Nantes will always be known as the capital of Brittany, even though it’s now in a different region. The Dukes of Brittany ruled their lands from here until the Duchy was united with France in the 16th century and their former seat of power is still one of Nantes most commanding buildings.
The Loire is Nantes’ lifeblood and has brought the world to the city’s doorstep, allowing trade and industry to flourish. Take the city’s Navibus shuttles to ride the marvellous machines on the Île de Nantes or lounge by the riverside in the bohemian village of Trentemoult on the left bank.
Lets explore the best things to do in Nantes:
1. Château des Ducs de Bretagne
The old seat of the Dukes of Brittany is the final château on the Loire before it empties into the Atlantic Ocean.
The fortified palace is in the eastern part of the old town, although it’s hard to miss the hefty walls and towers that encircle the refined Grand Logis where the dukes lived.
The castle was built in the 13th century and occupied for 300 years by the Dukes until becoming a French royal residence in the 1500s.
The courtyard and ramparts are free to enter, but you pay to visit the Nantes History, which reveals the different stages in the city’s evolution, from the slave trade to its time as an industrial port.
The green space by the deep moat, the Douves du Château, is a spectacular spot for an afternoon break in summer.
2. Les Machines de l’Île
The west side of the Île de Nantes is inhabited by whimsical animatronic creatures inspired by Jules Verne’s writings and Leonardo da Vinci’s fanciful gizmos, and brought to life by the artist François Delaroziere.
All these extraordinary machines are interactive: The Grand Éléphant for example is 12 metres tall and carries 52 passengers on its back for a walk in which you can feel the vibration of every step.
The Carrousel des Mondes Marins is a gigantic carrousel with moving marine creatures, and the Arbre aux Hérons is a climbable sculpture with ramps and stairways in the form of a vast tree.
The indoor Galerie des Machines has many more sculptures and shows you how they were designed and built.
3. Passage Pommeraye
Between Rue de la Fosse and Rue Santeuil, this shopping arcade from 1843 isn’t just a sophisticated place to shop but an ingenious piece of architecture and a photo-worthy sight.
The passage was built on a steep slope, and it adapted to the nine-metre height difference with a clever intermediate floor between the two street levels.
Passage Pommeraye is still as resplendent as 160 years ago, with neo-renaissance sculpture and stonework, iron and glass roofs that fill the galleries with natural light, wrought iron lamps and handrails – not forgetting its classy selection of luxury boutiques.
4. Jardin des Plantes
Classified as one of France’s “remarkable gardens”, the Jardin des Plantes packs 10,000 species into its seven hectares.
The gardens are right in the middle of the city, just ten minutes on foot from the Château des Ducs de Bretagne.
It’s no ordinary park: The Palm House here is a fabulous late-19th-century metal and glass structure with plants from tropical America, while the three greenhouses to the sides have orchids from Africa and Asia.
As you tread the paths you’ll see mature trees like the 220-year-old magnolia and two huge sequoias that were planted 150 years ago.
5. Île Feydeau
When you’re exploring Île Feydeau you may wonder why this district just south of the centre is called an island, or why streets have names like Quai Turenne when there’s no sign of water.
Well, it was an island up to the 1930s when one of the arms of the Loire was blocked off.
Before the 18th-century Feydeau had been uninhabitable marshland when a land reclamation project created a dignified quarter for the city’s wealthy merchants to live.
Their flat-fronted homes are beautiful, with iron balconies, mansard roofs and carved stone grotesques.
The ground beneath remains soft, which sets some of these townhouses at an endearing slant.
6. Muséum d’Histoire Naturelle
Nantes’ Natural History Museum has a fine setting in the city’s old mint, and has galleries for every branch of natural science: There are zoological, paleontological, mineralogical, ethnographical and a host of other collections from fields with long names, assembled since the 1700s.
The specimen guaranteed to turn heads is the fin whale skeleton in the zoology gallery, more than 18 metres in length and suspended from the ceiling.
The Vivarium, which was added in 1955, and was refurbished recently, has a set of terrariums with snakes and other exotic reptiles.
7. Nantes Cathedral
Begun in 1434, it took more than 400 years to build the city’s cathedral.
Construction continued through the 1600s in the flamboyant gothic design despite it being long out of fashion by then, because it matched the earlier work.
Another intriguing titbit is that Nicolas Fouquet, the high-living Superintendent of Finances in Louis XIV’s court, was arrested in front of the cathedral by d’Artagnan in 1661. He’d remain a prisoner for the last 20 years of his life.
You have to make time for the Tomb of Francis II, the Duke of Brittany, which is held as a French renaissance masterpiece . It dates to 1507 and has haunting sculptures from white Carrara marble.
8. Cours Cambronne
Part of a new city district built in the 18th century, Cours Cambronne is a magnificent square between two 180 metre-long terraces of neoclassical mansions.
Step along the regal central avenue to see the statue of Pierre Cambronne, a military general born in Nantes and injured in the Battle of Waterloo in 1815. Sixteen of the glorious pilastered mansions on the square are listed in the inventory of French historic monuments.
One that deserves special mention is Hôtel Scheult, towards the top by Rue Piron which has a newly restored facade.
9. Mémorial de l’Abolition de l’Esclavage
It helps to remember that much of Nantes’ Ancien Régime splendour was financed by the slave trade.
Nantes was the first city in France to ship slaves on an industrial scale and during the 18th century the largest proportion of France’s slave ships departed from this port.
So the memorial commemorating the abolition of slavery next to the Loire on Quai de la Fosse is extra poignant.
Since the end of the 20th century the city has started confronting this chapter in its past, and in 2012 it unveiled a sombre and austere memorial.
In an underground corridor you’ll read about the many expeditions made from Nantes, and even the names of the ships involved.
10. Musée de l’Imprimerie
Nantes has had a long relationship with the printing press since publishing its first title, Les Lunettes des Princes by the Breton poet Jean Meschinot, in 1493. This museum was founded in 1986 by master printer Sylvain Chiffoleau and typesetter Robert Colombeau, and has built up an astonishing collection of manual and mechanical printing presses.
There are also intaglio plates, lithography plates, dyes and historic typesetting moulds.
And if all that sounds baffling to you then you can take the tour to get the inside track on the printing industry in Nantes, and see how all this arcane equipment was used.
11. Place du Bouffay
This square is at the centre of Bouffay, the oldest district in Nantes.
The place names, “Place du Pilori” (pillory) or Rue de la Juiverie (Jewry), give you an sense of the age of this district.
On the pedestrian streets you’ll come across half-timbered houses from the 1400s side by side with restaurants, crêperies and some of the city’s liveliest nightspots.
The square as you see it now is from the 1700s, but there are evocative remnants of a more distant past: On the corner of Rue des Échevins there’s a gothic fireplace poking right out of the wall and dating to the 15th century.
12. Jules Verne Museum
Jules Verne was born in Nantes in 1828 and spent most of his first 20 years around the city, although he didn’t hold the place in the highest esteem after a woman he courted in his late-teens was married off by her parents to one of Nantes’ rich landowners.
The museum devoted to Jules Verne is in a large bourgeois mansion from 1878 and though it has no connection to Verne it isn’t far from where his parents lived in Bas-Chantenay.
In the galleries you can inspect an engaging jumble of books, games, manuscripts, portraits, documents belonging to the writer and bequeathed to the museum by his heirs.
On the left bank of the Loire, Trentemoult is a former fishing village belonging to the town Rezé.
It’s only a few moments from the centre via the Navibus ferry, and many hipsters, artists and well-off families from the city have settled in Trentemoult.
You can navigate the maze of scurrying streets with brightly painted cottages from the 18th and 19th centuries.
The houses have a curious design, set over three floors, with the lowest used only for storage as the Loire would burst its banks regularly.
On the quayside are trendy vintage shops, restaurants and crêperies with terraces next to the river.
14. Tour Bretagne
At 144 metres Tour Bretagne is one of France’s tallest buildings outside the capital.
It’s just north of Nantes’ Centre-Ville and the unapologetic rectangular outline is visible almost anywhere you go.
The tower clashes with old Nantes and hasn’t always been a popular addition to the skyline, but the vistas from the top are superb.
If you have the Nantes Pass you can go up to the panoramic bar and outdoor observation deck for free; if not it only costs €1. You can pause there for a little while to identify all the landmarks below.
The bar, Le Nid (The Nest), is a nice surprise with seats and tables designed like eggs and a soft sculpture of a kind of stork-heron hybrid snaking through the space.
15. Food and Drink
The cuisine in Nantes can be quite difficult to pin down because the city is at a meeting point between Brittany and the Loire Valley, and is both inland and served by the Atlantic Ocean.
But without a doubt seafood and fish should be part of you plans: Mussels, lobster, crabs, king prawns, mullet and seabass are all as fresh as can be.
The oysters in Nantes are divine, and even better when paired with a light Muscadet, which is produced in the countryside outside the city.
For afters, Gâteau Nantais is a soft pound cake made with a decadent measure of rum.