For centuries a French naval base, Brest has a colossal natural harbour that couldn’t be better for seafaring had it been designed by man.
Unfortunately, almost nothing in the city remains from before the Second World War, save for a few military fortifications like the city’s Château and Arsenal.
Instead, what enthrals you about Brest is the spirit of adventure, conquest and discovery in one of the leading cities in the world for Ocean research.
Brest has always pointed its telescope westwards at the Atlantic, as you’ll realise on the quays of the port, by exploring Océanopolis, a world-class aquarium, or in the galleries of the Naval Museum in the bowels of the castle.
Lets explore the best things to do in Brest:
We’ve seen that Brest is a city with a strong relationship with the Atlantic: 60% of European research on the ocean is conducted from this harbour.
So Océanopolis is the attraction Brest deserves: A wondrous ocean-oriented science and cultural centre with 50 different aquarium tanks, the largest of which is the shark tank, holding a million litres.
Since a modern upgrade in 2000 the exhibitions have been set in three pavilions: Polar, Temperate and Tropical, with 10,000 kinds of plants and more than a thousand animal species, from harbour seals (there’s a clinic for them here) to bull sharks, stingrays and loggerhead turtles.
2. Port of Brest
Brest is a military port so there’s a limit to how much you can see, but at the commercial harbour you’ll become aware of just how favourable this location is for maritime activity.
Take a wander along Quai Commandant Malbert for a glimpse of the shipyards and a better look at the vast natural harbour of the Rade de Brest and the system of coloured buoys to improve navigation.
The powerful French Navy rescue tugboat, Abeille-Flandre is moored at Quai Commandant Malbert and in just 20 minutes is able to leave port to guide a ship into the bay.
3. Conservatoire Botanique du Vallon du Stang-Alar
The role of this conservatory is to cultivate rare and endangered species for reintroduction, and their gardens are heaven for botanists.
The ideal time to be here is in July and August when the two awesome greenhouses are open to the public.
They recreate rainforest, tropical mountain, dry tropical and subtropical oceanic climates, and feature plants that you may not be able to find anywhere else.
For example there’s the critically-endangered Madagascan aloe suzannae, and the nesocodon, a flowering plant found only on the island of Mauritius.
The remaining 22 hectares are a beautifully landscaped little valley, with a stream, waterfall, ponds and lots of places to sit and reflect for a few minutes.
4. Pont de l’Iroise
Completed in 1994, this striking cable-stayed bridge spans the Élorn River between Pointe Sainte Barbe and Le Cap.
Among bridges of this type it has the fourth-largest main span in France, and when it was built it broke a world record for the 400 metre distance between its two 113-metre-high pylons.
The structure definitely deserves a photo or two, especially with the sun going down, and the place to go for this is the adjacent Plougastel Bridge, which was built during the late-20s and is now restricted to just pedestrian and farm traffic.
5. Musée National de la Marine
Brest’s Naval Museum is in the Château de Brest, the oldest building in the city.
There has been a fort here since the Roman camp of Osismis in the 3rd century, and it later became a seat for the Dukes of Brittany repelling sieges by the British in the 14th and 15th centuries.
The Naval Museum really takes advantage of its atmospheric location with sets of wooden figureheads from warships, historic model ships and sculptures and paintings that convey the development of the port in the 17th and 18th centuries.
You can see the command panels of a Second World War destroyer and check out a preserved Seehund midget submarine.
6. Tour Tanguy
On a hillock on the right bank of the Penfeld across the water from the Château de Brest is a medieval watchtower, most likely built in the mid-14th century during the Breton War of Succession.
Go in for the Museum of Old Brest, with a great selection of curiosities like the coats of arms of the city’s various medieval corporations and centuries old maps of Brest.
With each floor you take a step through time, but the aim, through dioramas and models, is to recapture the look and feel of the city before the destruction of the Second World War.
7. Port de Recouvrance
Next to this tower and spanning the Penfeld River is what used to be the highest vertical lift bridge in the world until it was superseded by the Pont Gustave Flaubert on the Seine in 2008. But this bridge in Brest held the record for more than 50 years from 1954, with its four imperious reinforced concrete pylons at 70 metres and length of 88 metres.
The reason for these dimensions is the amount of naval traffic on the Penfeld; there needed to be a clearance of at least 45 metres.
The Pont de Recouvrance replaced an earlier swing bridge that was wrecked by the allied bombing in 1944.
8. Musée des Beaux-Arts
Brest’s main art museum was handed the difficult task of replacing its entire collection after it was lost in the war.
So since 1945, it has assembled about 250 sculptures and paintings from the 17th to the 19th centuries, favouring older pieces instead of modern art to give people an idea of how the collection used to be.
Of these, make sure you see the work by the post-impressionist Pierre Bonnard, while there’s a large array of earlier Italian renaissance and baroque pieces by Carlo Saraceni, Palma il Giovane and Carlo Dolci.
9. Cours Dajot
For an unrivalled view of the harbour and the Château de Brest take this 500-metre esplanade high behind the commercial port.
Cours Dajot is named after Louis-Lazare Dajot, the military engineer who designed it.
The avenues, which push on for 500 scenic metres are lined with elm trees, knee-high box hedges and lawns.
The park took shape in 1769 and was built with labour from the port’s penal colony.
If you happen to be in Brest for July 2020 Cours Dajot commands a privileged view Fêtes Maritimes de Brest, when hundreds of sailboats enter the Rade de Brest.
We say 2020, because this festival takes place only every four years! See the Tour Rose here, built by the Americans to thank Brest for the welcome given when they arrived for the First World War in 1917.
10. Boat Trips
It wouldn’t be right to come to Brest and not board a vessel for a voyage, even if it’s just a short one around the Rade de Brest.
The natural harbour is 180 square kilometres and the boundary with the Atlantic is the Goulet de Brest, a 1.8 kilometre channel.
You could also catch ferries to the Ponant Islands, namely Molène and Ushant, which still sustain communities.
Ushant is the larger, with more than 900 inhabitants, and its isolation has allowed the rare Oessant breed of sheep to flourish, and it is also one of the last places where the European dark bee thrives, as it has been replaced by the Italian honey bee on the French mainland.
Another of the great things about the Rade de Brest is the relative calmness of the waters, which leaves you with a surprisingly good range of beaches to bathe at, given this is the Atlantic coast.
A magical spot is a few kilometres west of Brest at Pointe du Petit Minou.
There’s a recess in the rocks with a small sandy cove washed by rolling waves that surfers adore.
You’re right next to the Pointe du Petit Minou lighthouse, which signals the entrance to the roadstead.
Closer to Brest is the family-friendly Plage du Moulin Blanc, also a hit with surfers, who have a designated area to the southeast, this is a long, curving band of fine white sand.
Lighthouses, granite cliffs, medieval defences, Second World War bunkers and hidden beaches are just some of the things you’ll stumble upon on a hike within just a few kilometres of Brest.
The Brest Métropole Océane is a group of eight communes, with more than 800 hectares of green space to dawdle in, so you won’t be stuck for choice if you feel like stretching your legs and getting some ocean air.
There’s the Vallée du Costour, once the site of an arms factory in the First World War and now farms and quiet woodland, with deer and herons.
Or for a coastal adventure there’s the Pointe du Diable, a supreme vantage point over the Goulet where you can see every vessel entering or leaving the Rade.
13. Fort de Bertheaume
Since at least the 1300s the northern side of the Goulet, the straits of Brest, have been guarded by an impenetrable fortress on a small tidal island.
The cliffs below the defences would have been completely unapproachable in their day, but there’s now a footbridge linking the island to the mainland.
You come to poke around the old walls and get some photos of this majestic site.
If you have teenagers with you or feel vigorous, there’s an adventure park in summer with a via ferrata, rope bridges of varying difficulty, and even a zip-line that runs from the mainland cliffs to the top of the fortress.
14. Abbaye de Daoulas
You could also cross the Pont de l’Iroise for a 15-minute drive to the 12th-century Daoulas Abbey, which is in a partial state of ruin.
This takes nothing away from its beauty.
Most lovely is the cloister, which has a font that was made in the 12th century, with carved faces on the sides still visible.
The gardens are wonderful too, with all of the medieval medicinal plants cultivated in Brittany, as well other medicinal species from around the world, along with dyes and plants kept for their poison.
15. Local Specialities
When it comes to food, Brittany is still best-known for its crêpes, and crêperies abound in Brest as they do in any Breton city.
Order one with strawberries and Chantilly cream, because Plougastel, just a few minutes from Brest grows the best strawberries in the country.
The gariguette de Plougastel is a New World species that was found to thrive in the mild climes of Finistère in the 18th century.
There’s much more than just crêpes though, like kig ha farz, a savoury pudding composed of meat broth and buckwheat, or Molène sausage (smoked in seaweed) or finally a rich lobster dish made with crème fraîche and white wine.