In northwest France Brittany is a region with an identity, landscape and even a language, all of its own. It is one of the six Celtic Nations and has a maritime climate that can sometimes make it feel more like Ireland than mainland France.
On the coast the scenery is at turns awe-inspiring and quaint, but always beautiful. At its most epic there are gigantic headlands lashed by the Atlantic and cliffs like you’ve never seen on the Pink Granite Coast. We could be here all day if we had to list the historic towns and villages around the region, some so diligently-cared for that they have barely changed at all in centuries.
Lets explore the best things to do in Brittany:
1. Coastal Scenery
The region pushes out boldly into the Atlantic and has a physical geography so raw and beautiful that you could spend years visiting the oceanfront around Côtes-d’Armor, Finistère, Ille-et-Vilaine and Morbihan, and feel like you’ve never come close to seeing every heart-rending sight.
Rightfully celebrated is the Pink Granite coast in Côtes-d’Armor, where the rocks have a mysterious tint that makes them seem not quite natural.
The Sentier des Douaniers trail, and the granite lighthouse at Ploumanac’h will take your breath away.
Honourable mentions also have to go to Pointe du Grouin near Saint-Malo, Pointe de Pen-Hir in the Parc Naturel Régional d’Armorique and Cap Fréhel together with the redoubtable Fort la Latte.
2. Prehistoric Monuments
Anyone who read Asterix books as a child will know that the forests of Brittany’s interior are littered with prehistoric menhirs, dolmens and cairns.
These were erected 7,000 years ago, and sit either alone on a hillside or in woodland, or as part of highly-significant complexes that have left generations of inheritors and visitors scratching their heads in amazement.
The village of Carnac in the Morbihan department is a kind of El Dorado for prehistory nuts, with more than 3,000 monumental stones, the largest collection in the world.
But this is just the gateway for your trip through Neolithic Brittany, with loads more to see, including cairns at Barnenez and Gavrinis, and a stunning passage grave at Roche aux Fées.
It isn’t sacrilegious to draw comparisons between the old part of this port city with nearby Mont-Saint-Michel.
Saint-Malo’s medieval walls are majestic, and you can walk along every inch of the ramparts and either look down at the labyrinthine streets or out over the cinematic beaches to the north and west.
On clear evenings you’ll be overwhelmed by the sight of the sun-setting behind the solemn grey stone buildings of the old-town.
Check out the tomb of the romantic writer, Chateaubriand, and when the weather’s good beaches like Plage du Sillon, with its rocky islands and clear, lagoon-like pools are a good bet.
Even if the water might be a bit chilly for swimming.
4. Huelgoat Forest, Finistère
In the hilly inland part of the Parc d’Amorique is the lakeside village of Huelgoat swathed in woodland that conceals a wondrous natural rock formations and caves.
If you pop into the village’s Office de Tourisme you can get hold of route maps, for hikes ranging from anything between hour-long circular tours to intrepid quests through the mossy deciduous forest.
Locally the best walk begins behind the old watermill on the lake, leading into a world of bizarre and outsized granite boulders.
Take the steep stairway down into the Grotte du Diable, a cave 10 metres below the lake, with walls lined by these rounded rocks.
5. Old Centre of Dinan
Even in a region lauded for its picturesque towns, Dinan stands out.
Most people have it down as the prettiest in Brittany, and the upper part, within the walls, has cobblestone streets with houses dating as far back as the 1200s.
As you step down Rue de la Cordonnerie you’ll be wondering whether you’re actually still in the 21st century! The upper floors of these rickety half-timbered buildings hang almost perilously over the street.
The river port is just as atmospheric, with restaurants by the quay and a 40-metre-high railway viaduct to add drama.
Make for the 13th-century castle to begin a tour of the ramparts or to learn about the history of this wonderful town.
6. Oysters, Cider and Crêpes
For seafood-lovers Brittany is the place to be.
Order a plateau de fruits de mer and you’ll be presented with a mountain of shellfish and crustaceans accompanied by slices of crusty bread and melted butter.
Unique gastronomic experiences abound in the region, like the waterside oyster market in Cancale, where you can eat them there and then.
Cider is the regional drink, and in Finistère there’s a designated Route du Cidre, through the AOC Cournouaille cider region.
And finally, you can hardly make it down a single Breton street without finding a crêperie.
These will produce the classic crêpes we all know and love, but also galettes, buckwheat pancakes usually with a savoury filling like fried egg.
One of France’s “plus beaux villages”, Locronan blows everyone away.
It’s a tiny place, with only several hundred inhabitants and a totally pedestrianised old centre that is a true delight to discover.
If it feels a bit like a film set to you then it will come as no shock that several French movies and TV shows have been shot here.
The largest and most palatial homes in Locronan are from the 1700s, belonging to the owners of sail-weaving businesses who did roaring trade not just with the French navy but also the Spanish and British.
8. Quimper Cathedral
Like many of Brittany’s churches this marvellous gothic building is a real joy to investigate, but it also has a few quirks that make it special.
One is the way it tapers in the middle, to adapt to its natural setting.
That was to avoid a swampy bit of land when it was built in the 13th-century.
The cathedral is Quimper’s most beautiful piece of heritage and is a French National Monument.
Those marvellous spires are 75 metres in height and stand on either side of a sculpture of Gradlon, the semi-mythical 5th-century King of Cournouille.
9. Remparts de Vannes
In the Breton War of Succession in the 14th century Vannes came under siege four times from both the English and French forces.
Its bloody past has endowed it with a complete system of defences, which enclose an old quarter with half-timbered houses and add charm and a sense of authority to the town.
Nowhere is this truer than at the Jardin des Remparts on the east side of the walls.
It’s an elegant formal garden with topiaries and flowerbeds through which the River Marle flows, all with the medieval curtain and towers setting the scene.
There’s a market on Tuesday and Saturday mornings at Place des Lices, a square that hosted jousting tournaments in the middle ages.
10. Île de Batz, Roscoff
Opposite the town of Roscoff, once a haven for pirates and smugglers, is an island that is a little slice of rural paradise.
The ferry takes about 15 minutes and you should spend at least half a day on Batz seeing the coast and countryside.
Many people rent bicycles for the day and pedal off along coastal trails next to small beaches with nothing more than farmland on the foreshore.
The island catches the warm currents of the gulf stream, so many of the fields are dedicated to potato farming, and they say that Batz potatoes are the finest you can eat.
The warmer air also nourishes the island’s botanical garden created at the turn of the century with 2,000 species, like palm trees that are normally found at far more southern locations.
11. Brittany’s Canals
The region’s countryside is a laced with a system of canals that totals 600 kilometres.
This of course opens up a world of possibilities for outdoor tourism.
On the Canal de Nantes à Brest in the south and the Canal d’Ille-et-Rance in the north you’ll be able to hire a narrowboat.
You won’t need a licence for one of these as they travel at a glacial speed, giving you the chance to take in the historic sights on the banks and 19th-century engineering that made these waterways possible.
On land you could follow the “Voies Vertes”, where the canal’s towpaths are now walking trails, with a gentle slope that makes them great for even the littlest members of the family.
Another village selected as one of the most beautiful in France, Rochefort-en-Terre in Morbihan transports you back at least a century in time.
It’s not just the historic houses, but the entire structure of the old medieval village is still in place: The well and drinking troughs are still here and now decorated with geraniums.
Indeed the whole of Rochefort is alive with florid colour in the summer, with flowerboxes on windowsills and wisteria creeping up the granite walls.
The village took shape over several centuries so there’s also an arresting blend of styles, from rustic half-timbered houses to stone renaissance palaces with conical roofs on their turrets.
On summer nights the entire village is illuminated, as if couldn’t get any more romantic!
13. Château de Fougères
Not far from the border with Normandy the small town of Fougères has a brooding fortress that rises up sharply on the western section of the walls.
It’s considered one of the greatest castles in Europe, and is a compendium of historical military architecture.
The castle as we recognise it first went up in the 1100s, but there were a host of reinforcements and additions over the coming four centuries.
The towers are in great shape considering their age, and you can enter and climb three of them.
The best of these is probably Mélusine Tower, built in the 1300s by Raoul II, the Count of Eu.
From the 17th to the 19th century this port was one of the busiest in Morbihan, and saw some pretty momentous events.
One was the arrival of Benjamin Franklin in 1776 to request French assistance in the War of Independence.
The port doesn’t handle that kind of traffic today and instead is a charming spot for a walk in the sunshine, with half-timbered houses dating to the 1400s, lots of boutiques and art galleries, and restaurants with outdoor seating next to the water.
After pottering around Saint-Goustan you can cross the medieval bridge to visit the town Auray, which holds a fantastic market on Mondays.
15. Zoo and Botanical Garden of Branféré, Le Guerno
Few zoos will have locations as dignified as this one in Morbihan: The park is set in grounds of a château from the mid-19th century.
In the early 1900s the estate’s owner was inspired to create a game reserve where the animals are able to roam free and pulled in zoologists to work out how to bring his idea to life.
It opened to the public in the 60s and has evolved into this popular attraction.
There are 1,000 animals, with zebras, hippos, antelopes and yaks, in 150 hectares of carefully-designed parkland that includes waterfalls and prairies.
If you like to see zoos that create a suitable environment for their animals then you won’t be disappointed here.