Saint-Malo, France: Brittany in a Mussel Shell

Before I began researching what to see in France, I had never even heard of the city of Saint-Malo (pronounced “san mah-loe” [sɛ̃.ma.lo]), which sits on the northwestern corner of the country in the region called Brittany. But friends and guidebooks kept saying great things about this place so I thought it would be a natural stop along my route westward from Paris after Bayeux and Mont-Saint-Michel. Upon exploring this fortress of a city known for being a home base for pirates, I realized how right everyone who praised it really was.

Intra-Muros, Saint-Malo, France

Intra-Muros: the walled city

Intra-Muros, Saint-Malo, France

Most people come to Saint-Malo for the old city which is snuggled behind its vast stone walls, the part of town called Intra-Muros (Latin for “within walls”). Apart from shopping and eating delicious food (I only partook in the latter, see the Food section below), there’s not much to do here apart from simply exploring the gray avenues and hiking across the ramparts, where you can get a better, elevated view of the city streets.

The ramparts were just plain fun: I had plenty of opportunities to people-watch, I enjoyed a walk where I knew exactly where I was going (you can’t say that for most places!), and I could take a detour back to the ground level whenever I wanted, for example, to see more of a rocky island (see below) or check out some street food. You can find a small cathedral in the town’s center that’s got some pretty postwar stained glass, but when I visited it was dark and dank inside so I didn’t linger too long there.

Intra-Muros, Saint-Malo, France
Original and reconstructed houses

Saint-Malo was basically leveled by Allied bombing in 1944 as the Americans, British, et al. attempted to liberate the city from the occupying Germans. Around 80% of the walled town was destroyed, and it wasn’t until 1972 that they had completely rebuilt. Thankfully, they decided to reconstruct their houses and businesses in the same architectural style (more or less) as they tried to return to normalcy after the war. If you look closely, you can figure out which buildings were built before and after the war, depending on how natural or sharp-looking the stonework is.

For hundreds of years, Saint-Malo was a haven for the Corsairs of the king of France—a.k.a., pirates, who were a thorn in the flesh to England but protected by the French crown. So it was a cool coincidence that in the harbor outside the walled city I got to visit a replica of an 18th-century frigate ship that is currently used for TV episodes, films, or sailing shows. I don’t know what this last bit means, but they were selling specialty onions on the deck to unsuspecting tourists. Moving on…

Beaches & islands

Beach, Saint-Malo, France
The beach

The cheapest place I could find in town to stay at was Hostelling International’s Patrick Varangot center, approximately half an hour’s walk from the old walled town and the train station. Despite being so far away from anything worth seeing, I still enjoyed walking from the hostel to the old city along the beach, even though it was freezing cold and I couldn’t play in the water or anything. Along the waterfront, dozens of colorful, traditional houses face the sea, some of them restaurants, some of them hotels, and they made for an appealing stroll across the beach.

Grand Bé island, Saint-Malo, France
Grand Bé island

On the outskirts of the Intra-Muros part of town you can see a handful of tidal islands: the Fort National, the Fort du Petit Bé, and the island of Grand Bé. That last one was perhaps my favorite part about visiting Saint-Malo; this large, craggy hill with bleak, windswept grasses was a lot of fun to climb up and down and get some nature and hiking in my life after a week of nonstop urban tourism. (And it isn’t beneath me to admit I almost got stuck on the side of a cliff while hiking back down to the beach...)


For lunch I had a massive pot of moules marinières, or “sailor’s mussels.” Mussels make up a big part of the coastal, Breton diet, and I even saw great clumps of small, blue mussels glued to the rocks of the Grand Bé island. They were served by themselves with a few french fries (simply “fried potatoes” in French). I was surprised I was able to eat them all, but perhaps the bulky shells disguised the fact that the mussel bodies would take up much less space on their own.

Kouign-amann, Saint-Malo, France

I enjoyed trying two traditional Breton desserts while wandering the streets of the walled city. The first thing I tried was the ker-y-pom, a dense biscuit filled with baked apple between two layers of shortbread dough. Next was the kouign-amann (pronounced “kwee-nya-mahn” [kwiɲaˈmɑ̃n:], a disc-shaped pastry of sticky, buttery dough rolled into a flaky spiral. I also bought some macarons at a candy store for later. There’s just no hope for me and my sweet tooth!

What are your thoughts about Brittany, this isolated corner of northern France? Would you visit a coastal city in the winter even if you couldn’t visit the beach? Join the conversation below!

Saint-Malo, December 28th, 2012

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