Occupying a hilly peninsula that juts out into the Atlantic Ocean is the French region of Brittany, France’s most north-westerly region. It is a region of dramatic rocky coastlines, charming medieval cities with city walls and cobblestone streets, and locally brewed cider served with Brittany’s most beloved dish – crêpes. Its capital is Rennes, a historic city of half-timbered houses and a vibrant artistic heritage. Meanwhile, the fortified cities of Saint-Malo, Dinan, and Vannes are often considered some of the most beautiful in France.
Outside the urban centres, Brittany has a rugged and beautiful coastline that is popular for nature enthusiasts as well as those seeking a relaxing getaway. The colours of the Pink Granite Coast is one of the most amazing natural wonders in the region. Some of France’s oldest and most fascinating megalithic sites are found in Brittany, with the stone arrangements of Carnac and Locmariaquer rivalling Stonehenge in their mystery and scale. Brittany is home to the ethnic Breton group, a Celtic people that trace their roots back to the Anglo-Saxons. The Breton culture is widespread in Brittany, including Breton language, music, dance, and cuisine.
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Cities of Brittany
The prefecture of the Brittany region is Rennes, a city of art and history that was once an important part of the Duchy of Brittany. The city is often associated with its beautiful medieval old town, filled with colourful half-timbered houses leaning against each other. Large parts of the historic centre burned down in a great fire in 1720, and were rebuilt in a modern style. Rennes is known for its amazing Gothic cathedral, Le Cathédrale Saint-Pierre de Rennes, which was begun in the 12th century.
Rennes has a large and vibrant art scene, with music festivals and street art a common feature throughout the city. Some notable museums include Le Musée des Beaux-Arts, which first opened its doors in 1794; the Museum of Brittany, which houses a great collection of cultural treasures; and for more contemporary art, the FRAC is the place to go. Rennes also boasts plenty of green spaces to relax, such as the Parc du Thabor in the city centre, known for its beautiful landscaping and themed gardens.
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A city near the eastern edge of the peninsula of Brittany, Quimper is the capital of the Finistère department and a centre of Bretagne culture. It was built on the confluence of three different rivers, the Odet, the Steir, and the Jet rivers. The city is famous for its Quimper Faience, a hand-painted pottery which originated in the Locmaria quarter of the city, and now has a Museum of Quimper Pottery. Quimper Faience often features ‘Le Petit Breton‘, a recognisable character in Breton costume.
The old town of Quimper is notable for its large amount of surviving half-timbered houses, brightly painted and with corbelled upper stories that lean out over the streets below. Place du Beurre (butter square) is one of the most popular places to sit at a restaurant and admire the architecture. The city skyline is dominated by the twin towers of the Cathédrale Saint-Corentin de Quimper, a Gothic cathedral founded in 1239. For the best views in the city, hiking to the top of Mont Frugy across the Odet river offers panoramic views.
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A charming medieval city of colourful timber houses and cobblestone squares that once hosted jousting tournaments, Vannes is perhaps best known for its incredible city walls and fortified gates. Vannes started as a Gallic settlement, and the walls were built towards the end of the Roman Empire. The fortifications were expanded over the centuries of the middle ages, and include the Château de l’Hermine, which was once home to the Dukes of Brittany.
Vannes is located on the Gulf of Morbihan, where fresh seafood is a popular menu item sold from the many restaurants along the Port de Vannes. The port has a long tree-lined esplanade perfect for walking. Inside the city walls, notable buildings include the 11th century Gothic cathedral, the Cathédrale Saint-Pierre de Vannes, as well as the Château Gaillard, a medieval townhouse which serves as an archaeological museum. The old town features a funny icon of the city, a 15th century granite statue of ‘Vannes and his wife‘, two leering busts that look out over the streets.
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On the northern coast of the Brittany region is the fortified port city of Saint-Malo. Originating as a Gallic settlement and then a Roman port, present-day Saint-Malo was founded in the 6th century by a monk of Welsh origin, named Saint Malo (or Maclou). In the 17th and 18th centuries, Saint-Malo was a major harbour for sailors, traders, and especially corsairs, authorised by the French crown to engage with enemy ships.
Saint-Malo is one of the most impressive walled cities in France, and visitors can walk the medieval ramparts and through the city gates. The fortifications extend to the two small islands offshore, the Vauban-designed Fort National, and the Grand Bé, which has the grave site of author François-René de Chateaubriand. Both islands are accessible by foot during low tide. Saint-Malo old town is located inside the city walls, known as Intra Muros. The granite buildings and the Saint-Malo Cathedral were heavily damaged by Allied bombing and German arson during WW2, but were rebuilt post-war. Today, the old city is filled with beautiful hotels and restaurants. The city is also notable for its Great Aquarium of Saint-Malo, one of the biggest in France.
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Just south of Saint-Malo is the historic commune of Dinan, famous for its 3km (1.8 miles) of city walls stretching around its perimeter. The Dukes of Brittany used Dinan as a seat of their power in the 14th century, building the imposing granite Château de la Duchesse Anne (Dinan Castle) on a hilltop overlooking the town. The old town of Dinan is often considered one of France’s prettiest, with half-timbered houses and narrow cobblestone ways.
By the Rance River, the Port of Dinan is perhaps one of the most photogenic areas, with riverside restaurants, crêperies, and historic chandlers, as well as the town’s iconic bridge, Le Vieux Pont. Just down stream is the Viaduc de Dinan, an arched viaduct-style road bridge opened in 1852, designated a Historical Monument. The best place to sit down for a traditional Bretagne cider is Place des Merciers and Rue de la Cordonnerie, nicknamed thirsty street for its many bars. The most famous festival in Dinan is the Fête des Remparts (Festival of the Ramparts) in June, which features medieval markets, live jousting, and period costumes.
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Historical Sites In Brittany
The history of the Brittany is written in the castles, archaeological sites and landscapes of the region. Many of these sites are open to visitors to explore.
The Carnac Stones
One of the most impressive megalithic sites in France are the stones of Carnac, located near the south coast of Brittany. Numbering over 3,000, the stones are arranged in three main fields – Ménec, Kerlescan, and Kermario. The granite menhirs (upright standing stones) were unearthed by pre-Celtic peoples of Brittany around 4500-3300BCE, with the majority of them arranged in long columns. Their meaning is still debated, but are thought to have been arranged for religious or ceremonial reasons.
The three main sites consist of several hundred to over a thousand stones located in fields. In addition to the main sites, there are numerous dolmens (stone portal tombs), and tumuli (earthen mounds covering a tomb). Visitors can visit the stones, as well as see exhibits at the Maison des Mégalithes and the Museum of Prehistory.
An important part of the megalithic sites of Morbihan is the Locmariaquer Megaliths, three significant and astounding sites. They are located on a small peninsula in Quiberon Bay, on the south coast of Brittany. The first site is the Broken Menhir of Er Grah, four broken pieces of a colossal Menhir that once stood tall, dominating the landscape. It measured 20.6 metres (67.6 feet) high, and weighed 330 tons. Erected around 4700BCE, and fallen probably around 700 years later, archaeologists still debate how Neolithic peoples were able to raise such a large stone.
The next site is the Table de Marchand, a large dolmen (prehistoric tomb) that forms a long passage 7 metres (23 feet) under a covered entrance. The Er Grah tumulus (burial ground) is a 140-metre (460 feet) terraced rock construction which was built as a cairn. It was completed around 3300BCE. Visitors can visit the sites, with the port town of Locmariaquer a convenient jumping off point.
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Château de la Hunaudaye
The castle of Hunaudaye in Plédéliac is located about 30km (18.6 miles) west of Dinan, and is one of the most fascinating ruined castles in Brittany. It was built originally around 1220 by Olivier Tournemine as a defensive measure between the Dukes of Penthièvre and Le Poudouvre region. In 1341, the castle was destroyed early during the conflicts of the Breton War of Succession. It was rebuilt, and ultimately abandoned after the fall of the Tournemine family in the 16th century, and partially dismantled during the French Revolution. Today, visitors can explore the ruins of Château de Hunaudaye, and imagine how it might have looked in its heyday.
Château de Josselyn
One of the finest castles in Brittany is the Château de Josselyn, home of the House of Rohan, a powerful Breton family in the Duchy of Brittany. An original castle was built in 1008CE, which was destroyed and rebuilt in 1370. The castle is open to visitors, and is known for its impressive library that contains well over 3000 books, its monumental 16th century fireplace, a large doll and toy collection, and a beautiful English garden.
Coastal Landmarks of Brittany
Jutting out into the Atlantic Ocean, the peninsula of Brittany has no shortage of spectacular coastal scenery. Here are some of the most popular, but there are many more places to discover.
Côte de Granit Rose (Pink Granite Coast)
A stretch of Atlantic coast in the north of Brittany between Plestin-les-Grèves and Louannec, the Côte de Granit Rose is named for its wonderful pink rocks and sand. The area is perfect for walking and bird-watching, with the collections of pink rocks glowing in the sun and producing amazing colours at sunrise and sunset. The Sept-Îles National Nature Reserve off the coast is one of the best bird reserves in Brittany, home to sea birds such as cormorants and puffins.
Cap Fréhel and Fort la Latte
Cap Fréhel is located west of Saint-Malo, a scenic peninsula that juts northward into the Atlantic. It is notable for its outstanding panoramic views, as well as its two picturesque lighthouses; the square Phare du Cap Fréhel which was built in 1950, and the older round lighthouse which dates to 1650, and was built under Louis XIV. Nearby is the windswept Fort la Latte, a 14th century fortress on a rocky outcrop. Visitors can visit its towers, crenellations and dungeons.
Pointe du Raz
Located on the far western coast of the peninsula is the wild and rugged coastline of the Pointe du Raz, one of the premier natural tourist sites in Brittany. The point is perfect for dramatic clifftop walks that overlook the Atlantic Ocean below. The visitors centre is Maison de la Site, which can arrange guided tours.
North of the point is the Baie des Trépassés (Bay of the Dead), a popular surfing spot that leads around to the Pointe du Van, another dramatic headland. About 8km (5km) offshore is the Île-de-Sein, a small inhabited island known for its pretty whitewashed houses. The nearest major port is Audierne, known for its great seafood such as langoustine.
The largest island in Brittany is Belle-Île-en-Mer, located 14km (8.7 miles) south of the Quiberon peninsula and south-east from Vannes and the Gulf of Morbihan. The Beautiful Island is known for its many sandy beaches, its pretty fishing village of Sauzon, and the Citadel Belle Île, an absolutely striking star fort built by famed military engineer, Sébastien Le Prestre de Vauban. The main port is Le Palais, which receives visitors by ferry.
Eating And Drinking In Brittany
Drinking in Brittany
Cider is one of the most popular drinks in Brittany, and is a great accompaniment to Breton crêpes. Breton cider comes in two main varieties; sweet cider which is served with sweet crêpes and desserts, and dry or brut cider which is served with savoury dishes like galettes. Other varieties such as cidre blanc and cidre rose are taking off in popularity.
Brittany has much more besides cider on offer. Chouchen is another popular Breton drink, an old Celtic mead recipe made with honey, and served either cold or warm. Lambig is a cider brandy similar to Calvados in Normandy, with a smooth, fruity taste. Brittany also produces fine whiskeys, as well as liqueurs such as Fleur de Caramel, a salted caramel liqueur, and Kremmig, a creamy liqueur.
Eating in Brittany
The most famous food from Brittany are crêpes and galettes, very thin pancakes that are cooked on a specialty hotplate, with a small spatula-like utensil for evenly spreading the batter. Crêpes are usually made with wheat flour, and have a sweet filling, while the Breton galette is made with buckwheat flour, and contains a savouring filling such as eggs, meat, fish or vegetables. The classic combination is the galette complète, made with ham, cheese, and egg; the galette sausage is another local favourite.
Brittany is the home of Breton cuisine, and its most famous ingredient is salted Breton butter, which can be found in most dishes. Milk from Pie Noire cows is highly prized. Cider is also incorporated into many dishes, such as poulet au cidre, as well as in seafood dishes such as oysters or moules frites. Bouchot mussels are a local speciality, grown in the Bay of Mont Saint-Michel on ropes in the sea, and beloved for their rich flavour.
Cheeses of Brittany
While the premier dairy product of Brittany is butter, fine cheeses can still be found in the region. Saint-Paulin is one of the most popular cheeses of the region, a firm and creamy cheese with a nutty, milky taste, and originally produced by Trappist monks. Other locally produced cheeses include the Trappe de Timadeuc, known for its elastic texture; Merzer, a light cheese with a low fat content; and the Tome de Rhuys, a raw cow’s milk cheese with a fruity flavour.
Desserts of Brittany
Brittany is the birthplace of some of France’s iconic desserts, some of which can be found around France. The classic dessert is the kouign amann, a crunchy caramelised pastry made with plenty of butter and sugar. Far Breton is a tart similar to a flan, with an egg and milk custard base, and containing fruits such as prunes soaked in Armagnac. One of the sweet specialties of Brittany are small cookies called Sablés Bretons, crumbly shortbread treats made with plenty of Breton butter.