We recently had the pleasure of being whisked away to Brittany in France where we fully got to grips with the top things to do in St-Malo. From riding around expansive hilltop parks on segways (or sedge-ways as Alex calls them) to sipping champagne in a cafe with a multitude of creepy puppets for company, small coastal St-Malo really surprised us in diverse activities that left us giddy.
This walled port city, perched precariously on a beach that gets battered by treacherous tides, harbours streets of cobbled laneways, tall shuttered ivory buildings, insane shellfish and hidden cocktail bars – basically a treasure trove of fun for us to get stuck into.
10 things to do in St-Malo: A perfect weekend break
1. Get a ferry over to St Malo
With slight fear in our bellies, we boarded our Brittany Ferry on a Friday night and said a prayer for calm seas. After our experience abandoning ship in Croatia, we were slightly apprehensive about spending a solid 12 hours aboard a boat without knowing how the sea conditions were going to be treating us. And we couldn’t exactly jump off like in Croatia, unless we fancied swimming to Guernsey.
Brittany Ferries is a great way to travel over to France, especially if you want to take your car over for a road-trip. They operate out of three UK ports, including Portsmouth (the closest port to Bristol), and sail to seven destinations in Spain and France. There are a variety of different cabins you can book and they all come at different rates according to the cabin standard – we had a twin room with just enough room to swing a cat and a porthole to view the expansive ocean swallowing up the distant cliffs of England.
With a bit of shopping on board, a cinema, a few bars and cafes, and a fancy restaurant (I call it fancy as there was an old man playing a piano for the diners. Fancy.), you have more than enough to entertain yourself in the evening. Before you know it, the prosseco is gone and your belly is fully of delicious roast salmon. To bed, and with any luck, wake up in St-Malo!
2. Explore before the crowds appear
With a distinctively creepy wake-up call of Brittany music playing over the loudspeakers, we got showered and changed in our en-suite rooms before we dropped anchor. Really well rested and fresh, we docked and walked the brief 20 minutes to the gates of St-Malo.
On arrival, flat, white skies washed out the light and gave a slightly eerie aura as we entered the citadel. Little did we realise that it was such a ghost town because it was ridiculously early in the morning, but now on reflection, we’re real glad we got to see the city before everyone finally hauled themselves out of bed to clutter the streets.
Past a silent old-fashioned carousel, we entered into St-Malo and trotted over cobblestones to a café for our caffeine injection. Friendly waiters welcomed us with flourish at Café de Louest and we slowly woke up along with the residents. I was physically restrained from charging into the quaintest bakery for a fresh pastry as we were about to embark on a foodie tour of St-Malo.
3. Take a short Foodie Tour of St-Malo
Hey, we all love food and so a foodie tour shouldn’t be too hard to get excited about. But did you know that St-Malo is famed for its salted caramel? Its salted fresh butter? Its harvested scallops? And that there’s such a thing as butter cake?? Hopefully you’re drooling already as it was all as good as it sounds.
We met Corrine, a Brit who had escaped to this seaside town, who took us around the quaint cobbled streets, winding us between the houses to hidden nooks and crannies where we discovered St-Malo’s foodie scene.
A top thing to do in St-Malo is to see fresh Kouign Amnn being made. We saw some being rolled by an exceptional French baker who was actually wearing a striped top (we appreciated the authenticity) and got to sample the fresh cake straight from the oven. I also got to taste the famous Bordier butter that is championed by chefs all around France, especially in Paris, and got a pot of salted butter caramel which I have had to hide so I don’t eat it straight out the jar.
As well as dining on all the treats, we got to know a bit of St-Malo’s history. In the 14th Century, it claimed itself to be an independent republic shaking off connections with the rest of France and charged any English ships passing up the Channel. Foreign ships were pillaged by St-Malo’s corsairs (official pirates) in the 17th/18th century, which made the city’s sailor merchants incredibly wealthy. So basically, St-Malo was were the French pirates used to hang out back in the day – not such a quaint seaside town now?
4. Pick up some stripes or a fisherman rain mac
As small St-Malo seems a large volume of tourists, from both England and Paris, the retail industry is booming. Shops line the streets and have many a Breton strip top or adorable fisherman raincoat hung out the front.
Pick up some pick n mix at the sweet shops, peruse the ceramic bowls, indulge in some glorious ice cream and pop into the quirky shops. You can while away a few hours browsing the stores in the walls of la citadelle, and don’t forget to pop your head into the spice shop; an apothecary of spices stacked up on sky-high shelves. If you want to explore 12 different kinds of vanilla, then this is the place to do it.
5. Eat your body weight in crêpes
A visit to St-Malo shouldn’t be without a taste of famous breton galette, aka crêpes. These savoury crêpes are made from blé noir buckwheat flour meaning hungry gluten-free visitors do not have a thing to worry about. They’re light and crispy, and although they look thin they sure pack a punch and are a filling meal.Try a Breton crêpe with cheese, egg and veggies for a brunch that really hits the spot.
We were served the traditional ice cold cider with our pancakes at Le Crops de Garde, and finished off our feasting with a sweet crêpe. Ice cream, cream, chocolate sauce – decadent but impossible to say no!
6. Champagne at Café La Java
When you want to sip down a sophisticated beverage in a famous setting, be sure to head to St-Malo’s quirky cafe, Café la Java.
Order a freshly popped glass of champagne at this eccentric bolthole of puppets and dolls. Vintage posters cover what little space you can see of the walls, and thousands of figures stare resolutely down at you. Slightly off-putting, but distract yourself by perching on a swing at the bar or in a wrought iron bench for two.
7. Scoot around on segways
Now I’ve never tried a segway before and i was quite apprehensive about getting on one – mainly for the ‘cool’ factor. I’d seen so many on trips away and scoffed at them, but I ate my words once I got to grips with my trusty two-wheeled steed.
Tilt forwards to go, tilt back to slow, push the handlebars to the left to turn left and push them right to turn (you guessed it) right – you can soon pick up a good amount of speed and zip past any judging eyes! Alex was beyond stoked to ride one as she can’t ride a bike and was worried it would be a failed mission. Thankfully she couldn’t keep her segway once the trip was over.
For 1.5 hours, you can grab a group of friends and take off on your seaways to far-flung corners of the citadel. Touring by segway is a top thing to do in St-Malo, and it was actually really useful as we got to head up to the hilltop park really fast. We got panoramic views of the bay below and Plage du Sillon – France’s third most beautiful beach – all in a speedy rev of our segways. If you have more time, heading up the the park and along the beach would make for a brilliant walk – it would certainly walk off a few crêpes!
8. Dine over the rooftops of St-Malo at Le 5 Restaurant
When the sun begins to set and hunger strikes, you must head to a restaurant which will serve only the best seafood. As St-Malo’s industry (prior to tourism) was dominated by fishing, they’ve had centuries to perfect their seafood dishes and sculpt delicious flavours into their fish menus.
We headed up to the top floor of Le Chateaubriand Hotel to a small restaurant, Restaurant Le 5, that overlooks the rooftops of St-Malo and the sea beyond the fort walls.
Dine on a real fishy fruit de mer (seafood) where it is authentically served pretty fresh from the sea. It was definitely an eye-opening experience as I’ve never had to get to grips with so much shell and really get stuck in at extracting tasty morsels – a pretty intense starter, but hey, I tried snails for my first time!
The main was an exquisite fish dish with fragrant foam, matched with a 2014 Menetou-Salon, and it was followed by a myriad of teeny little desserts. A beautifully put together three course dinner.
9. Enjoy a cocktail in St-Malo’s hidden city secrets – Bar l’Alchimiste
I do enjoy a cocktail, in case you haven’t noticed, and so when we found this cocktail bar down an alleyway nearly besides our hotel, we rejoiced. Delicious drinks AND we don’t have to walk far to get home?? Sorted.
Bar l’Alchimiste is a dark and strange watering hole with pretty chairs outside on the grey cobbled alleyway. Outside, you can enjoy a tall glass of Kir Royale – a refreshing French cocktail of crème de cassis topped with champagne – and take in the fresh sea air. This bar gets busier in the evenings, but for an al fresco drink in the warm Breton air, head here for a brilliant cocktail.
10. Stay at Le Chateaubriand Hotel
We had the pleasure of staying at the central hotel, Le Chateaubriand Hotel. Tucked away off the main strip when you enter the walls of St-Malo, this tall hotel boasts a gorgeous entrance of flowers and cacti, and a conservatory of comfortable chairs and plush fabrics.
With 20 rooms facing the sea, we managed to snag a room with a view over the fort walls – it felt brilliant to open those wide windows and get a fresh breeze coming straight off the sea.
St-Malo is a fantastic port town to jump start your trip in France. A weekend is all you need to fully explore all it’s hidden secrets and sample the local cuisine and champers, but if you have a bit more time then the wider region is definitely worth an explore!
Grab your car, load up with road-trip supplies and catch the ferry down to St-Malo this summer – get a cool-box and bring me back some of that darn good salty seaweed Bordier butter. Bread and butter never tasted as good as in St-Malo!
Have we tempted you to Brittany’s little seaside city?