Nantes, France, is located along the Loire River about 2 hours by train from Paris. It has a rich history: It was once the seat of the Dukes of Brittany, was home to the only woman who served as queen of France twice, and was the birthplace of Jules Verne, who was inspired by the city’s bustling harbor and shipbuilding industry. It then fell on hard times, but it has since risen from the ashes to even greater heights than before.
When Nantes’s shipbuilding industry declined, the city put serious effort and money into its art scene. The city’s art museum underwent six years of extensive renovation and reopened with a new wing for contemporary art.
Then there is Le Voyage a Nantes, the annual arts festival in which everyone — from professional artists to amateurs — can participate. On an island in the Loire, the fantastical Machines de l’Ile look like they jumped straight from the pages of a Jules Verne novel, bringing together craftsmanship, imagination, and fun. Think gigantic caterpillars and elephants you can ride on, a three-story carousel, submarines and planes — you get the idea.
And what connects all these attractions? The Green Line, helpfully drawn on the pavement by the city of Nantes to guide visitors to the city’s best sights, cafes, and shops.
Are you intrigued? Read on for more reasons to visit this lovely French city.
1. The Chateau Des Ducs De Bretagne Is Gorgeous
The Chateau des Ducs de Bretagne, or the Castle of the Dukes of Brittany, dates to the 1200s and is picture-perfect, complete with a moat, several towers, and a stone sentry walkway. It’s conveniently located between the train station and the city center.
It was once the home of the independent Dukes of Brittany, who needed a fortified seat to protect them from the kingdom of France. After Brittany was integrated into France in the 1500s, it was home to the only woman who served as queen of France twice: Anne of Brittany, who was married to both Charles VIII and Louis XII.
Now restored to its previous splendor, the castle houses a museum on Nantes’s history, with a particularly interesting exhibit on the slave trade that once existed in the city.
2. The Bouffay District Is Fun To Explore
The old center of Nantes, made up of winding lanes and half-timbered houses dating to the 1500s and 1600s, is mostly pedestrianized and invites you to saunter. You’ll find individual restaurants and bars and little boutiques and shops selling fashion, decor, and those famous Nantes candies, the Berlingots and the Rigolettes. The pretty churches and other historic sites make the area fun to explore.
Pro Tip: Get your candy at Les Rigolettes Nantaises, and have a glass of wine at Le Select Cafe-Bar, preferably sitting outside at night.
3. The Annual Arts Festival Is A Delight
Le Voyage a Nantes is the city’s annual summer arts and performance festival, an initiative that resulted in the Green Line. The Green Line is a self-guided walking tour taking in the most important sights of the city, ranging from the castle to unusual art installations outside shops.
As part of the annual arts festival, shop facades are redecorated by local artists. You may find, for example, a variety of animals in wigs outside a hair salon, or a giant lucky cat outside an Asian restaurant.
The Green Line takes you past churches, plenty of art installations, and quirky sites such as Le Lieu Unique, a beautiful former biscuit factory that’s now a popular art venue, cafe, and restaurant.
Pro Tip: Le Voyage a Nantes takes place every summer in July and August and offers art, music, classes, and much more. Most of it is free.
4. You Can Go For A Ride On The Fantastic Machines De L’Ile
Nantes was once home to one of the world’s leading shipbuilding ports, but when the shipbuilding industry went bust in the 1980s, the city decided to put all of its effort and funding into art. This resulted in utterly unique projects such as Le Lieu Unique, Le Voyage a Nantes, and Les Machines de l’Ile, a merger of art and mechanics heavily inspired by Jules Verne’s fantastic creatures.
The best known of the Machines de l’Ile is the gigantic mechanical elephant visitors can ride. There is also a three-level carousel — the levels representing animals under the sea, on land, and in the air — and you can visit the artists’ laboratory. This is where creatures not just for Nantes, but for events all over the globe are built, and to watch the gigantic mechanical creatures is fascinating.
Pro Tip: Ride the dragon. You can make it puff smoke.
5. The City’s Art Museum Is Worth A Look
Nantes’s art museum is a perfect blend of old and new. The old building houses works dating from the 13th century to the 21st century, and a modern extension called The Cube holds some 10,000 works of contemporary art. Even if you were to disregard the art, both buildings are remarkable architecturally. Have a proper look at the thin window on the stairs of The Cube — it is actual marble, very finely cut to allow light through. Just stunning.
Pro Tip: Nearby you will find the pretty Nantes Cathedral and part of the old city wall with the gate still intact.
6. The Passage Pommeraye Rivals The Passages Of Paris
The Passage Pommeraye, dating to the 1840s, is not unlike the covered passages of Paris, with its elegant floors and ceilings and beautiful shops. But unlike the passages of Paris, this passage covers three floors, and magnificent staircases connect the levels, each one full of great individual boutiques and photo opportunities. This is a superb place to look around and do some shopping.
Pro Tip: Exit near Place Graslin, go to the art nouveau Cafe La Cigale, and try the decadent champagne with three or four little cakes or sweets.
7. It Was The Birthplace Of Jules Verne
You’ve likely read some of Jules Verne’s adventures or seen a film or two based on them. Around the World in Eighty Days, Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, and Journey to the Center of the Earth are classics.
Nantes is where Jules Verne was born and raised, and the city’s museum dedicated to him provides incredible insight into his life and work. From beautifully illustrated books to pictures of Verne and his family plus a great souvenir shop, this is a little gem.
Pro Tip: The Heron Tree, another project by Les Machines de l’Ile, is being built near the museum. It will debut in 2022.
8. The Suburb Of Trentemoult Is A Dream
Just a ferry ride across the Loire from the Jules Verne museum lies the former fishing village of Trentemoult, an Instagrammer’s dream of narrow winding lanes and colorful houses with tiny gardens. Lining the Loire are plenty of good restaurants, some with terraces by the water, each more picturesque than the last.
Pro Tip: Take the Navibus N1 from near the Jules Verne museum. The Nantes Pass gives you free access to all local transport, including the ferry.
9. You Can Tour A Le Corbusier Structure
Controversial but ingenious architect Le Corbusier envisioned a life that could be lived entirely within apartment blocks. The Maison Radieuse is an example of one of his functional tower blocks; it was intended to be a self-contained community, with a school, leisure opportunities, shopping, and living quarters all in, on, and underneath the block.
The tour is mostly in French, but you can ask for an English-speaking guide. It covers the architect’s approach and ideology in great detail and is a must for architecture enthusiasts.
Pro Tip: For another modern architectural sight in Nantes, head up the tall Tour Bretagne for views across the city and the rather interesting bar Le Nid, which features a large sculpture of a stork with its nest. It serves great cocktails.