15 Best Things to Do in Vannes (France)

Written by Veronique Raes
Updated on
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An amazing 272 historic monuments are hiding within the walls in Vannes.

And these defences are something to write home about, as they fence off almost the entire old city with powerful gates and towers.

It’s hardly an exaggeration to say that you’ll be wondering what year it is when you idle along the cobbled streets and enter squares with timber houses from the 1400s and 1500s.

Then you can set sail for the Gulf of Morbihan where there’s an archipelago of 42 islands in smooth waters that are closed off from the Atlantic.

Lets explore the best things to do in Vannes:

1. Vannes Ramparts

Vannes RampartsSource: flickr
Vannes Ramparts

The city was founded as Venetorum by the Romans in the 1st Century, but by the 3rd century the Roman Empire was vulnerable enough that this settlement required a walled castrum.

Over almost 1,500 years the walls were expanded and modified, and the way they look now dates from the 1630s, when the Garenne bastion was added.

After some demolition during the 1800s the walls became protected in 1911. They’re a vital ingredient in Vannes’ historic charm, being some of the only city fortifications remaining in Brittany.

The southern and western stretches are in the best condition, with towers, gates, bastions, curtain walls and fortified bridges that all have a tale to tell.

2. Jardin des Remparts

Jardin des RempartsSource: flickr
Jardin des Remparts

If there’s a photo that can sum up Vannes it’s the panorama from Rue Francis Drecker, over the gorgeous parterre before the walls, and with the cathedral behind.

The Jardin des Remparts may be the ideal spot to appreciate the Garenne Bastion and the three towers, Tour du Connétable, Tour Poudrière and Tour Joliette, all in a cute formal parterre with geometric lawns, flowerbeds and precise topiaries.

The garden is bounded by the Marle Stream, which had a big part to play in local life up to the 20th century, as we’ll see in a moment.

3. Les Vieux Lavoirs

Les Vieux LavoirsSource: flickr
Les Vieux Lavoirs

On the bridge of Rue Porte Poterne, which enters the walled city by the gate of the same name you can look down and see the old washhouses on the right bank of the Marle Stream.

These timber-framed buildings with sloping roofs trick many people into thinking they’re medieval.

But the washhouses are far more recent than they appear, dating to the start of the 19th century and in use until they were closed for hygiene reasons in 1951. They’ve been looked after since then and are a fun reminder that laundry was a more rustic task before the days of washing machines.

4. Place Henri IV

Place Henri IVSource: flickr
Place Henri IV

At the top of the Colline du Mené, the upper part of the “intra-muros” city, Place Henri IV is a lovely old square crowded with 15th and 16th-century “colombage” houses, each painted in a different colour.

There’s a crêperie with terraced seating in the corner, so you can’t be blamed for taking a few moment to scan this romantic old setting a with a café au lait and a caramel crêpe.

There are six “monuments historiques” on this tiny square alone, and each house is cantilevered so the top floor is often a good deal larger than the granite base.

5. Musée d’Histoire et d’Archéologie

Musée d'Histoire et d'ArchéologieSource: amis-museedevannes
Musée d’Histoire et d’Archéologie

Take a moment to behold the 15th-century Château-Gaillard before entering.

You’re standing in front of what was the Breton parliament building until 1535. It’s made of granite stone, with mullioned windows and a spiral staircase twisting up a polygonal tower.

The interior has painted wood panelling, cavernous fireplaces and coffered ceilings.

Very special is the Cabinet des Pères du Désert, with 66 wooden panels painted in the 17th century.

The museum excels for its prehistoric artefacts recovered from the megaliths near Vannes at Locmariaquer and Carnac.

Feast your eyes on jewellery, polished axes and pottery that looks like it could have been made yesterday.

6. Place de Valencia

Place de ValenciaSource: commons.wikimedia
Place de Valencia

The patron saint of Vannes is Vincent Ferrer, a missionary who came to the city in the early 15th-century and died here in 1419. He was from Valencia in Spain, which explains the name of this little square within the walls.

The saint is claimed to have lived in what is now called the Maison de Vincent Ferrer on the square, an imposing half-timbered house on a granite stone base.

But this isn’t even the headline attraction on Place de Valencia, as you can get a photo of the jolly-looking couple “Vannes et sa Femme”, sculpted from granite around the 16th century on a house at the corner of Rue Noé.

Nobody is too sure who made the sculpture, but it’s a cherished piece of Vannes’ history.

7. La Cohue

La CohueSource: flickr
La Cohue

This handsome half-timbered building is the venue for Vannes fine arts museum.

But La Cohue is  mostly worth a look because of what it represented in the past: The oldest part of the building is from the 1200s, and for centuries the ground floor was Vannes’ covered marketplace.

The Breton Parliament met upstairs between 1675 and 1689, while the Estates of Brittany, a kind of provincial assembly under the Ancien Régime, sat here ten times between 1431 and 1703. There are some intriguing temporary contemporary art exhibitions on the upper floor, and a concise permanent show that has a Delacroix and a Monet.

8. Vannes Cathedral

Vannes CathedralSource: flickr
Vannes Cathedral

At seven hundred years in the making, Vannes Cathedral is a melange of styles , with romanesque, gothic, Italian renaissance and neo-gothic elements, all built from granite.

The oldest feature is also one of the most noticeable; the bell-tower on the facade is romanesque and from the 1200s, the only part of the original cathedral still here.

You can pick up the trail of Vincent Ferrer again, as his statue is a on a pillar in the main portal, and you can find his tomb in a chapel on the north side of the building.

9. Porte Saint-Vincent

Porte Saint-VincentSource: flickr
Porte Saint-Vincent

The main southern entrance to the walled city, it is through this gate that maritime visitors would have entered Vannes from the 16th-century.

The long, finger-like harbour begins directly below Place Gambetta, and a few strides north is this baroque gateway.

The reason it has a less medieval appearance than the rest of Vannes’ defences is because the gap in the walls was only created the end of the 1500s, to allow easy access to the port, which had just been reconfigured to approach the city.

Our friend Vincent Ferrer blesses you from a niche at the top as you enter, while Vannes’ coat of arms are hewn in granite below.

10. Vannes Aquarium

Vannes AquariumSource: aquariumdevannes
Vannes Aquarium

A decent rainy-day choice if you have time on your hands or impatient kids, Vannes Aquarium is a few minutes southwest of the walled city.

There are 50 tanks in three main zones: Temperate seas, tropical seas and tropical freshwater environments.

The star of the warm freshwater came to the aquarium by an unusual route.

Eleanore, the Nile crocodile, was captured in the Paris sewers under Pont-Neuf back in 1984. She weighs 250 kilos and is more than three metres long.

The temperate zone is tasked with helping preserve the ocean environment of the Gulf of Morbihan, and two residents, the seahorse and cuttlefish, are on the endangered list in this part of the world.

11. Château de l’Hermine

Château de l'HermineSource: flickr
Château de l’Hermine

Built into the walls is this beautiful château, best viewed high up from Rue Alexandre le Pontois.

The refined palace we see now is from the 1700s and replaced a much more formidable castle that was a residence for the Dukes of Brittany from the 1300s to the 1500s.

King Francis I stayed here in the months leading up to Brittany’s unification with France in 1532, and the building in its present form is an imposing space for exhibitions.

In May you can tap into Vannes’ maritime tradition at the Photo de Mer exhibition, held in the sweet formal gardens on the right bank of the Marle.

12. Port de Vannes

Port de VannesSource: flickr
Port de Vannes

When the sun’s out you can stretch your legs by the docks in the port, which reaches down from the walled city to the Gulf of Morbihan.

Sailboats are moored for almost the entire length of the port, and there are a couple to look out for: Le Corbeau des Mers, a lobster-catching sloop from 1931, and Les Trois Frères, a special fishing vessel called a Sinagot, and the last of its kind to be built, back in 1941. Tracing the entire west side of the port is a classic French tree-lined esplanade that has just been resurfaced.

The tourist office is along here should you need some extra local knowledge.

13. Gulf of Morbihan

Gulf of MorbihanSource: flickr
Gulf of Morbihan

At the port you can board a boat for a voyage around the spectacular Gulf of Morbihan, which has 42 islands and is almost completely closed off from the ocean save for the narrow straits between Port-Navalo and Kerpenhir.

There are more than 12,000 hectares to uncover so if you want to dig deeper the possibilities are almost inexhaustible, from bike-rides and treks to island-hopping cruises, calling in at quaint little ports with pink granite fishing cottages and waterwheels.

Most of the islands and islets are uninhabited so you can go ashore for perfect peace and seclusion, and claim your own corner of this one-of-a-kind natural environment.

14. Semaine du Golfe

Semaine du GolfeSource: commons.wikimedia
Semaine du Golfe

Every other year around the Feast of the Ascension in April or May the seascape is speckled with sails during the Semaine du Golfe, as seventeen towns around the gulf get into the seafaring spirit.

In this week there are two large maritime parades, while for three consecutive days a massive flotilla fills the bay.

On a completely different note, whenever you visit in summer you could linger for a few hours at the only beach in the Vannes area, the Plage de Conleau, which also has an outdoor swimming pool fed by the ocean.

15. Food and Drink

fruits de merSource: tripadvisor
fruits de mer

Seafood needs to be a high priority in Vannes, as you may never have tasted fresher shellfish.

A plateau de fruits de mer is a large platter of prawns, langoustine, oysters, crab, mussels and more.

If this tickles your taste buds then a short drive will deliver you to the oyster farms at Séné and Larmor-Baden, which put on informative talks and tasting sessions.

You can’t ignore the crêpe in Brittany, as it’s practically a way of life: Try one sweet with nutella or caramel, or go for a savoury galette, with egg, cheese and ham or saucisson.

Meanwhile, cider is pressed all around the Gulf of Morbihan, and is smooth and very refreshing, with a light acidity.

15 Best Things to Do in Vannes (France):

  • Vannes Ramparts
  • Jardin des Remparts
  • Les Vieux Lavoirs
  • Place Henri IV
  • Musée d'Histoire et d'Archéologie
  • Place de Valencia
  • La Cohue
  • Vannes Cathedral
  • Porte Saint-Vincent
  • Vannes Aquarium
  • Château de l'Hermine
  • Port de Vannes
  • Gulf of Morbihan
  • Semaine du Golfe
  • Food and Drink