Another underrated gem in France, yet an important hub of cultural activity, is the city of Nantes.
Built on the banks of the Loire River, only a few kilometres away from the Atlantic Ocean, Nantes quickly developed as an important maritime center. Through centuries, however, the maritime business gradually declined, resulting in the closure of the shipyards at the end of the 1980s. Nantes had to quickly react and adopt to the new era. And that’s where the promotion of its cultural identity seemed to be of the utmost importance.
Ever since, the city has been in a constant forward-thinking and innovative development mode with praiseworthy end-results. Nowadays, Nantes is an exciting, futuristic, and welcoming destination that does not cease to impress. And with long-haul travels set on hold for the moment, city breaks like this should rank high on your travel bucket list!
A Journey To Nantes
Nantes boasts one of the best summer art festivals in the country, known as “Le Voyage à Nantes” (or in short LVAN). As part of this exemplary project, many artists from all around the world are invited to add their personal touch in the urban landscape of the city through site-specific artworks. Even if the festival runs only during summer, some of these art installations remain on the selected locations permanently.
The best way to discover all these contemporary artworks, as well as some of the most emblematic city attractions, is by simply following the so-called Green Line. A lime green stripe painted on the ground, will take you on a 12 km discovery journey through Nantes’ best historical and cultural sites.
Le Voyage trail serves as a great introduction to the city for both pedestrians and cyclists.
For the needs of this blog post, I will share with you some of my favorite landmarks in the city of Nantes!
Les Machines de l’Île
One of the most outstanding projects that brings into life the fictional creations of Verne’s fantasy world by using the mechanical engineering ideas of Leonardo da Vinci, is “Les Machines de l’Île”. Hosted in Île de Nantes, and specifically in a former warehouse that ships were once built, Les Machines de l’Île is a mechanical zoo where machines come to life right before your eyes.
A giant ant, a giant spider, a hummingbird, and the most loving animal in this Mechanical Kingdom, the Great Elephant, promise to leave visitors awestruck.
Learn more about this amazing place through the dedicated “Les Machines de l’Île – Visiting the Land of Marvels” blog post I have created on the topic.
The Château des Ducs de Bretagne
The Castle of the Dukes of Brittany houses in its 32 rooms the Nantes History Museum, with over 850 exhibits and plenty of multimedia installations. Through a maze of chambers and stairways, you will follow the city’s development from ancient times to the modern age.
If you are a history buff, then this is the #1 place to go to while in Nantes. To get the most out of your visit, remember to ask for an audio guide as most of the exhibits are signposted in French.
If history is not your thing, you can still visit the Castle’s courtyard, ramparts and gardens for a relaxing stroll (no ticket required). During summertime, you can also slide your way down by using the “paysage glissé” which is installed on the side of the castle.
Fun Fact: Apparently, the name of the castle is creating confusion to most tourists that think that Nantes is still part of Brittany. Truth be told, the city was indeed the capital and the main residence of the dukes of Brittany in the 15th century. However, after the Second World War, Nantes was ousted from Brittany and joined the newly created Pays de la Loire region. Ever since there is an ongoing debate with a significant number of the citizens of Nantes being in favor of a possible reunification.
The Passage Pommeraye
One of the most characteristic samples of French architecture are the glass-roofed covered Passages. Think of them as early malls of their times! The Passage Pommeraye in Nantes is specifically ranked among the most elegant covered passages in Europe. Built in the mid-19th century in a classy Renaissance design, it guarantees to impress with its fine decoration, charming boutiques and stylish atmosphere.
Due to its location on a sloping hill of Nantes, Passage Pommeraye conveniently connects two streets (Rue de la Fosse being on the lower level, and Rue Santeuil being on the higher level) through a wooden staircase. On each of the three floors of this shopping arcade you can admire (and photograph) from different angles exquisite decorative elements such as marble columns, statues and bas reliefs.
Opening Hours: 8am-8pm during weekdays and 9am-8am on weekends
Steps away from Passage Pommeraye, lies Place Graslin and the magnificent Théâtre Graslin. As part of the 2020 summer art festival “Le Voyage à Nantes”, a new spectacular installation managed to generate buzz and drum up enthusiasm. The so called “Rideau”, a massive waterfall covering the entire façade of the building, has left visitors literally standing in awe. The whole idea was conceived by Stéphane Thidet who envisioned this gigantic curtain of water crashing down on the front steps of the theater, “reawakening the building and delivering a flow and living energy into the heart of the city”.
This year, the “Rideau” has been replaced by another monumental installation, a roller-skating rink, measuring 38m in diameter! This outdoor playground is an absolute fun activity, welcoming both amateur and professional skaters. Once the summer festival is concluded, the rink is expected to move to another location – not yet known.
Le Lieu Unique
Another emblematic building for the city of Nantes is Le Lieu Unique. Overlooking the Loir river and the Château des Ducs de Bretagne, the former LU biscuit factory can easily be spotted from a distance thanks to its colorful Art Nouveau domed tower! While LU’s operations were moved out of the city long time ago, it was only in 2000 that the building was transformed into (what its name clearly states) a “unique place”.
Recognized as an exciting cultural venue, Le Lieu Unique has become the most favorite spot for visitors and locals alike. Hosting a wide variety of art exhibitions, live music concerts, as well as a restaurant, a bar, a bookstore, a hammam and the most iconic lookout point over the city of Nantes, this is a place not to miss!
Fine Arts Museum
Apparently, the former Art Museum of Nantes was suffering from a shortage of exhibition space and therefore had to undergo a massive restoration and expansion that lasted for 6 full years. After its reopening, it is officially recognized as one of the largest Fine Arts museums in France.
The artworks found in the main building span over nine centuries! Visitors are also invited to discover the Cube, the brand new exhibition space solely dedicated to contemporary art. Overall, the new Museum is simply stunning, with the architects having achieved to bridge past and present in the most successful way. Definitely worth your time!
- Monday, Wednesday, Friday, Saturday, Sunday: 11:00 – 19:00
- Tuesdays: Closed
- Thursdays: 11:00 – 21:00
On the left bank of the Loire river, right opposite the port of Nantes, lies the colourful former fishing village of Trentemoult. Today this small village serves as a hub of arts and crafts with many local artists having established their workshops and galleries here. The facades of the houses have been long painted in different colours, totally matching the chilled and bohemian atmosphere of the entire place.
Escape the bustle and hustle of the big city and take a journey back in time by boarding the Navibus (ferry) from Gare Maritime to Trentemoult. In slightly over 5 minutes you will have arrived in this serene place that will steal your heart forever…
Nantes City Pass
The Best Way to Explore Nantes
Likewise in all other cities, it is of absolute essence that you are properly equipped with a Nantes City Pass for your visit! This pass will grant you with free access to over 30 city attractions, unlimited use on the entire public transport network (bus, tram, navibus), a ride on the Tourist Train or the City Tour minivan, and a cruise on Erdre river. Please consult with Nantes Tourism Office for a pre-booking of your Train/Minivan City Tour and/or the River Cruise.
Moreover, with your City Pass you can rent for free an audio guide for self-exploration at your own pace around the different touristic routes of Nantes. You can keep this audio guide with you for the whole day.
Depending on the season you will be visiting Nantes (and especially under current pandemic conditions), you should always check whether attractions and tours are operational or not. Please refer to this official page for the most up-to-date info.
Prices: 26€/24h, 35€/48h, 45€/72h
Benefit from the additional discount offered when you buy your City Pass online. Special rates as follows: 24€/24h, 32€/48h, 41€/72h)
Nantes was a wonderful surprise for us. To start with, we have been warmly welcomed by the Nantes Tourism that was always there to give us tips and help whenever we needed it.
Special credits to the volunteers of the LVAN summer event, for offering loads of info on the various sites we visited. Important to mention that all the people we met in Nantes were speaking English fluently! Note this down in case you are worried on how you will survive a French speaking city!
And last, but certainly not least, I would like to thank:
- Our Couchsurfing host, Eves, for his tremendous hospitality!
- The other tenants and guests in Eves house for the barbecue nights, the laughs, the positive vibes and the great memories!!! Reda, Dylan, Marina, Rafa, Mo, Julien, Ester, Jufry (hope I did not forget anyone) you are all amazing!
- The three new friends we unexpectedly made while planning our St. Michel day trip (Lidia, Camila, Italo). Guys if it wasn’t for you, this trip would not have been as memorable as it is, in both our hearts and minds! Love you all!