City Breaks

Visiting Nantes

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

Some people think that Paris has a huge magnetic pull, dragging all points of French culture to its hallowed avenues. But, that just isn’t the case, and Nantes is the city that proves it.

Just under six hours from our Calais terminal, Nantes is a quirky and trendy city to spend a few days. From free galleries set up by international artists to a robotic museum, to beautiful gardens, there is plenty to keep you occupied.

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 their 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.

Les Machines de l’ile de Nantes 

Don't be surprised if you see a robotic elephant in 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.

But 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. The elephant ride really is a must, but remember to book tickets far in advance, as it’s understandably in high demand.

Jardin des Plantes

Come to the Jardin des Plantes for beautiful greenhouses and unusual plants

On a warm day, make sure you spend some time walking through Jardin des Plantes. The garden was established in 1806, and its current form was 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.

Cathédrale St-Pierre et St-Paul

The stunning cathedral is a must-visit, but make sure you also pop by the secret garden too

Obviously, a trip to a French city isn’t complete if there isn’t a cathedral stop on the itinerary somewhere. Cathédrale St-Pierre et St-Paul is a gothic style cathedral, looming 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. There is also a secret garden at the back of the cathedral you can rest in.

Musée d'Histoire Naturelle

From tiny insects to a ginormous whale skeleton, all creatures large and small are on display at Musée d'Histoire Naturelle. 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.

Insider’s tips

Self-confessed Francophile Rachel Ifans travelled to Nantes after participating in one of France’s unique running races; Les Foulées du Gois. Having visited before, she knew where to celebrate and soak up the city’s culture:

From Gois back to our hotel in Nantes city (about 75 minutes drive), we celebrated our triumph with Mojitos in Le Nid (‘the nest’), a cocktail bar 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.

Bird-inspired art and great views of Nantes from the 32nd floor of Tour de Bretagne

Do you know Nantes? I’ve been 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!”), and it has a fascinating mix of medieval and more modern history to soak up. And a lot of art.

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. We 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. They’re not afraid to do things differently here, it’s saying.

The Chateau des Ducs de Bretagne in Nantes

Nantes has recently changed the face of its tourism, by investing in the city as an art destination. Le Voyage a Nantes is a green line painted on the pavements of the city, guiding tourists around the fascinating public art it now boasts. The collection evolves each year – this year has added seven more km to the previous 10 – and we saw memorable installations like an awesome urban jungle designed and planted in a nondescript backyard. Also, a seemingly floating apartment squashed in a passageway between two shops and accessible only by ladder.

And of course the redeveloped docks with its Machines de Lille. We got wet from the trunk of the giant mechanical elephant as it strutted the dockside, and hooted our way around the marine carousel (twice!). We lunched at La Cantine - open-plan seating, a cheap set menu and of poulet and pots with salad from the kitchen garden - while we made a vow to return in 2022 when the much-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).

a Cantine is an open-plan lunch venue with a set menu on the docks of Nantes city centre

The city is reachable by car from the Eurotunnel in 5.5 hours, or you can split you journey in somewhere gorgeous like St-Valery-Sur-Somme which is just over an hour from the tunnel.

‘Les Incontournables’ - Unmissable things to do in Nantes:

  • Les Machines – shut on Mondays, the new machine for 2019 is the delightful sloth
  • La Cantine – fab, cheap eaterie on the docks
  • The Urban Jungle – one of the new additions to Le Voyage in 2020.
  • The slide on the chateau – only in Nantes would you find a huge kids’ slide scooting down the side of a medieval chateau
  • Le Lieu Unique – a disused biscuit factory rejuvenated as a social space and injected with cool
  • Tour de Bretagne – ride to the top of the only tower in Nantes. Great views and cocktails
  • Musee d’Arts – redesigned and extended by UK powerhouse Stanton Williams

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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