The haunt of pirates for hundreds of years, the “Cité Corsaire” has always done things its own way: In the 1590s it even declared itself an independent republic.
Saint-Malo is still defended by its historic ramparts, while the tidal islands next to the city continue to be fortified by 17th century bastions.
Step through the cobblestone streets within the walls and see the lavish homes of the people who got rich from privateering in the 17th and 18th centuries.
Saint-Malo also has much to tell about August 1944, when it was liberated from the Germans.
On warm summer days the boundless fine sand of the Plage du Sillon will be calling you name.
Lets explore the best things to do in Saint-Malo:
1. Saint-Malo Walls
The ramparts protect the entirety of the old part of Saint-Malo and from a circuit of 1.75 kilometres.
They were started in the 1100s, updated to combat new military technology in the 1600s and then expanded again up to the mid-18th century.
When you do the walk be sure to have some literature with you, because every gate, bastion and view has a story to tell.
Go up for panoramas of the sea, the Grand Bé island, Fort National, Dinard across the water and the magnificent granite homes of the city’s wealthy ship-owners, and come down if you see a shop or crêperie that takes your fancy.
Grande’Porte on the eastern side is flanked by two chunky bastions and guards the narrow finger of land that links the walled city what are now Saint-Malo’s suburbs.
2. Old Saint-Malo
With grey granite as the their material, Saint-Malo’s houses have a distinguished air that borders on severe, but is always beautiful.
The “Intra-Muros” district is all cobblestone streets with bars, restaurants, upmarket shops and crêperies, and exploring is the name of the game.
The sense of the city’s venerability is so strong that it almost seems impossible that most of Saint-Malo needed to be restored after 1944. It’s a difficult task to choose; the most picturesque are in old Saint-Malo, but Rue Jacques Cartier is gorgeous.
Here on the east side of the walled city the houses are built into the defences and the ground floor is one long string of cafes and restaurants.
3. Plage du Sillon
One of those dynamic beaches in a constant state of flux, Plage du Sillon is three kilometres of fine sand beginning just north of the walled city.
On the edge is a great embankment, built at the turn of the 20th century and spanning more than a kilometre and a half.
This makes for easy strolling at any time of year, to work up an appetite and see the kites at low tide.
On gentle summer days families come for the smooth sand and can bathe in the shallow rock pools on the western edge by Fort National.
Then on blustery winter days the sea will crash against the embankments at high tide.
4. Château de Saint-Malo
In the northeast nook of the walls is the castle built by the Dukes of Brittany from the 1400s to ensure their ownership of the city, now Saint-Malo’s city hall.
The castle loomed over the city as a reminder of the authority of the dukes, and then the King of France after unification in the 16th century.
The Grand Donjon has the best vistas of Saint-Malo from the platform on its roof.
This building houses a museum about the history of the city and surrounding “Malouin” region, visiting some of the intriguing personalities from this part of France, like the writer Chateaubriand and the explorer Jacques Cartier.
5. Grand Aquarium Saint-Malo
A quick bus ride from the walled city will land you at Saint-Malo’s aquarium, a high-profile day out that is updated almost every new season.
For those holidaying with little guys it’s a rainy day attraction that also ties in neatly with the city’s seafaring history.
You can’t talk about the animals without mentioning the 360° shark aquarium, which was added in 2011 and holds 600,000 litres.
In another tank the wreck of a historic galleon is a home for white-tip and black -tip sharks.
Elsewhere the aquarium synthesises environments from around the world, so the mangrove has piranhas, four-eyed fish and turtles and the tropical tank has coral and colourful species like clownfish and surgeonfish.
The district next to Plage du Sillon, northeast of the walled city, grew quickly in the late 19th century furnishing it with many stunning Belle Époque villas.
These were built by wealthy holidaymakers, who gave free rein to their sense of whimsy.
With an itinerary you could have a little walking tour of this leafy neighbourhood, stopping to see fabulous houses like Villa l’Argonne on Boulevard Chateaubriand, which has a stunning octagonal tower and a pattern of alternating glazed and red bricks.
Then Villa Remember on Boulevard Hébert is in an exaggerated Flemish style, with a crow-stepped gable and stone finial.
7. Fort National
The engineering mastermind Vauban drew up plans for this forward bastion on the Îlette rock at the western end of Plage du Sillon.
It bears his tell-tale star configuration, and was the final piece in Saint-Malo’s defensive puzzle, conceived to protect the city from the British navy.
It did just this job in 1693 when it helped to fend off an Anglo-Dutch attack.
Much later it became a makeshift prison for the German forces in the last days of their occupation in 1944. The fortress is open in the summer for tours, and is a perfect document of 17th-century military design.
You’ll know when you come for a look around because the French tricolour will be flying.
8. Grand Bé
You also have to wait for low tide to access Grand Bé, another islet a few strides from the ramparts.
In the Second World War rocky little islands such as this became a useful spot location for German gun emplacements.
When the Americans liberated Saint-Malo Grand Bé fell quickly, but it was weeks before the Alet peninsula at the mouth of the Rance River would surrender.
Many come to Grand Bé to pay their respects to the romantic writer Chateaubriand, whose grave faces the sea as he had requested 20 years before he died.
The Sentier des Douaniers (Custom’s Officers’ Trail) is exactly what it says it is: A coastal footpath devised in the 1700s to foil smugglers.
If you wanted you could start from Saint-Malo and walk all the way to Brest in Finistère.
But you may need to allow 25 days to walk these 400 kilometres, so it’s not exactly a day trip! Instead you could pass a memorable day hiking the Côte d’Émeraude (Emerald Coast), on either side of Saint-Malo.
You’ll encounter pale windswept beaches, granite cliffs, meadows flecked with wildflowers, oyster and mussel beds and many bunkers and pillboxes from the Second World War.
10. Parc de la Briantais
On high ground by the Rance Estuary is a sumptuous English park that once formed the grounds of the Château de la Briantais.
The estate belonged to rich ship-owners, who built a baroque mansion here in 1666, and the eerie but handsome ruins of this building are still visible in the park.
A newer château from the 19th century is still going strong as a cultural centre, with art exhibitions and concerts for jazz and classical music.
Visit for meditative walks on avenues dotted with sculptures, and to see those exhilarating views.
You can see Saint-Malo, Dinard and the entirety of the Rance Estuary.
11. Les Malouinières
Many people made large fortunes from privateering from the 16th to the 19th centuries, and in the vicinity of Saint-Malo are five lavish houses that the ship-owners left behind.
All are open to the public to different degrees in summer, and they’re known as “Malouinières”, which derives from the name of the city.
One of the most accessible is Puits Sauvage, which has been in the same family for more than 200 years.
On a self-guided tour you’ll cross the dainty French parterre and see stables, dovecotes, oratory, bakery and a gigantic glass roof that measures 260 square metres and sustains a marvellous cactus garden.
12. Musée Jacques Cartier
The only surviving house belonging to the man who discovered Canada, the Manoir de Limoëlou was Cartier’s summer residence in the years after he returned from his voyage.
The interior has been redecorated with period furniture and the various rooms now have the same function they would have filled when Cartier lived here.
Those new to his feats will get the lowdown here on a guided tour, during which you get to see some of the navigation instruments that Cartier used.
Tours are in French only, but there’s an English guidebook and the museum’s film also has an English language option.
13. Mémorial 39/45
As we mentioned, it took weeks for German resistance to be broken at Saint-Malo, and they dug in at this anti-aircraft bunker in the Cité d’Alet, set in the courtyard of a 17th-century fortress that had also been designed by Vauban.
Memorial 39/45 is an exhibition that recreates the war years in Saint-Malo, and is set in the vast bunker that measures more than 500 square metres, with three levels and ten rooms.
You’ll be thrown into this dark chapter of the city’s past with the help of authentic documents, weapons, uniforms and the specially-made historical film “The Battle of Saint-Malo”.
Across from Saint-Malo, on left bank of the Rance, Dinard has been given the epithet the “Nice of the North” for its stately atmosphere.
On the way you may be intrigued to know that the bridge that crosses the Rance estuary also houses Europe’s first tidal power plant, built in 1966 and still working.
Once you get to Dinard you’ll be dazzled by the luxurious mansions, from the late 19th century when the resort became “the” place to be seen in the summer season.
Many of these palatial homes are now listed and can be seen from the Promenade du Clair de Lune, which meanders along with coastline, has views of Saint-Malo and is beautifully lit on summer evenings.
15. Breton Cuisine
Seafood should be high on your culinary agenda in Saint-Malo.
Cancale, Brittany’s oyster capital, is minutes east of the city.
Cancale’s oyster fame goes back to Roman times when they were eaten by the Julius Caesar’s legions, while Louis XIV had them expressly delivered from this town every day.
And it may be obvious, but the crêpe is almost synonymous with Brittany.
Have them sweet, or try the savoury alternative, galettes, which are made with buckwheat flour.
Another Breton speciality, cider is also big in Saint-Malo; it’s sweet and acidic, with a light fizz and is the dream partner for galettes with ham and cheese.