We didn’t know what to expect when we pulled into the charming and historic town of Saint-Malo. This French port town is located in Brittany on the English Channel coast and is probably one of the prettiest places I’ve ever been. The walled city has a very long and rich history filled with piracy, war, and tourism, with a ferry serving the English Channel islands.
Saint-Malo is a great place for a day trip, but to really get the most out of your time, I recommend a few days of proper exploration. There is a lot of beauty waiting for you in Saint-Malo. Read on if you’re wondering what to do in Saint-Malo.
The Best Things to do in Saint-Malo
You can’t visit a European city and skip the cathedral (most major cities will have one). The Saint-Malo Cathedral is one that definitely lives up to the hype. It used to be a Benedictine monastery, and throughout its lifetime, it has undergone quite a few architectural style changes, including Romanesque, Gothic, and even elements of Renaissance style. It bears the scars of war, like many parts of Saint-Malo—the choir column was bombed in 1944 and took nearly three decades to rebuild.
Fun fact: this is the burial site for Jacques Cartier, the first outside explorer to land on Canadian soil. Keep your eyes out for busts, statues of religious figures, and jaw-dropping stained glass windows.
- Location: 12 Rue Saint-Benoist
- Insider tip: Photos are permitted inside, so be sure to bring your camera.
This picturesque beach is ideally located right on the edge of the city itself, so you can walk the smooth, sandy plains of Sillon Beach while still being only steps away from the comforts of the city streets. The sand, mirror-like when wet, makes for a great walking spot at low tide.
Don’t miss the spike fortresses between the sand and the upper platform of the streets, designed to keep unwanted outsiders at bay in past times. This is a family-friendly spot and is safe for swimming during low tide when the waters are calmer.
- Location: Northern coast of Saint-Malo
- Insider tip: Keep your eyes peeled for seashells at low tide, as this is a good spot for beachcombing.
Fortresses are pretty cool, but they also hit the next level on an island. Fort National stands on l’Îlette, a small rocky island off the city’s coast. It was originally the site of a lighthouse as well as criminal torture (which fortunately is no longer the case) until it became a bastion under the plans of the military architect Vauban.
Today, it’s open for summertime tours, but only at low tide when the site is accessible via land. There is an entrance fee of five euros, but all incoming money goes towards upkeep and renovations to keep it open to the public.
- Location: 60 Chaussée du Sillon
- Insider tip: Not wheelchair or pram accessible due to a series of steep steps.
Grand Bé is another tidal island just north of the city’s coastline. Like many others, it is only accessible at low tide. While this can seem a little inconvenient, it definitely helps add to the sense of mystery and will make getting there all the more worthwhile once you arrive.
Since Saint-Malo has long wartime history, this island is one of many that were used as weapons storage for German forces during the occupation of France. Today, the ruins of a small fortress lie on the island from when forces were stationed here.
Writers and historians also come here to respect the Romantic writer Chateaubriand, buried on the island per his last request.
- Location: North of the city’s coast
- Insider tip: Walking around the island’s perimeter makes for a great hike, but keep an eye on the tides to avoid getting stranded.
Petit Bé is another island reachable only when the tide is out. While not ideal for the mobility-impaired, the walk around the perimeter (low tide only) is superb and will grant you some beautiful water views. You can also pay six euros for a guided tour.
If you ever feel so inclined, the fort can be reserved for gatherings or other events for up to 150 guests.
- Location: Just west of Grand Bé off the north coast of Saint-Malo
- Insider tip: Check out the gardens within the fort; they are a great spot to sit and relax.
How cool does a medieval dungeon tower sound? Solidor Tower dated from the 14th century when it was built on a rocky ledge jutting out from the mainland. It served various purposes throughout the years – from barracks to prison.
Today, it is a museum showcasing dozens of artifacts (including seafaring instruments) for tourists interested in seeing this piece of history. It’s closed on Mondays and every May 1st, and entrance fees are between three and six euros.
- Location: Quai Sébastopol
- Insider tip: The view from the top of the tower is worth the climb, so don’t miss out.
Plage du Prieuré
Just across the bay in neighboring Dinard, Prieuré Beach is definitely worth adding to your list of things to do in Saint-Malo (even though it’s a little outside the city). Not only will you get an absolutely beautiful viewpoint of Saint-Malo, but the beach is like something out of a dream, with long stretches of soft yellow sand, a dazzling nearby promenade, and gentle waters perfect for a summertime dip.
Also, it’s a great spot for families! The area isn’t just a beach: there’s an open-air saltwater swimming pool and free fitness equipment higher up near the promenade.
- Location: 3 Avenue de la Vicomte
- Insider tip: The promenade leads to the Promenade du Clair de Lune, which winds around the city and hits many different notable sights in Dinard.
Bastion de la Hollande
The Bastion de la Hollande is another remnant of wartime France, but not the war you might think; it was built in the 17th century due to the war against the Dutch. At night, a bell tower sounded the curfew bell, and mastiff dogs were let loose to chase outliers back into their homes. While the dog technique was later eradicated, the nearby bell tower still sounds at 10 pm each night.
Today, the bastion area contains cannon shooters and sits on a ledge overlooking the water to spot enemies arriving via sea. This can be a quick stop as you pass through the area on the promenade, but it is worth a visit to see another piece of Saint-Malo’s diverse wartime history.
- Location: 3 Rue Jules Ferry
- Insider tip: Hit up the nearby Maison du Québec, a museum dedicated to the Canadian province amidst a friendship with the town of Saint-Malo in the eighties (in fact, Saint-Malo has three sister cities in Québec).
This is for all the hikers out there. The GR-34 is a hiking route, and a long one: the full length can take several weeks and spans 400km. But as with many of France’s trails, it’s easy enough to pick a portion of the hike and opt to do just that.
Back in the 1700s, the GR-34 was a footpath following, 1800 km of Brittany’s coastline, implemented to stop smugglers from entering nearby ports. Following the Emerald Coastline, the region is a UNESCO World Heritage Site with a beautiful medley of scenery – windy beaches, rocky cliffs, and even remnants of WW2 bunkers.
- Location: Spans from Saint-Malo to Saint Brieuc
- Insider tip: A few travelers have reported confusing signage and pathways, so grab a map before undertaking this hike.
The Sculptured Rocks
Just east of Saint-Malo, along the coastline, is the village of Rothéneuf. The dozens of mystical sculptures carved into rocks lining the shores set it apart from so many other picturesque French townships. Having been eroded by the sea over the years, these sculptures are not heavily marketed by the city as a tourist attraction to protect them from too much human interference.
The sculptor was a 19th-century priest who left his post after becoming deaf and mute (the result of a stroke), and dedicated the remaining 15 years of his life to creating these rock sculptures of pirates, sea monsters, smugglers, and other creatures from fantasy. Though you should tread lightly as these carvings are not protected by the city, they are definitely worth a visit.
- Location: Chemin des Rochers Sculptés
- Insider tip: There is a five euro fee to enter, but once past the ticket booth, you are left to explore on your own.
Visit Parc de la Briantais
These beautiful castle grounds are well worth a visit if you’re passing through Saint-Malo. They make up 27 hectares of lush grounds surrounding a castle (the Château de la Briantais).
While the area is primarily used for gatherings, festivals, and the like, the grounds are a beautiful area of winding pathways, statues, busts, and beautiful views out over the water and the nearby Rance estuary, which connects Saint-Malo to nearby Dinard.
- Location: Main entrance on Rue Maurice-Noguès
- Insider tip: While this is a relaxing and beautiful area, be warned that it’s not food-friendly: there are no nearby cafés, and picnics are not allowed.
See the Malouinières houses
These elegant and luxurious houses are located all over the city, remnants from the age of privateering – richly decorated houses built by ship owners and privateers. The houses are collectively known as the Malouinières, with the most famous being the Puits Sauvage (Wild Well, in English), which is still owned by the descendants of the original occupants.
The month of September is a heritage month for Saint-Malo, and the houses are available to visit. But in the off months, you can do self-guided tours through the ‘neighborhoods’ and see the groupings of lavish houses and the surrounding buildings like bakeries and stables.
- Location: All over Saint-Malo
- Insider tip: Don’t miss the huge glass greenhouse containing an incredible cactus garden.
Remparts de Saint-Malo
The walls of Saint-Malo are another top choice on the list of things to do in Saint-Malo. Since these surround the city, it’s a great way to do a self-guided walking tour and see extra things while you walk around the almost two-kilometer loop. Some parts of the wall date back to the 1100s, with additional fortifications and reconstructions taking place in the 1600s and 1800s to keep up with evolving military techniques.
Since these walls were for fortification, you can walk along the top (don’t worry, you won’t fall) for panoramic city views. The beauty of undertaking a walking tour by yourself is that you can stop whenever you see something that catches your eye.
- Location: 6-2 Rue Guillaume le Gouverneur
- Insider tip: Do this at high and low temperatures for completely different views of the city and the coastline.
Just to the north of the city lies the island of Cezembre. It’s the region’s hottest island, with beautiful sandy stretches of beach (and, therefore, a popular summer beach escape for locals and travelers). Be sure to bring all your beach provisions like towels, snacks, and sunblock.
The island’s history is fascinating. During the Second World War, it was a fortified island mainly used by German soldiers and was heavily bombed by Allied forces. Today, the remains are evident in the thousands of bomb craters. Even mines remain; therefore, parts of the former fortress are off-limits.
- Location: North of Saint-Malo
- Insider tip: Though there’s a bridge connecting the island to Saint-Malo, ferries from the wharves get you there in 15 minutes.
Visit the Jacques Cartier Museum
Still, wondering what to do in Saint-Malo. Head to the Jacques Cartier Museum, also known as the Manoir de Limoëlou, this quaint but unassuming structure is the only surviving residence of Jacques Cartier, the explorer credited with discovering Canada. The exterior is a stone structure with small turrets and deep red finishings. This was his summer residence once he returned from his Canadian travels.
Though the interior is just a redecoration of what it may have looked like during his time, it’s an astonishing voyage through history and the life of a great adventurer. The furniture is staged, but the exploration tools and navigation pieces on display are actual artifacts that belonged to Cartier.
- Location: Manoir de Limoëlou, Rue David Macdonald Stewart
- Insider tip: Tours are available only in French, but there are guidebooks in English and an English version of the tour.
Where to Stay in Saint-Malo?
Hôtel Le Nouveau Monde
This is a great beachfront hotel, only a 5-minute walk away from the center of Saint-Malo. It has seaside views and an indoor swimming pool.
Golden Tulip Saint Malo
A modern hotel located in the walled city of Saint-Malo. Golden Tulip is only a 5-minute walk from Saint-Malo Harbour and has a free fitness center, WiFi, and an onsite restaurant.
There are tons of Airbnbs around Saint-Malo. If you book early enough in advance, you’ll be able to score a perfect one!
Read This Book About Saint-Malo!
All The Light We Cannot See
A wartime book set in Saint-Malo. Well worth a read before you visit!
Plan For Your Trip
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