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In Brittany's walled city of Saint-Malo, France, getting lost is part of the lure. You're almost guaranteed to be drawn delightfully off course by an enticing quiet cobblestone alley, the warm sugary aroma of a creperie or a shop window beckoning passersby with artfully arranged French fashions. But if you ever find yourself truly disoriented by the maze of narrow medieval streets, just keep walking; the historic section of Saint-Malo is so small that you're never more than a few minutes from the thick stone ramparts that have protected the city for centuries. Follow these walls until you reach a gate to the outside world or a set of stairs leading up to the top of the ramparts, from which you can orient yourself by looking out over the city.
Known as the City of Corsairs, Saint-Malo made its fortune on the high seas through trade, exploration and, in some cases, privateering -- piracy that was sanctioned by the crown during times of war. These 17th- and 18th-century pirates, called corsairs, could capture enemy ships and keep both the vessel and anything on it for themselves, as long as they contributed a portion of the bounty to the king. Modern-day visitors can learn more about the dangerous but lucrative life of an 18th-century corsair at the Demeure de Corsaire, or Privateer's House.
Saint-Malo has long since outgrown the bounds of the original medieval city, and today, only about 1,000 people live permanently within the walls. The area is particularly popular with wealthy Brits and Parisians who keep summer residences there and with visitors who appreciate the convivial sidewalk cafes, historic plazas and bracing salt air.
Many cruisers skip Saint-Malo altogether in favor of a day trip to Mont Saint-Michel, the famous medieval abbey and village that loom over the surrounding tidal flats in many a French postcard. Saint-Malo is also a good jumping-off point for other explorations in the Brittany region; appealing stops include the oyster farms of Cancale, the pretty riverfront village of Dinan and the 19th-century beach resort of Dinard.
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Other Europe Cruise Ports:
Arnhem • Bilbao • Bodrum • Bremerhaven • Bucharest • Budapest • Cologne • Dresden • Hamburg • Heidelberg • Honfleur • Koblenz • Lyon • Newcastle • Passau • Ponta Delgada • Reykjavik • Rudesheim • Saint-Malo • Spitsbergen (Svalbard) • St. Petersburg • Stavanger • Stockholm • Strasbourg • Travemunde (Lubeck) • Visby • Yalta
Save space in your suitcase for locally crafted lace or pottery, or perhaps a Breton shirt with the horizontal stripes that fashion icons such as Audrey Hepburn and Coco Chanel made famous. If you're looking for edible souvenirs, salted butter caramel candies make for a sweet and easily transportable indulgence.
French is the official language. Many locals speak at least a little English, especially within the city walls, where tourists are common.
Currency & Best Way to Get Money
The currency in France is the euro. You can check the latest exchange rates at www.xe.com or www.oanda.com. There's an ATM in the old city at the Banque Populaire de L'ouest (3 Rue Porcon de la Barbinais).
Where You're Docked
Smaller ships dock along the Quai Saint-Louis, just a few steps from one of the entrances into the old city. Larger vessels must moor farther out and tender passengers to Cale de la Bourse, which is also within walking distance of the city walls.
Arriving passengers are within walking distance of just about everything -- restaurants, souvenir shops, a taxi stand and gates into the old city.
On Foot: The narrow streets of the walled district are perfect for strolling -- and so are the walls themselves. It only takes about 30 minutes to walk around the city atop the ramparts (not including stops for pictures).
By Bike: Rental bikes are available at Ty'Boost (49 Quai Duguay-Trouin, +33 2 99 56 47 18). A great spot for a ride is along Digue de Rochebonne, a wide path that borders the beach.
By Taxi: Taxis line up outside Porte Saint-Vincent. They can be hired for excursions to Mont Saint-Michel, the Normandy beaches, the village of Dinan and other popular attractions in the region. Reserve online in advance at, or call +33 (0)2 23 18 11 81.
By Car: While you don't need a vehicle if you want to stay within the city walls, renting a car can be a nice option if you want to drive along the coast and see Mont Saint-Michel at your own pace. Several car rental companies are clustered near the train station, including Avis, Hertz and Europcar. It helps to be able to drive a stick shift, as most available vehicles have manual transmissions.
By Bus: Buses are not permitted within the old city walls, but various companies provide transit around the more modern part of Saint-Malo and to other cities and towns in the region (such as Dinard, Rennes and Mont Saint-Michel). Some bus services pick up along Quai Saint-Vincent, while others must be boarded near the main train station. Companies include Keolis Saint-Malo, Illenoo and Tibus.
By Train: Le Petit Train takes tourists on a 30-minute ride through the walled city, departing approximately twice an hour from Porte Saint-Vincent. Saint-Malo's train station is outside the walls and offers service to Rennes, Dinan and other cities in the region.
Watch Out For
At low tide, visitors can walk to the fort on the island of Petit Be, but stay too long and you could be stranded on the island when the water rushes back in. Ask about the tide schedules at the tourist office before setting out.
Walk along the well-preserved ramparts that surround the oldest section of Saint-Malo to enjoy panoramic views of the medieval city and the English Channel. Keep an eye out for statues of famous historical figures such as Jacques Cartier (an explorer from the Brittany region who claimed Canada for France) and Bertrand-Francois Mahe de La Bourdonnais (a naval officer for the French East India Company). The entire circuit is a little over a mile, with several sets of stairs back to street level.
In the center of the medieval city is Saint-Vincent Cathedral, which dates to the 12th century but was significantly damaged in World War II. As cathedrals go, it's rather dark and plain, but the rose window in the front is a stunner. Keep an eye out for the tomb of Jacques Cartier.
The 15th-century Saint-Malo castle houses the Musee d'histoire de la Ville, or Museum of Local History. Though captions are in French, you can pick up an English-language leaflet to learn about the collection, which includes everything from pirate's chests and scale models of ships to paintings and sculptures by local artists.
The Demeure de Corsaire, or Privateer's House, offers a fascinating look at the life of the ship owners who made Saint-Malo wealthy in the 18th century. This house was used primarily for business (many wealthy privateers had more spacious homes for their families in the countryside), and it's fun to learn about the different purposes served by each room -- like the opulent lounge where the merchant would welcome potential buyers and the smaller, low-ceilinged room for top-secret negotiations.
Take a walk at low tide to the islands of Grand Be and Petit Be for views of the Saint-Malo skyline and to visit a fort that once protected the city. (Check whether the tide is coming in or going out before visiting.) The 18th-century writer and diplomat Chateaubriand (the famous beef dish was created for him) is buried on Grand Be, the larger island, while the 17th-century Fort du Petit Be is located on the smaller island.
Saint-Malo is a popular gateway for visits to Mont Saint-Michel, a medieval village perched on a small, rocky island surrounded by the highest tides in Europe. The prime attraction there is the Benedictine abbey at the peak of the island, which dates to the 13th century, but you'll also want to wander along the Grande Rue, or Main Street. There, you'll find shops, restaurants and a handful of museums with information on the history and construction of Mont Saint-Michel, as well as its tides and ecology. The village is about a 45-minute drive from Saint-Malo. If you're not up for climbing up steep streets and steps, you can still get excellent photos from the bridge leading to the village.
Been There, Done That
Indulge yourself with a massage, seaweed wrap, facial or thalassotherapy treatment at the luxurious Grand Hotel des Thermes. Book treatments a la carte, or choose from a wide selection of packages. Reservations are recommended.
Dinan is considered by many to be the prettiest medieval village in Brittany. Set on a hillside overlooking the Rance River, it's a town built for wandering, with its sturdy ramparts, picturesque gardens and neat little half-timbered houses dating back many centuries. Most cruise lines offer excursions to Dinan, but you can also take a local bus service from Place Saint-Vincent; the trip is less than an hour.
In Dinard, you can ooh and ahh over the fancy seafront villas built by American and British vacationers in the 19th century. Hit the beach or stroll along the water via the Promenade Clair de Lune. Dinard is just a 10-minute boat ride from Saint-Malo via Compagnie Corsaire.
Take a 50-minute train ride to Rennes, the capital of Brittany. On a warm, sunny day, wander through the expansive Thabor Gardens -- don't miss the magnificent rose garden -- and join the locals on a bench overlooking the fountains. Alternatively, explore the historic core of the city, keeping an eye out for timber-framed houses dating to the 15th through 17th centuries. If you're in need of a little culture, the Fine Arts Museum and the Museum of Brittany are well worth a visit. Check RailEurope.com for train tickets and prices.
A visit to Saint-Malo isn't complete without a stop at a creperie. Options include both galettes (which are made of buckwheat flour and topped with savory items such as eggs, ham and cheese) and crepes (made of regular wheat flour and featuring powdered sugar, chocolate, caramel or other sweets). Saint-Malo also has many good seafood restaurants, where local oysters, fish and mussels are on the menu. Accompany your meal with a glass of cider, a popular alcoholic drink in the Brittany region.
Enjoy sea views along with an indulgent lunch at Le Cap-Horn, where the fixed-price menus include options like oysters from nearby Cancale, roasted fillet of duckling and pan-seared fillet of bass. (Note: Vegetarians have very few choices here.) It's an excellent option for seafood lovers and those celebrating special occasions. (100 Boulevard Hebert, +33 (0)2 99 40 75 40)
Le Tourne-Pierre serves up a delicious menu of Breton favorites, including galettes, crepes, mussels and oysters. Along with the food, diners particularly appreciate the friendly staff; the owner has been known to invite patrons to watch how crepes are made. (4 rue Jacques Cartier, +33 (0)2 99 40 86 95)
You're in France, so why not indulge? Autour du Beurre
is the perfect place to do it. Located next to the Maison du Beurre (or House of Butter) is this little bistro, where you can sample seven or eight flavors of butter, each more indulgent than the next. Just remember to leave room for the main dish (which might include squid or pork shoulder) and, of course, dessert and cheese. (7 rue de l'Orme, +33 (0)2 23 18 25 81)
Before or after your visit to the cathedral, take time to stop at the nearby La Bergamote tea room for a light lunch, pastry or merely a cup of tea from its wide selection. Lunch options include galettes, salads and quiches. (3 place Jean de Chatillon, +33 (0)2 99 40 28 14)
France might not be the first place that comes to mind when you think of tapas, but you'll think differently after a visit to O Tapas Breton. Enjoy small portions of Cancale oysters, smoked or marinated fish, and charcuterie, presented on wooden cutting boards and paired with selections from the well-stocked cider cellar. (4 rue de l'Orme, +33 (0)2 99 48 19 85; open daily from 10:30 a.m., closed Wednesdays except in July and August)
Staying in Touch
Free Wi-Fi is available at the Saint-Malo tourism center on Esplanade Saint-Vincent and in various cafes around town. The Cyber'Com Internet cafe at 26 Bis Boulevard des Talards (outside the old city walls) offers computers for guest use (Monday, Tuesday and Friday 9 a.m. to noon and 1:30 p.m. to 6 p.m., Wednesday 1:30 p.m. to 6 p.m., Thursday 10 a.m. to noon and 1:30 p.m. to 7 p.m.)
Best for First-Timers: Many newbies to the region are eager to visit its predominant attraction, Mont Saint-Michel. All cruise lines offer at least one excursion to this imposing abbey. Tours last anywhere from five to seven hours, so allow a full day -- and be aware that visiting the site involves walking up many steep stairs and paths.
Best for Scenic Strolling: Take a half-day trip to the medieval village of Dinan, known for its beautiful churches, towers and half-timbered houses. Most excursions include a walking tour of the village as well as some free time. Some cruise lines pair a stop there with a trip to Dinard, a resort town with lavish Belle Epoque mansions overlooking the coast.
Best for Foodies: A few cruise lines offer a half-day excursion to Cancale, often called Brittany's oyster capital. After a scenic drive along the coast, you'll tour a working oyster farm and -- of course -- sample the wares.
For More Information
On the Web: Saint-Malo Tourist Office or French Government Tourist Office
Cruise Critic Message Boards: Europe
IndependentTraveler.com: Europe Travel Guide
--by Sarah Schlichter, Senior Editor of Cruise Critic's sister Web site, IndependentTraveler.com