In Finistère, not far from Brittany’s far western point, Quimper is a historic city permeated with this unique region’s identity.
The old town has medieval timber-framed houses with typical Breton granite at the base, and every few steps there’s a crêperie to tempt you.
The 13th-century cathedral is lauded as the most beautiful gothic building in Brittany, and the Locmaria quarter is where Quimper’s renowned faïence has been made since 1690. Come in July for the Festival de Cornouaille, with traditional costume, lots of dancing and bagpipe music.
Indulge in the ocean-fresh seafood and the delicious cider, which has designation of origin in the historic Cornouaille province.
Lets explore the best things to do in Quimper:
1. Quimper Cathedral
Often the best cathedrals are the ones that are a bit irregular, and Quimper’s certainly comes into that category.
This magnificent building is unique because the north side of the nave curves slightly inwards at the middle; this was done to avoid an area of swampy ground during construction in the 13th century.
Most agree that this is the greatest gothic construction in Brittany and of the many things that you’ll remember are the majestic stained windows in the choir, added between 1408 and 1415. Outside, lift your gaze to pick out the 19th-century statue of the semi-mythic King Gradlon, alone on horseback between the marvellous spires.
2. Musée des Beaux-Arts
Much of what greets you at Quimper’s Fine Arts Museum belonged to one man, Jean-Marie de Silguy, who donated more than a thousand works in 1864 on the proviso that the city built a museum in which to display them.
There’s an emphasis on French school paintings from the 17th and 18th centuries, so that’s the likes of Lubin Baugin, Carl van Loo, Fragonard and Pierre Bignard.
But Silguy also had some Dutch and Flemish art, by masters like Rubens, Breughel the Younger and Jacob Jordaens.
There’s a room for the 20th-century Quimper-native Max Jacob, s a writer and artist who moved in the same circles as Jean Cocteau and Picasso, and there are some pieces by these artists along with his own works.
3. Musée de la Faïence
For a lot of people “Quimper” means ceramics: Faïence pottery has been produced in the Locmaria quarter, just southwest of the centre of Quimper, since the late-17th century.
These plates, jugs, bowls and vases are painted by hand and normally have a rustic, naive design.
The quintessential image is of the Petit Breton, a man dressed in 17th-century regional costume.
Spread over two floors, this museum in Locmaria has more than 2,500 pieces of faïence and gives you the best summary of the earthenware industry in Quimper.
You’ll get to know the time-honoured manufacturing techniques and see how the styles have evolved since the early-1700s.
4. Musée Départemental Breton
In the Episcopal palace where the Cornouaille Bishops lived from the 1500s to the 1800s, the Breton Departmental Museum is an absorbing ride through the rich heritage and culture of Quimper and Finistère.
There’s archaeology, stained glass, traditional costume, ceramics, paintings, furniture, and that’s just to start with.
Check out the curious local box-bed (lit-clos), beds kept inside their own wooden closets that would be closed in winter to keep people warm.
There are also Bronze and Iron Age treasures, medieval polychrome statues, Quimper pottery, while the building boasts the Tour de Rohan from 1507, scaled with a beautiful spiral stairway.
5. Odet River
Most people arriving in Quimper by car will park just south of the Odet River and then cross it to get into the old quarter.
Directly below the cathedral there are many crossing, most of which are only for pedestrians.
These are lovely too, decorated with flower boxes, lining the way with bright geraniums, while both banks of the river are lush with foliage in summer.
You can also board a boat for a 90-minute cruise downriver with Vedettes de l’Odet: This is best done in spring when the banks south of Quimper are in bloom with the purple hues of wild rhododendrons, and the dense vegetation shelters egrets and herons.
6. Old Quimper
Delineated by the Odet to the south, and roughly by the Steir River to the west, Quimper’s sweet medieval quarter is totally pedestrianised.
This is just as well because you may not want to leave until you’ve wandered past every old house and popped into every artisan shop.
The streets and squares even keep the names of their historic trades: Place au Buerre was for the butter churners, while the main artery, Rue Kéréon owes its name to the shoemaking corporation that was once located there.
Many of the houses are half-timbered, with a granite lower floor and corbelled upper storeys overhanging the street.
7. Mont Frugy
Climbing sharply from the left bank of the Odet River is a 70-metre hill that has always been a celebrated part of the cityscape.
During the Revolution, Quimper was even briefly renamed “Montagne sur Odet” because of this hill.
For us it’s a good way of working the calves for a few minutes, rambling up through six hectares of cool beech forest to the crest where you can look down on Quimper’s medieval quarter.
The hurricane that devastated much of western Europe in October 1987 left the hill completely bald, but Frugy was replanted shortly after and you’d hardly know the difference now.
After finishing a tour of Quimper you could also follow the Odet upriver on the GR 38 footpath.
You’ll enter one of the most magical natural landscapes in the region, just past the northeastern outskirts of the city.
For five kilometres there’s a steep valley with slopes at a 45° gradient and riverbanks flush with the greenery of mossy rocks, ferns and beech trees.
On the riverbed are large granite boulders that allow you to hop across the water.
9. Festival de Cornouaille
For five days in late-July every year Quimper honours its Breton heritage in the suitably atmospheric surrounds of the medieval quarter.
There’s spontaneous dancing, street entertainment and musicians, as well as a packed schedule of organised cultural events.
There are loads of essential things to see during the event, like the big parade of Breton folk costumes, the bagpipe music competition, concerts in the bishop’s garden next to the cathedral, dancing workshops where you can join in and the annual crowning of the queen of the festival.
10. Manoir du Kinkiz
If you fall in love with Breton cider in Quimper you’ll want to visit the authentic cider press just five kilometres southeast of the city.
The Manoir du Kinkiz is in 30 hectares of orchards where they grow an amazing 21 varieties of apples.
You’ll get an eloquent explanation of how Cournouaille AOC cider is pressed, aged in oak barrels and bottled, and best of all you can taste their cider, Lambig (apple brandy aged as much as 25 years) and pommeau, a Breton drink made with a blend of apple juice and Lambig.
Kids are welcome too, and they’ll be treated to freshly pressed apple juice at the tasting session.
11. Jardin de la Retraite
You’ll be forgiven for wondering if you’re still in Quimper when you step into this marvellous garden up against the city’s eastern ramparts.
This is a subtropical garden that reminds us of of the 16th-century voyagers who returned from expeditions to America with plant species that had never been seen before.
They found that the Breton climate allowed almost anything to grow, so Brittany became a region of acclimatisation for exotic species.
There are hydrangeas, a variety of palms, camellias and rhododendrons, as well as a Mexican desert garden with yuccas, agaves and aloes in a bed of pink and white gravel.
It’s a breeze to get from Quimper to Locronan, one of France’s “most beautiful villages”, a few short kilometres to the north.
The beauty of Locronon comes from its sense of unity, with streets of 17th and 18th-century granite houses and cottages that hark back to when the town was a centre for the hemp trade, supplying the French, Spanish and British navies with rigging and sails.
Locronan Church has the tomb of St.
Ronan, an Irish hermit who helped spread Christianity to Brittany in the 6th century.
If you feel like tapping into Brittany’s maritime heritage then you needn’t look further than the town of Dournanez 20 kilometres northwest of Quimper.
There are four fishing harbours with quaysides buzzing with activity and overlooked by cute fishers’ cottages.
Douarnanez was the hub of France’s sardine industry, and hints of this status remain at the old canning factories.
The Port-Musée is excellent, and will show you the traditional ships of Brittany and tell you about the people who manned them.
The museum is based partly on the quayside and then on board five boats moored in the Pouldavid Estuary, which the little ones will adore.
14. Pointe de la Torche
For some ocean air and to experience the full power of the Atlantic, go 30 kilometres to the southeast to this exposed promontory.
The sandy beach, edged by dunes, has a raw beauty to it, though the currents are a bit too strong for bathing.
Instead the ocean rollers are the preserve of experienced surfers, and thanks to the consistent breezes a stage of the windsurfing world championships takes place here every October.
You can walk to the rocky headland where dolmen mark a Neolithic burial site and a large Nazi “blockhaus” was installed during the war.
Another keystone of Breton, and especially Finistère’s, identity is the crêpe, to the point where it’s almost a bit of a stereotype.
If you want to be really authentic you should try the galette, the savoury option that has buckwheat flour in the batter.
Have one of these with salted butter, egg or cheese and ham.
But it’s the ocean that informs Finistère’s cuisine the most, as you’ll discover with astonishment when your seafood platter arrives, with langoustines, mussels, winkles, clams and the freshest fish piled high.