The first time I visited Mont-Saint-Michel, I very nearly wrote it off for good and never returned. It was mid-afternoon during high tourist season and the main road up to the abbey was so crammed with people it felt like a cattle chute. The cheap tourist trinkets had taken over the storefronts and any magic or majesty the Mont-Saint-Michel could have was buried beneath the trappings of mass tourism. I didn’t even make it to the abbey at the top.
The second time I visited Mont-Saint-Michel, I was with a dear friend and devoted fan of the place. (He convinced me to give it another try…and to visit the abbey.) We went on a windy day in winter when tourist traffic was sparse and it felt like we had the whole abbey to ourselves when we got inside. It was quiet, freezing, haunting, and overwhelmingly magnificent.
Since then, I have visited Mont-Saint-Michel more times than I can count, in just every possible circumstance. I’ve seen it thick with tourists in mid-summer and almost deserted after a snowstorm in January. I’ve watched the sun rise over it early morning and witnessed the lights go out at midnight. And I have come up with what I think is the perfect way to visit it.
1 – Go early. Arrive before 8:30 if you can to avoid the hordes start pouring from tour buses shortly thereafter. Walk up a sparsely filled main street listening to (and being able to hear!) your footfalls on cobblestones and the echoes of other sounds reverberating off the walls. See the buildings and houses before they get all tarted up with displays of magnets, plastic swords, tea towels and boxes of butter cookies. Wind your way up and up to the entrance of the Abbey and get in when it opens at 9:30. Before the crowds. Before the lines.
2 – Opt for the audio guide. The audio guide (3 euros extra) is very good, provides just enough information (not too much, not too little), and lets you meander through the abbey at your own pace. (I’ve had spotty luck with the free guided tours that come with the entrance fee. Some have been great. Others have been tedious, and there was one in English led by a guide whose accent was so thick that even I couldn’t understand her…and I speak fluent French.)
3 – Look up. Look around things. Investigate corners. Mont-Saint-Michel is all angles of stone, sea, sky and light. Every column, every cornice is a work of art. In the abbey church, check out the side chapels, with their medieval altarpieces (my favorite is an alabaster triptych from the 15th century which is wonderfully macabre and Hieronymous Bosch-like).
4 – Take your time in the abbey. Go back if you want to; I recently learned you can reuse your entrance ticket to get back in anytime on the same day.
5 – Follow the ramparts back to the entrance. This keeps you high and away from the tourist-clogged main street and offers a stunning view of the Normandy coast.
6 – Walk around the base of the island if it’s low tide. (Be sure to wear good shoes.) Silt, sand, salt water and an incredible sense of scale.
7 – Get the he** out. Lingering only exposes you to the unpleasantness of mass tourism, and the later it gets, the more tourists arrive. Leave while you’re still enchanted.
For information on times, travel to and from Mont-Saint-Michel, and other practical information, check out these two sites:
Mont-Saint-Michel Tourist Office
Mont-Saint-Michel Official Abbey Website