Located on the banks of the Loire River, Nantes in France is a perfect city to visit both winter and summer. Over the last 20 years, it has grown into a dynamic and inventive city, full of culture, festivals and regeneration projects. From restoring old buildings to transforming factories into something meaningful for the 21st century tourist, everyone will find a reason to visit.
Even the environmentally concise amongst us will enjoy a visit to this forward-thinking city after it was named as the first French European Green Capital in 2013. Today, sustainable tourism is evident across Nantes from its development of urban areas to the use of recycling and redevelopment of île de Nantes and the various bicycle routes (Loire à Vélo and Vélodyssée), tramlines and electric cars making the city accessible for all.
There is so much to see and do in this energetic and colourful city, so here are a few suggestions to get you started.
What to see in Nantes
Started under François II during the 15th century and completed by his daughter, Anne of Brittany, this is both an elegant castle and a fortress that at one time was located directly on the Loire River. Recently renovated, this is both visually impressive on the outside and intellectually stimulating on the inside with various multi-media displays highlighting the history of the city.
With seven towers and a large water-filled moat, this fortification can be found in the heart of the medieval quarter of the city.
#2 Nantes Cathedral (Cathedral of St Pierre and St Paul)
This Gothic masterpiece is the final resting place of François II and home to an 11th century roman crypt. The splendid facade may have you thinking that you are staring back at the Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris but in actual fact the white-stoned, double tower front is its younger sister dating back to 1434. (Notre Dame in Paris was started in 1163).
Make sure you head inside to marvel at the impressive interior, with its beautiful stained-glass windows and high vaulted ceilings.
#3 Le Passage Pommeraye
Head to the Graslin Quarter to peruse the boutique shops housed within the passage Pommeraye. Classified as a historical monument in 1976, it’s ornate stairways lined with cream carved statues and glass ceilings alone call for a visit but for all of those with a sweet tooth, I guarantee you will not be able to wander past Maison Georges Larnicol without looking in; the artistic carvings they create out of chocolate are real crowd pleasers.
Nantes was, at one time, France’s largest slave port with numerous ships setting sail for Africa daily, and although slavery was abolished in the city in 1848 it took until the 1990’s before the people of Nantes finally faced up to what had happened.
Today, a 400m walkway under the quayside pays homage to all those who have fought again slavery, with the underground passage evoking thoughts not only about past slavery experiences but also modern day ones.
Above ground, you will find close to 2000 plaques all denoting either ships that have left Nantes on slave trade expeditions or African and American trading posts in the hope that it will highlight the enormity of what took place.
If you are a Jules Verne Fan you will love spending time in Nantes. Not only is there a museum dedicated to this famous author, his influences are apparent across the city from île de Nantes to Feydeau.
The museum itself is home to original books and documents, illustrations and objects from Jules Verne himself demonstrating how the Sci-Fi novel came about. Whilst outside, you can follow in the footsteps of Verne, taking in the sights that gave him the inspiration for many of his novels. Visit his birthplace on Rue Olivier de Clisson, take time to look at a fresco depicting his Voyages Extraordinaries close to the Church of St Nicolas or head to Chantenay, opposite the Church of St Martin, to visit the Verne’s country house where it is believed he came up with the ideas for both ‘From the Earth to the Moon’ and ‘Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea’.
This is a place for would-be inventors the world over. Not only will you witness a giant mechanical elephant wandering around the banks of the Loire River you will also get a glimpse of flying herons, jumbo ants and mammoth tree branches.
Here you will be able to ride a carrousel like no other – where fish and sea life take over from horses and fairytale carriages.
#7 Ȋle de Nantes
Designed to be an eco-friendly quarter, this Isle of Nantes is a controversial addition to the city.
With regeneration of 337 hectares of shipyard space currently taking place this is an area unlike any other part of the city. Here it is not unusual to see vehicles sticking out the side of buildings, futuristic structures replacing the bland exteriors of what use to be and innovative new urban development taking place. This is a place to explore contemporary art first hand.
This is also the home of Le Melting Potes, a comfy burger bar with 32 different concoctions to choose from, including 5 vegetarian and one known as ‘Le Devil’. Well worth popping in for a spot of lunch if you just happen to be in the area.
#8 Le Nid
Continuing on with the weird and wacky, a visit to Le Nid is a must for anyone who likes to enjoy skyline views in quirky surroundings. The Tour Bretagne, and home to Le Nid, towers above the city, reaching 472 ft, with the 32nd floor giving way to both fantastic city views and possibly the most bizarre bar I have ever visited.
Le Nid, translates as The Nest, and is home to an enormous white bird, the body of which serves as a bar, and oversized eggshells which function as tables and chairs. This is not only a bar with a view; it is one with a sense of humour.
Head up there as the sun is setting and you will be able to not only take some great photos but also benefit from the bar’s Happy Hour. Although, be warned, take note of the ‘Happy Hour’ menu before ascending up in the lift; it’s the one thing the bar staff fail to mention when taking your order.
#9 Jardins des Plantes
No trip to Nantes would be complete without exploring the creative grounds of this park. The well-maintained grounds are home to some of the most creative flower displays ever seen.
From oversized birds with suitcases, to peculiarly positioned benches and freakish totem poles, this is a fun place to visit. Designed by children’s author and illustrator, Claude Ponti, every corner of this botanical garden has something imaginative just waiting to be discovered.
Nantes is a city that will leave a mark; it will become a memory that you never forget. It is a lively, innovative city, inviting tourism with open arms. It really is a city that wants to and is successfully standing out as a new place to visit in France.
So, the only question that remains is…
Why haven’t you visited yet?
Disclaimer: With its wealth of attractions, visiting Nantes could become costly. Our advice, take full advantage of the ‘Pass Nantes’ that is available through Nantes Tourism and provides free entry to numerous tourist sites as well as free travel on all public transport. (We were provided with complimentary passes during our recent visit).