Saint-Malo: Brittany’s must-see Corsair City

Nestled on the north coast of Brittany, Saint-Malo is a must-see destination that has captivated the hearts of visitors for centuries. Known as the “Corsair City”, this medieval port town offers a unique blend of historic charm, natural beauty and maritime atmosphere. From its majestic ramparts to its golden beaches, Saint-Malo seduces travelers in search of adventure, history and relaxation. Let’s take a quick look at the history of this world-famous city before setting off to discover this tourist destination, which welcomes over a million visitors to Brittany every summer.

History of Saint-Malo

Saint-Malo’s origins date back to Celtic times, when Armorican peoples settled in the region. After the Roman conquest, the town became known as Aletum. At the time, it was an important port city and a strategic military base for the Romans in their conquest of Brittany. At that time, the rock on which Saint-Malo would be built was empty: further south was the Gallic town of Aleth, now known as Saint-Servan. A small settlement developed on the rock in the mid-7th century, when the bishop of Aleth chose it as his residence. In the aftermath of the French Revolution, seaside tourism made its appearance in the corsair town. Until 1824, the port of Saint-Malo was one of the most important in France. During the Second World War, the town was fortified by the Germans. On liberation in 1944, Intra-Muros was bombed and 80% of the fortified town was destroyed. The town was rebuilt in the old style, the ramparts having been spared. In 1967, the communes of Saint-Malo, Saint-Servan and Paramé merged. Today, Saint-Malo is a must-see summer tourist destination, as well as a commercial and yachting port.

The port of Saint-Malo at the foot of the Corsair City
The port of Saint-Malo at the foot of the Corsair City

Famous people and privateers

Saint-Malo has long been a bastion of maritime adventure and intrepidity. Over the centuries, the fortified town has witnessed the birth and prosperity of many notable personalities, including the famous privateers who plied the seas:

  • Robert Surcouf (1773-1827) – King of the privateers

Robert Surcouf is undoubtedly one of Saint-Malo’s most emblematic figures. Born into a family of sailors, he quickly embarked on his maritime adventure. An intrepid captain and fine tactician, Surcouf was feared by the British and respected by his men. He became famous for his daring catches against enemy ships during the Napoleonic Wars. His capture of the “Kent”, a British ship much larger and better armed than his own, became legendary. His fame earned him the nickname “King of the Privateers”. Robert Surcouf has become a symbol of Malouin resistance in the face of adversity.

  • René Duguay-Trouin (1673-1736) – The conquering strategist

René Duguay-Trouin is another famous privateer from Saint-Malo. As a young man, he embarked on his first sea expedition, during which he was captured and enslaved by the Spanish. But this only strengthened his resolve. Thereafter, he led daring campaigns in South America and Asia, with the authorization of the French king Louis XIV, who resided at Versailles. Duguay-Trouin is best known for having captured the city of Rio de Janeiro in 1711, demonstrating his talent as a conquering strategist. His bravery and exploits earned him royal knighthood, making him a legendary figure in the medieval port city.

  • Jacques Cartier (1491-1557) – The visionary explorer

Among the city’s most emblematic figures, it’s impossible not to mention Jacques Cartier. This visionary was the driving force behind French exploration in North America. In 1534, he undertook his first voyage to the New World, discovering Newfoundland and the Gulf of St. Lawrence. The following year, he returned and explored the St. Lawrence River, paving the way for French colonization in Canada. Jacques Cartier embodies the spirit of adventure and discovery that still drives Saint-Malo today.

  • Chateaubriand (1768-1848) – The writer and politician

François-René de Chateaubriand, a major figure of literary Romanticism, found the spellbinding landscapes of Saint-Malo an unrivalled source of inspiration. Born in the old town, his novels and memoirs are full of detailed descriptions of the Breton coast, the raging storms of the Atlantic, and the rugged beauty of the cliffs facing the ocean. One of his most famous works, “Les Mémoires d’Outre-Tombe,” has a special relationship with Saint-Malo. In this monumental autobiographical work, Chateaubriand looks back on his childhood in the city and his nostalgic memories. He describes landscapes with unbridled passion and tenderly depicts the streets of the city where he grew up.

Saint-Malo National Fort, opposite Intra-Muros
Saint-Malo National Fort, opposite Intra-Muros

The ramparts of Intra-Muros

Saint-Malo’s ramparts date back to the 12th century, when the city began building fortifications to protect itself from invasion. They were built gradually over the centuries, with regular improvements and extensions to meet external threats. As a strategic port on the Emerald Coast, Saint-Malo played a crucial role in maritime activities, including piracy and trade. The ramparts were therefore essential to protect the precious goods entering and leaving the city. The imposing stone walls, bastions and towers create a striking image of Saint-Malo’s past power and importance as a stronghold. They form a continuous circuit stretching for around two kilometers. They encircle the old town, also known as Intra-Muros, creating a timeless atmosphere. A stroll along the ramparts offers spectacular panoramic views of the ocean, golden beaches, bustling port and cobbled streets of the old town. The narrow streets of Intra-Muros are packed with charming boutiques, quaint cafés and restaurants serving mouth-watering local specialties. Street performers, musicians and craftsmen all contribute to the lively, warm atmosphere that reigns in the historic city.

The beaches of Saint-Malo

Saint-Malo offers a wide range of beaches, from vast stretches of fine sand to intimate coves and steep cliffs. Beaches are dotted along the coast, allowing visitors to choose their favorite setting for a relaxing day by the sea. The city’s beaches also offer a multitude of activities to entertain tourists of all ages. The more adventurous can take advantage of the waves for surfing, windsurfing or kite-surfing. Many local clubs offer courses for beginners, allowing everyone to get to grips with these exciting water sports.

1. Sillon beach: Sillon beach is undoubtedly one of Saint-Malo’s most famous beaches. Stretching over 3 kilometers, this sandy beach offers holidaymakers plenty of space to relax and enjoy the crystal-clear waters of the English Channel. Lined with restaurants, bars and cafés, the Sillon beach is the ideal place for a sunny day out with family or friends. You can also admire the breathtaking view over the ramparts of the old town, adding a touch of history to your seaside experience.

2. Bon-Secours beach: Bon-Secours beach is nestled close to the city’s historic center. Although smaller than Sillon beach, it nevertheless offers a unique charm with its colorful beach huts and friendly atmosphere. It’s the perfect place for travelers looking for tranquility and privacy, yet only a few steps from the city’s bustling streets.

3. Éventail beach: If you’re looking for a wilder, more unspoilt beach, Éventail beach is for you. Located to the east of the ramparts, this beach is surrounded by cliffs and offers panoramic sea views. Access to this cove can be a little tricky, but once you’re there, you’ll be rewarded by the natural beauty and peaceful ambience of the place.

4. Rochebonne beach: Rochebonne beach is another Saint-Malo gem, particularly popular with families. With its fine sand and shallow waters, it’s the ideal place for children to have fun in complete safety. Sports enthusiasts will also find plenty to do here, thanks to the many water-based activities on offer, such as kayaking, paddleboarding and sailing.

5. Écluse beach: Located right next to Intra-Muros, Écluse beach is the first beach you’ll see when you arrive in Saint-Malo. Its central location makes it a popular place to relax, but it can also be crowded at the height of the season. Nevertheless, it offers a breathtaking view of the ramparts and the boats entering and leaving the port, creating a unique atmosphere.

A walk along the Sillon de Saint-Malo
A walk along the Sillon de Saint-Malo

Monuments to discover

1. Saint-Vincent Cathedral: a Gothic jewel

Located in the heart of the medieval city, Saint-Vincent Cathedral is a masterpiece of Gothic architecture. Built between the 12th and 19th centuries, it boasts an imposing, richly sculpted façade. Inside, you’ll discover magnificent stained glass windows and the mausoleum of René Duguay-Trouin, the famous privateer from Saint-Malo. The cathedral’s peaceful atmosphere makes it an ideal place for contemplation and discovery of Saint-Malo’s religious history.

3. Saint-Malo Castle: vestiges of military history

Dominating the city, the Château de Saint-Malo is another witness to the rich and tumultuous history of the corsair town. Built as early as the 12th century, it has been destroyed and rebuilt several times over the centuries. Today, it houses the Musée d’Histoire de la Ville, where you can delve into Saint-Malo’s maritime past and discover collections of objects, models and documents retracing the saga of Saint-Malo’s navigators and privateers.

4. The Tour Solidor: guardian of the Rance estuary

Situated at the mouth of the River Rance in Saint-Servan, the Tour Solidor is one of Saint-Malo’s must-see landmarks. Built in the 14th century, it was part of a series of fortifications designed to protect the town. Today, it houses the Musée International du Long-Cours Cap-Hornier, dedicated to the history of sailing. From the Tour Solidor, you’ll enjoy a splendid view of the Rance estuary and the surrounding seascape.

5. Saint-Malo National Fort

Nestled on a small rocky island, this emblematic fort offers a spectacular panorama of the corsair town and the surrounding Atlantic Ocean. Built in the 17th century on the orders of Louis XIV, Fort National is a living testimony to the military engineering of the time, with its massive ramparts, bastions and majestic cannons. Strolling through its stone corridors is like stepping back in time, reliving key moments in the region’s history. Today, Fort National is not only a popular tourist attraction, but also a symbol of Saint-Malo’s cultural heritage, reminding visitors of the city’s rich maritime past.

The start of the Route du Rhum

Since its creation in 1978, the Route du Rhum has been the stuff of dreams for sea lovers, sailing enthusiasts and the general public alike. The race, which runs from Saint-Malo to Pointe-à-Pitre in Guadeloupe, is a demanding and testing single-handed event, where skippers have to face the Atlantic Ocean in all its majesty and power. Over a distance of some 3,500 nautical miles, the sailors compete with talent, perseverance and courage to cross the ocean, often swept by violent winds and impressive waves. The Route du Rhum is not only an exceptional maritime adventure, but also a popular event that attracts thousands of spectators to the ephemeral village set up on the quays of Saint-Malo. In addition to the crowds who come to cheer the sailors and wish them luck, the race enjoys international media coverage, with millions of enthusiasts closely following each leg.

The ramparts of Saint-Malo offer a breathtaking view of the sea
The ramparts of Saint-Malo offer a breathtaking view of the sea

Places to visit near Saint-Malo

Nearby, visitors will find a host of fascinating destinations. Whether you’re a lover of historical heritage, breathtaking panoramas or unspoiled nature, the sites to visit near Saint-Malo will satisfy every desire of travelers looking for a getaway.

  1. Mont Saint-Michel: A UNESCO World Heritage site, Mont-Saint-Michel is a rocky island some 50 kilometers from Saint-Malo. This architectural marvel is famous for its medieval abbey perched atop a rocky outcrop and surrounded by the waters of the bay. At low tide, you can take the footpath to reach the island, while at high tide, shuttles take you to the island in complete safety. The panoramic view from the abbey is breathtaking, offering a landscape that changes with the tides.
  2. Dinard : Located just across the Rance estuary from Saint-Malo, the seaside resort of Dinard is famous for its sandy beaches, Belle Époque architecture and lush gardens. Stroll along the Promenade du Clair de Lune for breathtaking views over the Bay of Saint-Malo and discover the magnificent 19th-century villas. Dinard is also renowned for its annual British Film Festival.
  3. Dinan: Located some 30 kilometers inland from Saint-Malo, Dinan is an unspoilt medieval town nestled on the banks of the Rance river. This picturesque town is famous for its remarkable medieval architecture, cobbled streets and well-preserved half-timbered houses. A stroll through the streets of Dinan is like stepping back in time.
  4. The Pointe du Grouin: Located just 15 kilometers north of Saint-Malo, the Pointe du Grouin is a favourite meeting place for lovers of nature and wild landscapes. This location offers spectacular sea views, with steep cliffs and coastal hiking trails. It’s also a great place to watch the seabirds that fly overhead.
  5. Cancale: About 15 kilometers east of Saint-Malo lies Cancale, a small port town renowned for its oysters and fresh seafood. You can stroll along the bustling harbor and sample fresh oysters direct from local producers. Low tides also uncover vast stretches of sand where you can enjoy a spot of fishing on foot. Cancale is an ideal place for gourmets and lovers of the sea.
  6. Cap Fréhel: Cap Fréhel is famous for its pink sandstone cliffs, rising more than 70 meters above the sea. They offer breathtaking panoramic views of the Atlantic Ocean, the English Channel and the surrounding Brittany coast. Near Cap Fréhel, you can also discover the remains of Fort-La-Latte, a fortified castle built in the 14th century on a rocky promontory. The castle offers panoramic sea views and is often used as a location for historical films.

Saint-Malo, an emblematic destination in Brittany

Today, Saint-Malo remains a dynamic city, brilliantly combining its historical heritage with modernism. Tourism, fishing, port activities and sea-related industries continue to be important economic drivers for the region. Visitors can wander through the cobbled streets of the old town, stroll along the ramparts to admire the breathtaking sea views, or savor the delicious local specialties in the city’s many restaurants and bars. Saint-Malo remains one of Brittany’s most emblematic destinations, a place where the turbulent history of privateering and the spellbinding beauty of the Breton coast are intertwined. The corsair city is and will remain an icon of France’s maritime heritage, a city that proudly recalls its legendary past and continues to seduce travelers in search of escape and adventure.

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