French city breaks don’t just mean Paris, you know. For your next European getaway, think France, or more importantly, think Nantes. A laidback mix of old and new, the modern and the majestic, this all-too-often overlooked French city has finally found its pulse in recent years and a weekend in Nantes is all you need to uncover its charms.
Like all your favourite European cities, Nantes has historic tourist attractions to satisfy the hungry sightseer, as well as modern attractions to woo the most cynical tourist. Here are my tips for what to see and do in 48 hours in Nantes:
Nantes has a pretty efficient tram system but the best way to explore this city is on foot. One of the best places to start is Place Royale, a large square fringed with classic French architecture, with a much-photographed fountain in the centre. The historic buildings of the square now house many cafes offering the best people-watching spots in town (and an Ibis hotel that’s a great place to pop into for a free WiFi fix).
Still in the historic spirit, add Passage Pommeraye to the list. This Old World shopping centre is tiny by modern standards and you probably won’t bag a bargain here but it’s well worth strolling through just to check out the intricate design you won’t see in today’s mammoth malls.
One of Nantes’ recent triumphs has been the revamp of Ile de Nantes, formerly industrial wasteland, that’s now home to a smattering of edgy restaurants and bars. Think the Meatpacking district in NYC or Vesterbro in Copenhagen. A trip across the river to this cool zone is worth it for the Machines de L’Ile alone, a quirkily creative company which has welcomed over 1.5million visitors since 2007. The company create huge mechanical animals like the famous Elephant which you can take a ride on. Inquisitive minds young and old will love the behind-the-scenes tour and seeing how creatures like a giant electric caterpillar spring to life.
The central tourist attraction, the impressive Château des ducs de Bretagne (Castle of the Dukes of Brittany), is still top of the list of things to do in Nantes. A guided tour of 32 rooms is available or you can walk around the grounds (which feel like a weirdly familiar film set) at your own pace. Even better, pack a picnic and chill out around the moat and take in the castle’s distinctive style.
Nothing beats a botanic garden on a Sunday afternoon in spring. For a gorgeously Victorian garden to chill out in, make for the 19th century Botanic Gardens, a peaceful breather from the city’s bustle. Pass numerous art installations , including one by local students inspired by ‘Bambi’. Plus, it’s free.
I’m all about scenic river cruises and in Nantes you can take to the waters for a river cruise to Saint Nazaire. Combine a relaxed three hour cruise of the Loire with a bit of art and wildlife spotting. From 2007 – 2012 the river played host to 9 artistic creations, the most well-known being a house half submerged in the water which still had working lights and looked like a real house, as part of Estuaire arts festival and some of the artworks are still there. The cruise departs daily and prices start from around €20.
For an eagle eye view over Nantes (with cocktails, obviously), head for Le Nid, a funky bar on the 32nd floor of Tour Bretagne. Tables and chairs are shaped like hard-boiled eggs and there’s a huge inflatable hen at the centre of the bar. Quirky stuff. Wine costs just €3 but the secret Le Nid cocktail is the one you really need to try while taking in the panoramic views over the city’s rooftops.
Nantes has any number of hotels, ranked from the super-fancy to the bargainous. For aesthetic appeal alone, Hotel Sozo packs a style punch. A functioning church in a past life, Sozo is now a minimalist style haven, boasting sleek finishes, contemporary art splashes and an ultra-romantic bedroom defined by original stained glass windows and gothic alcoves.
For somewhere more traditional but equally chic, Hotel Pommeraye is hard to beat. Located right in the heart of the city, the hotel mixes traditional rooms with more artistic creations for the adventurous types. Oh and wifi is free.
As you’d expect from a French city, Nantes has no shortage of French cafes, trendy pop up restaurants and more international offerings so you won’t go hungry. Creperies are a big hit in this town and they’re a quick food fix but for something more sophisticated and food to please even the fussiest foodie, head for Song Saveurs Et Sens. A modern Asian food experience, this atmospheric restaurant is a two minute stroll from Hotel Pommeraye and the vegetarian dishes packed such a flavour punch that it ranks as some of the best veggie food I’ve ever eaten. When I dined there, the queue was out the door and even now, I’d queue in a heartbeat. Finally, for an ultra-romantic, traditional French dining experience, it has to be Cocotte.
Nantes has much more to see and do in one weekend than I could possibly mention in this post – Musée des Beaux Arts for a French art fix, Jules Verne museum for the bookworms, Nantes cathedral for even more grand architecture, the list goes on – these are just some of my favourites. Already thinking f your spring getaway? You won’t go wrong with Nantes.