On the Loire Estuary, Saint-Nazaire makes no apologies for not being the prettiest city in France.
Because this is a place where things get done, and it attracts people on exactly those terms.
For big machinery, ambitious engineering works and military history there are few places that can hold a torch to Saint-Nazaire.
The shipbuilding industry took off in the 1800s and aviation followed a century later, and supermachines continue to be assembled here today.
Saint-Nazaire is summed up by the submarine pens in the harbour: Ugly concrete hulks that couldn’t be destroyed but are now crammed with days out.
Lets explore the best things to do in Saint-Nazaire:
1. Submarine Base
Before the Second World War Saint-Nazaire had been the embarkation point for transatlantic cruises to Mexico, Cuba and Panama.
But after 1941 a 19th-century lock by the harbour entrance was chosen for an indomitable submarine pen, with nine metres of reinforced concrete that no bomb could penetrate.
This was where many U-boats fighting in the Battle of the Atlantic were stationed, and you’ll see, the base came through the war without suffering much damage.
The bays have exciting things to see like the Espadon and the Ecal’ Atlantic, which we’ll visit next.
2. Escal’ Atlantic
Tapping into the romance of the cruise liner era is this attraction in the submarine base that shows you the refined decor and awesome inner workings of two historic vessels: The SS Normandie, dating to 1935, and the SS France, launched in 1960. The walking tour will bring your through 20 different rooms and areas, including a dining room, piano bar and both steerage and plush cabins for passengers.
But you can also see what went on behind the scenes in the engine room and on the bridge.
Kids will be entertained by the multimedia and interactive games, while grown-ups will be wowed by more than 200 authentic artefacts from these legendary ocean liners.
3. French Submarine Espadon
Meaning “swordfish” in French, the Espadon submarine can be boarded at the Nazi U-Boat base.
The craft was launched in Le Havre in 1957 and was the first French submarine to dive beneath the Polar Ice, going as far north as 70° in the Norwegian Sea.
You’ll have an audio-guide as you explore this diesel-electric submarine, and will get plenty of insights about how the crew of 70 sailors went about their day in the eating areas, bunks and kitchens, which are almost absurdly cramped.
Sound effects on the guide will add a bit of colour, and there’s lots of science if you need the nuts and bolts.
4. Terrasse Panoramique
There’s an elevator, but you can also climb the stairway to the top of the fortified lock for a view to remember from the terrace.
From up here you can see the Penhoët dock, which at 22-hectares is one of the largest in Europe.
But perhaps even cooler is the massive “Suite de Triangles” installation by the Swiss artist Felice Varini, famed for his “perspective-localised art”. So on neighbouring docks the buildings have been covered with triangles, which only line up into a coherent work when you’re standing in exactly the right spot.
5. STX Shipyard Tour
On a two-hour drive around the STX shipyard you’ll have privileged access to a world-leading facility that employs thousands of people and uses the most sophisticated technology available.
These are the very docks that built the MS Harmony of the Seas, the largest passenger ship in the world, which completed its maiden voyage in 2016. The bus departs from the submarine base on a six-kilometre itinerary with regular stops for you to take photos or listen to in-depth explanations from your guide.
The tour takes place on Wednesdays, Saturdays and Sundays, and there’s one trip a week organised in English during July and August.
6. Airbus Tour
Also departing from the Submarine Base is the bus to tour the high-tech Airbus installation in Saint-Nazaire, setting off every Wednesday and Friday.
Because of the sensitive nature of what you’ll see you have to book your place on the tour at least 48 hours beforehand, and show ID. The Airbus site in Saint-Nazaire assembles and tests front and centre fuselage sections for every single craft made by the brand before they’re shipped by air or water to facilities in Toulouse, Spain or Germany to be completed.
It’s pretty special to see whole chunks of aircraft fuselage being “swallowed” by the gargantuan Beluga cargo planes.
7. Front de Mer
In the last few years Saint-Nazaire has refurbished its waterfront promenade next to the Wilson and Albert 1er Boulevards.
The town has planted trees, laid lawns and widened the walkway to give you an unbeatable place for a stroll.
Idle here on hot summer days when the Atlantic breeze will blow away the cobwebs, and there are a couple of bars with large terraces for Ocean views to go with a cold drink.
As you stroll you’ll pass various memorials, like one for the sinking of HMS Lancastria and another for the American recapture of Saint-Nazaire late in the Second World War.
8. Écomusée de Saint-Nazaire
On the harbour facing the shipyards, the Écomusée is a small permanent exhibition about Sant-Nazaire and its shipbuilding heritage.
The galleries begin with prehistory but quickly get up to speed in the 19th century, explaining the main technological leaps over the last 150 years or so.
You can study some of the mythical craft that have been assembled in Saint-Nazaire.
There are models of the SS Normandie, SS France and the trailblazing Loire seaplanes manufactured here in the 1930s.
Entrance to the Écomusée is included in the ticket for Escal’ Atlantic.
9. Plage les Jaunais
West of Saint-Nazaire nature takes over and the coastline gets wild and craggy.
Backed by granite cliffs is a string of near-perfect sandy beaches on the Côte d’Amour, and the cream of these is Plage les Jaunais.
This beach is 500 metres long, there’s ample parking and it’s patrolled by lifeguards all through July and August.
The water is shallow and sandy in the bay, but the rocks that bookend the beach have little pools where you can climb and go looking for crabs.
Next-door is a small cove, hidden from view and frequented by naturists.
10. Pont de Saint-Nazaire
From the top of the lock and submarine base you can see this epic bridge crossing the estuary.
When work was completed in 1975 this was France’s longest bridge, and it also remained the longest cable-stayed bridge in the world until 1983. Including its viaducts the total length is more than 3.3 kilometres, and the height of almost 60 metres makes it visible from a long distance.
Tour de France fans may already know the Pont de Saint-Nazaire because it has appeared on the course many times down the years, the most recent crossing taking place in 2011.
11. Prehistoric Monuments
The Tumulus de Dissignac is a megalithic barrow a couple of kilometre to the west of the city.
It has been dated to about 4,500 BC, making it the oldest man-made structure in the whole of Loire-Atlantique.
Inside one of the two burial chambers is a stone with strange, indecipherable engravings.
You can tour the barrow in July and August.
In the centre of Saint-Nazaire on the Place du Dolmen, a trilithon dolmen and a menhir from the Neolithic age stand side-by-side.
12. Jardin des Plantes
Next to the oceanfront promenade, Saint-Nazaire’s restorative botanical garden was laid out in 1880. The garden has a languid English design with footpaths bending past perfect lawns, flowerbeds and majestic trees that are both from France’s Atlantic coast and the Mediterranean.
Southern species of pines and palms flourish in this garden because of the mild temperatures and abundance of sunshine in Saint-Nazaire.
You could bring a book for an hour or two of peace, and amble down to the park’s southern boundary which gets superb ocean views.
Carry on around the coast to this walled medieval city, which needs to be in on the agenda if you’re visiting the Loire-Atlantique coast.
First off, the setting is equally strange and beautiful, as the city is stranded by the salt marshes to the south and the impenetrable swamp of Brière to the north.
The town’s walls went up during a time of regional conflict in the 14th-century War of the Breton Succession.
You can get up and stride along a section of the walls, and one of the gates, Porte Saint-Michel has a museum about these defences.
Unlike Saint-Nazaire, the centre of Guérande is a twee, touristy sort of place, with cute crêperies and artisan shops.
14. Loire à Vélo
Here on the estuary it can be hard to believe you’re next to the same river that curls past those ornate châteaux in Indre-et-Loire.
But the outstanding Loire à Vélo cycle route is still here and Saint-Nazaire is the western trailhead of this 800-kilometre network.
Recently the town has done a lot to improve its infrastructure for people on two wheels, and in 2015 opened up a 10-kilometre loop that lets you visit the Submarine Base and the port or ride along the estuary for a while.
This connects with another 170 kilometres of carless trails, all on light, flat terrain although riding can get dicey on windy days.
15. Ocean Cruises
In a city that relies on the Atlantic it makes perfect sense to set sail on one of the voyages on offer from the harbour.
There are three to pick from: First, you can get an overview of Saint-Nazaire, sailing past the cliffs, coves and beaches to the west, but also getting an eyeful of the town’s big industry.
You could also go a bit further to see the refined resorts of the Côte d’Amour from the water, and to see the Escoublac sand dune, one of the highest in Europe.
Last of all is the night-time cruise “La Route des Phares”, when the many beacons, lighthouses and signals in the region twinkle in the darkness.