As long as Paris’ rue de Rivoli
Rue Saint-Malo is undoubtedly one of the longest streets in Rennes at a total of 3 kilometres, equivalent to rue de Rivoli in Paris, and is also known for being one of the most enduring arteries of the capital. But here, in the capital of Brittany, the atmosphere is very different, a little surly, it could even be called “roguish”. It is a reflection of Rennes itself, with an anti-establishment and rebellious side that it suits and that has defined its history. Welcome to rue Saint-Malo, formerly rue de la Soif (Drinker’s Alley), where you will inevitably end up for a bite to eat or a drink during your visit to Rennes. A must to get inspiration for going out and activities is a visit to the Tourism Office, which has been established at no. 1 in the former chapterhouse of the Couvent des Jacobins since 2019.
The street, which is named for the famous coastal resort on the Côte d’Emeraude (Emerald Coast), did not always have this name. It used to be called “rue haute” (upper street), in opposition to “rue basse” (lower street), which is now rue de Dinan. Incidentally, the two are connected by a discreet passage that winds between the walls and buildings: this was the ruelle aux chapeliers, the entrance to which can be found at number 7.
The route of an ancient Gallo-Roman road
The common feature between these two streets? Their north-south orientation. Rue Saint-Malo has been a major road in Rennes since time immemorial. “Since the beginnings of the city, rue Saint-Malo has been an important road that made it possible to enter and leave Rennes while following the route of an ancient Gallo-Roman road” explains Gilles Brohan, head of cultural heritage at the Tourism Office – Destination Rennes. “It forms what is known as the “cardo”, which is the north-south axis that crosses a city and, in its centre, meets the “decumanus”, which is the east-west axis. In Rennes, this is rue Saint-Melaine”.
In 1792, it was rebaptised as rue Port-Malo, from the ephemeral name of the corsair city. The section that goes along the Couvent des Jacobins is also known as rue Saint-Dominique, which refers to the Dominican Order, the other name for the Order of Preachers that originally founded the convent. Much later, it was nicknamed “rue de la Soif”, running along rue Saint-Michel, at a time when numerous establishments catering to nightlife drew people in all night long.
A crossing point before the entrance to the city
It is an ancient crossing point and the entrance to the city. This is also the reason why the Couvent des Jacobins was built there in the 14th century. The location is strategic as it connects one of the gates of the fortified city to the banks of the Ille river, the other water course at the origin of the Vilaine, which influenced Rennes’ name in ancient times: Condate, meaning “confluence”.
At the time, although many industries packed together here in the faubourg districts outside the fortifications, the district around what is currently rue Saint-Malo has remained very green and much less dense than within the wall. For those who know how to read the outline and shape of a city, some remains can still be seen. “At a very early stage, industries developed in the areas surrounding rue Saint-Michel, with artisans who had been established there since antiquity” explains Gilles Brohan, but it was not until the Middle Ages that buildings were constructed along rue Saint-Malo, “it is a very green area and less dense than within the walls, with strips of greenery around main highways. The urban fabric here is free and interspersed with gardens up to Saint-Martin bridge”.
A street on the frontline of the Revolt of the papier timbré
With the exception of the Couvent des Jacobins, which has been magnificently restored and transformed into a conference centre, there are few remaining traces of buildings from the Middle Ages on the street. There are not even very many of the half-timbered houses that are famous tourist attractions in Rennes. Nevertheless, there is one that cannot be missed at number 32. Its beautiful yellow colour is an invitation to go on a journey, as by pushing open the door, you are immediately transported elsewhere: to the La Maison du Cachemire boutique.
The other half-timbered houses were destroyed in the 17th century by reprisals from the Revolt of the papier timbré because the street had already become a hotspot for protests in 1675. This revolt against new taxes has left a trace on Rennes’ history. It was an episode that led the authorities to crack down heavily on residents of the rue haute. In one incident, while she was passing along the street in a carriage, the Duchess of Chaulnes, wife of the governor, was waylaid by the crowd, which insisted she be godmother to a newborn. But instead of a newborn, they were holding a dead cat. It was a schoolyard prank that was not received well by the Duke of Chaulnes. And he gave no quarter. As a result, repression became more severe on the street, residents were evicted and many of the homes were destroyed.
A street with a “roguish” spirit
The street is much calmer now, but is still lively, with parties in the evenings and maintains a “roguish” spirit that is typical of Rennes. The Drinker’s Alley was here not so long ago with legendary establishments, such as the Bernique Hurlante bar. Rue Saint-Malo has held on to this unique identity at the gates of the very heart of the city.
Each year on 1 May, a festival of laziness is an invitation to celebrate idleness rather than work. Although the street has kept its somewhat rebellious side, in recent years, it has transformed with new spots to have a drink or a bite to eat, or even listen to a concert. In 2019, at the start of the street, the Tourism Office set up shop in a wing of the Couvent des Jacobins and draws new visitors to this part of the city centre, which is spreading out towards the Hôtel-Dieu. This is a location for new leisure activities, restaurants and, eventually, accommodation that will give a new dimension to this neighbourhood that is full of life. The Roof, a climbing centre, and Origines, a restaurant and microbrewery, opened in 2019.
Filled with fantastic locales to eat, have a drink or go shopping
This is the perfect time to take a tour of rue Saint-Malo, a street where you can travel through a range of global specialties. Start with Breton specialties at Œuf la crêperie. An acronym of “On est une famille” (we are a family) and spelling out “egg” in French, this business sells galettes and crêpes made with local products that are high quality at an affordable price. Breton brunch on Sundays is also worth a detour.
Another business that is built around local specialties is Café des Jacobins, which is located at the very start of the street. This rotisserie and cellar restaurant with a friendly ambiance is the place to try local poultry and nice boutique Breton wines and beers that should, of course, be consumed in moderation.
All along the street, there are several restaurants that offer a break from routine and satisfy palates on a quest for exotic dishes. For fans of reimagined Lebanese cuisine, Mezzelicious is a must for enjoying mezze in a high-design setting, but don’t forget to make a reservation! Another Mediterranean option, Picotta, is a great spot for ordering tapas, though their pizza and prawns are also excellent. Even in winter, the atmosphere has a Spanish warmth with a large fireplace and an interior decorated like a traditional house with brick and wood. Take another journey to the other side of the Atlantic Ocean in the restaurant back to the 60s, which immerses visitors in the decor of a 1960s American diner with a menu of generous burgers, milkshakes and more.
Record shops for music fans
Fans of burgers should head to Burger Attitude, a burger bar that serves burgers inspired by regional French specialties. Of the new locales that have opened on rue Saint-Malo, Symbiozh undoubtedly has the most original concept: a café-concept store where you can both eat vegetarian dishes made with local products and buy indoor plants, promising a welcome botanical break.
Le Congrès has also recently opened its doors. This restaurant, with its carefully designed interior, is indisputably the largest on the street, with its spacious tables that are perfect for spending time with friends.
Rue Saint-Malo is also packed with bars for having a drink (Black Bear, Le bar de la plage, Au tri plaisirs, and many more). One of Rennes’ legendary café-concert venues will soon reopen: Le Dejazey should soon be scheduling DJ sets to liven up your nights. There are also several lovely shops that are worth visiting, especially the record shops: Les enfants de Bohème and Les Troubadours du chaos are among the most select addresses to find vinyls and CDs for all tastes. Just one more reason to take a walk along rue Saint-Malo!