Set in north-western France, Plays de la Loire is a region of châteaux and vineyards, with the city of Nantes as its capital.
It’s also where you can find Puy du Fou, one of the country’s most-visited theme parks, with medieval and fantasy-style shows pulled off with amazing technical expertise.
Nantes is packed with sights worthy of your time, as are the historic cities of Angers and Le Mans, while in the countryside there are some fantastic botanical gardens and zoos that will capture the imaginations of the littler tourists travelling with you.
Lets explore the best things to do in Pays de la Loire:
1. Puy du Fou, Les Epesses
With an historical theme, Puy du Fou is one of France’s five most popular attractions.
So what may amaze is you is the absence of queues; if you’re aware of the schedule you’ll never have to wait long to get into the shows.
These are first-rate spectacles, with a historical theme and fantasy elements.
The production values are a cut above what you’ll see in other theme parks, with huge casts, thrilling pyrotechnics and incredible stunts.
The Phantom Birds Dance, to name just one, is a birds of prey show where scores of falcons swoop from a ruined tower over the heads of the audience.
There’s far too much to see in just one day, so it’s worth getting a two-day pass.
2. Château des Ducs de Bretagne, Nantes
The final château on the banks of the Loire before the river enters the Atlantic, this building is also one of the most magnificent, right in the middle of Nantes.
The river once provided the water for the château’s moat, which is now where turtles swim and soak up the sun.
The castle went through a lengthy restoration process beginning in the 90s and ending in 2007, during which the facades and renaissance loggias of the residence returned to their former glory.
Inside is the Museum of Nantes, with 850 cutting-edge exhibits that help you piece together the city’s history as the seat of the Dukes of Brittany, and later as a centre for maritime trade.
The museum takes a dark and sombre turn when it discusses Nantes’ role in the slave trade.
3. Les Machines de l’île, Nantes
Found on the site of Nantes’ former shipyards, this is an indoor and outdoor attraction with fantastic machines inspired by the Jules Verne universe, Leonardo da Vinci’s mechanical contraptions and the industrial history of the City of Nantes.
It was all set up with the cooperation of La Machine theatre company, known for their colossal working models.
The one that will take your breath away is the Grand Éléphant, weighing almost 50 tons and able to carry 52 passengers on a trip for views of the Trentemoult riverside and Place du Commerce.
4. Château d’Angers
It will come as no shock that this forbidding castle, built between the 9th and 13th centuries, has never been conquered.
The outer wall has a depth of three metres and is guarded by 17 broad circular towers.
The gardens in the old moat are tranquil, and the view from the ramparts is worth the entry alone.
But the reason you cannot pass up this castle is for the Apocalypse Tapestry, embroidered between 1377 and 1382. It’s absolutely gigantic, with six 24-metre-wide and 6.1-metre-high sections representing the Book of Revelations.
This is the oldest surviving French medieval tapestry and a vital piece of French heritage.
5. Terra Botanica, Angers
Here’s your chance to visit the world’s first and only botanical theme park.
Among many other things, it tries to recreate the spirit of the 1700s when there was a rush to discover and name exotic species from around the world.
There are 275,000 plant species, including incomparable displays of orchids and a fabulous butterfly garden.
It’s no coincidence that such an attraction should be set here, as the Loire Valley is often known as the “Garden of France” and much of its traditional savoir-faire lies in farming and horticulture.
There’s a constant educational accent here, so the “Botanical Odyssey” for example is a riverboat ride on which you’ll find out the medicinal role of plants, flowers and vines.
6. Le Mans
Everyone knows about the legendary racetrack and its prestigious 24-hour race.
You can pay homage at the circuit and roll back the years at the Automobile Museum.
But you may not be aware that Le Mans has one of the region’s loveliest historic centres, inhabited for well over 2,000 years.
Parts are still protected by Gallo-Roman Walls, and there’s a bath complex on the riverside.
A typical street scene is a cobblestone alley or stairway flanked by stone and timber houses.
There are loads of places to eat and nooks to explore here, and on summer evenings you can see the wonderful Nuit des Chimères light show that relates the history of the city.
More on them next.
7. Nuit des Chimères, Le Mans
Roughly translating as “Night of Dreams”, you can catch these light shows From Tuesday to Saturday, when the Roman walls, central fountain, cathedral, Jardin du Conservatoire and several other locations are projected with radiant moving holograms.
These illuminations have an educational purpose, informing you about story of Plantagenet Le Mans and what life was like here during medieval times.
A handy way to see them all is via the road train, but it’s just as much fun to do it on foot and be surprised when you stumble upon the next light show.
8. Fontevraud Abbey
Tickets for this glorious UNESCO World Heritage site also give you a discount at 11 historic attractions in the area.
The Abbey was founded at the start of the 12th century and then built up over the centuries that followed in the romanesque and gothic styles.
The degree of historic interest is huge; this was necropolis for a line of monarchs starting with Eleanor of Aquitaine and Henry II, and you can see their tombs, as well as those of Richard the Lionheart and Isabella of Angoulême here.
The abbey has been praised for its innovative displays that also help to bring a visit to life for kids, allowing them, for instance, to “paint the walls” via a touch screen projected onto the stones.
9. Passage Pomeraye, Nantes
An architectural masterpiece of the mid-19th century, Passage Pomeraye is held as one of Europe’s most beautiful covered shopping galleries.
It’s also just been restored and links Rue de la Fosse and Rue Santeuil, on an unusually steep gradient for a shopping gallery.
The architects Jean-Baptiste Buron and Hippolyte Durand Gasselin overcame the limitations of the slope by creating a magnificent intermediate level on the stairway, with colonnades and more passages branching off on each side.
You can do a bit of window shopping and admire the renaissance-style sculptures, iron lampposts and the early metal and glass roof.
10. Zoo de la Flèche
If you’re a parent who accepts that kids adore zoos, but find these attractions a bit sad, you can be assured that Zoo de la Flèche does its best to give its inhabitants plenty of room.
The grizzly bear enclosure for instance could almost be mistaken for a forest in the Rocky Mountains.
The zoo also takes part in forty breeding programs, accounting for a third of all the species found in the park.
And little ones will be riveted by the feeding shows for elephants, penguins, polar bears and hippos at all times of the day.
Recently you’ve also been able to stay the night at the park at special lodges that have viewing windows directly onto enclosures, if you wouldn’t think twice about spending a night in the company of wolves for example.
11. Nantes Cathedral
This building doesn’t have a typical history, as it took more than 500 years to complete, but despite this has a coherent gothic design.
Ground was broken in the 1400s and the work was undertaken over five separate spurts until 1891. From the outside the church has an understated appearance, but within the clean white stone takes on ethereal quality and the scale of the nave, with its vaults reaching 50 metres above the floor, is something to marvel at.
A small historical curiosity: The ambitious Nicolas Foucault was arrested by d’Artagnan under the orders of Louis XIV in front of the cathedral in 1661.
12. Château de Brissac
Despite a 50-year interruption following the French revolution this captivating castle is still in the hands of the Cossé-Brissac family that bought it in the 16th century – more than 20 generations later! The most significant additions were made in the 1600s, giving the building a mix of renaissance and baroque styles.
At this time it became the tallest château in the country, a title it still holds today.
Tours are given in English but you’ll get a useful factsheet if you can only join a French one.
The grounds were landscaped in the 19th century in the romantic style, and include a 250-metre underground canal designed to channel water away from the grounds when the Aubance River burst its banks.
13. Bioparc de Doué la Fontaine
This zoo in Main-et-Loire is one of the only zoos in France where you can see black rhinos and the okapi, a giraffe-like animal from central Africa.
The location of the park is amazing, in a former quarry, making full use of the recesses and canyons in the rock.
In these 14 hectares you’ll find anteaters, zebras, snow leopards, Sumatran tigers and gibbons, to name but a few.
You’ll find out a great deal about the conservation projects that the park engages in and, given the dimensions of the enclosures, will come away with the opinion that the Bioparc exists for the benefit of wildlife rather than its exploitation.
This walled town is one of a select 120 “Villes et Pays d’Art et d’Histoire” around France.
It is completely encircled by ramparts, some of the most complete in the country.
These were built during the War of the Breton Succession in the 1300s, at the beginning of the Hundred Years’ War.
They create one long curtain protecting the town for almost 1.5 kilometres, and only interrupted by four gates.
At the imposing Porte Saint-Michel you can even go inside and see a display about the history of the walls.
The centre is full of curious little specialty shops selling salted caramels and fleur de sel, harvested on the Guérande Peninsula’s boundless salt marshes.
Wine is a big part of the Loire Valley’s “bien vivre” culture, and due to the diversity of soils, micro-climates and elevations there are numerous terroirs, even though the same two grapes are grown in the region: Chenin Blanc and Sauvignon Blanc.
Pays de la Loire only takes up a section of the Loire Valley, and one of the centres for production is Saumur.
If you’re travelling with little ones then some of the cellars have made efforts to make viticulture a little more fun for kids.
For instance at the Caves Louis de Grenelle, known for its sparkling wines, kids will be able to take part in tasting sessions, trying a glass of their fizzy grape juice.