Somebody better call Disney, because it appears they’re missing a fairytale castle! Off the coast of beautiful Normandy, the Mont St-Michel is a beautiful island and UNESCO World Heritage site seemingly plucked out of a storybook. Cut off from the mainland at high tide, the Mont St-Michel becomes a secluded cocoon, boxing in those who happen to be on the island when the water levels rise.
Rising up from the ocean mist, the Mont St-Michel appears like a mirage. Popping up from green fields dotted with sheep, they island seems a tranquil haven on the rugged Normandy coast. Unless you have to share that tiny island with 2.8 million visitors per year…
Part of a larger road trip through Normandy and Bretagne, we made our way to the Mont St-Michel in early June. While my mum has been romantically reminiscing the times she spent at le Mont while she was in her twenties, I never really captured the beauty of this place, until I laid ayes on it myself.
It’s rather impossible not to feel impressed when seeing it. As if its stunning architecture isn’t enough, the moon works its magic by transforming the Mont St-Michel into a secluded island during high tides. I’m quite impressed by the site and it’s history, and the fact it has survived nature’s trials for centuries.
If we forget about Paris’ famous attractions and the Palace of Versaille for just a second, the Mont St-Michel might just be one of France’s most recognizable landmarks, and understandably so. While driving up to the Normandy coast, its Disney castle shape casts an unmistakable dark silhouette against the purple hazed sea air. A fortified island right in the middle of a beach. The mesmerizing sight might have become a famous tourist attraction, it hasn’t lost its appeal one bit!
The origins of the Mont St-Michel
While the Mont St-Michel might look like a castle, it most certainly is not. In fact its history has always been a religious one, dating all the way back to the 8th century. Starting out a small sanctuary for the archangel Michael, it grew out to one of the most important pilgrimage sites in the Christian West. The abbey and monastery attracting a large number of pilgrims over the centuries, including several Kings of France and England. Over the centuries fires, collapses, reconstructions and restorations have transformed the Abbey into the fantastic mirage that it is today.
Built on the top of the rocky hill, the abbey towers over the small village below, its narrow streets winding up the flanks like a snake. Now, very much like in the old days, it’s still living up to its ‘raison d’être’ – attracting visitors from all parts of the world. A pilgrimage site, just as it started out centuries ago.
How to avoid the crowds at the Mont St-Michel
When you prefer your vacations not to be spoiled by overcrowding, planning a trip to the Mont St-Michel might be a daunting experience. Narrow streets can become overcrowded and waiting lines to enter the abbey can become monstrous, like some fellow travelers have documented here and here. Don’t be disheartened though, I have found several tricks to avoid most of the masses, creating a more enjoyable experience!
1. Avoid the crowds by dodging weekends and any day in July or August
The biggest tip I can give you to avoid the crowds at Mont St-Michel is to travel before or after the peak summer months and avoid the months of July and August at all costs. July attracts a lot travelers from neighboring countries and August is peak travel period for the locals.
If you have the option, a trip between April and June or in between September and October would be ideal. The weather should still be quite nice and you can expect a general amount of visitors. Just try to plan around Easter in April and All Saints’ Day by end October as these are holidays and will attract extra visitors to le Mont.
Weekends are always by far the worst days to go, wether you’re traveling in peak season or not. Most day trippers tend to flock from Paris to le Mont in the weekend and both Saturday and Sunday are crowded. This is because all the shops in the village of Mont St-Michel, as well as the nearby shopping mall, are open on Sunday. In most other cities and parts of France, shops are closed on Sunday, making the Mont St-Michel an attractive day out to an otherwise uneventful Sunday I guess.
2. Visit the Mont St-Michel before 9:30 am or after 5:30 pm
In terms of what schedule works best to avoid the crowds, I would say to go early in the morning or later in the evening. It can get extremely busy during the day. People tend to stay mostly in the village on the island, perusing through the souvenir shops and peeking inside restaurants. Arriving after 9:30 also means you’ll have increased chances of finding full parking lots, causing you to look for parking space much further away. Crowds will also mean the shuttles to the Mont St-Michel itself will be jam packed and you might have to wait for the next one because there is no more room.
The narrow medieval streets can become quite a horror to make your way through on the busiest time of the day. When we were visiting in June, I thought it was very crowded after 10 a.m. and this was on a weekday in shoulder season! Most dray trippers start leaving between 4 p.m. and 6 p.m., leaving the early the island in tranquility during evening hours (and when dark, zou can see village and abbey all beautifully lit up!)
Pro Tip: do not, I repeat, do not leave the Mont St-Michel around 5p.m.! Either leave before 4 p.m. or after 6 p.m. I have known people stuck for two hours on the parking lot because everyone was trying to leave around the same time and it caused major traffic problems.
3. Take a left turn after entering through the main entrance gate
The walk over the Pont Passerelle offers spectacular views over the island as you approach it. About 3km, the island and the towering abbey slowly become closer and more impressive as you get closer to its entrance gate. After entering the gate, you’re almost naturally guided towards the right. It’s where all the hustle and bustle is going on and where The Tourism Center, restaurants and curio-shops are luring you in.
When you like your senses to be under a constant assault from the endless shops selling tacky souvenirs, by all means, continue this way. If not, take a left turn after entering through the gates to the island. It’s a far more quieter route to the abbey with beautiful views over the sandbanks and the sea.
4. Avoid eating at the overpriced restaurants and bring a picnic
Yes, it might seem romantic and appealing – dining in this ancient island, cut off from land by the sea, with views over the bay. I can honestly tell you it is not.
Every single restaurant on the island is a tourist trap, offering shamefully bad service, mediocre food at excessive prices and long waiting lines. And no, the view doesn’t make up for this experience. Even “La More Poulard”, which is often referred to as the best restaurant on the island, is to be avoided. Think 40€ for the famous ‘ostrich egg omelette’ and 26€ for a bottle of cider (which can be purchased in the super market for under 3€!). Since its new owners, it doesn’t live up to anything except its old reputation.
Eating in these kinds of places full of tourist groups did not attract us. The prices on the island carry a huge tourist markup and without repeat customers, the restaurants have little incentive to provide good quality or service. If you absolutely wish to dine on le Mont, crêperie La Sirène is my opinion the best place to go. You won’t have sea views, it is located above a boutique shop on the first floor, but price and quality of food is good. Think about 20€ for 2 crêpes and a pint of beer.
I would highly recommend you bring yourself a picnic lunch if you’re planning to spend midday on the island and are looking for something a bit more filling than a crêpe, or have lunch in a restaurant outside le Mont St-Michel.
Pro Tip: when you’re traveling to the Mont St-Michel from nearby Saint-Malo, buy yourself a picnic at the Marché de Dol-de-Bretagne for an authentic lunch experience.
Pro Tip 2: drive for one hour after your visit to le Mont to the nearby town of Cancale. Cancale is a picturesque fishing port known as the “oyster capital” of Bretagne. Though a small town, it is well served by a large number of restaurants, many specializing in seafood. A far better and romantic option than the overpriced and overcrowded restaurants at the Mont St-Michel.
5. Visit the abbey and monastery
In some ways, this tip might seem a bit odd. Yes, I am advising you to visit the monument that has made this place a pilgrimage for centuries. The oddity of the Mont St-Michel is that most of the crowds are only at the bottom of the island.
The main reason probably being that the way up to the abbey is quite demanding. Firstly, if you haven’t followed my previous tips, you must pass through the tourist hell of narrow and crowded streets in the village below. Furthermore, you have to make your way up the increasingly steep ascent to the abbey. Probably discouraged by the climb, the crowd thins the closer you get to the top.
Do not mistaken, when you travel in high season, the crowds will still be thinner ar the top but will be numerous nonetheless. I still recommend ordering your tickets online in advance and visiting the abbey in the early morning or late afternoon.
– Open every day except January 1, May 1 and December 25
– January 2 – April 30 from 9:30 – 18:00
– May 2 – August 31 from 9:00 – 19:00
– September 1 – December 31 from 9:30 – 18:00
– admission to the Abbey is free the first Sunday of every month from November to March.
– €10 for adults and free for EU citizens or permanent residents of France up to age 25
– €8 for 18 to 25-year olds
– free for all children under 18
6. Escape the walled island and walk the mudbanks during low tide
Outside the walled village an abbey, the bay is very interesting to see during low tide. Its a huge area that ends up uncovered by water, revealing muddy sand banks. If you fear the upcoming tide and feel uncomfortable reading the tide charts, you can organize a guide to take you across the bay.
Most visitors are rather reluctant to plan this on their own, but if you keep it short walk right after the water has receded, there really is no reason to worry. Just make sure you’re wearing shoes that can get a bit dirty, since you’ll be walking on wet sand and mud.
If you’d like to get a more in depth experience, I highly recommend you book an outing with Chemins de la Baie. The walk itself will take about 1,5 hours. For an experience without the day trippers, opt for one of their “traverses insolites”, which take place by night or in the morning. You’ll love it!
7. Enjoy the views of Mont St-Michel from afar
If avoiding all things touristy is on top of your agenda, maybe you’re better off skipping a trip to the island all together. Not to worry, there are many lovely viewpoints over le Mont that allow you to admire it without having to enter it. Sometimes, having to look out over a famous monument is much more enjoyable that mountains that monument (Eiffel Tower anyone?).
Here are my favorite spots offering panorama views over the Mont St-Michel:
- Roz-sur-Couesnon: 17min by cr from the actual Mont St-Michel parking lot, the Parc d’agrément in Roz-sur-Couesnon. Located next to the “mairie” or town-hall, you can easily find parking near the park. The viewpoint is signposted on the way (D797) to Saint-Malo.
- Bas Courtils: close to the Mont St-Michel, the view from this village is really lovely , surrounded by pastures and grazing sheep. The meadows just scream for a lovely picnic on a sunny with views over le Mont. On the way to the island along the D288 and D75 there are different pull-out spots to park your card and admire the views.
- Pointe du Grouin du Sud: To the East of the Mont St-Michel, you’ll find the Pointe du Grouin du Sud viewpoint. A beautiful and quiet place to watch the famous “mascaret” tide come in at breathtaking speed. Next to some cows and sheep, seals are frequently spotted in the area. A fantastic location to see the sunset as it sinks behind the horizon right behind the Mont, giving it a golden glow.
- Plage de Pignochet: even more to the East, this beach in Saint-Jean-le-Thomas is known for its views over the Mont St-Michel. There are plenty of restaurants and terraces located near the beach to enjoy the views while enjoying lunch or diner.
The perfect Mont St-Michel itinerary to escape the crowds:
My ideal itinerary to see the Mont St-Michel without the crowds is to arrive after 5 p.m. on your first day. You’ll have no problem finding a parking spot, you’ll be entering the premises while everyone is trying to leave. As from end of April, the shops and the abbey are open until 7 p.m., giving you plenty of time to peruse the shops and visit the abbey if you like. Your parking ticket is valid for the next 24h so you won’t have to pay parking again when you return the next morning.
The next morning, return for an early visit of the island. Admire le Mont from the surrounding pastures and wander the village’s streets without the day tripping crowd. Have your entry tickets to the abbey reserved beforehand so you can enter at opening times, avoiding the long waiting lines. End your visit to the month with a walk over the mudflats at low tide.
This is how I would visit this place over and over again!
How to get to the Mont St-Michel?
Where is the Mont St-Michel?
The Mont St-Michel is a pilgrimage site located on the coast in Normandy, France. Normandy is located in the NorthWest of France, bordering with neighbor Belgium and runs parallel to the UK’s Jurassic Coast. It is about a four-hour drive southwest of Paris or an equally long train trip (including one stopover). The Mont St-Michel can be visited as a day trip, but I wouldn’t recommend it.
By car to the Mont St-Michel
Not in order to get around the island and village, no. The village is tiny, with only 44 people actually living there, and the streets are narrow, steep and have lots of stairs to deal with the steep incline. So obviously cars are not allowed inside. Once you get to the Mont St-Michel, you park and walk to the city.
In terms of getting to and from the Mont St-Michel itself, having your own car at your disposal is the most convenient. But in my personal opinion it entirely depends on if you’ll be visiting the Mont St-Michel on a day trip from a nearby city or if it will be part of larger Normandy itinerary or Bretagne itinerary.
While on a road trip, you’ll want a car since it gives you the most freedom to move around. You can come and go as you please and make stops along the way without having to rely on public transportation schedules. Either you drive your own car or you pick up a rental at one of France’s airports when you touch down on European soil.
Parking at the Mont-Saint-Michel
A large parking area provides secure on-site parking. Fro the parking lot you either walk 3km via de Pont de Passerelle (about 35min) to the base of the Mont St-Michel or you can opt for the free shuttle (la “navette“) that’ll get you there in about 10 minutes. The shuttles leave from the parking area, just next to the Tourist Information Centre and well signed as from the parking area.
The walk from the parking lot is doable and from the bridge you’ll enjoy magnificent views of the island as you approach Mont St-Michel. When the weather is cold and the sky is filled with rain, I would definitely opt for the free shuttle though.
You can find detailed parking prices here. A normal car will pay 9,80€ in low season or 14,90€ in high season for 24h of parking. Parking after 7 p.m. is cheaper and will cost 5,10€ in both low and high season. Parking ticket is only valid until 1 a.m. the next day. Pay by card at the machines or by cash in the two machines behind the Tourist Information Centre.
By train to the Mont St-Michel
When renting a car is not an option, you can rely on the French public transportation system to get you the Mont St-Michel. The closest train station is Pontorson, about 9km from the pilgrim site, which be reached via the following train lines:
- From Paris Saint-Lazare to Caen, then a TER train from Caen to Pontorson, then the shuttle bus from Pontorson to Mont-Saint-Michel.
- From Paris Montparnasse to Rennes by TGV, take another train to Pontorson, then the shuttle bus from Pontorson to Mont-Saint-Michel.
- From Paris Montparnasse to Granville, get off in Folligny and get another train to Pontorson, then the shuttle bus from Pontorson to Mont-Saint-Michel.
- From Paris Montparnasse to Pontorson then the shuttle bus from Pontorson to Mont-Saint-Michel.
The last option requiring the least amount of stops along the way. The shuttle bus from Pontorson to Le Mont will cost you 3,10€ per person, per ride. There’s also special train pricing option at 27€ per person for a day trip from Paris. If you want to avoid day tripping crowds at le Mont however, this probably isn’t an experience you’ll enjoy.
Join an organized tour from Paris or Bayeux
When renting a car or visiting by public transportation isn’t in the cards for you, you might consider joining a tour. No, you won’t be able to skip the peak times and busiest moments at the Mont St-Michel since getting there and back again will take a couple of hours. You might however get a more tranquil experience when joining a small group tour since you’ll get there in private transportation and have a guide accompany you to the Mont’s secret spots.
Where to stay when visiting the Mont St-Michel?
Since the goal of this blog post was to offer you a Mont St-Michel experience without the crowds, I think I made it pretty clear that this is very difficult experience to get when you visit Le Mont during day visitors hours. I highly recommend spending the night, so you can enjoy the Mont St-Michel during the calmer evening hours after all the day trippers have gone or at sunrise when the day trippers are yet to arrive.
You can either stay at a property within the Mont St-Michel’s walls or somewhere nearby. Depending on your interests and budget, the two options can be interesting. I however, would always opt for staying outside le Mont’s walls. Why?
First, the Mont St-Michel has limited accommodation options and they tend to be on the expensive side. To access them, you may have to walk a bit, often uphill, and when you have luggage it’s not always easy to maneuver through the crowds on cobblestone streets.
Secondly, I think it would indeed be a magical experience to enjoy the medieval streets on the island without the crowds but you don’t have to stay on the island to get that experience. Since it’s a village, it is open 24h/7 and you can therefore choose to have an evening wander through the village even when not staying on the island itself. You can choose to visit le Mont in the evening and come back the next morning so you can see it all lit up and in daytime as well.
Furthermore, only 44 people are actually living on the Mont St-Michel, the rest are all tourists. Not much of an authentic village life to experience, especially since most of the island inhabitants are residing in the monastery up the hill. In that regard, don’t expect much of a nightlife scene neither.
Here are two interesting places to stay near the Mont St-Michel that were on my radar:
Chambres d’Hôtes Les Vieilles Digues: a beautiful B&B close to the Mont St-Michel, perfect if you’re following my ideal Mont St-Michel itinerary and are planning to dedicate your visit in the late afternoon of day 1 and the early morning of day 2. Check prices and availability here.
Manoir de la Roche Torin: quintessentially French, this former landhouse is transformed into a classic romantic hotel, complete with frivolous linens and flowered wallpaper. It’s best feature is the view though, you can enjoy amazing views over the Mont St-Michel from the restaurant while enjoying breakfast! Check prices and availability here.