Rennes polls well in lists of France’s most liveable cities, which comes as no shock: The city is flush with green space, conserves its history with care and has the attractions of a big city on a walkable scale.
There are 90 historic monuments in the old centre, where imposing 18th-century mansions are side-by-side with medieval timber-framed houses.
You may also notice Rennes’ youthful feel, and this is because more than a quarter of its 207,000 residents are students.
There’s vibrant nightlife, superlative cultural attractions and one of France’s top weekly markets in the Place des Lices every Saturday morning.
Lets explore the best things to do in Rennes:
1. Old Rennes
Rennes was almost completely razed by a great fire in 1720, which explains why there are so many dignified late-18th-century houses in the city.
But around the cathedral is a web of streets where half-timbered houses survive.
Rue de la Psalette and Rue du Chapitre have endearingly warped corbelled houses that hang right over the little cobblestone streets.
Stop for a moment to appreciate the centuries-old carvings on their timbers.
Also on Rue du Chapitre is Hôtel de Blossac, dating to 1728 and one of the finest neoclassical homes built after the fire.
These are private apartments now but you can enter the courtyard in front to get a better view of this magnificent mansion.
2. Parc du Thabor
On the highest hill in the city, Parc du Thabor is ten hectares of the most sublime gardens you may ever see.
If you need convincing, just picture the rose gardens in summer, where more than 2,000 varieties bloom each year.
Up to the Revolution the garden belonged to the Abbey of Sainte-Melanie, just outside Rennes walls, and was tended by the monks.
In the 19th century it was landscaped by the master gardener Eugène Bühler, who added the French parterre and English gardens.
Maintaining the many flowerbeds in a park is no mean feat: In two five-week periods every year some 60,000 plants are replanted by the team of gardeners.
3. Palais du Parlement de Bretagne
After the Union of Brittany and France in 1532 Rennes’ importance increased almost overnight and it became the home of one of France’s 17 regional governments.
This added prestige and drew the aristocracy, imbuing the city with mansions and a stately ambience it still has today.
The Palais du Parlement was started in 1618 but wouldn’t be completed for another century.
Despite suffering a fire in 1994 the interior is richly decorated: The Grand’Chambre avoided any damage and is a sumptuous hall with a gilded coffered ceiling that was transported from workshops in Paris to Rennes by timber raft in the 1650s.
4. Musée des Beaux-Arts
Like many French regional museums, Rennes’ Musée des Beaux-Arts opened just after the Revolution with works seized from religious buildings and stately homes in the area.
Among these were the collections of the18th-century historian Christophe-Paul de Robien, who had some exquisite Egyptian, Greek, Etruscan and Roman artefacts, still on show today.
The art galleries span the 1300s to the present day, with an emphasis on the 17th-century baroque.
From this period you can check out pieces by Georges de la Tour, Maarten van Heemskerck and Rubens, or fast-forward to the late-19th century represented by Sisley, Boudin and Gauguin.
Finally there’s a trove of drawings by history’s masters like Donatello, Albrecht Dürer, Michelangelo, Rembrandt and Leonardo da Vinci.
5. Écomusée du Pays de Rennes
On the southern fringes of the city is a preserved historic farm, presenting five centuries of Breton agricultural heritage.
On the property are typical arable crops, fruit orchards, a kitchen garden, beehives and all the farmyard animals.
This livestock is strictly from Breton breeds, such as Froment du Léon and Bretonne Pie Noir cows.
The wonderful farmhouse building dates to 1500 and its exhibits are set across three floors.
The tour tracks the development of farming in the region with tableaus, historic machinery, interactive games and documentary films.
6. Parc des Gayeulles
Spreading out across a large chunk of northeastern Rennes, Parc de Gayeulles is a way of getting out into nature without having to travel beyond Rennes’ N136 ring road.
If you’re a runner and don’t want to miss a workout while visiting the city you couldn’t pick a better place than these hundred acres of green fields and woodland.
There are abundant facilities too, like campsites, an indoor skating rink, a zoo with cows, donkeys and horses, as well five lakes, one of which has pedal boats and a bar-restaurant on the shore.
7. Les Champs Libres
This innovative cultural centre in the heart of Rennes took 13 years to complete between 1993 and 2006, and was designed by the architect Christian Portzamparc.
The project combined the Museum of Brittany with the city’s new library and science centre, and will fascinate any connoisseurs of urban design.
It’s intriguing to see how the three elements fit into one another and combine to create an exhibition space on the ground floor.
We’ll visit the Brittany Museum later, but the Science Centre is worth your time with a planetarium that seats 96 people and has a screen 14 metres wide.
8. Marché des Lices
For a mid-sized city Rennes has more than its fair share of markets, counting 20 in total.
But the daddy of them all takes place on Place des Lices on Saturday mornings.
This market has been a Rennes institution since 1622 and is the third-largest in the country, with 300 producers, traders and artisans.
There’s no excuse: If you’re thinking of a weekend picnic or are staying at a holiday rental, it would be a sin not to do your shopping here.
In the covered Halles Martenot there are 40 butchers alone, and outside you’ve got flower stalls, bakers, cheese sellers and artisans making Breton specialty foods.
This is also where you can get some proper Breton snacks, like the galette-saucisse, a sausage wrapped in a buckwheat crêpe and best washed down with local cider.
9. Rennes Cathedral
The city’s cathedral, with its sober neoclassical facade, isn’t the most beautiful in France, but it has an absorbing story to tell.
It has been the site of the city’s cathedral since the 500s, but the one built in the 1100s collapsed in stages between 1490 and 1754, when it was decided to tear down almost everything and start again.
Now the interior is a radiant extravaganza of gilding and frescoes, which seem to cover every inch of the church, including the long cylindrical vault in the nave.
The Grand Organ is from 1874 and was built by Aristide Cavaillé-Coll, France’s 19th-century organ-maker par excellence.
10. Opéra de Rennes
The city’s opera hall stands resplendent on Place de la Mairie, facing off against Rennes’ equally striking 18th-century baroque city hall.
The opera is from 1836 and labelled as a French “monument historique”, with a hall painted in the early 20th century by the brilliant painter Jean-Julian Lemordant who was then blinded in the First World War.
If you fancy seeing a performance it’s worth planning ahead as the opera has close to 100% attendance.
It also reaches out to new fans by holding open days that let you watch rehearsals and take part in workshops.
There are also guided tours on special heritage days, twice a year.
11. Parc Oberthür
Another green sanctuary in the middle of Rennes was a private park landscaped in the 18th-century for François-Charles Oberthür, founder of the Oberthür printing house.
It measures more than three hectares, so it’s astonishing to think that it remained private until as late as 1960. There’s woodland with sequoias, cedars, beech trees, oaks and limes, and beautifully cared-for lawns edged by paths.
There’s also a large ornamental pond with ducks, turtles and carp.
12. Porte Mordelaise
Rennes’ city walls were torn down in stages between the 1600s and 1800s, but there are still compelling fragments to be discovered here and there.
The best of these is Porte Mordelaise, a 15th century gatehouse with a barbican and evidence of a drawbridge.
The gate was the main entranceway into the city and was where ceremonial processions would begin.
Above the arch is the coat of arms of the Dukes of Montfort, who ruled Brittany from the mid-14th century to the start of the 16th century.
13. Musée de Bretagne
Within the Champs Libres, this regional museum condenses Brittany’s thousands of years of human history and celebrated its 40th anniversary in 2016. The archaeological collections are actually far older and were expanded from a core of objects gathered by Christophe-Paul de Robien (mentioned above) in the 1700s.
There are more than 300,000 items in the museum’s collection now, with an astonishingly rich assortment of coins, numbering 35,000. The most enlightening pieces are those minted by the medieval Duchy of Brittany.
Elsewhere the museum’s is entertainingly varied, with an Iron Age statue, medieval manuscripts, Nazi paratrooper bicycles, all helping you unravel this region’s storied past .
14. Chapelle Saint-Yves
One place to visit if you’d like to get informed about Rennes’ own past is the Chapelle Saint-Yves, a 15th-century hospice chapel belonging to a mission for the city’s poor following the ravages of the Breton War of Succession.
Today it’s actually Rennes’ Tourist Office, so you could of course drop in for maps and guides.
But in the old nave is the permanent exhibition, “Rennes, Ville d’Art et d’Histoire”, documenting the city’s awesome monuments with historic sketches, photographs and models, and filling you in on exciting facts that might have passed you by during your visits.
15. Day Trips
There’s tons of inspiration if you want ideas for days out during your holiday in Rennes.
Mont Saint-Michel hardly needs an introduction, as one of France’s unmistakable pieces of heritage.
You can be at this medieval wonder in less than an hour.
Then you’ve got the port of Saint-Malo, a former haunt of pirates still fortified by its historic walls.
Or, away from the coast, La Roche-aux-Fées is a breeze in the car: It’s one of Brittany’s captivating Neolithic monuments, a passage grave configured as a corridor that aligns perfectly with the winter solstice sunrise.