“Ni français, ni Breton, Malouin Suis”, “Neither French, nor Breton, Malouin I am” is the motto of the city and it reflects much of its culture and history. Saint-Malo was always a rebel from both Paris, the Crown, and Nantes, the capital of historical Brittany. In 1590 Saint-Malo even declared itself an independent state, which only lasted until 1594.
Saint-Malo is a historic walled port city in Brittany on the English Channel coastline of northwestern France. The historic Saint-Malo (Intra Muros) is located on an island on the estuary of the Rance river making it a very privileged location. Saint-Malo is quite a small town with only 50 000 inhabitants, which increases 4 times to 200 000 in Summer.
Let’s examine all the fun things to do in Saint-Malo.
Saint-Malo – A town of corsairs and maritime explorers
Saint-Malo is also known as the Corsaire town and the origin of many famous French explorers who left to open new maritime routes, like Jacques Cartier and Robert Surcourf.
The Corsairs of St Malo roamed the seas taking whatever they wanted from English, Dutch and Portuguese ships unfortunate enough to encounter them. Infamous for their ruthless crews in swift, silent ships, swooping into rob and pillage, then sailing away to their safe harbors and secret hideaways… in St Malo!
We particularly love the story of Robert Surcouf, one of the town’s more illustrious sons, who single-handedly killed 11 men in a duel with… 12! He left the last man alive to tell the tale. Also interesting is that Jacques Cartier is credited with being the first European to rediscover Canada and sail down and map the Saint Lawrence River.
The impregnable town of Saint-Malo
We can easily imagine why Saint-Malo was such a great hideaway. The city was made to be almost impregnable. It had huge walls to protect people from the outside invaders and the highest tides in Europe. These tides also make a maritime attack quite dangerous because… if you don’t know what you are doing, you could easily get stranded and then become an easy target.
If the tides weren’t enough to put you off, you should note that the sea is full of huge rocks and small islands and islets, making navigation barely impossible. Finally, we have the forts built in some of the islands and islets, which you had to conquer before getting to the city… so, good luck with that 🙂
The British and the Dutch eventually got tired of being attacked by the corsairs and tried to attack Saint-Malo with a fleet of 30 boats and even brought a vessel packed with gunpowder to use as a floating mine against the city’s defenses. However, they couldn’t detonate it against the ramparts and had to retreat. The vessel was detonated way too far because it was stuck in the reef/rocks/low tide…
Saint-Malo in WW2
During WW2, about 80% of Saint Malo’s buildings were destroyed… After being captured by the Germans in 1944, the allies heavily bombed Saint-Malo and destroyed most of its buildings. However, after the war, the town’s historic neighborhood was completely rebuilt, and barely every building was reconstructed according to its original style. While visiting old Saint-Malo, you won’t notice that those are rebuilt buildings and not original ones…
Fun Things to do in Saint-Malo
#1 Explore Intra Muros
Intra Muros is the heart and soul of Saint-Malo, it’s the old town, the city inside the walls. This is where most of the historic buildings are and the place to lose yourself wandering around discovering the small alleys, the old historic buildings, the beautiful cobblestone streets…
We particularly enjoyed that Intra Muros feels slightly different from other old European towns. The buildings are higher, bigger, and built with grey granite creating a distinguished air, we could even say severe but beautiful.
The Cathedral of Saint Vincent ( AKA Saint-Malo Cathedral), the Saint-Aaron Chapel, and the Saint-Sauveur Chapel are some of the most landmarks to visit in Saint-Malo. They were rebuilt several times, and you can find much of Saint-Malo’s history in them.
#2 St Malo Walls
The walls of Saint-Malo were built to protect the city from both tides and invaders. They were built in the 1100s, updated to combat new military technology in the 1600s and then expanded again up to the mid-18th century. The ramparts protect the entirety of the old part of Saint-Malo and form a circuit of 1.75 kilometers.
Today, the walls are probably the most famous feature of Saint-Malo and also the biggest tourist attraction. We strongly advise you to walk the whole circuit and enjoy the extremely scenic views of the several sides of the town. From the ramparts, you can see the Fort Nacional, The Small Bé, the big Bé, the beautiful beaches, Intra Muros, and the outskirts of Saint-Malo. You can enter and leave the walls, whenever you want, it’s free, which is excellent.
#3 Fort National
The Fort National was built on a tidal island just a few hundred meters from the walls of Saint-Malo in 1689 by the architect Vauban.
One may visit the fort when the fort is flying the French flag. Usually, access is only possible at low tide on certain other days and between the period from 1 June to 30 September. To see the daily opening times see the fort’s website.
#4 The Grand and Petit Bé Islands
These are the two islands in front of Saint-Malo. Both are tidal islands which means you can access them by foot during low tide from nearby Bon-Secours beach. However, be aware that the tides here are huge and you can quickly be obliged to swim back… and in winter that is going to be a problem!
On the Grand Bé (Big Bé) island, you can find the tomb of the writer and politician François René Chateaubriand, who was born in Saint-Malo. His grave faces to the West, towards the sea as he requested in his will.
On the Petit Bé (Small Bé) Island, you can find another interesting Defensive Fort. The fort was initially designed to protect the town from the British and Dutch.
#5 Beaches of Saint-Malo
One of the best things to do in Saint-Malo is to enjoy its marvelous beaches. The coastline around Saint-Malo has 16 beaches, most of which are sandy and with beautiful turquoise water. The rocks, islands, and islets give it an extra scenic feature. However, you should note that despite looking like Caribbean beaches, the water is much much cooler :). After all, this is the English Channel.
The Plage du Sillon is a sweep of golden sands running east from the Citadelle and probably the best beach in Saint-Malo. Among the other beaches, some of the most popular ones are the Bon Secours, Mole, and Eventail… You should also note that the beaches of Minihic and the Pont have the best views of the bay.
#6 Rance Power Station
This is not your usual tourist attraction, and probably it isn’t on many other lists of best things to do in Saint-Malo. In fact, even though we would say that it isn’t a tourist attraction, it is fascinating! Rance Tidal Power Station was the first in the world and is still the second biggest in the world. It was built to use the astonishing big tides in the region.
It’s a very interesting concept where the turbines use the seawater entering and exiting the mouth of the Rance river. However, you don’t get to see much of it or how it works… As a tourist attraction, it isn’t the most entertaining or beautiful, but we find it very interesting!
Where to stay in Saint-Malo
When staying in Saint-Malo, we strongly suggest you stay in Intra Muros or very close to it. It is the most important side of the town and where everything happens, at least from a traveler’s point of view! These are our suggestions for the best accommodation in Saint-Malo according to their price range.
Best budget hotel in Saint-Malo
You should remember that France is an expensive country… and Intra Muros is the most sought place in Saint-Malo, so it won’t be easy to find cheap accommodation. Our best option for a budget-friendly hotel in Intra Muros is the Les Chiens du Guet which has nice value for money.
Best mid-range Hotel in Saint-Malo
As a mid-range Hotel, we propose to you the Hotel De France et Chateaubriand. This hotel has a central location, very close to all the essential attractions. The rooms are spacious and comfortable. It has a restaurant and bar, which may be handy if you feel too tired after all the travel.
Luxury Hotel in Saint-Malo
The Hotel Oceania Saint Malo is our favorite Luxury Hotel in Saint-Malo. Despite not being inside Intra Muros, it’s very close and in front of the beach. You can even have a drink in the hotel bar while enjoying the beach view. It has a 24h reception and big, comfy rooms with a private WC, air conditioner, and TV.
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