“Le Mans” means racing: The venerated 24 Hour of Le Mans is still going strong almost a century after the first race.
Motorsport lovers can pay homage at the track, and even drive parts of it as the course uses public roads.
Then see the veritable treasury of racing heritage at the circuit’s museum.
Yet Le Mans is so much more than just a race track, and deserves your time even if you’re not interested in cars.
Kings were born in Le Mans, Richard the Lionheart’s wife Berengaria of Navarre lived and died here, and the Cité Plantagenêt is an entire district of real medieval houses unaffected by time.
On summer evenings the Nuit des Chimères light show illuminates old Le Mans with whimsical projections, telling the city’s story in a way that will enchant both kids and grown-ups.
Lets explore the best things to do in Le Mans:
1. Cité Plantagenêt
Le Mans is proud of its link to the House of Plantagenêt, which ruled England for more than 300 years, and in 2003 adopted the name for its old quarter.
Roughly following the outline of the Gallo-Roman walls, the Cité Plantagenêt has many streets of romantic old houses with timber frames, and renaissance palaces with elegantly carved walls.
Get a guide from the tourist office and take as long as you can to make sure you don’t miss any surprises.
Also try to time your trip to Le Mans for one of the city’s heritage days when many of these privately-owned mansions open their doors to the public for a free peek around.
2. Le Mans Cathedral
Walking through the old town, the cathedral kind of creeps up on you once you turn onto Place du Cardinal Grente, and is less adorned than many in northern France but no less magnificent.
The most striking thing to see on the outside is the sequence of flying buttresses that encircle the apse, best admired from Place des Huguenots.
There’s also an odd curiosity on the building’s southwest corner: A stone age menhir was placed here in the 1770s and many centuries of weathering have given it strange layered contours.
In the interior are models showing the evolution of this building, which dates from the year 500 and took its present form in the 13th and 14th centuries.
Check out the romanesque capitals in the nave and the profusion of original stained glass windows .
3. La Nuit des Chimères
Translating as the “Night of Dreams”, from Tuesday to Saturday in the summer Le Mans’ seven main monuments are the canvas for artful light displays.
These whimsical projections have historic themes to match their landmarks; On the cathedral are gothic-style frescos with knights, signs of the zodiac, angels and legendary beasts.
At the Maison de la Reine Bérengère, Richard the Lionheart’s wife, Berengaria of Navarre is portrayed as a ghostly White Lady.
While the Gallo-Roman walls are lit up with the imagery you’d see on a Roman mosaic, with monsters from mythology and builders and architects constructing ancient Vindunum.
4. Gallo-Roman Walls
There’s an astounding 500-metre strip of Le Mans’ 3rd-century walls between the cathedral and the Sarthe.
This is one side of what was once a colossal rectangle that protected the city in rigid lines with 26 towers.
Get in close to see the beautiful geometric pattern fashioned with alternating layers of sandstone, white limestone, red brick and pale pink mortar.
The other reason to come in for a better look is to see how rubble from earlier monuments was reused in the walls, and you can identify bits of columns and pediments in the fabric of this structure.
5. Circuit des 24 Heures
Chances are that you can’t say the name “Le Mans” without following it with “24 Hours”. And that tells you how renowned the event has become since it started in 1923. The 24 Hours of Le Mans is the oldest motor race still going and remains one of the ultimate tests of skill and endurance, for driver and vehicle, as the car is at full throttle for 85% of the race.
The circuit is a site of pilgrimage for motorsport fanatics and a noteworthy piece of modern heritage for everyone else.
Some sections of the track are used as public roads for a lot of the year, while the race itself normally falls on a weekend in mid-June.
6. Musée des 24 Heures du Mans
Only a race as fabled as the Le Mans 24 Hours is worthy of its own museum.
Petrol-heads will no doubt get the most out of the attraction, but most people will appreciate the machinery gathered here.
Of the 120 vehicles on show, 40 are race-cars that competed in the event.
The museum also recounts the story of how the race came about and introduces you to some of the memorable personalities in its storied history.
As well as the many competing vehicles you’ll see the official Audi safety car, vintage filling stations, heritage cars from the early days of automobiles and goggles and race suits from former champions.
7. Historic Houses
With a helping hand from the tourist office there’s a whole inventory of marvellous old houses to cross off your list as you stroll.
The stunning Maison d’Adam et Ève at 69 Grande-Rue is wrongly named, as the fine renaissance relief above the door actually shows Ariadne and Bacchus instead of Adam and Eve.
The large Hôtel de Vignolles on Place Saint-Pierre, with its sharp sloping roof is from 1549 and would have stuck out like a sore thumb in Le Mans at the time because of its distinct Parisian design.
Finally, the 16th-century Maison de la Tourelle, tucked behind the cathedral, is named for the cute turret sticking out of one corner of the house, and has lovely gables and a castellated chimney stack.
8. Local Delicacies
Le Mans is a serious carnivore city, with a reputation for the quality of its meat that goes back to the middle ages.
That goes for pork and beef, but especially poultry such as capons and guinea fowl, and in most dishes they’re prepared with potatoes and mushrooms, which are also plentiful in the Sarthe countryside.
But the delicacy that comes to mind most when people think of Le Mans is Rillettes.
This is chopped, salted pork cooked very slowly in fat for up to ten hours until it becomes a pâté smooth enough to spread on baguettes.
Rillettes are sold in a glass pots and also come in duck, chicken and fish varieties.
9. Abbaye de l’Epau
One of France’s finest Cistercian abbeys is on the edge of Le Mans and dates to 1229, founded by Queen Berengaria.
She would die there one year later and is buried at the abbey, even if the exact location of her remains is unclear – though her gisant (tomb effigy) is easy to find.
As you wander this peaceful abbey, keep your eye out for historic flourishes, like the lovely arches on the south facade, the traceries in the rosette, 14th-century frescos and the 13th-century door to the refectory.
10. Musée De Tessé
Le Mans’ museum of fine arts in the former Episcopal palace and shines for its trove of Ancient Egyptian archaeology.
These were donated to the museum by the early-19th-century explorer Édouard de Montulé and are composed of some 125 pieces dating as far back as 6,000 years.
The marquee exhibit is the gilded sarcophagus of the priest Nakhmontou from the 17th dynasty, 3,500 years ago.
The painting galleries give you a good summary of the development of European art, from the medieval Italian primitives like Bartolomeo Bulgarini up to the 19th-century landscape painter Camille Corot who influenced the impressionists.
11. Maison de la Reine Bérengère
If you remember the La Nuit des Chimères, Queen Berengaria was portrayed as a ghost on the side of these three 15th-century half-timbered houses.
Well, the story goes that she died in a building that stood here before, even if that’s unlikely to be true.
The buildings you see now have been well looked-after and number 9 has carvings of the Angel Gabriel and the Virgin and Italian arabesques in the facade.
Go in for a museum recording Le Mans’ historic trades like pewter and weaving, and showing paintings and photos of the city from the 19th century.
On the top floor is an eccentric cache of old finials (ornaments that once crowned the roofs of houses in the city).
12. Arche de la Nature
Only ten minutes from the heart of Le Mans and you’re in a nature park managed by the city and measuring more than 450 hectares.
It’s hard to imagine a better way to inform young minds about our relationship with nature and farming.
Trails within pine, chestnut and oak forest deliver you to different attractions, like the Maison de l’Eau that teaches about topics like water treatment and has an aquarium with regional freshwater species like trout, bream and barbel.
Then there’s the Maison de la Prairie with apiaries made of glass to show you the bees at work and all the farm animals of the Sarthe.
Then, deep in the, forest is La Maison de la Forêt with large pens for regional wild species like deer, boar, partridges and pheasants.
13. Musée Vert
As is often the way, Le Mans’ museum of natural history has its roots in high society cabinets of curiosities from the 18th century.
The Revolution soon opened things up for everyone, and a forerunner of the Musée Vert, with many of the current specimens, opened in 1799. There are 400,000 items in all, for geology, botany, palaeontology and zoology.
Certainly here in the early days were many of the 100,000 shells, a good few of which belong to molluscs that have since become extinct.
In the petrology department are meteorites collected in the 18th and 19th centuries, and the paleontology rooms are loaded with fossils from the Mesozoic Era, between 252 and 66 million years ago.
Le Mans has plenty to keep littler tourists entertained, and a fun day out can be had at the nearby zoo, with more than 600 animals.
The park’s Exotarium will put you inches away from tropical creepy-crawlies like snakes, crustaceans, frogs, lizards, spiders and insects.
There’s an Australian zone, where wallabies and dingoes are given a lot of space to roam.
But the star of the show in this section are the Keas, large alpine parrots from New Zealand, notorious at the zoo for their cheekiness and mischief.
The African Aviary is the second-largest aviary in the country, 12 metres in height and one of the only places where marabou storks can fly in captivity (they have a three-metre wingspan).
15. Papéa Parc
And last of all, for kids under ten there’s a small theme park where you could pass half a day.
For infants there are safe climbing areas, bouncy castles, carousels and a petting zoo.
And then a variety of rollercoasters, a swing boat, log flume and more exhilarating fairground rides like the Cyclone and the Apache are on hand for bigger kids.
There are restaurants and kiosks around the park, including a Crêperie, and lots of shady woodland and green lawns for picnics.