There are some places in France that are truly amazing. Mont Saint-Michel is one of them! While it is true that Mont Saint-Michel is a reasonable distance from Paris, it is accessible by public transport and, if combined with surrounding sights (eg D-day beaches, Bayeux, Avranches) can make for a great couple of days outside of Paris.
What to see
When you arrive at Mont Saint-Michel there is a new carpark, bike park and rest area with shops, restaurants and some accomodation about 1km from the entrance to the island city. There is an old carpark right at the entrance although it is no longer in use (at least partly because parts of it a submerged at high tide). There is currently construction to remove the old car park and build a new bridge out to the island from the new car park are. From the new car park area there are free shuttle buses to the island, although if you prefer it is an easy walk.
There is a main entrance to MSM which is easy to find, although at high tide the water can cover this entrance meaning you need to use the less easy to find side door. It is on your right as you walk onto the wooden walkway for the main entrance. It isn’t always open, but it appears to be unlocked.
There are two main highlights to visiting Mont Saint-Michel, other than viewing the island itself from a distance. The first is the medieval town with its narrow walkways, winding staircases and ancient ramparts. The second is the abbey that stands on the top of the island and gives Mont Saint-Michel its distinctive shape.
All roads lead to the abbey although inside MSM there are a number of routes you can take. Most people walk up the main road/path which is steep and filled with shops and restaurants on both sides. If you take a side road to your right and climb the stairs you end up on the ramparts which have a nice view over the bay as you climb around. This route is generally less busy and has more stairs. If you take a left turn you can climb up through the cemetery and through the backroads. This route has the least people of any of the three, however there is a lot less to see.
However you climb up through the Mont (and it is a reasonably steep climb) all roads lead to the abbey at the top.
The three roads mentioned lead to the forecourt of the abbey. From here it is a steep set of stairs up to the ticket counter. There are a number of options available at the ticket counter. General entry, Simple Tour (offered in multiple languages), full tour (offered only in French). We took the full tour, although we are not fluent in French we spoke enough to take in what was being said in general terms. The advantage of the full tour is that you get to see rooms not available on the other tours, but it does take 2 hours. There is also an audio guide option. Prices are available at the official Mont Saint-Michel Abbey website.
The MSM abbey is effectively several layers of buildings, built on top of each other, to give the end result that is the abbey today. All the tours start at the top, in the main church, and move through the various eating and entertaining halls. The full tour shows you some of the smaller chapels, including the original 13th century chapel, inside the abbey complex.
There are a lot of restaurants of various quality on the island. Most feel like they have suffered from over tourist-ifaction.
One of the fascinating features of the island is its tidal movements. It has one of the fastest and strongest tides in Europe. If you get a chance to watch it (a list of tide times is here) you can easily understand why people get stranded in the bay. The tide coming in is like watching a tsunami.
On the island there is a 15th century parish church as well as a number of small museums.
If you have transport, the area around Mont Saint-Michel is good for visiting. It is excellent for biking. There is a German World War II cemetery at Mont-de-Huisnes that is approximately 8km from Mont Saint-Michel.
Things to do
How to get there
Getting to Mont Saint-Michel is not simplest of trips. But it feels worse than it actually is. The town closest to Mont Saint-Michel is Pontorson which has a train line.
There are two options for getting to Pontorson. The first option is to take the TGV from Gare Montparnasse, the other option is an intercity train from Gare Saint-Lazare.
You will need to change somewhere along the way (there are no direct trains to Pontorson). Where you change depends on which route you chose. Your ticket will tell you and it will ensure you have enough time to make the change.
From Pontorson it is 10km to Mont Saint-Michel. Access to Mont Saint-Michel is by rental bike (from the tourist office and the local campsite), taxi, or bus from the Pontorson train station. The Pontorson-Mont Saint-Michel shuttle bus is timed to coincide with the Pontorson trains.
Approximate Distance from Paris: 320km/ 200mi
Time to get there: 4 - 5 hours (depending on route)
Transport Method: TGV or Intercity train from Montparnasse or
Approximate Price: Between 50 - 90 Euro for the train each way.
The Mont is free
Entry to the Abbey is 9 Euro.
Worth: 2/3rds of a day but probably 1 - 2 nights to make the
most of the trip.
(available in English)
Here is our trip report on our day trip to Mont Saint-Michel.