Mont Saint-Michel as a day trip from Paris: can it be done? There is plenty of debate on the subject, and while some say it’s at least a weekend-long commitment, others say it makes a great single day excursion.
The people in the first camp aren’t completely wrong; it’s true that if you planned to stay the night, you would have a longer and more relaxed trip, and you’d be able to watch the sunset by Normandy’s little city on a hill. However, if you want to do it in just one day, there’s no reason not to! It just takes a little planning.
Getting to and from Mont Saint-Michel by train and bus
There are basically two options for getting to Mont Saint-Michel from Paris on public transportation. The first is to take the train to Pontorson (a really small town close to the site) and then take a small local bus from Pontorson to the visitor’s center. Most travel sites you go to will recommend doing this. This option is good if you are flexible on time. It gets you really close and means more time on a train and less time on a bus, which I prefer. However, the schedules are harder to work with if you’re trying to get back to Paris the same evening.
For a single day trip, I recommend option number two. This means taking the train from Paris to Rennes and then taking a bus from there to Mont Saint-Michel. The bus ride is longer (about an hour) and will cost a little more. It cost us 22 euros each for the slightly discounted youth tickets. What made us choose this option, though, was the flexibility. The trains between Paris and Rennes are nonstop and run much more frequently than trains to Pontorson, and they coordinate the Rennes-Mont Saint-Michel bus according to the arrival of the trains at the Rennes station.
Since we were traveling with Eurail passes, we only had to pay for the seat reservations instead of the entire ticket, so it was pretty cheap: about 23 euros with tax round trip for one person. We made reservations for the 7 am Saturday morning train (which got us to Mont Saint-Michel around 11 am) and the train that left Rennes for Paris at 8 pm.
Without the Eurail pass, expect to pay an average of 70 to 150 euros, depending on how far in advance you book your tickets. Plan to book them at least two weeks in advance to get a better deal. If you’ll be in Europe for a while, book them at the train stations instead of online and you will most likely save some money that way as well.
The train schedule we used worked out perfectly for spending the day at Mont Saint-Michel, except that we missed our train coming back to Paris. Let me just say that you should do everything within your power to avoid missing the last train, especially if it’s a Saturday night!
The visitor’s center and first impressions
The bus we took from the Rennes station dropped us off right in front of the visitor’s center. They had some interactive displays about the history of Mont Saint-Michel and the surrounding region. One of my favorites was a display about visiting the town after dark, once most of the shops have closed and most of the tourists have gone home. Everything changed, and it looked almost magical and surreal. That, for me, would be enough reason to stay an extra day.
From the visitor’s center, you have some options for getting to Mont Saint-Michel itself. You can walk, which takes about half an hour; you can take a free shuttle, which takes about 7 minutes; or you can take a horse-drawn carriage (called maringotes), which is the only one of the options you have to pay for. It doesn’t cost much though, just 5 euro for a one-way trip.
My friend and I decided to walk to be able to photograph the view on the way there, and we chose the free shuttle coming back because by that time we were tired and a little bit wet and muddy.
A brief history of Mont Saint-Michel
The entire town is built on a hill in the middle of a bay that frequently fills with water, surrounding the city completely and giving it a reputation for having the highest tides in Europe. It started out as just a small church built and consecrated in the eighth century.
As the community around it grew, so did the church, expanding almost constantly from the tenth through the sixteenth centuries. The small chapel became a Romanesque church above a set of crypts, and then was expanded again in the Gothic style. During the Hundred Years’ War, fortifications were added as protection.
With the architectural changes came some functional changes as well. It has been, along with Rome and St. Jacques de Compostelle, a destination for pilgrimages. The abbey was also used as a prison during the French Revolution. In the 1960s, it was reclaimed by the religious community, and is still used today in a religious capacity. Of course, it is also a popular tourist destination, and the surrounding community has flourished thanks to the constant stream of visitors. You’ll find a wide variety of shops and restaurants to choose from during your visit.
L’abbaye du Mont Saint-Michel
The first thing we did was walk up to the abbey to do the tour. It’s worth it to pay to go inside (9 euro full price and 7 euro for a youth ticket). The view is incredible, and the abbey itself has some beautiful architecture. My favorite was the medieval garden and the cloister.
Because the abbey has undergone so many expansions and changes and renovations, it’s really interesting to see the different styles of architecture next to each other. Some of the sections have a distinctly romanesque style, while others are flamboyant(ly) gothic.
The surrounding village
Like I said, the village has prospered thanks to the tourism. It might be crowded, especially if you go in the summer, but there will be no shortage of lunch and dinner options or of things to look at and shop for and experience.
Unfortunately, most of the shops are just typical, overpriced souvenir joints. The items they sell aren’t all locally made, and the majority of them didn’t seem to be of the highest quality. If you’re looking for a good way to remember your trip to Mont Saint-Michel, instead of spending money on souvenirs you’ll probably forget about in a few months or years, invest your time and money in something else.
Some ideas: Take photos (they last forever), strike up a conversation with a local (if you can find one amid all the tourists), send a postcard to a family member back home, write your thoughts and what you want to remember on a postcard and send it to your own house, save the ticket stubs from the abbey or museums to put in a scrapbook, or look for cool “found objects” like seashells or a lucky penny (or centime, in this case). You’ll end up with a lot more space in your suitcase, a lot more money in your wallet, and a lot less waste later on.
If interesting offbeat local museums are your thing, Mont Saint-Michel has them! Though I wouldn’t necessarily recommend these museums. The city has a set of four unique offerings highlighting some of the “alternative” history of the village including its time as a prison. It will cost you extra to see them, unless you’re lucky like we were and you make friends with the guy selling tickets. See? Talking to locals not only gets you some good stories and memories to take home, but sometimes you get free stuff, too. (Though we may or may not have used our good looks and flirting skills to encourage such generosity.)
We only went to one of the museums, foregoing the other three in favor of taking a walk around the island. I’ll just say it was, well, interesting. It was a very high-tech presentation about the history of the place, but it was done in such a cheesy, campy way that it was hard not to laugh. Besides, it was only in French, so if you don’t speak the language you’re out of luck. I was glad we got in free, because I probably wouldn’t have paid for it. They didn’t have real seats to watch the presentation, just padded metal bars you could kind of squat on. Then again, for us it was free and the technology was pretty good, so it still gets at least a star or two.
The rest of the island and the bay itself
While the abbey was astounding and the museum really strange, the highlight of our visit was exploring the island. It was also the most adventurous part of the trip, because we got stuck in the mud. But, if you’re smarter than us, that won’t happen to you!
After visiting the abbey, take some time to wander through the village. The tiny streets and alleys are pretty, and there are some walkways along the outer wall that give an excellent view of both the surrounding landscape and the people below. People-watching in tourist areas is always a good use of time.
If the tide is low, you may see people walking out into the bay. It might look like they are going with tour groups, but not all of them are. If you want to take your socks and shoes off and go for a little trek in the mud, no one will stop you! Just be warned that there are long lines to rinse your legs off afterward and the mud doesn’t smell that great. And be careful of quicksand. It’s best to follow the footprints of other people who have gone walking around so you don’t end up with any unwanted surprises.
We tried to walk a complete circle around the island, but you should know, that is not something I would attempt again. Instead, start at the entrance, walk clockwise on the rocky shore for a while, and then turn around and come back. If you try to do the whole thing, you will inevitably end up in the mud whether you like it or not, because the city is walled off and there is absolutely no other way around the island than through the muddy bay.
If you choose to stay on the western side of the island, there is plenty to see. You can visit the Tour Gabriel or climb a small set of stairs to the Chapelle St. Aubert to get a nice view, and just in general the landscape is stunning.
Getting back to Paris
As I said before, keep a very close eye on your watch and make sure to check the bus schedules before you start your visit, and give yourself plenty of time to get back to the train station. Our train left Rennes at 8 pm, so we planned to leave Mont Saint-Michel a little before 6 to catch the bus back. Unfortunately, there was no 6 pm bus. There had been one at 5 or 5:30, but we missed it. The last bus. To take us to the last train.
We ended up stuck in Pontorson that night. The train station, bus station and even taxi services had shut down because it was Saturday night. The next morning (Sunday) was the same. In France, from Saturday night until Monday morning, you can pretty much forget about transportation or shopping, at least in the smaller cities. The train station wouldn’t even open until 2 in the afternoon, and getting to Rennes by bus was impossible. Needless to say, our day trip very quickly turned into a weekend-long trip.
Now that you’ve read this, though, you’ll be a lot smarter than we were! You’ll avoid getting stuck in the mud and you’ll make sure to catch your train on time, and you’ll have had the perfect day trip from Paris.
Tell me about your experiences in Mont Saint-Michel. I’d love to hear them.
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Until next time,