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Visiting Nantes and the Loire-Atlantic area
Located in the south of Brittany, just 45 minutes away from the Atlantic Ocean, Nantes is a perfect base to explore the region. Whether you’re on a short break to discover the city or staying longer to visit the area you won’t run out of things to do and see.
From its magnificent chateau, seat of the Dukes of Brittany and the giant mechanical elephant that walks the streets spraying passers-by with water to the magical sculptures that line the art trail, Nantes caters for all tastes. Culture vulture, art lover, wine buff or shopaholic, read on to find out what Nantes has on offer for your amusement and delight.
Getting there is easy too. Hop on a Eurostar to Paris, transfer to Montparnasse station which is on a direct metro line from the Gare du Nord and catch the TGV to Nantes. In just over two hours you’ll be arriving into the centre of Nantes and your adventure begins.
TOP 5 THINGS TO DO AND SEE IN NANTES
Les Machines de l’Île
Adults and children alike will be captivated by the magical Machines de l’Île. This collection of super-sized mechanical creatures is housed in the city's former shipyards.
Everything here amazes and enthralls. You can sit on the back of a giant spider as it crawls along its web, take to the skies on the wings of a heron or climb onboard the 40ft high Grand Éléphant and take a stroll around town.
There is so much to discover and explore in this steam-punk universe of crazy mechanical beasts, you may have to come back again and again.
The Art Trail
Estuaire Nantes-Saint Nazaire is a collection of 30 contemporary artworks that form an art trail from Nantes, along the Loire river to the port town of Saint Nazaire.
Go for a stroll by the Canal St Felix, not far from the railway station, and you may spot Nymphéa, the projected face of a girl who appears to be looking up from under the water. Take a drive to the mouth of the Estuary, where the river meets the sea, and you’ll see Huang Yong Ping’s Serpent D’Océan, the skeleton of a giant sea serpent wallowing in the shallows on the beach.
Maps are available showing the location of each of the artworks so you can pick and choose or follow the whole trail. With each stop you’ll discover a new and surprising location, enhanced by the beauty of the art.
The Castle of the Dukes of Brittany
This stunning castle sits on the banks of the Loire in the centre of Nantes. The building dates back to the 15th and 17th centuries and is also home to the Nantes History Museum.
Have a wander around the magnificent residential palace, then head for the museum to see the 850 exhibits that walk you through the history of Brittany, all displayed in a surprisingly modern décor.
Then, if you’re in need of a bit of refreshment, you can treat yourself to a pit stop in the Vieux Donjon, a restaurant located in the old keep. To finish, pop into the gift shop and pick up a few souvenirs to take home.
If shopping is your thing, head to the Passage Pommeraye – you won’t pick up any bargains but the beauty of the building will be reward enough.
Built in 1843 in the art deco style, this bijou shopping mall has three floors of high end shops and restaurants, all set in an elaborately decorated gallery lined with sculpture.
The passage is classified as a national monument and has appeared in several French films, including Les Parapluies de Cherbourg. It gets very crowded so visit early if you want to appreciate the décor before the hoards arrive.
Parks and outdoor spaces
Nantes has lots of parks with over 1000 hectares of green space open to the public. The jewel amongst these is the Jardin des Plantes, a gardener’s heaven with a priceless collection of exotic plants.
Located in the centre of town near the castle, entry to the gardens is free and there’s a petting zoo for children and regular events and activities throughout the year.
It’s the perfect place to escape from the hustle and bustle of the town for a leisurely walk amongst the trees and plants, followed by drinks and cakes in the tea rooms.
EAT LIKE A LOCAL
The food in Nantes focuses on local ingredients, and it’s perfectly located to access a wide range of top quality produce.
Fish and sea food come from the Atlantic, just a few kilometres away. Fruit and vegetables grow abundantly in the rich Loire valley where livestock thrive, providing poultry, meat and dairy produce to the city’s markets.
Wine comes from the local vines, primarily muscadet grapes that produce a delicious, dry white, that pairs particularly well with seafood.
Top five foods to try in Nantes
- PETIT BEURRE - the French equivalent of a rich tea biscuit, flagship of the iconic LU brand from Nantes. Plain, but great for dunking in tea or hot chocolate.
- RIGOLETTES NANTAISES - a speciality of Nantes, these soft-centred, slightly retro, boiled sweets are made with natural fruit pulp and come in a wide variety of flavours.
- MUSCADET WINE – a fruity white wine that is traditionally paired with seafood, but why limit yourself, it goes well with lots of other things too, including cake.
- GÂTEAU NANTAIS – talking of cake, this almond-flavoured, slightly dense, sponge made with a healthy slug of rum and topped with white icing, is moist and delicious and native to Nantes.
- BRETON CRÊPES AND GALETTES – pancakes, both sweet and savoury are a major feature in Breton cooking. Galettes are made with buckwheat flour (gluten-free) and usually savoury, filled with ham, cheese or seafood. Crêpes are usually sweet, filled with fruit and cream or chocolate, or ideally a combination of all three.
THE SURROUNDING AREA
If you are staying in the area for a bit longer, there are lots of places to visit outside Nantes within an hour or two’s drive, perfect for a day trip. Head for the coast to discover some fantastic beaches or venture further afield, into neighbouring Normandy, to visit the famous Mont St Michel.
The vineyards of Nantes
With 11,500 hectares of vineyards on your doorstep, wine tasting is a must do.
Head 15 minutes south of Nantes, towards Clisson and you’ll find yourself in wine country. You can walk, cycle or drive through the many quaint villages, stopping at wine cellars along the way to try the local produce.
It really is all about the whites here, with Muscadet accounting for 70-80% of production. However, if you’re a die-hard red-wine drinker, try Coteaux d’Ancenis, a blend of Gamay and Cabernet Franc that produces a dry, fruity red and rosé.
The town of La Baule
An elegant sea-side resort with high-end shops and one of the longest beaches in Europe, la Baule is around an hour’s drive from Nantes. The town is surrounded by pine forests, dotted with villas owned by the rich and famous.
If your money is burning a hole in your pocket, head to the casino, part of a modern complex with spa and restaurants. For shopping, you'll find boutiques and restaurants along the stretch of Avenue Louis Lajarrige that runs from the seafront to the Place des Palmiers
Outdoor types will find lots of activities along the waterfront, boat tours, sailing, paddle boarding, or just sitting in one of the beach bars relaxing in the sun.
Guérande and the salt marshes
For the perfect day trip, take the scenic coastal road to Le Croissac, then cross the salt marshes to the medieval walled town of Guérande. It's like stepping back in time within the perfectly preserved walls of the old town.
The narrow streets are filled with shops and restaurants, all selling the local produce. Sel de Guérande is famous in France and is widely considered the best salt.
Salt is everywhere, sold in every shape and form, from biscuits to salted caramel spreads. And if that has worked up a thirst, try a bolée de cidre (bowl of cider) to wash it all down.
Mont St Michel
A bit further afield, on the Normandy coast, Mont Saint Michel is well worth driving the extra distance.
Set on an island, linked to the mainland by a causeway, the medieval monastery is a UNESCO World Heritage site and a major tourist destination. Stroll through the winding streets full of shops and restaurants up to the monastery where you get stunning views of the scenery all around.
There’s no escaping that the Mont is very touristy and very crowded in peak season, however the almost Disney-themed perfection of the place can’t help but bring out your inner child.
Getting around Nantes is pretty easy, it has a good public transport network (TAN) with three tram lines and a large network of buses.
You may want to get yourself a Pass Nantes ticket. This gives limitless use of the TAN network, including the Navibus river ferries. The pass is available for 1, 2 and 3 days and includes free admission to many of the top attractions including the Castle and Machines de l’Iles, free bike rental, and discounts in many shops and restaurants.
You can get a family pass for two adults and two children or individual passes. They’re quite pricey, but worth it if you are planning on visiting a lot of the main sites.
Nantes is the 7th most bike-friendly city in the world so if you don’t fancy doing too much walking and you have enough of public transport the rest of the year, rent a bike. You’ll find plenty of bike paths in the city and the flat land of the surrounding Loire valley makes it pretty pleasant on two wheels.
You’ll find information about renting bikes and even trailers for smaller children on the Nantes Tourist board website.
WHAT'S ON IN NANTES
La Folle Journée: 1st-5th February 2017, The major classical music event in Nantes. Dozens of concerts take place over the weekend with this year's theme being Year of the Dance
Hellfest: 16th-18th June 2017, Metal music festival in Clisson attracting more than 150 000 visitors every year.
Le Voyage à Nantes: 1st July - 27th August 2017. This an annual event celebrating art and culture in the city. Every summer guest artists from all over the world take over Nantes, using the city as a stage for exhibitions and events.
Les Rendez-Vous de l'Erdre: 31st August - 3rd September 2017, Hugely popular jazz festival along the quays of the Erdre river.
Scopitone: 20th-24th September 2017, Multimedia and electronic music festival where artists, musicians, videomakers, graphic designers work together for art.
Image credits from top
© Patrick Messina / LVAN ; © Patrick Messina / LVAN; Huang Yong Ping, Serpent d'ocean, Saint-Brevin-les-Pins (France), œuvre du parcours Estuaire Nantes Saint-Nazaire © Franck Tomps / LVAN; Château des ducs de Bretagne © Franck Tomps LVAN.JPG; © Patrick Messina / LVAN; Jardin des Plantes Nantes © LVAN ; Champ des producteurs, Voyage à Nantes 2016 © LVAN.JPG ; © L'Office de Tourisme de Guérande ; © Sive Hughes, © L'Office de Tourisme de Guérande ; © Franck Tomps_ LVAN.JPG ; La Cantine du Voyage, Nantes, 2015a © Franck Tomps_LVAN.JPG
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