Once the feared base of pirates (corsairs), heavily fortified against Norman (or English) attack, today's Saint-Malo is one of the top tourist draws in Brittany. The star of the show is the atmospheric walled city (intramuros), largely destroyed in the second world war but painstakingly reconstructed. The modern towns of Parame and Saint-Servan lie outside the walls.
Saint-Malo's train station is located over a kilometer south of the intramuros area, but it's an easy 20-min walk straight down Avenue Louis Martin. There are a few direct TGV services daily from Paris (Gare de Montparnasse), which take about three hours. Most travellers, however, will end up connecting in Rennes, from where there are hourly commuter services (50 min, €12) to Saint-Malo.
From the UK you can arrive from Poole and Weymouth on Condor Ferries. Leaving from Portsmouth with Brittany Ferries. From Jersey & Guernsey you can take Condor Ferries which offers direct routes from both islands.
There are two buses daily to Pontorson (line 17, 1 hour, €2,5), which depart from the train station and stop at the city walls. The buses are timed to connect to onward buses to Mont Saint Michel (15 min, €2), allowing a fairly comfortable day-trip.
Saint-Malo has a good bus system, with the main terminals located at the train station and just outside the walls (St Vincent). Get a booklet with maps and times from any bus driver. A one and a half hour ticket costs €1.15. Unfortunately there are no bus services late in the evening.
The walled city is easily covered on foot, but you can also opt for a dinky "Tourist Train" that takes you and your wallet for a ride (€5.50).
- Ramparts (Remparts).
- The walled city (La Ville Intra-Muros)
- The Chateau
- The walled city view from the "Memorial 39-45"
- Rance tidal power station. The tidal power plant reportedly attracts 200,000 visitors per year. A canal lock in the west end of the dam permits the passage of 16,000 vessels between the English Channel and the Rance. The display centre is looking a bit tired and there isn't much to see from the barrage wall. Getting there is a bit tricky, bus routes C1 and C2 get you to within a kilometer walk.
- Watch the impressive tide.
- Walk (or jog) along the beach.
- Walk around the walls of the walled city(free).
- Visit the Festival des Folklores du Monde (World Folklores), which takes place at the beginning of July. There are dance and music performances from around the world. You can also dance when Celtic Breton bands play music in the main square of Parame district.
- Look at the many hundreds of sailing boats of all sizes and ages in the harbour/s.
Shops in the city center usually close by 19 hrs, but most of them now (as of 2010) stay open every Sunday. -Including high street cloth stores, which before 2010 were not allowed to open on Sunday and now are allowed-
Saint-Malo is a great place to sample Breton specialties.
- Breton Pancakes: not just the world-famous sweet crêpes, but also savoury galettes.
- Kouing Aman: this is a delicious Breton cake made with butter and sugar. Try to sample them piping hot, especially the ones with apple added in.
- Mussels (moules): fished in the place and available in any restaurants.
- Oysters (huitres): the best are from Cancale, a village near to Saint-Malo. In France, they are eaten raw.
The Intramuros area has what is quite possibly France's highest concentration of creperies and seafood restaurants. Most cater solely to tourists and are effectively identical.
- Cafe de Saint-Malo, just inside Grande Porte. The restaurant here is unspectacular, but what makes this the best deal in Intramuros is the window selling fresh seafood to go. For €5, you can get a dozen large oysters, preshelled, on ice and with a quartered lemon.
- Petit Crêpier, ☎ +33-299409319. Rue Ste Barbe. True to the name, this restaurant is small and has crepes, but their daily selection of seafood galettes is a cut above the pack. €10.
- Coté brasserie, ☎ +33 2-99568340. 8, rue des Cordiers (intra-muros). New proprietary. seafoods and chips. Well separated smoking and non-smoking areas. €20-40.
- Captain-Ice, Rue Jacques Cartier, Intra-Muros. This may well be the best ice cream place in town. Try Amour de Glace (Love of Ice cream) for something really yummy. Prices are slightly high, but you get big quantities and very high quality!
- Crêperie le Tournesol, 4 rue des marins (Saint-Malo), ☎ +33 2-99403623. Brunch in St-Malo means only one thing: a galette washed down with a cup of local cider – no it's never too early. Try the Crêperie Le Tournesol (16) at 4 Rue des Marins (00 33 2 99 40 36 23), with its terrace spilling out on to cobbled streets, from 11.30am Sunday. Its speciality galettes start at €5.50 and come with a huge variety of fillings, from smoked Breton sausage and egg to goats' cheese and Camembert. If you still have room, finish with something sweet – a crêpe with hot chocolate sauce is €3.50.
In St Malo you can eat at any time of day. In smaller towns nearby, you can look for the lunchtime "menu ouvrier" (workers' menu). Often there is little to no choice of dishes, but what you get is genuine French home cooking for half the price, if that, of what you would pay in a tourist centre like St Malo or Mont St Michel (French lunchtime is sacred. Every French person observes it religiously.).
Brittany is not a region that's renowned for its wine, but it has other specialties:
- Breton beer
- Calvados: apple brandy
- Chouchen: mead (it's a blend with alcohol and honey; it is very sweet)
- Muscadet: dry white wine, perfect with local seafood; true, it doesn't come from Brittany, but is from the nearest vineyard area, Pays de la Loire
There are many accommodation options in Saint-Malo, including over 20 hotels within the walls, but they can fill up very fast in season — book ahead.
- Le Centre Patrick Varangot, 37 avenue du R.P. Umbricht (near the beach, 30-40 minutes by foot from the walled city), ☎ +33 2 99 40 29 80, e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.
- Best Western Central, 7 Grande Rue, ☎ +33-2-99408770. Superb location just inside the main gate of the walled town, but lower floors can be noisy. Rooms are small but clean, some with views out onto the street, some with shower, others with bath. Wifi available (separate charge). No parking. €98.
- San Pedro, 1 rue Sainte Anne, ☎ +33-2-99408857. Comfortable small nautical-themed hotel within the walled city. Rooms have shower, WC, TV, and Wifi. Daily changing themed breakfast available (€7.50 extra). Internet bookings unreliable, so call to confirm. €55/67 without/with sea view.
- Visit nearby Mont Saint Michel - a monastery and town built on a tiny outcrop of rock in the sand, which is cut off from the mainland at high tide. It is one of France's major tourist destinations, and as such gets very busy in high season. Check the times of the tides before you visit!
- Cross the Rance Tidal Dam (Barrage de la Rance) and see Dinard; especially in October when the town hosts its annual English Film Festival (lots of US films, too). Casino, sandy beaches, high cliffs studded with quaint, Victorian-era houses, many with conical tower tops; covered market.
- Venture west beyond Dinard to the Côte d'Emeraude (Emerald Coast) to find even more luscious sandy beaches and little-known towns such as St-Lunaire and St-Cast (first French town to liberate itself from Nazis by own efforts, 1944) and the lonely, craggy, atmospheric Cap Fréhel, where in spring you can see gannets, the superb large seabird that never otherwise comes within sight of shore.