Saint-Malo, in the northwestern French region of Brittany on the English Channel Coast, has a history dating back to the first century B.C., and its history is as tumultuous as it is fascinating. It was founded by the Gauls -- remember Asterix and Obelix? After run-ins with the Romans, the city later became the notorious seat of the French corsairs. Legal pirates of sorts, corsairs were basically privateers, but with an additional religious connotation, since they were involved in the Christian-Muslim conflicts from the 14th century onward.
During World War II, Saint-Malo was heavily bombed because of its strategic location that had once appealed to the corsairs. But the Intra Muros part of Saint-Malo -- the old part fully surrounded by sturdy ramparts and fortifications -- was immediately and faithfully restored. It now provides something akin to time travel.
The Intra Muros district, which I will be concentrating on here, is located in a part of the city only partially connected to the mainland. Saint-Malo’s tidal range is the highest in Europe -- there’s a difference of 40 to 50 feet between high and low tides. This makes for an interesting spectacle all by itself, since the beaches, islands, and coastline look completely different depending on whether the water is in or out.
Get ready to explore Saint-Malo’s coastal setting, walk its ramparts, learn about its intriguing history, and delight in its local specialties. Here’s how to spend the perfect day in town.
Walk The Ramparts
Wholly surrounding Intra Muros, the 12th-century ramparts are wide enough to comfortably walk along, with many small entry points along the wall and spectacular views from all sides. You will walk past beaches, coves, the outlying islands, the castle, the marina, and the seafront, all the while marveling at the old city packed with unique architecture and small lanes on the other side.
The loop is 1.2 miles long, but with the many viewpoints and historical attractions such as cannons and gardens along the way, you should spend at least 1 to 2 hours enjoying this unique walk. And then do it again and pop down to check out the various sets of steps to the city below.
Pro Tip: If you decide to stay the night, go for another walk around sunset. The city is simply magnificent at that time.
Visit The Musee D'Histoire De Saint-Malo
Built by the Dukes of Brittany in the 15th and 16th centuries, the Chateau de Saint-Malo is not only a great-looking fortified castle, but it also holds the city’s history museum, with its many interesting and eclectic exhibits.
Take your time and climb all the way to the top. At times the climb is steep, but you can catch your breath on the various floors on the way up. Get your camera ready -- the views are simply superb. Look out over the higgledy-piggledy old town and across the marina, the beaches, and the islands. These are the best views in town, by far.
Pro Tip: The museum closes for lunch between 12:30 p.m. and 1:30 p.m., so be sure to take that into consideration when planning your visit.
Explore The Islands Of Grand Be And Petit Be
Just off the coast are two islands, Grand Be and Petit Be -- but they are islands only when the tide is in. When the tide is out, you can walk across the beach and designated cobbled paths all the way to the islands and explore the forts on each one. It’s a lovely walk that allows you a different perspective of the Intra Muros town and fortifications. When across, you can visit Fort National on one island, and the tomb of the writer and politician Chateaubriand on the other.
If you have any flexibility as to when you visit Saint-Malo, take a look at the tidal calendar and pick a day when low tide is during the day.
Pro Tip: When you get the warning to leave the islands because the tide is incoming, do heed it. The tide comes in at an incredible pace, and you don’t want to be marooned on a rock in the sea for 12 hours.
Stop By The Maison Du Quebec
The Maison du Quebec right on the ramparts focuses on the life of Saint-Malo’s native son, Jacques Cartier, the explorer and navigator. In the mid-1500s, he traveled across the Atlantic from Saint-Malo to Canada, sailed inland along the Saint Lawrence River, and claimed the land that is today Canada for the French. Apart from being a small museum, this is also a cultural exchange center focusing on all things Canada and Quebec.
Pro Tip: The museum is only open between May and August, and it’s closed on Tuesdays.
Walk The Beach Promenade Alongside The Grand Plage Du Sillon
Brittany does beaches and coastlines better than any other region. To enjoy the stretch of coast, even on a short visit, walk the promenade alongside the large beach toward the east part of Intra Muros. The white sand, the ocean, and the ancient tree trunks that act as a breakwater make for a relaxing walk, and the view of Saint-Malo is just lovely.
Pro Tip: If you have time, pop into the day spa of the Grand Hotel des Thermes for a thalasso treatment.
Eating And Drinking In Saint-Malo
Brittany specializes in crepes and cider. Though the restaurants serve a large number of visitors each day, the quality of the crepes is a matter of pride in Breizh, as the region is called in Breton.
In Brittany, make time for a sweet crepe -- preferably with Nutella, so adored in France -- or opt for a savory galette, a crepe made from buckwheat flour and served with savory ingredients such as cheese, fried eggs, ham, and mushrooms. And always have a cup of cider with it, as the locals do. The cider is typically served in blue-and-white-striped china cups instead of in glasses.
Restaurant Des Remparts
Restaurant des Remparts is nestled under the ramparts and, despite being extremely popular with foreign visitors, serves wonderful food.
Le Corps De Garde
Le Corps de Garde sits right on top of the ramparts and offers fabulous views of Grand Be and Petit Be. The crepes are delicious, but people really come here to watch the sun set over the ocean while enjoying a sundowner.
Brasserie Des Voyageurs
Brasserie des Voyageurs is the best place to sit and spend an evening enjoying tapas-style shared plates and great cocktails (and even better people-watching) opposite the Chateau de Saint-Malo.
For the perfect morning coffee and fresh croissant, look no further than Charly’s Bar, located by a square frequented by the local inhabitants of Saint-Malo.
Shopping In Saint Malo
Just like Brittany is home to crepes and cider, it is home to the iconic French blue-and-white mariniere tops made famous by Coco Chanel. So, if you like anything striped, then Saint-Malo will be your shopping Heaven -- you’ll find rain jackets with striped linings, striped rainboots, striped mugs, striped kitchen decor, striped bags, and of course, striped shirts.
Walk around the cobbled, pedestrianized Rue Saint-Vincent and its many side lanes, and you’ll find striped things galore as well as the famed Brittany biscuits, quirky souvenirs, and lots of small boutiques.
Where To Stay In Saint-Malo
If you decide to stay the night, treat yourself to a room with an ocean view at the Grand Hotel des Thermes outside of the old town and right on the beach. It’s a luxury stay that is worth it. The in-house restaurant is good, too.