- Stephanie Carwin
With its own language (Breton) and long history of traditions, Brittany is one of the most distinctive regions in France. From its Celtic heritage, to the striking stone monuments from early human settlement, to the site of the magical forest of Arthurian legend, the region exudes an ancient and mysterious aura. Here’s our guide to 10 of the region’s best towns, from medieval citadels to historic harbors.
Auray is a charming town, with cobbled streets and historic half-timbered houses, known particularly for its extremely picturesque harbour, Saint Goustan. The port served as a major trading site from the 1600s to 1800s, even welcoming Benjamin Franklin who arrived at Saint Goustan in 1776 in order to solicit the support of the French in the American War of Independence. Nowadays, it is a pleasant yachting harbour with an abundance of restaurants and bars at which to enjoy the lovely views. There are regular book and craft fairs and an annual oyster festival that takes place along the quays.
With its prehistoric aligned megaliths that date from the same period as England’s Stonehenge, Carnac is a mandatory stop for any visitor to Brittany. Thousands of standing stones, or menhirs, were hewn from local rock and erected by the pre-Celtic people of Brittany between 3000 and 4000 B.C. during the Neolithic period, for reasons that remain mysterious. The town is divided into Carnac-Ville, with a historical seventeenth-century church and the artefact-laden Museum of Prehistory, and Carnac-Plages, an attractive seaside resort on Quiberon Bay, with large sandy beaches and a thalassotherapy center.
One of Brittany’s best preserved medieval walled citadelles, Dinan is a charming town definitely worth a visit. You can walk along its impressive 3km-long ramparts or climb St. Catherine Tower for a beautiful view of the valley below. An equally stunning view can be found once braving the 158 steps of the Tour de l’Horloge (Clock Tower) in the old quarter (Vieux Dinan), which is characterized by lovely winding pedestrian streets and half-timbered houses. The town is a designated Ville d’Art et d’Histoire (Town of Art and History), and it encourages local artists, craftspeople, and local culinary traditions, all of which can be found at the market on Thursday mornings at Place du-Guesclin, the town square named after a fourteenth-century knight.
Recognized as one of the most beautiful villages in France, Locronan is also home to the legend of Saint Ronan, after whom the town is named. Local tradition holds that he was a bishop from Ireland who came to found a hermitage (‘loc’ in Breton), and the St. Ronan church housing his relics remains a pilgrimage site today. The town itself is a stunning step back in time, its Renaissance granite houses so well preserved. It has served as the location for a number of films such as A Very Long Engagement by renowned French filmmaker Jean-Pierre Jeunet.
Surrounded by an ancient forest, Paimpont is the perfect stepping-off point to explore the legendary forest of Brocéliande that was supposedly home to King Arthur and the wizard Merlin. Many trails lead from the town into the forest, but for those more interested in historical sites, the town’s Abbey, dating from 1199, was built on the sacred site of a seventh-century monastery and sits on a stunning lakeside location.
Set along the Pink Granite Coast along the north side of Brittany, Ploumanac’h is a small village with a stunning beach landscape. The impressive pink granite rock formations form a surreal coastline, with the town’s active lighthouse standing prominently at the shoreline. As frequently is the case for coastal towns in the region, Ploumanac’h contains both a beach area (Ploumanac’h-Plage), and an inland village (Ploumanac’h-Bourg), between which lies a park with rock formations similar to those along the coast.
Located in the Finistère in the northwest of Brittany, Pont-Aven is an artistic haven known the for the ‘Pont-Aven School’ of painters. The school of painters was centered around the artists Paul Gauguin and Emile Bernard, whose artworks show a number of depictions of the village scenery. The artistic traditions have continued, with a contemporary art school and a number of galleries. The beautiful scenery depicted in Gauguin’s works can be enjoyed in a stroll along the riverside or on the Promenade des Moulins, beside the town’s remaining windmills. In August, there is a flower festival that celebrates the many Breton traditions.
Located in Brittany’s western Morbihan region, Rochefort-en-Terre has also been awarded the title of one of France’s most beautiful villages. The village grew in fame after an American painter Alfred Klotz bought and renovated the town’s medieval château in 1907. He also encouraged the display of flowers in the town, which is a tradition that continues to this day and enhances the charm of the village’s half-timbered buildings and Renaissance stone edifices. The town’s church, Notre-Dame-de-la-Tronchaye, is located on a hillside and steeped in a long legendary history, dating originally from the twelfth century.
Located on a peninsula that juts out into Morlaix Bay on the north coast of Brittany, Roscoff is a particularly charming seaside town that has earned it a place as one of the region’s ‘small towns of character.’ It boasts a pleasant harbour and beaches, and its town centre has maintained its attractive architectural heritage, with sixteenth- and seventeenth-century buildings from its prosperous history as a port. Just offshore, a short boat ride away, is the small island of Île de Batz (pronounced ‘ba’). Free of cars, it offers an idyllic getaway from the mainland, with quiet beaches and a well-known botanical garden, the Jardin Exotique Georges Delaselle, created between 1897 and 1937 by a Parisian businessman.
With a stunning location thrust out into the sea, Saint-Malo is one of the most popular destinations in Brittany. Its walled citadel (Intra Muros) is the main attraction, most of which was painstakingly restored after major destruction during World War II. The town’s history is also quite famous as an important port during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries used by both trade ships and the notorious privateers (corsaires) employed as protection against the English. The city also enjoys a number of pleasant beaches and an extremely large selection of restaurants, appropriately focused on seafood.