When Southern Brittany Blew Our Socks Off With Its Pretty Places…
I mean, we shouldn’t have had socks on in the first place because Brittany in France is the kind of region where people live in their flip-flops (or wellies), but hey, we’re British! Southern Brittany is also the kind of region where some days you even question if you are still in France at all : after spending 2 weeks on the road visiting the Loire, Dordogne, Alsace and Auvergne in France, Brittany was a contrast that was quite distinct. We had visited a few places on the north coast of Brittany a couple of years ago and picked up a distinct non-French feel in parts, but the south side has a much more relaxed vibe with some of the best places in Brittany.
The History Of Brittany, France
Over a thousand years ago Anglo-Saxon’s invaded Britain and upset a few people, especially the Celts as they attempted to unite the new nation with a collective language. The Celts weren’t ready to give up their traditions and mother tongue so many upped sticks and emigrated across the channel to the area of Brittany in France. Today Brittany is still classed as one of the 6 official Celtic lands (Scotland, Ireland, Wales, Cornwall and the Isle of Man are the others). And it’s these ancient people which give the region of Brittany a completely different feel to the rest of France!
Whereas the north of Brittany has towns with reputations stemming from the 20th century (whether that be associations with World War 2 or the booming sea-side resorts built for the rich and famous), southern Brittany still has a foothold in a more ancient past with its pretty granite towns like Locronan and Vannes and the even more ancient Neolithic stones of Carnac. It also has a host of plus beaux villes (France’s list of towns which Walt Disney must’ve gotten a hold of in his princess days) to visit and coo over.
If you are toying with visiting Brittany in France, and are wondering which part of the region would be best, here are some of our highlights from a week in the south. The best of Brittany and the most beautiful places to visit…
Where To Stay In Brittany
If you are still in the planning stages of your Brittany holiday we can definitely help with your decision on where to stay, otherwise, skip to the Best Places In To Go In Brittany section below.
Depending on what you like to get out of a holiday will decide on which area of South Brittany will suit you best. If you are only able to do a short break in Brittany then the small city of Vannes (click here for the best hotel deals) would definitely be the best place to stay. Many hotels in Vannes don’t require that you stay a minimum number of nights so it’s perfect for a short break choice. It’s a beautiful medieval town and perfectly located for day trips to the Gulf of Morbihan for some of the best beaches in Brittany. You are also only a short drive from the beautiful ‘plus beaux ville’ town of Rochefort-en-Terre and the achingly pretty port of St Goustan in Auray, plus those ancient Carnac stones we mentioned earlier. There are so many interesting things to do in Brittany and Vannes puts you in a prime location for day trips.
You will find, especially in Summer, a lot of hotels and accommodation in Brittany will only let you book for a week. Because of that you may want to choose one spot as a base and explore the region from there. Roads can be slow in Brittany, especially around the little towns and beaches as the speed limits are quite restrictive. Therefore, choosing a base close to the main road N165 will speed up any journeys you might want to do. Some of the best towns in Brittany you might want to visit on that stretch are; Auray, with its magical medieval port area, Saint Goustan, and the area around the town of Pont Aven if you want access to the Natural Park Armorique for hiking and rustic isolated beaches. The further west you go in Brittany, the more remote it gets, so if you’re all up for having the place to yourself but offsetting that with a lack of restaurants, shops and just life in general, the west side of Brittany, France would make a detached and special holiday if loneliness is your thing. I did have my eye on Hotel de la Plage near Plonevez-Porzay at one point as it’s right on the beach, it came highly recommended and the hotel is so beautiful you could really live in luxury for a few days!
We have spent time around Auray, the Gulf of Morbihan and between Lorient and Quimper and we cannot fault Auray as one of the best places to stay in Brittany. There are plenty of amenities (including a great choice of hotels and restaurants) and if you do want to spend a day exploring the west coast from here, quick access to the N165 makes this more than possible.
For the best of Brittany accomodation check out these deals…
The Best Places In Brittany To Visit
Before we visited this part of France many of the Brittany travel guides I read described the region to be like Cornwall in the UK. Not being the biggest fan of the overcrowded English county that might as well be deemed just a pretty shopping experience, I was really hoping Brittany didn’t turn out to be so. Yet, it has to be said that if you were dropped from space onto a Brittany country lane, you would probably think you’d landed in Cornwall. Slatestone walls, gorgeous little cottages and typical hydrangea’s to a back-drop of sea-side pines definitely is a theme. However, beyond the picturesque villages and cliff-side drops to the Atlantic, Brittany has so much more to offer than a posh shopping-excursion. From medieval cities and ports to little sea-side estuaries, plus beaux ville’s and hidden beach coves. Here are our top recommendations for ‘must-see’ tourist attractions in Brittany, France…
Vannes would make the perfect place for a short break in Brittany if you just wanted to sample some excellent Brittany food, do a bit of shopping and absorb a slice of history. You’d have no need to go beyond the ancient medieval walls of this charming town, and it’s a pretty sturdy representation of Brittany life.
As a gateway to the Gulf of Morbihan (Brittany’s archipelago collection of 42 islands almost closed off from the Atlantic), this medieval town absolutely got its roots from its geographical location to the sea. It began life as a Roman settlement but soon became a vulnerable town, explaining the ancient ramparts. There’s no prettier a place to view these foreboding walls and towers than from the Jardin des Ramparts adjacent to La Marle River. As if a mathematician dreamed up a garden you can stroll through pristine lawns of precise topiary and colourful flower-beds that were clearly designed on graph paper. And, before you enter either the Porte Gambetta or Porte Poterne at either end, take note of Vannes answer to the medieval washing machine – Les Vieux Lavoirs, the quaint timber-framed wash-houses.
Back inside the protective walls, Vannes churns out all sorts of examples of architecture where ancient and slightly less ancient buildings woo the tourists. Around Cathedrale Saint Pierre the rainbow timber-framed houses and shops lean over little squares of pavement cafes and cobbled streets. Then at Place Henri IV, Vannes shows off its unique cantilevered buildings where homes were built with larger top floors like a row of expanding souffle’s in the oven vying for space as they mushroom out.
Whether you are shopping, eating or simply wandering, Vannes has you wrapped in a beautiful medieval scene of ancient city life and just being here makes you feel more attractive! It’s like France got frozen in time on one of its best days, when everyone had simultaneously finished their spring clean or was just about to put their house on the market.
- Check out the indoor market Halles des Lices near Porte Poterne for lunch. Grab what you want from the stalls and head over to the corner to find a seat. The wine-guy near the seating area really knows his stuff and can find you a glass of something lovely to compliment your meal.
- Vannes market days are Wednesday and Saturday’s in the mornings. Parking can be a little harder at these times so arrive early.
- There is a land-train down by the marina which churns out a monologue of interesting history if you don’t mind looking like an overgrown child for half an hour.
- Vannes shopping is unrivalled locally as the town is awash with good French high street names, a kindly amount of gift shops and plenty of independent concept stores to interest all tastes. Add to that all the different varieties of food shops too and you’ll never want to leave.
Quiberon has a quidditch team, is famous for canned sardines and is almost an island. If all of that hasn’t piqued your curiosity then just make a visit for the same reason most tourists stop-off here : one of the nicest things to do in Brittany is go for coastal walks to take in the ruggedly beautiful landscape and Quiberon is one of the best places to do this.
Quiberon juts out into the sea for 9 miles and at its narrowest point is only 22 metres thick. This dramatic looking area of Morbihan is renowned for its rugged coastline and rustic fishing villages, along with a healthy handful of clean sandy beaches.
On the west coast of Quiberon, the waves are so rough that swimming is forbidden. But, the sand-dunes, sea-caves and heathland make it the perfect spot for some picturesque hikes – if a little bracing. And, if you’re looking for places to surf in Brittany, Quiberon has a couple of good swells.
Conversely, the east coast of Quiberon is more sheltered and definitely attracts those just wanting a serene spot to sunbathe, less exposed to the elements. It’s also the stretch where a handful of blue and white fishing villages provide content for postcard-makers!
The first thing that strikes you about Locronan is that you feel like you just walked onto a film set. To be fair though, you actually did. Yet, despite being the set location for several very famous French films, including ‘A Very Long Engagement’, people actually still live in this 17th century vista. It’s the lack of road signs and painted tarmac along with the heavily preened shop fronts and gardens that give it away but life goes on in Locronan like nothing major ever happened.
You might notice the grandeur of some of the homes and also surmise that huge churches like the one in the main square don’t just build themselves, and you’d be right : Locronan was once a wealthy town because of the skilled weavers selling to Navy’s worldwide. But then sails went out of fashion, Locronan lost its livelihood and the town’s appearance stood still as younger folk moved to the cities for work. What comes from that is a pickled village – like a handsome jar of gherkins, Locronan stayed eternally old and unmodified. Definitely worth a half-day’s visit, although probably found on most Things To Do In Brittany lists so you do have to share this beauty with a handful of other tourists.
- Parking on the street only spoils photo’s; there is one main car park with ample parking and is only a couple of minutes walk to the centre.
- Glassware, ceramics, leather, weaving, embroidery, lace and silver are just some of the many crafts displayed in shops around Locronan. It’s the perfect place to pick up some original Celtic products.
- About a mile out of town is the Locronan summit with amazing views of the Douarnenez Bay 5 miles away. It’s a nice hike from the main square.
4. The Rhuys Peninsula
The Gulf of Morbihan is an inlet protected from the Ocean by an arm of land known as the Rhuys Peninsula. This hooked peninsula has two main towns, Sarzeau and Arzon, which probably aren’t worth your time for a day trip – busy port towns with not a great deal to see other than boats. However, both the north and south coasts of the Rhuys peninsula offer a great deal in terms of Brittany tourist attractions.
The geography of this stretch of land makes the coast which faces the ocean a sheltered part of Brittany and home to many lengths of beautiful and rugged sandy beaches. With less wind than some of the other beaches in Brittany’s southern region, this is where you’ll catch the sunbathers. But it doesn’t stop there – towards the tip of the peninsula, south of Arzon, there are some incredible cliff-top walks and ancient sights like the Cairn du Petit Mont, a huge dry stone burial chamber and Château de Suscinio, a former hunting lodge of the Dukes of Brittany.
This area of Brittany is synonymous with the food this part of France is famous for, so if you’re a foodie you really mustn’t miss a trip to some of the towns of the Rhuys Peninsula. Saint-Armel has the salt farms and cider makers, whilst Le Tour de Parc is where you need to be for the best wild oysters in Brittany, some say France. La Perle de Quehan, a little hidden gem, is a cute little restaurant which came highly recommended to us by our Airbnb host. They have an outdoor terrace, which on a summer evening proposes the most perfect backdrop (Quehan bay) and serves both Pacific and Belon oysters. You could make a hobby out of Oyster-sampling in Brittany with all their different varieties and the Rhuys peninsula is the perfect place to start!
- This is a very family-freindly area of Brittany and easy to find accommodation near little coves and sandy beaches. Many homes for rent in this area have boats, bikes and other equipment for guests to use and even in August the roads are quiet and safe for children to play. We found Villa Charles & Ashton in a beautiful location,right on the beach and sleeping up to 18 people – it would be a great choice for a few families needing a large villa with all the amenities.
- You would definitely need to hire a car if you were staying in the Rhuys peninsula as public transport is limited.
5. Port Saint-Goustan (Auray)
Whilst the little town of Auray is quaint in a typically Bretagne kinda way, with its window boxes and cobbled streets, it’s Port Saint-Goustan that truly impresses. By all means though, take a wander up the steep high street of Auray and have a peek in their many art galleries and bespoke gift shops – but cute Brittany towns aren’t hard to come by so you won’t be missing out if you have to pass on this one. However, Saint-Goustan is another matter altogether, a definite Brittany highlight!
If you take a left at the top of the Auray high street you will circle round to one of the best views of this gorgeous port…
Like a town that time forgot, Saint-Goustan has to be one of the most attractive places in all of Brittany! Built in the 17th century for a booming trade it happily got to keep its pleasing aesthetics when nearby Lorient port was built to take over and keep up with the increasing Brittany imports and exports.
Other than a handful of restaurants, cafe’s and art shops a few hours in Saint-Goustan mostly encompass a stroll along the promenade to watch the fishermen mend their nets. There is often a market, very French with mostly crockery and books, and in the evenings there is every chance you might be treated to some music from Saint-Goustan’s very own (ageing) Ed Sheeran. Or, if you’re lucky, a bunch of locals gathered for an evening of French Salsa with their friends – accompanied by wine of course.
- Like we’ve already mentioned, Auray-Saint-Goustan is one of the the most perfect places to stay in Brittany – there are plenty of eating establishments around to keep the holiday-cooking down.
- If you are only visiting for a few hours, try to catch the Port at the back end of the day, during the golden hour – it’s really quite a sight. Plus, there’s a fantastic buzz around the square. Take a drink at Le Yac’h along the promenade (if you can find a seat) as it’s the perfect place for a spot of people watching with a Cidre in hand.
- There are parking places on the roads around the town but you are more likely to find a space on Quai Neuf paralel with the River d’Auray.
Not all ‘plus beaux villes’ are created equal. We were slightly disappointed by the nearby PBV village of La Gacilly when we were out one day, in search of all the best places to visit in Brittany, but finishing off the second half of our day in Rochefort-en-Terre was the enhancement we needed.
Maybe it’s where all the retiree’s in theatre production and set-design buy houses, or maybe you have to sit an aesthetics exam before you can purchase a property? Otherwise, I just could not fathom how they manage to continually keep the place looking so gorgeous. In 2016 it was voted the most beautiful village in France, and several years later it doesn’t seem to have lost any of its charm. So what’s so good about Rochefort-en-Terre?
Well unless you hate fairytales – everything! It’s so picture-perfect you begin to wonder if real people live in this place, or have you just stumbled upon a theme park of a Medieval Shopping Centre? Artisan shops are owned by super-friendly locals who are actually pleased you’re visiting their little town… I know, right! And in between making their bespoke jewellery, leather goods and social charms they all somehow have managed the art of window-boxing too.
Break up your souvenir browsing with a café au lait at one of the towns little coffee stops, then have a fresh crêpe for lunch. Wander the streets and sample some goodies from the many chocolate, nougat and cake shops. It’s an easy walk (slightly steep) up to the ancient Château of Rochefort-en-Terre and an interesting wander. Also, peep your head into the old church too for a little bit of sacrosanct sparkle. In review, Rochefort-en-Terre is one of the most enchanting places of interest in Brittany.
- There is ample free parking in Rochefort-en-Terre, at either end of the town.
- Depending on the month, the castle and museum might be closed on Monday and Tuesday’s.
- Several shops close at midday for a couple of hours.
- If you’re on a tour of Brittany castles, the nearby Josselin Castle is only a 40-minute drive away – the two places amount to a great Brittany day trip in our opinion.
7. Saint Cado
Saint Cado was one of those places it took me ages to find. I’d seen photo’s of this little island house all over Instagram but uncovering its location was another matter – it’s a little bit of a Brittany hidden gem! And, apart from anything else, I had a feeling we’d just be doing a quick drive-by for a cheeky photo and there’d be not a lot more to discover. But, Saint Cado ended up making it onto my ‘Best Places In Brittany’ list!
It had everything I look for in a holiday day-trip; cute little places to have half a shandy (complete with terraces and views), a pleasant little amble to walk off the holiday laziness, a handful of artisan shops and artists with their easels and pristine houses to slyly and nosily take a peek into! And then, as if that’s not enough – it has this beautiful little house off to shore all on its own, ripe for the photo-taking.
The area has been fished for decades – tuna, sardines and oysters predominantly – and the little house which sits on a piece of bedrock in the middle of the Étel estuary once belonged to an oyster farmer. He must have had a nightmare getting his Tesco delivery! Still, we sat on the bridge for over 20 minutes just dreaming up stories in our heads about life in that little cottage. Want to know my Brittany highlight – Saint Cado it is.
Île de Saint-Cado is connected to the mainland by an old stone bridge and once you reach the islet it’s worth taking the 20 minute stroll around its periphery for pretty views of coves and river vistas. The little fishing village is old, like really old, and the main square is dominated by a 12th century chapel. Local cottages are the typical Brittany style with pretty blue shutters and gardens of pink and blue hydrangeas. We were not sorry we’d put in the effort to visit.
- Driving around Saint Cado is not encouraged, unless you are staying there as it’s the lack of cars which add to the charm of this cute little Brittany town, so park at the car park off Rue des Jardins in Saint-Cado and walk the 5 minutes to the bridge.
- This little area around the Étel estuary has its own micro-climate and there are several sandy beaches along the mouth of the river which are slightly more sheltered than other beaches in Brittany. Several are well-known kite-flying spots too so if you want something to watch whilst you sunbathe, perfect! We loved Plage de Kerminihy which backed onto some beautiful and protected sand-dunes – the flora and fauna were quite unique.
8. The Carnac Stones
Nicknamed ‘France’s Stonehenge’ you can well imagine this is one of Brittany’s top tourist attractions. If you are planning on visiting the Carnac Stones in Brittany, the first thing you need to know is that from October to March it is free, but from April to September you can only visit as part of a guided tour – this solution has kept down the problem of overcrowding and damage limitation in the busiest holiday seasons.
Questions like; what are the Carnac Stones? How did they get there? and what were they used for? will all go unanswered when visiting this ancient site – but they’ll certainly provoke some interesting conversations. What we do know though is that this is the largest megalithic site in the world, here in Carnac, France. And, better preserved than some of its contemporaries too. 2,800 individual ancient standing stones span 4 kilometres and reach 4 metres tall in some instances – they really are a sight to behold.
We think the best way to appreciate these Neolithic alignments is to take the Megaliths Trail – a 7km Carnac walk starting in Place de l’Eglise in the centre of Carnac. It takes in some stunning panoramic views, enough stones to last a lifetime and the perfect way to see a bit of the Brittany countryside’s flora and fauna. You can pick up a map from the tourist information office in Carnac, or alternatively download a PDF of it here.
If there was ever a pretty Brittany town which rang of that busy Cornish vibe, it’s the port of Trinité-Sur-Mer. Sailing schools, yacht clubs and shops full of Breton stripes and boat shoes entice the rich and famous to drop anchor for a few days and blend in with the other million boat-owners. It certainly isn’t one of the prettiest towns in Brittany but it has energy and activity in spade-fulls.
The sea is the lifeblood of a true Breton and half of Bretagne own their own boat – that makes Trinité-Sur-Mer the push-off point for weekend ocean adventures. But its equally as busy on a week-day during summer and the traffic jams through the town become an interesting exercise in ‘spot the sugar-daddies and gold-diggers’.
It feels like an upper-class seaside resort where the uber-privileged rub shoulders with native Breton’s – the only way to tell them apart is to walk down-wind; natives don’t wear aftershave in the day time!
Still, it’s a happy stop off for some fine seafood restaurants, complete with terraces overlooking the beautiful harbour. And a great place for a bit of window shopping. Plus, you’re only a five-minute drive to the next town of Carnac (home of the neolithic stones) which pulls you back in time and is the perfect complement to the modern living of Trinité-Sur-Mer: a good combo of places to go in Brittany for a day-trip.
10. Josselin Castle
Castle-hunting was always going to be on our list of things to do in Brittany – who doesn’t love a French Chateau!? Fougères, Guildo and Hermine are some of the other Brittany castles we’ve visited before but Château Josselin is a must-see tourist attraction.
Sitting handsomely on the edge of the Oust River this impressive medieval structure is still the family home of the 14th Duke of Rohan. And once you’re up close and personal it’s impossible to not be impressed by all the details and manicured formal gardens. Inside is equally as intriguing as the guided tour tells the stories behind royal gifts, lavish dining rooms and artwork from the Greats.
The town isn’t too shabby either and becomes a little more alive in the imagination once you’ve taken the castle tour and learnt the connections to the townsfolk of yesteryear. In fact, the whole area gives off a fairytale essence, especially when you consider it was in the nearby forest of Paimpont – legendary King Arthur’s forest of Brocéliande where Merlin was imprisoned and the fountain of youth exists! However, the town of Josselin has its own magical forest, Bois d’Amour (or Love Wood) which is the most pleasant of spots for a family picnic.
- Josselin Castle is only open to the public from April – October.
- Tours are mostly in French but there is usually one English speaking tour a day – check their website for times (it was 2.30pm when we visited).
- The Chateau also has a well-stocked Doll Museum if you are looking for things to do with kids on your holiday.
- Saturday is market day in Josselin.
So there you have it, our Brittany Top 10.
Brittany Travel Tips
There are so many Brittany attractions across the whole region but in our opinion the south is quite different from the north and if you are planning a trip to Brittany we would suggest picking an area and sticking to it. This post has concentrated mostly on places to visit in the South of Brittany because this was our most recent trip but we have had some fabulous holidays around the towns of St Malo and Dinard too – maybe that’s a post for another day!
If you are planning on driving to Brittany in France, to give you some perspective it’s about 6 hours from the Calais side of the Channel Tunnel to Vannes in Brittany. It’s also only around 4 hours from Paris if anyone was considering a two-stop holiday itinerary, tying in the capital.
Alternatively, you can also fly into Brittany; there are several airports in Brittany doing commercial flights – Dinard, Brest, Nantes and Rennes. Most encompass budget airlines too so Brittany can make for a really cheap weekend break from the UK if you play your cards right. Dinard Airport has no public transport though so hiring a car beforehand is essential.
Train travel in France is easy, convenient and quick – you can get to Rennes from Paris in about 1.5 hours. Vannes also has a train station too.
Places To Stay…
Location-wise, if you are the kind of traveller who wants lots of things to do in Brittany then the area around Vannes would be a great base. You have a choice of old timber-framed towns, beach resorts and harbours – if you skipped our recommendations scroll back up to our Where To Stay In Brittany section.
Many Brit’s will tell you it has the perfect climate for summer holidays – not too hot and a wonderful gentle breeze from the sea. Temperatures reach mid-20’s in July and August and evenings often require a light jacket still. The breezes are mostly south-westerly though so they provide respite from the midday sun, not a chilly annoyance!
So there you have our best of Brittany top 10 recommendations. It’s a region of history, culture and charm though, so there is so much more to see than we have documented. In fact, we would return again in a heartbeat.
What about you? Do you have any travel plans to visit this part of France? Drop us a line is you have any Brittany travel questions, we’ll always try and help.
More tips for your trip to France, from our archives;
- The 10 Best Things To Do In Lyon, France
- Visiting Futuroscope In Vienne, France
- France’s Prettiest Port Town – Honfleur, Normandy
- Travel Diaries Of Alsace
- Travel Diaries Of Strasbourg
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