The capital of Brittany’s Côtes-d’Armor department is an unpretentious town that doesn’t care much about tourism. But nonetheless, there is a lot to win you over in Saint-Brieuc.
The old center has ancient granite buildings and half-timbered houses, while the port of Légué, located at the mouth of the River Goué, resonates with centuries of maritime activity. There’s a cathedral that looks like a fort, a cemetery with distinguished occupants, an award-winning zoo and a lively schedule of events and fairs. Stunning natural monuments, lovely fishing villages and beach resorts are all close to the car.
Let’s explore the best things to do in Saint-Brieuc:
1. St. Brieuc Cathedral
It would be a mistake to call the town’s cathedral “decorative”, at least from the outside: it has two fort-like granite towers without any openings other than the arrow ring.
In the 13th century, it was the bishop’s fortress, and its solid appearance is no coincidence, since Saint-Brieuc had no walls and the building was built to withstand sieges.
The stuff inside is much more refined, especially in the south wing of the transept.
There’s an awe-inspiring 16th-century stained-glass window showing biblical scenes such as manna in the desert and the Last Supper.
2. Old Saint-Brieuc
The prettiest part of the town is to the east and north of the cathedral, full of arched wooden houses.
Place du Martray is a gorgeous square with buildings of stone and wood, all facing the covered market of Saint-Brieuc.
At Place au Lin you will find the Maison Ribeault, the city’s oldest half-timbered house, dating back to the 1400s.
Its facade and doors are carved with botanical patterns, masks and scallop shells.
Set aside at least a few hours to see everything Old Saint-Brieuc has to offer, then grab a cup of coffee or chocolate sauce at Place du Chai.
3. Museum of Art and History
To learn about the culture and history of the Côtes-d’Armor, you can spend an hour or so exploring this museum.
Although much of what you’ll see was collected in the late 1800s, the allure first emerged after the epileptic seizures during the Revolution.
You’ll jump from subject to subject, covering underwater archaeology, sailing, furniture, woven heritage and traditional Breton clothing.
There are exhibits about daring fishing expeditions in Iceland and Newfoundland, as well as local skills such as shoemaking and pottery.
The art gallery houses Breton painters and photographers who left their mark, such as Mathurin Mecht and portraitist Lucien Bailey.
4. Cimetière Saint-Michel
A cemetery might not be the exhilarating excursion everyone thinks of, but the city’s oldest cemetery has famous connections, beautiful sculptures, and compelling stories.
Built in 1839, there are still many historic mausoleums, and you can even check the Saint-Brieuc tourist office for a comprehensive list that includes a pioneering pilot, a member of the Resistance and the father of the inventor of the stethoscope.
Another famous father here is Lucien Camus, father of the literary great Albert.
Another Louis Guilloux was an influential 20th century writer known for his social realism.
5. Saisson Tour de France
To the right of the Gouët Estuary is a forest-covered rock that climbs to 70 meters above the water.
In the Middle Ages, it was just a place to defend the sea entrance of Saint-Brieuc from pirates and invaders.
Jean IV, Duke of Brittany, built a castle here in 1395, but at the end of the Wars of Religion, all but the fortress were razed to the ground.
The top of the mountain you see now has only one tower, in a picturesque state of decay.
The GR 34 trail will get you there, and if you like abandoned sites, you’ll be in for a treat: a 19th-century manor has decayed just a few steps from the tower.
6. Port Regg
Below the tower is the port of Saint-Brieuc, which lines the banks of the Gouet when it reaches the English Channel.
Although it’s Brittany’s fifth-largest port, it has a quaint, relaxed vibe, and the quayside paths and rich woodlands on the slopes behind make it very walkable.
There are stone houses by the water, as well as restaurants, bars and cafes, and you can sit outside and watch the yachts float up and down the estuary.
If you want to spend the day, there are 8 km of seaside paths that take you to the Plage de Valais.
This is the only beach in town; the bay facing the Baie de Saint-Brieuc, the largest nature reserve in Brittany.
7. Les Chaos du Gouët
To remember the walk inland, head to the banks of the River Goue next to the village of Plantel.
About 15 minutes down from Saint-Brieuc is a 10.5-kilometer trail that runs along the banks of a river through a strange scene where Gouet deposited hundreds of huge granite boulders.
The entire trail is in mossy deciduous forest, and it’s hard to resist climbing some of the rocks or using them as stepping stones to cross shallow, bubbling rivers.
8. Zooparc de Tregomeur
A fun day awaits the kids at this zoo, which is Asian-themed and displays animals in enclosures that replicate their ecosystems as closely as possible.
The park is located in a lush valley with a microclimate that nourishes tropical vegetation.
Over the past decade, the General Council of Côtes-d’Armor has invested heavily in modernizing the attraction and adding species from China, Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia, Japan and many more countries in the region.
There are Vietnamese deer, Sumatran tigers, sun bears and gibbons such as Siamang, to name a few.
9. Rohanne Villa
A great way to get from the center of Saint-Brieuc to Port du Légué is to stroll through the grounds of this magnificent mansion that belongs to the town.
Villa Rohannec’h is the home of the local boat owner, Viscount Le Gualès de Mézaubran, built at the beginning of the 20th century.
It is surrounded by a seven-hectare park with orchards and sea pines, open every day in summer.
The mansion itself, which has just been remodeled, is a local cultural space, with themed exhibitions and performances in summer, and a lively café.
Erquy is a lovely seaside resort prized for its pink sandstone huts next to a large sheltered cove.
One of the largest fishing fleets of the Côtes-d’Armor is located in Erquy, and between October and April they will trawling for scallops in the Bay of Saint-Brieuc.
The Fête de la Coquille Saint-Jacques (Scallop Festival) culminates in the season on a weekend in mid-April.
The beaches are of course a highlight, but you should go hiking on your own to Cap d’Erquy, one of the “Great Sites of France”. There are pink sandstone cliffs, 60 meters high, topped with heather.
11. Cap Fréhel
Now that you’ve come this far, you can continue along the coast to another French “great site”. With lighthouses, towering cliffs and ancient fortresses, this savage and windy peninsula is a must for anyone visiting Saint-Brieuc.
You can hike through the colourful heather heath to reach the two lighthouses at the top of the promontory, the older of which dates back to 1685 and was designed by underlings of the legendary Vauban.
Climb up 145 steps to unforgettable views of the Channel Islands and miles of coast.
Then there is Ratburg, built between 1300 and 1600 and remodeled to rise 60 meters above the sea and lower the drawbridge for tourists.
12. Regional Food
It’s no surprise why there’s so much fuss about scallops from the Bay of Saint-Brieuc. They are not in this world.
It’s worth braving the winter wind to taste them fresh from the sea, fried, marinated, stewed and paired with crisp white wine.
The stocks are so tightly regulated that boats can only fish for 45 minutes a week, two days a week during the season.
Just being in Brittany means you have to go out for sweet crepes or savory squares, which are usually served with ham, eggs and melted cheese.
St-Brieuc’s locker has a lot of stuff, but it’s not a beach destination.
The good thing is that if the temperature suddenly rises in the summer, you can reach the majestic sandy beach in just a few minutes’ drive.
Pléneuf-Val-André is 20 kilometers to the east, but you have to go further to beat its beaches: more than 2.5 kilometers long, when the tide recedes, there is a stretch of sand that seems to stretch to the horizon.
No wonder this bay was developed in the 19th century, when it was adorned with plantation villas that still exist today.
Further in the other direction is the beautiful resort of Binik.
When tourism arrived in the 20th century, Binik already had everything it needed to shine. There’s a lovely harbour from which fishermen once sailed to Newfoundland, but is now a sailing destination, and on the other side of the harbour walls is a long, wide sandy beach.
This is one of two breathtaking bays just a short walk from the old street knot of granite houses on the harbour side.
Stop for lunch at a seafood restaurant, then set off slowly on the Sentier des Douaniers, the historic smuggler-fighting trail that follows the water through pine forests, over granite outcrops, and next to more stunning beaches.
15. Summer Concerts
On Thursday and Friday nights, there is a live music season called Les Nocturnes on the stage of the souks.
The shows are booked by the town and are completely free.
They’re also for everyone, from traditional Breton folk to world music including jazz, rock, blues, dance and just about anything you can think of.
Most of the artists performing at Les Noctures are rookies, and the warm-up performances will be from the Côtes-d’Armor region.
Where to Stay: Best Hotels in Saint-Brieuc, France
Lowest price guaranteed.