Welcome to historic Brittany

Brittany is the verdant north-west corner of France, an undulating peninsula flanked by the Atlantic Ocean.

You may well ask “is Brittany in Northern France?” Fringed by the Atlantic, Brittany lies south of the English Channel and north of the Bay of Biscay. The region’s islands include popular Belle Ile and Ile d’Ouessant.

A land of rugged coastlines, ancient megaliths, historic towns and bucolic countryside, it’s a much loved destination for both French and overseas holidaymakers. Read my in-depth guide and discover some of my favourite highlights of this enchanting region of France.

Brittany
Brittany Map

How to get to Brittany France

By ferry

From the UK, Brittany Ferries run daily services (for drivers and foot passengers) from Plymouth to Roscoff. Daytime ferries take approximately 5 ½ hours, or you can opt for an overnight journey, which takes around 11 hours. Brittany Ferries also operate overnight sailings between Portsmouth and St Malo, taking 11 hours. Condor Ferries run daily from Poole to St Malo, a journey of approximately 6 ½ hours.

By rail/road

Le Shuttle whisks you and your car from Folkestone in the UK to Calais in as little as 35 minutes.

From Calais your most straightforward route takes the A16 along the coast, passing Le Touquet. You join the A28 then the A84 south west towards Le Havre and Caen, and on towards Rennes. It’s approximately a six hour drive, so you might want to break up your journey with lunch or an overnight stop at Le Havre or Abbeville.

NB: Use a GPS or make sure you’ve enough data on your phone for Google maps!

If you’re coming from Paris, you can drive to Brittany in approximately four hours via the A11 and A81, passing north of Le Mans.

Note: Highways/motorways in France get crowded and slow-going in holiday periods, particularly during August. Take this into account when planning your route!

Getting around in Brittany

By road

An extensive network of well-maintained roads makes Brittany a great option if you’re driving. It’s also France’s only toll-free region. There are no charges to drive on any of Brittany’s major roads or dual carriageways, so keep your Euros in your wallet and enjoy the route.

Public transport/car hire

Brittany’s TER local train network runs 300 services across the region.  One popular tourist route is the Tire Bouchon (‘The Corkscrew’) which meanders along the famed Quiberon peninsula in Brittany’s southwest. From June to September each year, you can enjoy 45 minutes of splendid coastal views between Quiberon and Auray.

How big is Brittany

A combination of verdant inland terrain and extensive coastline, Brittany spans just over 27,000 km2. Normandy borders the region’s north east whilst Pays de la Loire lies to its south east.

Brittany’s varied and dramatic coastline measures an extensive 2,700 km (1700 miles). Inland you’ll find tiny villages, medieval towns, and ancient woodlands. An important agricultural region, much of inland Brittany is rural, and in places sparsely populated.

Departments

Four departments make up Brittany: Ile et Vilaine, Morbihan, Cotes d’Armor and Finistere. From Dinard and St Malo on the Emerald Coast, Ile et Vilaine stretches inland. Here you’ll find the legendary woodlands of Broceliande, and medieval fortress towns Combourg and Fougeres, as well as the region’s capital, Rennes. Morbihan is renowned for its towering monoliths at Carnac, whilst visitors flock to the pink granite beaches of the Cotes d’Armor. Finistere occupies Brittany’s northwest tip, and its 1,000 km of coastline supply some of France’s finest seafood.

Cities in Brittany

Rennes

A vibrant university city and Brittany’s regional capital, Rennes offers numerous lively bars and restaurants. Explore the attractive medieval quarter and visit the excellent fine art museum.

St Malo

An imposing walled city squaring up to the Atlantic, St Malo’s impressive granite fortifications date back to the 12th century. On a sunny day, take a bracing dip in the walled sea pool overlooking the bay. At low tide, cross the sands to the rocky Isle du Grand Be, the final resting place of 18th century writer and local boy, Chateaubriand.

Quimper

Step back in time in Brittany’s oldest city. Here, half-timbered houses lean over cobbled streets, and the towering spires of St Corentin cathedral dominate the skyline. Nature lovers, don’t miss the tranquil botanical gardens of Le Jardin de la Retraite.

Vannes

The capital of Morbihan, Vannes is a scenic fortified town with a lovely marina, and elegant gardens fringed by 13th century ramparts. If you’re visiting in mid-July, check out the city’s annual historical festival, complete with falconry displays and medieval cuisine.

History, culture and everything you need to know before visiting Brittany

A potted history of Brittany

Brittany’s Neolithic stone monuments are dramatic evidence of its earliest, prehistoric civilisations. The region’s first documented residents were the Gauls, who settled in Brittany around 2,000 years ago. In 56 BCE, Julius Caesar and his Roman army conquered the peninsula and named it Armorica (a Roman spin on the Celt word for seaside).

During the 5th and 6th centuries Anglo Saxons invaded Britain. Many Celts fled to Armorica from Cornwall, Devon and Wales. The region subsequently became known as Bretagne (Brittany) and the Breton language developed.

Brittany retained its autonomy until 1532, when it officially became part of France.

A turbulent 18th century brought the French Revolution. In 1789 Brittany lost its political power and was dissolved into five departments.

The wartime Vichy Regime established modern Brittany from four of its original departments in 1941, but controversially excluded Loire Atlantique (this department later became part of Pays de La Loire.)  Strategic port towns such as St Malo and Lorient suffered extensive bomb damage during WW2.

In 1977 the French government’s Cultural Charter officially recognised Breton as a minority language. Specialist ‘Diwan’ Schools in Brittany received private funding to preserve and develop Breton as a spoken and written language.

Culture (museums, historic ruins, architecture)

History buffs, don’t miss the 1,000 year old fortress at Fougeres, one of the largest in Europe. You’ll find further imposing granite fortifications at Vitre and Josselin. Another must-see is La Roche-Jagu, a stunning chateau in beautiful grounds by the River Trieux.

Visit St Malo’s Fort National and the impressive Citadelle on Belle Ile. These two landmark military strongholds were both designed by French architect Vauban. (Note the Citadelle is temporarily closed until Spring 2023.)

Pull on your walking boots/pump up your bike tyres for the ‘Tro Breizh’ (Breton for ‘Tour of Brittany’). A Catholic pilgrimage route since the Middle Ages, this 600 km circular trail links the hometowns of Brittany’s ‘Seven Saints’. The scenic route passes seven cathedrals including St Malo, Quimper and Vannes. Traditionally, pilgrims completed the walk within one month. Today you can walk or cycle as much of the trail as you fancy!

Brittany’s spectacular Neolithic monuments at Carnac are the largest concentration of standing stones on the planet! Wander through acres of mammoth dolmens and menhirs.  The site’s Musee de Prehistoire spans life in the area from the Palaeolithic era to the Middle Ages, and its exhibits include ancient pottery and jewellery.

Art lovers, don’t miss Rennes’ Musee de Beaux Artes, housed in an elegant 19th century palace. Feast your eyes on a wonderful collection spanning 15th century to contemporary works.

For an insight into Breton culture, the Musee Departemental Breton in Quimper showcases traditional Breton crafts, furnishings and costumes.

Weather

Brittany enjoys a relatively mild climate, with fewer extremes in temperature than other parts of France.  

Summers are usually warmer and longer than in the UK. June to August is peak visitor season, with sunny skies and average temperatures of around 24oC/75oF. During August, coastal resorts throng with French and overseas holidaymakers, and temperatures can soar to 30oC/ 86oF.

Brittany’s winters tend to be wet and cool, with an average temperature of 6oC/42oF. December through to February are the coldest months, when you’ll see typical lows of 4oC/39oF.

Inland and northern Brittany are generally colder than coastal areas. The Gulf of Morbihan, meanwhile, enjoys a mild microclimate, courtesy of the Gulf Stream.

Best time to visit

If you want decent weather, April to October is the best time to visit Brittany. If you plan to avoid crowds, then May June and September are your best bet, as resorts, roads and bigger towns are less congested than in midsummer.

Remember that Brittany’s verdant landscape receives regular rainfall throughout the year! So pack a rain jacket and/or a brolly when you visit.

Why you should visit

Brittany is a delight to explore; a stunning playground of unspoilt shores, enchanting medieval towns, sleepy villages, and acres of gorgeous verdant countryside. Brittany’s footpaths and quiet rural roads offer wonderful adventures off the beaten track, whether you travel by bike, car or on foot.

5 must sees in Brittany

Carnac alignments

Carnac is home to the largest gathering of alignments in the world, and these fascinating megaliths are a must-see when you visit Brittany. Over 3,000 mammoth standing stones, up to 4m in height, dominate the landscape. Meticulously positioned, the stones are estimated to have been in situ since 4,000 BC – which makes them older than the ruins at Stonehenge. Theories abound regarding why and how the stones came to be here, which only enhances their mystique.

Pink granite coast

The Cote de Granite Rose is a glorious stretch of coastline between Brehat and Trebeurden in the northern Cotes d’Armor. Follow the G34 coastal footpath from Ploumanac’h, and you’ll discover unspoilt rose tinted sand beaches, strewn with distinctive red and pink granite boulders. This lovely natural display resembles an alfresco art installation.

Historic Dinan

Don’t miss this picturesque fortified town nestled on the banks of the River Rance. Dinan’s old centre is an enjoyable maze of winding alleyways lined with timber clad houses, which hark back to the 12th century. Wander the cobbled (and very steep) Rue du Jerzual, past artisan workshops and boutiques. Dinan hosts a bi-annual medieval festival, the Fetes des Remparts (the next festival is July 2023), where you can enjoy jousting tournaments, lively street parades and locals bedecked in period costumes.

Chateau de Vitre

The medieval castle of Vitre rises imperiously from a crag above the River Vilaine. This beautiful fortress dates back to the 10th century, and features fairy tale-style turrets and an elegant courtyard.

Emerald Coast

Named for its green waters, the Emerald Coast is a dazzling 40km stretch of coastline between Cancale and Cap Frehel. Follow the clifftop trail from Cap Frehel, past purple heather and vivid yellow gorse. Visit Fort La Latte, a 700 year old bastion which teeters on the sandstone cliff edge. For centuries English armies attacked the fort, but never managed to overthrow it. For spectacular views, climb the keep’s vertiginous staircase. On a clear day you can see Jersey and Guernsey.

Brittany must do’s

Discover Brittany’s ‘Petite Cites de Charactere’, 21 enchanting towns and villages, each gorgeous to roam around, and brimming with history. Browse the galleries, boutiques and craft shops of lovely Rochefort en Terre in Morbihan. If you love French literature, head to Becherel in Ile et Vilaine, where you’ll find over a dozen book shops within its medieval streets. The town hosts two annual literary festivals, and draws comparisons with Hay on Wye.

Visit the pretty port town of Paimpol and enjoy a seafood lunch at one of the restaurants clustered around the marina. Dine on Breton’s finest seafood, including the renowned Paimpol oyster, and blue lobster from nearby Loguivy de la Mer.

Enjoy outdoor adventures in the ancient Broceliande Forest. Aka Paimpont Forest, this vast tract of woodland lies in the heart of Ile et Vilaine. Join a guided walking tour and learn all about the area’s associations with Camelot and King Arthur. Afterwards, hire a kayak, pedalo or SUP (stand up paddle board) and chill out on the forest’s tranquil lake.

Explore beneath the sea at St Malo’s Grand Aquarium. Take a submarine ride on the ‘Nautibus’ and encounter 600 colourful sea life species from oceans around the globe, including sharks, sea turtles and octopus.

Eating out in Brittany

Local markets in Brittany

Most towns in Brittany host their own market, where you can soak up the atmosphere and browse the freshest local foods and crafts. Here are some of the best.

Rennes’ Marche des Lices, at Place des Lices every Saturday morning. France’s second largest market brings 300 stalls selling everything from flowers, fish, and crafts to cheese. Enjoy!

Saint Renan (Finistere), Place du Vieux Marche. Saturday mornings. Buy Breton pastries, sausages, cheese and more.

Dinard, Place des Halles. Every Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday. Alongside traditional fresh produce you can browse artisan gifts and chic clothing.

Vitre, Rue Notre Dame. Each Monday, traditional market.

Questembert, Convivi’Halles (16th century market hall in the town centre) on Monday Mornings.

Kerbors, Ferme biologique de Kersaliou (Cotes d’Armor). Farmers market every Friday evening 5–7 pm.

Lorient, Halles de Merville. High quality fish market. Daily from 8am-1pm.

What to eat and drink

Thanks to its extensive coastline, seafood is a staple in Brittany. Oysters are hugely popular along with scallops, langoustines and lobster. Chicken casseroles and hearty Andouille sausage from Gremene appear regularly on menus. Buckwheat galettes (pancakes) are a mainstay, and come stuffed with both savoury and sweet fillings. Look out for Kouign-Amann. This rich, caramelised Breton cake is a buttery, sugary indulgence. If you can, try it from one of the region’s award winning bakers, such as Patisserie Aux Choux a Lie in Ploeuc-L’Hermitage, Patisserie Laurent le Daniel in Rennes, or Boulangerie Sephin in Ploermel.

Brittany’s orchards grow over 600 varieties of apples to produce highly popular Breton cider. Try Cidre de Cornouaille AOP from Quimper, or Cuvée Prestige Carpe Diem by Domaine Kerveguen, both award winning labels.

Where to eat

Lorient, Le Jardin Gourmand. 46 rue Jules Simon, 56100 Lorient. Dine on market fresh, gourmet seafood and meat dishes with a Breton flourish.

Plelan-le-Grand, Les Forges des Paimpont. Les Forges, 35380 Plélan-le-Grand. Atmospheric 100 year old lodge in the heart of Broceliande Forest, with a focus on grilled meats, game and casseroles.

Rennes, La Taverne de la Marine. 2 Place de Bretagne, 35000  Rennes. Highly rated brasserie specialising in seafood. Try the flambéed lobster with cognac, a house specialty.

Carnac, Cote Cuisine. 36 Avenue de la Poste, 56340 Carnac. This contemporary Michelin star restaurant in Carnac’s Lann Roz Hotel dishes up fresh, seasonal produce. Feast on beautifully presented dishes such as roast beef fillet with oyster tartare in red wine jus.

Where to stay in Brittany

Rent this contemporary one bed studio in Perros-Guirec on the Cotes d’Armor. Enjoy sweeping sea views from the terrace and direct access onto Trestraou beach. Sleeps two. (https://www.vrbo.com/en-gb/p1890929a?noDates=true&uni_id=2066615)

Escape the crowds in the heart of rural Finistere. This characterful country cottage sleeps four in two bedrooms, complete with private garden and barbeque.

https://www.vrbo.com/en-gb/p1427691a?noDates=true&uni_id=1598875

Stay in the centre of historic Rennes. In the heart of the old town, this chic one bed apartment boasts lovely period features and views of the cathedral. Sleeps two.

https://www.vrbo.com/en-gb/p1636113a?noDates=true&uni_id=1810261

Conclusion

I hope you enjoyed this digital guide to wonderful Brittany, and that it’s given you a taste for a belle sejour in this delightful region. Thanks for reading and happy travels!

Maria Bricheno
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Author

Maria Bricheno is a freelance writer, with a focus on independent travel. When not writing or plotting her next trip, she enjoys trail/road running, contemporary fiction, and country walks with her enthusiastic golden retriever. An ardent fan of all things Gallic, Maria spends too much of her leisure time lurking on French property websites.

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