You won’t help but be awestruck by Nancy’s magnificent architecture.
Place Stanislas is the centrepiece of a UNESCO site, a glorious square commissioned by the last Duke of Lorraine in the 18th century, transforming the centre of the city.
Nancy’s appearance evolved again in the late-19th century when it was at the vanguard of Art Nouveau.
There’s a superb museum for the École de Nancy movement, and you can spot many delightful houses in this style on a walking tour.
The renaissance Ducal Palace is where you can get to grips with the Dukes of Lorraine, and the power and wealth they flaunted.
Lets explore the best things to do in Nancy:
1. Place Stanislas
A huge 18th-century urban planning project, this incredible square was the brainchild of the Pole, Stanislas Leszczyński, the last Duke of Lorraine.
Place Stanislas, and its connecting squares is a World Heritage Site, with a sense of scale and grandeur that can still leave you lost for words.
A host of the city’s main sights and institutions are in the pavilions and palaces built as part of the project, including the City Hall, Opera House, Fine Arts Museum and Triumphal Arch.
With pride of place in the centre of the square is an imposing statue of Stanislas, four metres in height , weighing 5.4 tons atop a pedestal of white marble.
2. Villa Majorelle
Art Nouveau took over Nancy in the late-19th century, and this was all down to the time and the place.
The city was a French outpost when the neighbouring Alsace and Lorraine regions were annexed by Prussia in the 1870s.
Nancy suddenly had a surfeit of thinkers and artists who had fled the new German territory, leading to the foundation of the École de Nancy.
There’s loads of Art Nouveau design to discover, but Villa Majorelle is the pinnacle.
It was conceived in 1899 by the architect Henri Sauvage and has the trademark sinuous lines and organic iron fittings.
The stained glass master Jacques Gruber and ceramist Alexandre Bigot also worked wonders on Villa Majorelle’s interior decoration.
3. Musée de l’École de Nancy
The École de Nancy was at the forefront of Art Nouveau in France, and the museum for the movement is an absolute dream for anyone with a taste for decorative art from this period.
The venue is in the former home of Eugène Corbin, a patron of the École de Nancy, so is just the right showcase for furniture, ceramics and glassware designed by the leading lights of the movement.
See Victor Prouvé’s splendid grand piano and the outstanding “Salle à Manger Masson”, realised by Eugène Vallin.
Throughout, the stained glass windows by Jacques Gruber and Georges Biet are lovely, as is the large collection of ceramics and glassware by the likes of the vaunted Daum studio.
4. Palace of the Dukes of Lorraine
Built at the start of the 16th century, this palace was the main residence for the Dukes of Lorraine for two centuries until the court was moved to the Château de Lunéville in the 1700s.
If you appreciate historic architecture you’ll be impressed by the union of renaissance and gothic styles at the palace: At street level the facade gives way to renaissance window frames, but on the first floor the traceried balconies have clear gothic overtones.
The palace has a rather demure tone, until you get to the extravagant gatehouse (porterie), which has delicate sculptures extending to the roof, including a frieze of the ducal coat of arms.
5. Musée Lorrain
Enter the Palace if you want to get to know the Dukes of Lorraine as well as the entire background of the region, from prehistory to the First World War.
There’s an immense array of exhibits to admire, all in chronological order, but if you’re most interested in the power of the dukes you can peruse their great paintings, faience and tapestries, mainly from the 16th and 17th centuries.
The French baroque master Georges de la Tour spent most of his career around Nancy and is represented at the museum, as is Clodion the 18th century rococo sculptor.
6. Église et Couvent des Cordeliers
The Musée Lorrain continues just around the corner at this former Franciscan convent.
The Convent rooms have an ethnographic theme, and will introduce you to the traditional crafts present in Lorraine, particularly woodworking trades like carpentry and cabinetmaking.
There’s a reconstruction of a carpenter’s workshop from the 1800s, while upstairs is a fine hoard of Lorraine furniture and everyday utensils from the 1600s to the start of the 1900s.
In the 15th century church you’ll see the tomb of René II, Duke of Lorraine from 1473 to 1508, as well as that of his wife Philippa de Gueldre, daintily carved from fine limestone.
7. Parc de la Pépinière
The name ” Pépinière” means “nursery” and that was the precise role of these gardens when they were created by Stanislas in the 18th century: This is where the trees for Nancy’s grand new streets were cultivated.
The chequerboard plan remains the same, and there’s a grid of alleys past flowerbeds, a rose garden and three statues, one of which is by Auguste Rodin.
For kids and families there’s mini-golf, playgrounds, a puppet theatre in summer and a small zoo where you can get close to monkeys, deer and ducks.
8. La Porte de la Craffe
At the very top of Grand Rue, a few strides from the Ducal Palace, is the most thrilling vestige of Nancy’s old city defences.
The gate is from the 14th century, and while the twin conical towers and slate roofs have a hint of a fairytale about them, the Porte de la Craffe would have been no bed of roses for attackers.
It was a sophisticated defence, with three-metre-thick walls and openings that allowed defenders to throw boiling pitch and searing oil on invaders.
It helped resist a siege by the Duke of Burgundy Charles the Bold in 1477, and Charles didn’t make it out alive.
On the south side of the tower you can see a carving of Rene II, victor in that battle, on the right hand side of the Cross of Lorraine.
9. Museum of Fine Arts
Next to Place Stanislas in one of the square’s four dignified pavilions is the Museum of Fine Arts.
It was inaugurated in 1793, placing it among the oldest in France.
The museum is a trip through the history of European art, via the Italian gothic primitives and Caravaggio, Jacob Jordaens, Charles Le Brun, Breughel the Younger and Delacroix.
For impressionism and modern art there’s Manet, Mastisse, Signac, Roget de la Fresnaye, Modigliani and many more.
On the lower floor to the rear of the building is where you can see 300 of the museum’s 725-piece Daum collection.
This assortment of delicate Art Nouveau and Art Deco glassware dates to between the 1890s and 1920s.
10. Arc Héré
You’ll feel like a Duke entering Place Stanislas through this striking triumphal arch from 1755. It is named for Emmanuel Héré, the architect responsible bringing Stanislas’ vision to reality.
The arch is especially magnificent on the side facing the square and is full of allegorical imagery, such as laurel and olive branches, and statues of Ceres, Minerva, Hercules and Mars, all signifying the themes of war and peace.
The inspiration came from Rome’s Arch of Septimus Severus.
Being part of the square’s ensemble, the arch is also on the UNESCO list, and is very special when illuminated at night.
11. Place d’Alliance
Emmanuel Héré also plotted this square, which is smaller and more sober than Place Stanislas.
Place d’Alliance used to be the kitchen garden of the Ducal Palace, and before that had been the site of one of the city’s defensive bastions.
There’s a twin row of lime trees surrounding the square, with dense foliage to add to the sense of privacy.
In the middle is a fountain sculpted by Paul-Louis Cyfflé commemorating the “Diplomatic Revolution” in 1756, when Austria became an ally of France in a momentous political event that changed the course of the 18th century.
12. Place de la Carrière
Also in the UNESCO ensemble, on the other side of Arc Héré, is an elongated square with a regal tree-lined promenade.
You’ll navigate Place de la Carrière to get from the Parc de la Pépinière to Place Stanislas.
The lime trees tracing the path are meticulously shorn to right angles, and resemble topiaries from a parterre.
Behind the trees are the grand and regimented facades of 18th-century mansions, and the little stairways to the sides are decorated with classical statues and stone vases.
It’s all very portentous, but you’d demand nothing less from Nancy!
13. Nancy Cathedral
There’s more than a hint of Italy about Nancy’s 18th-century baroque cathedral.
It was designed by the Italian Giovanni Betto and is based on the Sant’Andrea della Valle in Rome.
The interior is sober and understated, with few carvings apart from on the columns: The most eye-catching decoration is the dome in the transept painted with a mural dedicated to the “Gloire Céleste” (heavenly glory) by the Nancy painter Claude Jacquart in the 1720s.
There’s also a statue of the Virgin and Child from the 1600s, and a treasury with precious liturgical items, including the chalice and ring of the 10th-century Saint Gauzelin.
14. Église Notre-Dame-de-Bonsecours
Stanislas Leszczynski was originally buried at this rococo church designed by Emmanuel Héré, although his remains were moved to Poland following the Revolution.
The church was purposely designed as the mausoleum for Stanislas and his wife, Katarina Oplinska, and was completed in 1741. The Duke’s cenotaph is still here and survived the Revolution because of its artistic beauty, as did the tomb of his daughter Maria Leszczynska, who was buried here in 1768. You can only get in on Saturday afternoons, but the church is one to keep in mind and is bursting with local history and will help draw a line under your time with Stanislas in Nancy.
15. Local Delicacies
Many of Nancy’s specialities are portable and come in cute little packages, and so make great gifts.
Bergamote de Nancy is a candy flavoured with essential oil from bergamot oranges, with a sweet and slightly sour flavour.
They’re presented in beautiful rectangular tins that are worth the price alone.
Classic Macaroons, the meringue sandwiches filled with ganache or jam have been crafted in Nancy since the 1600s.
And on the savoury side you can’t forget quiche lorraine, the pastry made with eggs, bacon and crème fraîche, a familiar dish across Europe.