Michel is early in the morning before all the tourists descend on the island. Even around 9am, the streets are still relatively quiet, making it a great time to wander without having to bob and weave around other visitors. Evening is another good time to visit, once most of the day trippers start heading home. Shuttles run from 7.30am to 12.00am daily, so you’ll have no problem accessing the site early or staying late into the evening (assuming the tides are in your favor).
If you arrive in the afternoon, you’re also likely to get stuck in long lines to park. There is a fee for parking itself, but the shuttle bus to get from the parking area to the island is free.
Getting to Mont Saint Michel
Arrive at the site by car, train or as part of a tour from Paris or Bayeux. Though I would recommend arriving by car, if possible. Then, from the Information Center by the parking area, you can take a free shuttle bus to the base of the island. From the information center, you could also walk by taking one of the three new paths or ride on a horse-drawn carriage (fee).
Once you walk through the gate of Mont Saint Michel, you’ll see the small store on the right selling Les Galettes de La Mère Poulard. These cookies are fantastic and many varieties can’t be found in stores elsewhere in France. I like the chocolate chip cookies and the only time we can find them is around the holidays. The tins are also neat, so the cookies make a great gift as well.
Have Your Camera Ready
The iconic shots of Mont St Michel are of the entire island. You can get photos during the drive in if you have a lens with great zoom. A popular area for photos is Pointe du Grouin du Sud.
If you want to capture the stunning photos of the tidal change or when the site is an island, you need to check the tidal chart and be prepared for crowds. The yellow highlighted times represent the visible incoming and outgoing tide surge while the few orange highlights represent when the mont is an island again. Just be cautious of where you stand to take photos. The tide rises extremely quickly and areas you think may be safe, likely aren’t.
Where to Stay
We decided to stay on the island, thinking it would be the best option to explore and really make the most out of our visit. I loved the idea of being on Mont Saint Michel in the evening and early morning, but to be fair, I did fantasize about staring out my hotel window as the tide rapidly came in, which did not happen. Consequently, I would not recommend the overnight stay there as we could have easily stayed off the island and walked (or taken the shuttle) to our hotel after enjoying Mont Saint Michel in the evening.
If you want to stay on the island for the experience, we stayed at the Auberge Saint Pierre. The hotel is expensive, but was one of the better priced accommodations. Again, a better option would have been to stay off the island.
And if you decide to stay on the island anyway, pack minimal luggage as you will be carrying it up a lot of steps. The shuttle stops quite a ways from the island itself, so you’ll also have to drag your suitcases a good distance. This can be difficult in rainy weather or in the heat of summer.
Where Not to Eat
We had dinner at La Mère Poulard. A friend had visited many years ago and highly recommended the restaurant, so I didn’t even bother to read the reviews. The food was barely in the category of “okay”, it was way overpriced and the service was terrible. We would have been better off grabbing sandwiches for dinner. Or even better, going off the island to eat.
Mont Saint Michel is a bucket list destination that exceeded our expectations. It’s one of the few places that is even more amazing in person than in photos. Pack smart, plan to spend time wandering the narrow streets and visit the abbey. The site is an island when all those classical photos are taken, so check the tidal chart before booking a trip. We visited as part of a 2-week road trip, but Mont St Michel is also a great day trip from Paris. A visit to this French UNESCO World Heritage Site will take your breath away!
What other Mont St Michel travel tips can you share?