Located on the Emerald Coast, in the Ille-et-Villaine department (one of the four Brittany has), Saint-Malo is a romantic city dedicated to the sea. Once an island, enclosed within granite ramparts that remained intact for centuries, in spite of the highest tide coefficient in Europe, the old city is still alive. Built in the 12th century, directly on the rocks, the walls were modified in the 18th century, enlarged to offer a better protection.
Saint-Malo bares the name of “City of Corsairs”, the feared and fierce pirates appointed by the King of France to loot British and Dutch ships across the Channel.
Famous privateers like Duguay-Trouin or Surcouf contributed to make the city rich. The second source of revenues came from the development of trade with Indies, and after Jacques Cartier discovered Canada, new maritime trade was established. From 16th to 18th century, prosperity grew, until the French Revolution. The rich citizens, most of them ship owners, built impressive mansions called “malouinières”. Even after the Revolution, Saint-Malo continues to develop fishing in high seas and especially around Newfoundland where cod was found in abundance.
In the 19th and 20th centuries, tourism is the number one resource of the city. But during WWII, the allies, apparently misinformed, bomb it, destroying almost entirely the old town. But the enclosed city was rebuilt identically. Today, the citadel looks like it always did: a granite ship with medieval towers as a figurehead, and interlacing alleys in its belly.
Saint-Malo is now a major resort (it hosts of the largest marinas in France) as well as an important fishing and trading harbour. Mont Saint Michel is only one hour’s drive, so it is really worth a detour. You could start with the ramparts walk, where the view on the Coast of Emerald is mind-blowing, this will take two hours. Then go to the Dungeon which contains a museum recounting the saga of the greatest sailors from Saint-Malo. Around the dungeon is the castle originally built by the Dukes of Brittany. And to complete your visit, you can go to the giant aquarium, children love it.
After a much needed stop in a “creperie”, where you can have a crepe with all kinds of ingredients, and a “bolee” of cider, you can drive across the river Rance on the biggest tidal power station in the world, and arrive in Dinard. What a contrast this town offers with its rival neighbour! One is severe and rough, lashed by waves, while the later is pure softness, with nice windless beaches, pine trees and…palm trees.
The Gulf Stream is not far away, and the gentle climate was very appealing to the English aristocratic world in the 1830’s. Agatha Christies and Pablo Picasso loved this “Northern Nice”, and they were not the only ones: it was, at a time, the most famous sea resort in Europe. When the wealthy clientele deserted Dinard for French Riviera, they left 407 mansions, reflecting prosperity in different architectural styles, Norman, gothic or Art Nouveau. All these villas are now listed as heritage sites, and protected against any attempt to change the landscape.
A wonderful place to relax, have another bowl of cider (alcohol content is not very high) and maybe some oysters, this is Brittany after all. By the way, the name Dinard comes from the legendary King Arthur and Celtic language: DIN, meaning hill, and ARZ/AR, meaning Bear/Arthur (in Celtic mythology, bears represent sovereignty).
If you enjoy eating mollusks, go to Cancale, the oyster village: you will find countless oyster bars and restaurants on the little harbour’s wharf, and eating one or two dozens at sunset with a glass of white wine is a real treat.
Debret ga’ yec’hed! (Bon appétit!)
Saint-Malo's train station is located over a kilometer south of the intramuros area, but it's an easy 20-min walk straight down Avenue Louis Martin. There are a few direct TGV services daily from Paris (Gare de Montparnasse), which take about three hours. Most travellers, however, will end up connecting in Rennes, from where there are hourly commuter services (50 min, €12) to Saint-Malo.
From the UK you can arrive from Poole and Weymouth on Condor Ferries. Leaving from Portsmouth with Brittany Ferries. From Jersey & Guernsey you can take HD Ferries. Leaving from Jersey, it takes about 1 hour, Guernsey sailings go via Jersey, or Condor Ferries which offers direct routes from both islands.
There are two buses daily to Pontorson (line 17, 1 hour, €2,5), which depart from the train station and stop at the city walls. The buses are timed to connect to onward buses to Mont Saint Michel (15 min, €2), allowing a fairly comfortable day-trip.
Saint-Malo has a good bus system, with the main terminals located at the train station and just outside the walls(St Vincent). Get a booklet with maps and times from any bus driver. A one and a half hour ticket costs €1.05. Unfortunately there are no bus services late in the evening.
The walled city is easily covered on foot, but you can also opt for a dinky "Tourist Train" that takes you and your wallet for a ride (€5.50).
Activities and Sightseeing
- Ramparts (Remparts).
- The walled city (La Ville Intra-Muros)
- The Chateau
- The walled city view from the "Memorial 39-45"
- World's first tidal power station. The tidal power plant reportedly attracts 200,000 visitors per year. A canal lock in the west end of the dam permits the passage of 16,000 vessels between the English Channel and the Rance. The display centre is looking a bit tired and there isn't much to see from the barrage wall. Getting there is a bit tricky, bus routes C1 and C2 get you to within a kilometer walk.
- Watch the impressive tide.
- Walk (or jog) along the beach.
- Walk around the walls of the walled city(free).
- Visit the Festival des Folklores du Monde (World Folklores), which takes place at the beginning of July. There are dance and music performances from around the world. You can also dance when Celtic Breton bands play music in the main square of Parame district.
- Look at the many hundreds of sailing boats of all sizes and ages in the harbour/s.
La cale aux trésors 2 passage de la grande hermine, intra-muros. website French delicatessen shop.Wineshop.
Saint-Malo is a great place to sample Breton specialties.
- Breton Pancakes: not just the world-famous sweet crêpes, but also savoury galettes.
- Kouing Aman:
this is a delicious Breton cake made with butter and sugar. Try to sample them piping hot, especially the ones with apple added in.
- Mussels (moules): fished in the place and available in any restaurants.
- Oysters (huitres): the best are from Cancale, a village near to Saint-Malo. In France, they are eaten raw.
The Intramuros area has what is quite possibly France's highest concentration of creperies and seafood restaurants. Most cater solely to tourists and are effectively identical.
- Cafe de Saint-Malo, just inside Grande Porte. The restaurant here is unspectacular, but what makes this the best deal in Intramuros is the window selling fresh seafood to go. For €5, you can get a dozen large oysters, preshelled, on ice and with a quartered lemon.
- Petit Crêpier, Rue Ste Barbe, tel. +33-299409319. True to the name, this restaurant is small and has crepes, but their daily selection of seafood galettes is a cut above the pack. €10.
- Coté brasserie, 8, rue des Cordiers (intra-muros), tel. 2-99568340. New proprietary. . seafoods and chips. Well separated smoking and non-smoking areas. €20-40.
- Captain-Ice, Rue Jacques Cartier, Intra-Muros. This may well be the best ice cream place in town. Try Amour de Glace (Love of Ice cream) for something really yummy. Prices are slightly high, but you get big quantities and very high quality!
Brittany is not a renowned region for its wine. Otherwise, there are other specialities:
- Breton beer
- Calvados: apple brandy
- Chouchen: mead (it's a blend with alcohol and honey)
There are many accommodation options in Saint-Malo, including over 20 hotels within the walls, but they can fill up very fast in season — book ahead.
See the Listing of the Hotels in Saint-Malo
- Le Centre Patrick Varangot, 37 avenue du R.P. Umbricht (near the beach, 30-40 minutes by foot from the walled city),
- Best Western Central, 7 Grande Rue. Superb location just inside the main gate of the walled town, but lower floors can be noisy. Rooms are small but clean, some with views out onto the street, some with shower, others with bath. Wifi available (separate charge). No parking.
- San Pedro, 1 rue Sainte Anne. Comfortable small nautical-themed hotel within the walled city. Rooms have shower, WC, TV, wifi. Daily changing themed breakfast available (€7.50 extra). Internet bookings unreliable, so call to confirm.
- Visit nearby Mont Saint Michel – a monastery and town built on a tiny outcrop of rock in the sand, which is cut off from the mainland at high tide. It is one of France's major tourist destinations, and as such gets very busy in high season. Check the times of the tides before you visit!