Late December / early January is perhaps not the best time to visit Nantes as I thought it would be rainy and cold and the city would be dead. Well, I was partially wrong. Though it was cold and it rained most days, there was an abundance of things to do and see in Nantes. The capital of the Pays de la Loire is an interesting city. Located on the Loire River, the city which was called the “Venice of the West” is like the new kid on the block. In the light of its past as a slave trade city, Nantes is now reinventing itself as a cultural and artistic hub. The city offers great scenery, numerous cultural and gastronomic activities. I did a lot during my 3 days trip so here are my top 13 things to do and see in Nantes, the city of art.
- 1 Discover the city with a Greeter
- 2 Walk along the city or ride a bike
- 3 Le Nid / Tour Bretagne
- 4 Jardin Japonais, Ile de Versailles
- 5 Cathédrale de Saint-Pierre and Saint-Paul
- 6 Château des Ducs de Bretagne
- 7 Passage Pommeraye
- 8 Place du Bouffay
- 9 Ile Feydeau
- 10 Memorial to the Abolition of Slavery
- 11 Le Lieu Unique
- 12 Les Machines de l’Île
- 13 Food and drink
Discover the city with a Greeter
As mentioned above, there are lots of activities to do in Nantes. If you like to know the story behind the city, I would recommend using a “greeter”. What is a greeter you ask? Greeters are people who live in Nantes or neighbourhood and are passionate about their city and region. The volunteers share their passion with visitors on free guided tours that are tailored to each visitor’s interests. It can be a one to one visit which is completely different from the guided tours we see around with a horde of tourists following a guide holding an umbrella. I spent my Wednesday afternoon with Jacques and explored the city in a structured way. I was impressed by how knowledgeable and patient he was. Thanks to him, I was able to discover places that I would have not visited otherwise or wouldn’t have a clue about their history.
If you would like to book a greeter next time you are in Nantes or other cities for that matter, all you need to do is to go to their website.
Walk along the city or ride a bike
The amazing thing about Nantes is that not only the city is full of pedestrian streets but as soon as you set a foot on the pavement cars magically stop to give way. I have to say that it’s a wonderful feeling, as a pedestrian you feel like you own the roads. But you still have to be careful and watch out for the trams! Nantes is a pedestrian-friendly city so you can just about walk anywhere. Actually last summer a project called “Follow the Green Line” was launched to help visitors explore the city and see all there is to see in the city.
Nantes is also a bicycle-friendly city and the many bike paths and bike stations are a statement of that. You can hire with Bicloo or Detours de Loire and see the most attractive sights in Nantes and Loire Valley.
Le Nid / Tour Bretagne
Tour Bretagne is Nantes’ only skyscraper and although it isn’t pretty at first glance it offers a superb viewing spot. For just €1 or free with the Nantes Pass, you can have access to the Nid (nest in French) a bar with a panoramic view over the city. Once you reach the 32nd floor, you are faced with an amazing sight of Nantes. The bar has an interesting decor; the body of a stork-heron hybrid serves as the bar while the neck and eggs serve as tables and seating.
Jardin Japonais, Ile de Versailles
This charming man-made little island is situated along the riverbank of Erdre. The inspired Japanese zen garden is simply too peaceful and beautiful to miss. Wandering through the garden and exploring the waterfalls, rock ponds and exotic plants, I thought I was in Japan. The garden was amazing on a beautiful day so I can only imagine how beautiful it will be in spring with all the flowers in full bloom.
Following on from the zen garden, you can take a stroll along the quaysides of the river or even take a boat ride.
Cathédrale de Saint-Pierre and Saint-Paul
Nantes has several religious buildings but the Cathédrale Saint-Pierre which is located at the place from which takes its name is the grandest. Dating back to the 15th century, the flamboyant Gothic cathedral took over 400 years to build. As well as the magnificent design, history lovers will be pleased to know that they can also view the tomb of Francis II (French: François II), the Duke of Brittany and his wife Marguerite de Foix. The well-defined sculpture is made of marble. You can climb up the nearby stairs to have a better view.
7 Impasse Saint-Laurent, 44000 Nantes
Château des Ducs de Bretagne
The castle built in the 13th century was the place of residence of the Dukes of Brittany before the French royals came in around 1500. The castle looks superb on the outside especially at night with the lights illuminating it. However, when I entered through the courtyard, I didn’t get the WOW factor. The castle looked like a mismatch of buildings of different styles, each of them amazingly designed through. Now the castle houses the Nantes Museum showcasing the evolution of the city from the era of the slave trade to now. It’s free to enter the courtyard of the castle and walk around the ramparts, however, accessing the museum isn’t. Having said that you can access the museum for free with Nantes Pass otherwise, it’s €8.
4 Place Marc Elder, 44000 Nantes
It’s not everywhere that you can find a shopping arcade which has neoclassical decor, luxury shops and is photo worthy spot. Passage Pommeraye is just that. Built around 1843, has an impressive staircase and archways. The grand decor made the passage the favourite place where the locals shop.
20 Passage Pommeraye, 44000 Nantes
Place du Bouffay
The square located in the oldest part of the city is perhaps the most touristic and lively in Nantes with lots of restaurants with terraces, crêperies etc. Wandering in the pedestrian streets like Rue de la Juiverie or Rue des Carmelites, you see some of the few remaining timber-framed houses and stone buildings. The medieval architecture is evidence of Nantes’ history with Brittany. If you walk further on Rue des Échevins, you will come across a Gothic fireplace coming right out of the wall. I thought it was cool that they left it.
When I was exploring Ile Feydeau with Jacques, I had to wear my glasses as I thought my eyesight was getting worse. The townhouses which used to be homes to the wealthy merchants look like they are leaning. These big buildings were built on sandy soils hence why they are now leaning. My guide was quick to explain that Nantes used to be separated by rivers which made it difficult for locals to reach the rest of the city without a boat. Since the city was surrounded by water, it got the nickname of “Venice of the West” until the canals were blocked and replaced by streets. I wondered if they were still safe to be habitable and Jacques assured me they were. When visiting, be sure to spot the mascarons, door and window ornaments inspired by spirits of the sea.
Memorial to the Abolition of Slavery
Nantes, much more like several port cities in Europe was financed by the slave trade. Being the first city in France to ship slaves, the creation of the memorial commemorating the abolition of slavery as well as the history of Nantes was not well received by all. Most families wanted to forget this period of history however some families were happy to share their history books.
The stern and dark memorial is located in an underground corridor. The idea was for people walking inside to experience the feeling of entering the slave ships. The wall is filled with a timeline so people can read all about the expeditions and the names of the ships that departed from the port. Outside, little rectangular lights illuminate the pavement. When you look closer, you see that they represent the ships involved in the slave trade and the main African and American trading posts.
Quai de la Fosse, Nantes
Le Lieu Unique
Le Lieu Unique is cultural complex which opened in the former factory of LU (Lefèvre-Unique) in 2000. Much like the name, this place is unique in a sense that it now a cultural hub for exhibitions, concerts, theatre and dance performances. You can treat yourself to a nice lunch or snack in the bistro, browse through the various books in the bookstore or even relax at the Turkish bath! My visit coincided with the Japanese exposition called Komorebi and since I love anything Japanese, I was quite happy.
2 Quai Ferdinand Favre, Nantes
Les Machines de l’Île
About 10 years ago, two artists (François Delarozière and Pierre Orefice) had the brilliant idea to make an old shipyard to what is now the location of the fun activities. Les Machines de l’Ile (machines of the isle) in one on the remaining islands – Ile de Nantes – is like the incubator to the creative metropolis that is Nantes. The Grand Éléphant (great elephant) is to Nantes what the Eiffel Tower is to Paris. The part wooden part steel creatures are innovative and futuristic and inspired by Jules Verne, a native of Nantes. Since the main attraction, the Grand Éléphant was sadly undergoing a facelift, the warehouse Galerie des Machines (machine gallery) which hosts several creatures and tells the background behind the creatures became the main attraction. People (children and not so young people) were queuing to take a tour on some of the sculptures. A few minutes away from the warehouse is the Carousel du Monde Marins (€8.50) a gigantic carousel with marine creatures. The carousel is on three levels: ocean floor, depths and boats.
Parc des Chantiers, Boulevard Léon-Bureau, Nantes
If you want to explore the island further, you can head over to the Hangar a Bananes, a former warehouse used to stock up bananas and pineapples from Africa. Now it has been changed to restaurants, bars and exhibitions hall.
Food and drink
France is known for its good cuisine so when in Nantes expect nothing but great food. With a link to Brittany and being so close to the Ocean Atlantic lots of the food are fish or seafood based.
The restaurant list in Nantes is so extensive that Nantes Tourisme has even published a book dedicated to restaurants only, called “Guide des Tables de Nantes”!
Some of the places I visited are listed below:
- Esperance Cafe (25 Quai François Mitterrand, 44200 Nantes) is a specialist coffee shop in Iles de Nantes. The nice freshly roasted coffee smell emanating from the hop will make everyone stop by to grab a latte or espresso.
- Les Pieds dans le plat (13 Rue Jean-Jacques Rousseau) This restaurant was recommended by the hotel and I am glad they did because the food was fantastic. You should definitely add this to your food itinerary.
- Au bureau de Nantes (10 Quai Francois Mitterrand) is a lovely brasserie great food and friendly waiters. The décor is very English like nut contrast well with the surroundings.
- Brasserie La Cigale (4 Place Graslin) The restaurant with an Art Nouveau style décor is worth a look even if you don’t eat there. I was planning to have dinner there after a quick visit with Jacques but since it was fully booked, I ended up having a pancake!
- Crêperie Heb Ken (5 Rue de Guérande) offers delicious crêpes and galettes in a welcoming environment.
Getting there: I travelled to Nantes by plane from London Gatwick via Easyjet. You can also travel by train (less than 3 hours from Paris) You can find more information about the different mode of transport here (SNCF – https://en.oui.sncf/en/) or Nantes airport – https://www.nantes.aeroport.fr/fr )
Accommodation: I stayed at Ibis Nantes Tour de Bretagne (19 Rue Jean Jaurès, 44000 Nantes) and Ibis Styles Place Graslin (5 Rue du Chapeau Rouge, 44000 Nantes). I had a wonderful stay in both hotels: rooms are simple but clean and comfortable. The Ibis Nantes Tour de Bretagne even has a free bicycles rental for its guests. I say handy! Both are nice, quiet and well located.
Moona’s secrets tips:
- Most of the historic town is car free so be sure to park your car and use public transportation.
- Nantes is famous for its “Petit LU” (buttery biscuit) and berlingots, so be sure to bring back some to your family and friends.
- Did you know that the bus we all take daily was created in Nantes in 1826?
Nantes has been wonderful despite the rain and the locals are equally wonderful people (Big shout out to Jacques). Did I miss anything? Let me know in the comment. I can’t wait to come back again in summer to explore, do and see more amazing things. Until then, Merci Nantes!
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