Located on the northwest tip of France, Brittany has a rugged and wild coastline of almost 1,700 miles that hugs the English Channel and the Atlantic Ocean. Brittany mostly consists of beautiful, medieval villages, sandy beaches, prehistoric monoliths, and untouched nature. There’s even a special French dialect only spoken in Brittany.
Below are our picks of the five must-visit villages in Brittany.
Saint-Malo is one of the most sought-after destinations in Brittany for good reason. The walled citadel in the old part of the city dates back to the 12th century, although much of it was destroyed in WWII and has been rebuilt. Historically, Saint-Malo was a significant port city for trading in the 17th and 18th century along with the infamous pirates (corsairs) who fought against the British. Saint-Malo was the setting for the best-selling, Pulitzer Prize-winning book All the Light We Cannot See from 2015.
Walk along the mile-long 12th-century ramparts and also take in the dramatic tide swirling over the rocks. The 12th-century Saint-Malo Cathedral is an architectural wonder of Roman and Gothic architecture and its striking stained-glass windows depict the history of the city. Cour la Houssaye is one of the oldest remaining houses in Saint-Malo, dating back to the 15th century. The unique turret is easy to spot from almost anywhere in the town. After you explore the city sites, relax on one of the sandy beaches.
Inside the walls of Saint-Malo is a surprisingly large concentration of restaurants and cafes. Le Grain Noir serves up some of the best galettes and crepes made with organic buckwheat and served with local apple cider. Bourdier, which is known for its superior quality butters and cheeses produced in Brittany, has a restaurant, Bistro Autour du Beurre, which uses its dairy products along with fresh seafood and ingredients from local markets. An excellent value is their pre-fixe, three-course lunch for 23 euros a person.
The Mercure Saint-Malo Balmoral Hotel has spacious, comfortable rooms and is conveniently located close to the train station, the beach, and the old city. If you want to stay in an authentic Brittany house, Chambre D'Hote Et Gite Du Jardin Des Corsaires offers fully equipped rooms and a lovely garden and includes a buffet breakfast.
The quintessential town of Brittany, Quimper is the oldest village of the region with roots from Roman times. The old part of the city is replete with half-timber buildings from the 14th century, vividly painted in highly varnished shades of red, blue, green, and pink. Ensconced between the Steir and Odet rivers, it’s fun to take a boat ride and view the geranium-filled planters on the bridges above. The Place au Beurre, named after a trading square for butter, is a charming square dotted with creperies.
In the 17th century, a surge of pottery makers helped Quimper survive economically and continues to be a leading craft industry. The Quimper Museum offers a fascinating glimpse of the pottery heritage throughout the centuries.
French food markets are always worth a visit, and there are two excellent markets. The Les Halles Saint Francois is the old, covered market from 1847, and Le Grand Marche is an outdoor market with fresh produce and foods extending the perimeter of Les Halles de Saint Francois.
An exquisite example of Brittany's gothic architecture is the Cathedral St. Corentin, named after the first bishop of Quimper. Taking over 600 years to complete, construction commenced in the 1200s and was completed when the spires were installed in 1856.
If you like local fairs and festivals, visit Quimper at the end of July for the Festival de Cornouaille. One of the largest cultural events in the region since 1923, the 5-day-long Festival de Cornouaille celebrates the best of Brittany’s traditions including entertainment, folk dancing, native costumes, bell ringing, and a food feast.
Dine in splendor at Le Cafe de l’Epee. This classic 19th-century brasserie has been the dining place of President Charles DeGaulle, the Queen of Portugal, and Georges Clemenceau, the former prime minister of France. The menu offers an extensive list of shellfish, seafood, and meats.
A former coach inn, the Gradlon Hotel, is an upscale, three-star hotel near the train station and the main sites of the village. The hotel has a lounge bar with a fireplace, a library, and a garden.
One of the biggest attractions of Brittany is the ancient megalith stones dating back from 4000 B.C. Composed of three fields, Menec, Kermario, and Kerlescan, there are over 3,000 megaliths, and there’s still a mystery surrounding the reason why they were placed upright. Maison des Megalithes runs an informative film in English so you can better comprehend the history, along with a bookstore with English titles.
Carnac has a stretch of five sandy beaches that includes a family-friendly area and another for wind and kite surfers. There are numerous 19th-century villas at the foot of the beaches.
Oyster farming is a longtime tradition in Carnac, so oyster tasting at restaurants and oyster stands is a must-do.
Fixed on a 60-acre nature reserve, the Carnac Thalasso Spa and Hotel has a comprehensive list of activities and offerings including an extensive spa with an indoor, saltwater pool, a spa with a sauna, steam room, and gym, a restaurant, tennis courts, and bicycle rentals.
If you want to view more specimens of monoliths and other prehistoric artifacts, visit the Musee de Prehistoire, which also houses collections from the Iron Age, Bronze Age, and the Roman era.
An idyllic seaside village with fine sand beaches and azure water, Cancale is also known as the home for some of the best oysters and shellfish in all of France.
La Ferme Marine is an oyster farm where you will witness the farmers at work and learn about the process of raising oysters. There’s also an exhibition that includes examples of shellfish from around the world.
A great way to tour Cancale and the surrounding area is to take a day trip on the Ausqueme sailboat. The 4-hour cruise includes a hamper loaded with fresh oysters and seafood for lunch and sweet Muscadet wine. You will see and hear the sounds of the seagulls and egrets, and see the Herpin lighthouse at the mouth of the Mont Saint-Michel Bay.
Learn how to cook the great seafood of the Cancale waters by taking a cooking class with renowned Michelin star chef Olivier Roellinger.
Creperie Breizh serves authentic Brittany crepes made with buckwheat flour, which is gluten-free. There are two outposts of Creperie Breizh in Paris. The tempting house specialties of La Bout du Quai includes blue lobsters and shellfish platters.
Le Chatellier, a former stone farmhouse, is now a hotel set on a lovely garden with a duck pond. The hotel has a free car park, a swimming pool, and a jacuzzi.
Pont-Aven in a pocket of northwest Brittany has been a haven for artists for two centuries. In the late 19th century, French painters Paul Gaugin and Emile Bernard painted scenes of the village, which later inspired a generation of painters and was named the Pont-Aven School. Today, the Musee de Pont-Aven/Pont-Aven Museum features works from the school’s artists in its permanent collection and temporary exhibitions, plus paintings from contemporary artists.
If you walk along the river and the Promenade des Moulins, you can revisit the scenery depicted in Gaugin’s paintings including the ancient watermills. Another lovely stroll is on the Promenade Xavier Grall, which is a pathway along the river with lush plants and flowers.
Pont-Aven is also known for a special, buttery biscuit which is sold at century-old Biscuiterie Traou Mad.
If you travel to Pont-Aven in the summer, make sure to visit on August 1 for a special event. The Fete des Fleurs d’Ajonc is a festival that celebrates the blooming of the yellow ajoncs/gorse flowers all around the village. The festival has folk dancing with Brittany music, people dressed in regional costumes, and food stands offering local specialties.
Le Moulin de Rosmadec offers a delightful dining experience in an ancient stone cottage with a genuine mill. The contemporary Brittany cuisine features specialty dishes such as John Dory, a la Paul Gaugin, grilled lobster with citrus sauce, and for dessert, a mille-feuille with a vanilla cream sauce. The versatile wine list has selections from Champagne, Loire Valley, Burgundy, and Rhone Valley.
A charming 16th-century stone cottage with a thatched roof has been converted into the three-star Roz Aven hotel. The 14 rooms have either river or garden views.
All the villages listed above have cobblestone streets, so make sure you wear rubber-soled, enclosed shoes or sneakers. Temperatures in the summer months range in the mid to low 70s Fahrenheit, and at night you need a sweater or jacket.