Only a stone’s throw away from the French region of Normandy lies the picturesque island abbey of Mont Saint Michel.
The island is one of the most popular tourist destinations in all of Europe and has been recognized as a World Heritage Site.
The history and culture of Mont Saint Michel is so rich that it seems almost impossible to cover in a single blog post. However, we’ve managed to put together all of the most important information right here.
These 25 facts you didn’t know about Mont Saint Michel will help you decide if it’s the right spot for your next trip!
1. How Many Visitors?
Mont Saint Michel has flown under the radar of a few holidaymakers. However, it still manages to attract millions of tourists every year. 2.5 million tourists, to be exact.
That number becomes all the more impressive when you consider the fact less than 50 people call the island home!
2. A Sacred Commune
The island’s population is almost entirely composed of monks and nuns who travelled there, seeking the spiritual fulfillment only extreme isolation can bring.
If you’re lucky, you may hear their stunning singing echoing throughout the island when you visit.
3. An Emerald Founder
Much of the island’s history is shrouded in mystery. However, we do know that the commune was first established by an Irish hermit who brought with him a devoted group of followers more than 1000 years ago.
4. A Heavenly Visitation
For a long time, no monastic structure existed on the island. Then, in the year 708, the Bishop of Avranches claimed that he had received a visit from Michael, the Archangel.
According to the Bishop, Michael commanded him to build a church on the island, which gave the land its name.
5. Building Continues
The modest chapel built at the behest of the Archangel Michael spawned centuries of construction upon the island.
Building continued on Mont Saint Michel through the Middle Ages and even into the 19th and 20th centuries.
This near constant construction gave rise to the magical Benedictine abbey which protrudes through the mist surrounding the island, seemingly calling out to pilgrims and tourists of all backgrounds and persuasions.
6. A Dark History
As breathtaking as Mont Saint Michel is, the island has not always been the source of inspiration and awe that it is today.
There are periods in its history which are dark and almost impossible to reconcile with its status as a place of God.
During the Hundred Years’ War, for example, the island was regularly attacked by the Kingdom of England.
In fact, two wrought-iron cannons remain on the island, more than 500 years after they were abandoned by an English commander during a failed attempt to seize it.
During the French Revolution, monks were banished from the island’s abbey, which was then converted into a prison.
As a prison, the abbey was used to house those who dared to challenge the republican regime.
This largely meant men of the cloth, with literally hundreds of priests being held prisoner within its walls.
7. Victor Hugo Saves The Day
The abbey of Mont Saint Michel languished as a prison for many years even after the French Revolution.
Then, during the first half of the 1800s, there was a surge in interest regarding French history.
Artists, performers, writers, and other influential figures began to petition for historical buildings, such as the island’s abbey, to be treated with the respect they deserved.
One of the most vocal voices in the fight to save Mont Saint Michel’s abbey was author Victor Hugo. Hugo’s influence led the French government to finally close the prison in 1863.
Check out Victor Hugo famous quotes here.
8. A Tidal Island
One of the most fascinating things about Mont Saint Michel is that it is a tidal island. This means that it is connected to French land by a causeway which is accessible during low tide.
The causeway itself comes in at about one kilometer in length.
9. In Search Of The Perfect Tide
Accessing the island isn’t impossible, but it can be a challenge if you don’t know what you’re doing. Because the causeway connecting it to mainland Normandy is only visible during low tide, you should plan your crossing to coincide with this time of day.
It is also possible to travel to and from the island during high tide, but this isn’t always advisable.
About 20 times a year, usually within the first two days of a full moon, Mont Saint Michel experiences a spring tide.
During this time, the island sees a significant rise in water level, with it exceeding 13 meters. No attempts should be made to access or leave the island at times of spring tide.
10. The Best Time Of Year To Visit
You should try to visit the island between the months of March and October. It is during this period that low tides are most frequent and the weather on the island is most pleasant.
If possible, you should try to avoid visiting in the months of July and August. During these months, hundreds of thousands of tourists descend upon Mont Saint Michel.
The large crowds make it virtually impossible to properly experience everything the island has to offer.
10. A New Means Of Getting There
For centuries, Mont Saint Michel was only accessible by foot.
During this time, various walking routes were established for pilgrims coming from all over France. Additional routes were created by those traveling to the island from Germany, England, and Italy.
You’ll be glad to know that there are now more modern means of getting to the island.
Shuttle buses regularly take pilgrims to its shores, departing from the French town of Rennes.
For those who would prefer to travel by bus, there are tour agencies throughout France offering day trips to the island, although you will have to be willing to make the journey as part of a tour group. If you want the most freedom possible when visiting the island, you can travel by car via the A84 highway.
11. An Overnight Trip
As mentioned above, there are several tour agencies operating in France which provide day trips to the island. It’s important to remember, however, that what you’ll see during these day trips will be minimal.
If you really want to experience the abbey and everything else that Mont Saint Michel has to offer, you’re going to want to visit as an independent traveller and brace yourself for a night in one of the nearby towns.
This is the only way you’ll be able to fully immerse yourself in the island’s culture and history.
Thankfully, there are plenty of options for those in need of accommodation for the night. Just an hour away from the island is the town of Saint-Malo, which many pilgrims use as their base.
You may also want to consider booking a room in Rennes, which, like Saint-Malo, is about an hour removed from the island.
12. Hundreds Of Steps
When you visit Mont Saint Michel, you need to be prepared to do a lot of walking.
And we meant a lot.
Leading to the top of the monastery are 900 steps. There is no escalator or elevator to make the walk easier, so you’ll have no option but to tackle the stairs if you want to see everything the abbey has to offer.
Once you reach the top, however, we assure that the trek will be worth it!
13. Treasures Within The Walls
The exterior of the island’s monastery is so breathtaking and iconic that it can be easy to forget it has an inside as well.
Of course, the pilgrims who have made it inside the building will always remember the treasures that lie within its walls. Perhaps the greatest sight to be seen inside the monastery is the Cloister Garden.
Bearing herbaceous plants and green grass, this garden evokes a feeling of tranquility even when experienced during tourist season.
14. More Than Just A Monastery
The abbey is certainly the main attraction of Mont Saint Michel. However, it’s not the only thing that brings people to the island.
Within the island itself is the village in which many of its residents live. This village is home to a number of shops selling souvenirs, literature, and other items pilgrims may want to bring home as a memento of their trip.
15. Culinary Delights
If you plan to spend an extended period of time on Mont Saint Michel, you won’t have to worry about going hungry.
Among the businesses operating in the island’s village are a number of cafes and restaurants dedicated to providing pilgrims with hearty examples of local cuisine.
One particularly noteworthy establishment, La Mère Poulard, is said to make the best omelette IN THE ENTIRE WORLD.
That’s a tough name to live up to, but those who have paid the €30 asking price have not been disappointed.
16. Breathtaking Views
There are some breathtaking sights to be seen within the island, that’s for sure. But you already know that.
What you may not be aware of is that the island offers some equally breathtaking views of mainland France.
These can be enjoyed from the ramparts of the abbey and are just another reason why you should push yourself to conquer its hundreds of steps.
17. Maritime Museum
The island is not just for pilgrims exclusively. Secular tourists who would like a less spiritual holiday experience can find it in, among other establishments on the island, the Maritime Museum.
As its name suggests, this museum focuses heavily on the island’s maritime history. However, it also features a number of more general artefacts from its past.
18. Cookies Galore!
Okay, we’ve established that the island is famous for its omelettes, but did you know it’s also renowned for its cookies?
Mont Saint Michel cookies boast a creamy texture to complement their mouth-watering flavour.
They are available throughout the island and make the perfect gift for friends and family back home.
19. Anne Boutiaut Poulard
So how did the island go from being a spiritual paradise to a hub of culinary creations?
That would be the doing of Anne Boutiaut Poulard. Poulard was a cook and innkeeper on the island in the late 19th century and early 20th century.
During this time, she became famous for her hospitality and would delight the taste buds of her guests with her innovative Omelette de la mère Poulard.
Poulard passed away in May of 1931. Those who wish to thank her for her remarkable contributions to French cuisine can visit her resting place when they visit the island.
Her grave lies in a hauntingly beautiful cemetery next to the church of Saint-Pierre.
20. No Photography!
In Europe, there are two tourist hotspots in which visitors are prohibited from taking photographs. One is Amsterdam’s Red Light District and the other is Mont Saint Michel.
Of course, photography isn’t entirely off limits on the island.
Feel free to take pictures of the various buildings and monuments.
However, tourists are asked to refrain from taking photographs of the island’s residents, particularly when they are engaged in a religious ritual.
21. Stay Until Sunset!
If you do intend to bring your camera to the island and want to find something that is truly worthy of being photographed, you should try to stay until sunset.
The sight of the sun going down on the island is truly remarkable, especially when viewed from its shores.
This is just another reason why you should try to avoid visiting the island in the dead of summer. The shorter the days are, the sooner you’ll see the sunset, which is a major advantage if you’re visiting under time restrictions.
22. Closing Time!
If you wind up staying until sunset during the summer months, it’s important to remember that virtually all shops and restaurants on the island close at 10 PM.
Most establishments do not prolong their opening hours, even during peak tourist times, so if you envision yourself staying beyond closing time, you may want to pick up some of those delicious cookies to go.
23. Closed Days
The island’s abbey is open most days of the year.
However, there are a few days when it cannot be accessed by tourists. Obviously, the abbey is closed on the days one would expect it to be: Christmas Day and New Year’s Day. However, it is also shut on the 1st of May.
Opening times may vary on specific days, but generally the abbey is open from 9 AM to 7 PM May 2nd to August 31st. From September 1st to April 30th it is accessible from 9:30 AM to 6 PM.
24. It’s Free, Free, Free!
One of the major allures of Mont Saint Michel is its price tag (or lack thereof).
Admission to the island is completely free! This means the only cost you’ll have to worry about is whatever you spend to get there!
25. Well, Sort Of…
There are some expenses to be incurred on the island in exchange for certain experiences.
Obviously, if you want to eat or shop during your visit, you’re going to have to be prepared to part with some cash.
Admission to the abbey itself costs €10 per adult, but one moment inside its sacred walls will convince you that it’s more than worth the ticket price.