The capital of Brittany’s Côtes-d’Armor department is an unpretentious town that doesn’t concern itself too much with tourism. But all the same there are a lot of things to win you over in Saint-Brieuc.
The old centre has venerable granite buildings and half-timbered houses, while the Légué Port on the Gouët River Estuary resonates with hundreds of years of maritime activity. There’s a cathedral that looks like a fortress, a cemetery with eminent occupants, an award-winning Zoo and a lively schedule of events and fairs. Awe-inspiring natural monuments, cute fishing villages and beach resorts are all effortlessly close by car.
Lets explore the best things to do in Saint-Brieuc:
1. Saint-Brieuc Cathedral
From the outside at least, to call the town’s cathedral “decorative” would be wrong: It has two fortress-like granite towers with no openings except for arrow loops.
In the 13th century this was the bishop’s keep, and the tough appearance isn’t coincidental as the building was made to withstand sieges as there are no ramparts in Saint-Brieuc.
Inside things are much more delicate, especially on the south wing of the transept.
Here there’s an awe-inspiring stained glass window from the 16th century showing bible scenes like manna in the desert and the last supper.
2. Old Saint-Brieuc
The prettiest parts of the town are just east and north of the cathedral, where corbelled wooden houses abound.
Place du Martray is a splendid square with stone and timber-framed buildings, all fronting Saint-Brieuc’s covered market.
On Place au Lin you’ll find Maison Ribeault, the oldest half-timbered house in the city, dating to the 1400s.
Its facade and door are carved with plant motifs, masks and scallop shells.
Allow at least a couple of hours to see everything in old Saint-Brieuc, and finish up on Place du Chai with a cafe-au-lait or chocolat chaud.
3. Musée d’Art et d’Histoire
To get in touch with the culture and history of the Côtes-d’Armor you can potter about this museum for an hour or so.
The attraction first came together after the seizures during the Revolution, although most of what you’ll see was collected later in the 1800s.
You’ll leap from subject to subject, covering underwater archaeology, seafaring, furniture, weaving heritage and traditional Breton costume.
There are exhibits about the daring fishing expeditions to Iceland and Newfoundland, and local savoir-faire like shoemaking and pottery.
In the art galleries are Breton painters and photographers who made their mark, like Mathurin Méheut and the portraitist Lucien Bailly.
4. Cimetière Saint-Michel
A cemetery might not be everyone’s idea of an uplifting excursion, but the oldest one in the city has famous connections, beautiful sculptures and engrossing tales to tell.
It was established in 1839 and still has many historic tombs, and you can even check in with Saint-Brieuc’s tourist office for a comprehensive list that includes a pioneering aviator, a Resistance member and the father of the inventor of the stethoscope.
Another famous father here is Lucien Camus, dad of literary giant Albert.
And another, Louis Guilloux, was an influential 20th-century author known for his social realism .
5. Tour de Cesson
On the right side of the Gouët Estuary is a forest-coated rock climbing to 70 metres over the water.
In medieval times this was just the place from which to defend the sea entrance to Saint-Brieuc against pirates and invaders.
The Duke of Brittany Jean IV built a castle here in 1395 but it was all reduced to rubble save for the keep at the end of the Wars of Religion.
A single tower is what you see now cresting the hill, in a state of picturesque decay.
The GR 34 walking trail will get you there, and if you love abandoned sites you’re in for a treat: A 19th-century manor house has been left to rot a few paces from the tower.
6. Port du Légué
Under the tower is Saint-Brieuc’s port, which lines the banks of the Gouët as it reaches the English Channel.
Even though this is the fifth-largest port in Brittany it has a quaint, relaxed ambience and the quayside paths and abundant woodland on the slopes behind make it very walkable.
There are stone houses next to the water, and restaurants, bars and cafes where you can sit outside and watch the yachts floating up and down the estuary.
And if you’d like to make a day of it there are eight kilometres of waterfront paths delivering you to the Plage de Valais.
This is the town’s only beach; a cove facing the Baie de Saint-Brieuc, the largest natural reserve in Brittany.
7. Les Chaos du Gouët
For a walk to remember head inland to the banks of the Gouët next to the village of Plaintel.
About 15 minutes down from Saint-Brieuc is a 10.5-kilometre trail tracing the riverbanks through a strange scene in which the Gouët has deposited hundreds of giant granite boulders.
The entire walk is in mossy deciduous forest, and it will be hard to resist scaling some of these rocks or using them as stepping stones to cross the shallow, bubbling river.
8. Zooparc de Trégomeur
A fun day out for kids awaits at this zoo, with an Asian theme and presenting animals in enclosures that copy their ecosystem as closely as possible.
The park is in a lush valley with a microclimate that nourishes tropical vegetation.
Over the last ten years the Côtes-d’Armor General Council has invested a lot in modernising the attraction and adding species from China, Thailand, Malaysia Indonesia, Japan and many more countries from the region.
To name a few there are Vietnamese deer, a Sumatran tiger, sun bears and gibbons such as the Siamang.
9. Villa Rohannec’h
A good way to get from the centre of Saint-Brieuc to the Port du Légué is to wander through the grounds of this splendid mansion which is owned by the town.
Villa Rohannec’h was the home of the local ship-owner Viscount Le Gualès de Mézaubran, built at the start of the 20th century.
Around it are seven hectares of parkland with an orchard and maritime pines, open every day in summer.
The mansion itself has just come through a makeover and is a kind of local cultural space, with themed exhibitions and performances in the summer, s well as being home a lively cafe.
An adorable seaside resort, Erquy is treasured for its pink sandstone cottages next to a large sheltered bay.
One of the largest fishing fleets in the Côtes-d’Armor is based in Erquy and between October and April they’ll trawl the Bay of Saint-Brieuc for scallops.
The season climaxes with the Fête de la Coquille Saint-Jacques (Scallop Festival) on a weekend in mid-April.
The beach is a big draw of course, but you owe it to yourself to hike the Cap d’Erquy, one of “Grands Sites de France”. There are pink sandstone cliffs here, 60 metres high and topped with a heather moor.
11. Cap Fréhel
And since you’ve come this far, you can push on around the coast to another of France’s “Grands Sites”. This savage and windy peninsula has lighthouses, towering cliffs an old fort, and is obligatory for anyone heading for Saint-Brieuc.
You can hike in colourful heather moorland to reach two lighthouses at the tip of the cape, the older of which dates to 1685 and was designed by an underling of the legendary Vauban.
Traipse up the 145 steps for a view you won’t soon forget, encompassing the Channel Islands and the coast for miles around.
And then there’s Fort la Latte, built and modified from 1300-1600, soaring 60 metres above the sea and lowering its drawbridge for visitors.
12. Regional Food
It’s no mystery why such a fuss is made about those scallops from the Bay of Saint-Brieuc; they are out of this world.
It’s worth braving the winter winds to be able to taste them fresh from the sea, and they come fried, marinated, stewed and are divine with crisp white wine.
The stocks are heavily regulated to the point that vessels can only fish them for 45 minutes a day, two days a week during the season.
And simply being in Brittany means that you have to go out for sweet crêpes or savoury galettes, which usually come with ham, egg and melted cheese.
Saint-Brieuc has a lot in its locker, but isn’t a beach destination.
The upside is that you’re minutes in the car for majestic sandy bays if the temperature suddenly shoots up in summer.
Pléneuf-Val-André is 20 kilometres to the east, but you’d have to travel a lot further than that to beat its beach: This is more than 2.5 kilometres long and when the tide goes out there’s a plain of sand that seems to stretch on to the horizon.
It’s little wonder that this bay was developed in the 19th century, when it was adorned with cultivated villas that remain in place today.
Even closer in the other direction is the lovely resort of Binic.
When tourism arrived here in the 20th century Binic already had everything it needed to shine; there’s a cute harbour where fishermen once set off for Newfoundland, but is now a sailing resort while on the other side of the harbour wall is a long, broad sweep of sandy beach.
This is one of two breathtaking bays a few steps from the knot of old streets with granite houses by the harbour.
Pull up at a seafood restaurant for lunch and then set off slowly on the Sentier des Douaniers, the historic smuggler-busting footpath along the water through pine forest, over granite outcrops and next to yet more astonishing beaches.
15. Summer Concerts
On Thursday and Friday nights on a stage at the covered market there’s a season of live music called Les Nocturnes.
These shows are booked by the town and are absolutely free.
They’re also for everyone, running the gamut from traditional Breton folk to World Music, and including jazz, rock, blues, dance music and almost anything else you can think of.
Most of the artists performing at Les Noctures are up-and-coming talents at the start of their careers, while the warm-up acts will be from around the Côtes-d’Armor region.