City Breaks

Things to do in Nantes

Nantes is an area brimming with culture, history, and a giant robotic elephant. What more could you want?

You don’t have to travel to the south of France to experience beautiful towns and cities. A great example, just under six hours from our Calais terminal, is Nantes, a quirky and trendy city to spend a few days in. From free galleries set up by international artists to a robotic museum, to beautiful gardens, there is plenty to keep you occupied.

Nantes is also somewhere many choose to stay while they take part in the Les Foulées du Gois, possibly the most unique running race in France. Luckily for us, travel writer and journalist Rachel Ifans took part and gives us her take on Nantes, it’s history, and some insider tips.

A brief history of Nantes

Once an industrial port city with a thriving shipbuilding industry, the Nantes we see today has certainly come a long way. Following the departure of the shipbuilders in the late 20th century, Nantes began its transformation into a modern, cultural city that attracts visitors from all over the world.

Nantes seems to embrace change effortlessly and has done for centuries. In the 1920s, Nantes’ folk decided to deviate a couple of tributaries of the Loire, yes, that’s right, move a river, to take disease away from the city and allow them to develop the centre as they wanted to. You can visit a statue on one of the wide, previously-riverbed, streets. The brass man stands on one leg, the other out to the side, hanging off the edge, representing the sidestepping (pas de coté) nature of the city.

Today, fine-dining restaurants sit alongside busy shopping arcades and beautiful gardens, punctuated by historic buildings and awe-inspiring monuments, which give a nod to the city’s past. There’s a fascinating mix of medieval and more modern history to soak up. And a lot of art.

aerial view of a city split over the banks of two rivers running towards a blue horizon

Where to stay in Nantes

Being a big city, Nantes has many hotels to choose from, catering to every kind of budget no matter how big or small.

Sōzō Hôtel

For a luxury experience in a unique setting, Rachel recommends Sōzō Hôtel. On the outside, it’s a 19th-century chapel, but inside it has been converted into a magnificent 4-star boutique hotel with various room sizes and suites. Prices are a little above average, but the experience is well worth it.

  • “I’m a self-confessed Francophile” says Rachel. “I travelled to Nantes after participating in Les Foulées du Gois race. Having visited before, I knew where to celebrate and soak up the city’s culture.

    From Gois back to our hotel in Nantes city was about a 75-minute drive. We celebrated our triumph with Mojitos in Le Nid (‘the nest’), a cocktail bar, so called as it’s laid out like a giant bird’s nest. Perché on the 32nd floor of the Tour de Bretagne, fantastically French in its arty-but-grungy way. We scoffed last-orders pizzas al-fresco in Place Graslin and fell into our beds, ready to hit the history and the high street the next day.

    I’ve been to Nantes a few times now and I love it. I’d move there in a heartbeat. It’s progressive in a way that puts UK cities to shame; “We decided we wanted to make all the squares pedestrianised – so we did”, a local tells us. “Yes, some people moaned but people always moan – they get over it!” Nantes seems to embrace change effortlessly and has done for centuries. They’re not afraid to do things differently here.

    My top places I think everyone should visit include Le Voyage a Nantes, a green line painted on the pavements of the city, guiding tourists around a fascinating public art collection that evolves each year. Nantes has recently changed the face of its tourism, by investing in the city as an art destination. We saw memorable installations like The Urban Jungle designed and a seemingly floating apartment squashed in a passageway between two shops and accessible only by ladder.

    Of course, the redeveloped docks with its Machines de Lille is a must, with a tasty lunch at La Cantine.

    I’ve also made a vow to return to Nantes when the highly anticipated Heron Tree will open just 1km from town. It almost defies description but is a mechanic tree-and-bird combo sunk into a disused quarry.”

Exploring Nantes

There really is so much to see and do in Nantes that it can be hard to decide where to start. Let us help you with some highlights.

La Villa Ocupada

Established by twenty artists from around the world, La Villa Ocupada features dazzling bright art, covering the ceiling, walls, and floor. The art reflects political views, so take your time there to study the art to see what it represents. It’s free to enter, which is ideal if you’re travelling on a budget.

Mechanical elephant walking past a carousel with people riding on its back and sides

Les Machines de l’ile de Nantes

This is a real fantasy world, completely different to anything else you will come across in France, or possibly anywhere else in the world. The giant carousel, huge spiders and caterpillars, and other mind-blowing machines, show just what can be achieved from science and engineering.

The star of the show is the Grand Éléphant. This is a huge elephant that can take up to 50 passengers on a 40-minute ride through Les Machines de l’ile de Nantes, stopping off at the carousel and workshops along the way. It really is a must, but remember to book tickets far in advance, as it’s understandably in high demand.

The creators of Les Machines de l'ile de Nantes have created another creature called The Dragon of Calais which also takes passengers for a ride.

large greenhouse building set amongst parkland and big green trees on a sunny day

Jardin des Plantes

On a warm day, make sure you spend some time walking through Jardin des Plantes, a verdant botanical garden established in 1806, its current form developed in 1900. With over 11,000 species of plants and greenery, there’s plenty to see and do in the gardens. The greenhouses are also full of unusual and beautiful fauna but be aware that there’s a charge to enter.

large gothic building with red doors towering into the blue skyline

Cathédrale St-Pierre et St-Paul

A trip to a French city doesn’t often feel complete if there isn’t a cathedral stop on the itinerary somewhere. Cathédrale St-Pierre et St-Paul is a beautiful gothic style cathedral that looms over Nantes. As well as a place of worship, it is also a tomb for François II, Duke of Brittany, and his wife Marguerite de Foix. See if you can find the secret garden at the back of the cathedral to experience some peace and tranquility amongst the flowers.

Musée d'Histoire Naturelle

From tiny insects to a ginormous whale skeleton, all creatures great and small are on display at Musée d'Histoire Naturelle. The museum is actually within the Jardin des Plantes, so you can plan a whole day around the two experiences if you like. There are lots of permanent collections on display, but there are also frequent temporary exhibitions too, so make sure you check what will be on when you visit Nantes.

Ornate stairway leading to a passage of shops under a glass ceiling

Passage Pommeraye

For some of the city’s best shopping, stroll down to the Passage Pommeraye, a 19th century passage between two streets, the Rue Santeuil and Rue de la Fosse turned into a shopping mall, where you’ll find a range of boutiques and independent stores. It’s been used in several movies thanks to its striking design by architects, Jean-Baptiste Buron and Hippolyte Durand Gasselin that features renaissance sculptures and an elaborate central stairway.

Château des Ducs de Bretagne

The Château des Ducs de Bretagne (Castle of the Dukes of Brittany) is a must-visit for anyone who goes to Nantes. This spectacular castle is situated in the heart of the city, on the right bank of the River Loire, within easy walking distance of many of Nantes’ other sights. As well as wandering through the castle itself, you can learn about the city’s history in the onsite museum. However, many stop to experience a rather unique feature of the castle – a slide attached to one of the defence towers! You can slide to towards (but not into) the moat, free of charge.

Where to eat in Nantes

As anyone who’s visited France will know, this country has some of the best food in the world, and Nantes is no exception to the rule. Tuck into delicious dishes at any of these fine establishments.

La Cigale

In Nantes, the most famous and, in some opinions, best restaurant is La Cigale. This brasserie serves up typically French dishes – steak with bordelaise sauce and escargots – in a beautiful Art Deco setting.

Crêperie Heb-Ken

For a midday meal, stop by Crêperie Heb-Ken for a crêpe or two served with delicious French coffee.

open plan restaurant with a large colourful sign saying la cantine du voyage with people sitting in the sun or riding bicycles past

La Cantine

Open-plan seating and an affordable set menu of poulet and pots with salad from the kitchen garden, all on the docks of the city. People-spotting is a perfect way to spend your time while you dine.

Other Unmissable things to see in Nantes

Here are some other things to see and do that you simply must put on your list.

multi-tiered fountain with many figures seated and standing with water spouting from them in front of a large building under a blue sky

The Urban Jungle

Jungle Interieure, or the Urban Jungle is a hanging garden in the tiny courtyard of a private passageway: a tiny, natural wonderland, cared for by its creator, visual artist Evor.

Le Lieu Unique

This is a disused biscuit factory, rejuvenated as a social space and the perfect space to relax after a long day. It’s another space where the arts are celebrated and each year, Le Lieu Unique presents numerous shows including concerts, literary gatherings, philosophical debates, exhibitions, residencies for artists, and festivals.

Tour de Bretagne

Brittany Tower is in an old part of Nantes called Le Marchix. Ride to the top of the only tower in Nantes for great views and cocktails at Le Nid (The Nest). The terrace gives a full 360-degree view on the city and its surroundings.

Musee d’Arts

Redesigned and extended by UK powerhouse Stanton Williams, Musee d’Arts is filled to the brim with pieces from as far back as the 13th-century. The building is a protected historical monument in itself, so be sure to take in your surroundings as well as the art.

Get to Nantes with Eurotunnel Le Shuttle

The most direct route from Calais to Nantes is via the A28 and A11. You can easily plan stops at Boulogne-sur-Mer, Rouen, and Le Mans.

What will you do first in Nantes? Head off on a robotic elephant ride, or go see a whale skeleton in real life? Whatever you choose, there won’t be a long wait as it only takes 35 minutes to get from Folkestone to Calais. 

Book your tickets with us early to receive the best price.

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About the Author

I am a journalist and editor, covering a wide range of lifestyle and travel subjects but always returning to my first love, France. Born unfortunately to non-French parents, I have spent my life trying to make up for it by spending as much time as I can in France or writing about it, studying the language, tirelessly dragging my children round all six sides of l'Hexagone, and endlessly chuntering to my husband about moving there.

To read more from Rachel, click here.

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