Nantes: Jewel of the Loire Valley

History, Good Eating, Scenic Rivers Define City

Nantes, Pommeraye passage.
••• P. Eoche/Getty Images

Nantes, France, like countless other cities, has long been known as the Venice of the West for its prominent water features. The River Loire courses through the center of the city, and the River Erdre, a tributary to the Loire, also runs through Nantes; it is reputed to be one of the most beautiful rivers in France and is the scene of romantic dinner cruises. Nantes, the capital of the Pays de la Loire region of northwestern France, was named by Time magazine as the most liveable city in Europe in 2004.

Nantes was the capital of Brittany until boundaries were redrawn during World War II, but it still retains much of its Brittany identity.

Nantes is the sixth largest city in France and is considered one of the most desirable places to live in the country. It especially holds appeal for young professionals who enjoy the arts and culture. For the traveler, this means the nightlife in Nantes is quite lively.

Getting There

Nantes is easy to get to on the train or plane. It is served by many train lines, including the high-speed  TGVlinefrom Paris Montparnasse train station; this trip takes about two hours. The Nantes Atlantique Airport also serves the area, and you can fly there from Paris, London, and many other cities in France and the U.K. A shuttle connects the airport with the city center and Sud railway station; the trip takes about half an hour. Cabs and buses also will take you from the airport to the city center.

You'll find several hotels near the train station, with botanical gardens as a pleasing backdrop.

Eating and Drinking

Nantes is full of interesting restaurants, bars, bistros, and cafes, as you would expect in a city its size. The region's vineyards produce wines such as Muscadet and Gros Plant, both excellent with fish and seafood.

Try oysters with the local Muscadet. Fromage du cure nantais is a cow's milk cheese developed by a priest near Nantes and is also excellent with Muscadet.

Near the Passage Pommeraye and the Place Royale is the Maison des Vins de Loire, the Loire Valley Wine Center, located in the former "wine port" of Nantes, where you can buy the local wines of the Loire Valley

Fish and seafood, from the sea or from the Loire (pike, perch, and eels) is a local specialty, often swimming in beure blanc, a regional treatment for fish. Also try a gateau nantais, a cake that's a mixture of sugar, almonds, butter, and Antilles rum.

Getting Around

The historic center of Nantes is easily walkable or if your hotel is close to the train station, you can just hop a tram; a ride is extremely affordable.

When to Go

Nantes has an oceanic climate, which means it rains throughout the year but has mild summer temperatures, so if you're looking for a summertime vacation spot you probably won't swelter in, Nantes might just be the place. For details on the weather, take a look at website Nantes Weather and Climate.

What to See

On top of the must-do list is lunch at La Cocotte in Verre on the Ile de Versailles, followed by a relaxing boat trip down the River Erdre, with its gorgeous scenery and famous mansions on both sides.

Other things to see:

  • City Center: Nantes is a very old city, and in the city center you'll see examples of the architecture of its medieval past, along with more recent 19th-century architecture. This area is bursting with brasseries, bistros, and cafes and a great place just to stroll around and get a feel for the city.
  • St. Pierre and St. Paul Cathedral: Begun in 1434, the Gothic cathedral wasn't finished until the end of the 19th century. After a 1972 fire, the interior was restored. Inside the cathedral's 11th-century crypt is a museum of religions.
  • Chateau des Ducs de Bretagne (Castle of the Dukes of Brittany): Nantes' castle has recently undergone restoration and is the second oldest building in Nantes after the cathedral and one of the famous castles of the Loire Valley. The inner courtyard is built in the Renaissance style with blistering white tufa, and the Nantes History Museum is inside. Nearby is the Place du Commerce, a largely pedestrian area that offers a good array of restaurants. 
  • Passage Pommeraye: A passage between two streets with different elevations, the rue Santeuil and rue de la Fosse, begun in 1840, now is home to interesting shops and cafes.
  • Jules Verne Museum and House: If you like the writing of Nantes' own Jules Verne, don't miss this museum with multimedia exhibits.
  • Jardin des Plantes de Nantes:  This botanical garden is a tranquil spot not far from the train station in the city center.
  • Musee des Beaux-Arts: The highly celebrated fine arts museum is built around an airy courtyard and features works ranging from Italian primitives to modern art from such giants as Kandinsky, Monet, and Picasso.
  • La Tour LU: This picturesque tower was built in 1905 and restored in 1998 near the entrance of a former Lefevre-Utile (LU) biscuit factory. Go inside to see a panoramic view of Nantes.
  • Ile de Versailles: This is an island in the Erdre with a Japanese garden you can easily reach by foot. You can also take boat rides down the Erdre to the Ile de Versailles and the garden.