On the north western coast of France lies the city of Saint Malo. I knew nothing about the place before visiting, but when I found out their flag has a ferret on it with the motto “ni français, ni breton, malouin suis-je” (Not French or Breton, I’m from St. Malo) I knew that this was not your typical French city.
This post will give you a bit of history and some of the best ways to spend your day in Saint Malo.
Walking the walls
The biggest tourist draw is the picturesque setting of the city. The walled part, or Intra Muros, is the heart of the city and surrounded on three sides by water. You can walk all the way around the city on the top of the walls, and there are numerous places to go up or climb down.
Being a Beach Bum
There is no lack of space at this beach! The area is so shallow that when the tide goes out it is a looong way from the buildings on the shore, and this makes it feel less crowded. On one side of the city, there is a saltwater pool and diving board with a great view of the sailboats and mansions around the bay. The rocky outcrops nearby mean that there are lots of critters that you can spot in the tide pools.
Saint-Malo is defined by its unique history as the ville corsaire, or privateer city. The key location of the city meant it was fought over by the King of France and the Dukes of Brittany and developed its own identity as a walled city. You can learn about this history with a guided visit to the Demeure de Corsaire, a mansion of a privateer family.
Our entertainingly eccentric guide explained that lawless pirates were hung if captured. By contrast, privateers used their private boats to fight for their country with the permission of the king during wartime. If a privateer lost the battle and was captured, they’d go to jail for six months. Keeping track of that document from the king was a matter of life and death!
There were also very specific rules for sea warfare. A ship needed to capture the other ship’s flag to put an end to the battle and call a victory. But, if someone continued to fight after the flag was taken, they were hung. Seems like a pattern here…
Ships from Saint-Malo didn’t just fight, they also traded, traveling to the Americas and Asia. Malouain merchants made their fortunes in porcelain, silver, and spices, which they would store deep in the cellars of their houses. This corsaire house had seven stories!
With all these riches in town, theft was a huge potential problem. Goods in ships were also in danger because when the tides went out ships could be accessed by foot.
So, Saint-Malo came up with a very unique and somewhat morbid system to enforce the law in and around their walled city. At 10:00 each night there was a curfew. The famous bell, Noguette, would ring for four minutes as Malouins would hurry home. If you were caught on the street within the city walls after curfew you would go to prison. Pretty harsh, but nothing compared to what would happen if you were caught outside the city walls. Saint-Malo was so serious about preventing theft that they obtained huge Mastiff dogs that could be as big as a man. Outside the walls after curfew? You got fed to the dogs.
I thought our guide was joking at first, but nope, this was their system and my guess is it worked pretty well. Their coat of arms even featured these dogs!
La Reine Fort
If you’re looking for even more history, you can visit a fort that’s an easy walk to get to at low tide. At high tide though, it’s a different story; you’ll need a boat because the fort is on an island.
Inside the fort, there are a number of canons and, surprisingly, it also contains the tomb of famous French writer Chateaubriand. I chose not to wait around for the guided tour, so without knowing much of the history I wasn’t too impressed by the fort itself. The views looking back at Saint-Malo are great though! If you’re there for the views and want to save the 5 euro admission there is a hill nearby that you can climb for free.
Food and Dining in St. Malo
Saint-Malo is in oyster country, and you can find them gracing the menus of many Malouin restaurants. There are even a few places that serve ONLY oysters.
If you are looking for more than just oysters, the Breizh Cafe restaurant has an interesting concept. The Breton founder had lived in Japan and creates Japanese-Breton fusion food that is nothing if not creative. They serve traditional galettes (buckwheat crepes), sushi, and everything in between, including galette sushi which I just had to try.
For dessert head to the Kouign Amman of Saint-Malo where you can watch them make Breton pastries, all involving lots of butter. Kouign amman (pronounced kuwin ahmon) is a round butter pastry with many layers. This is a great place for souvenirs, too. They guarantee the vacuum-sealed pastries will stay fresh for a month, so you can bring some home!
Cruises around St. Malo
If you need a break after a bit too much kouign amman, there are lots of options for boat rides. I unfortunately didn’t have time to do one, but it would be the best way to see the area. Compagnie Corsaire has choices from a 10-minute water bus to neighboring Dinard to a half-day fishing adventure. A sunset cruise would be a great way to end a perfect day in Saint-Malo, France!
If you are headed to France, read about the best small towns for day trips in Brittany.