You can’t miss the Castle of the Dukes of Brittany—it's a huge, white, turreted building right in the city center. Built in the 15th century by Francis II, Duke of Burgundy and his daughter Anne of Brittany, it houses an excellent museum which takes you through the story of the city of Nantes.
It has plenty of interactive exhibits and signs in English so you won’t be bored or frustrated. The story takes in the history of the castle and ducal Brittany, the 17th-century Edict of Nantes that granted religious tolerance to the Protestant Hugenots, the colonial period and the importance of the slave trade. It also deals with the all-important Nantes estuary, ship building, biscuit manufacturing and canning. People weave their stories in and out of the main themes and there’s plenty of interpretations of Nantes through writers, poets, painters and film makers. There are some don’t-miss exhibits, my favorite being the Pierrick Sorin city portrait in room 32. A semi-circular screen shows videos of different elements and events in Nantes, all starring Sorin himself playing the relevant characters. As you walk around the city you’ll recognize many of the places depicted.
Ride on Les Machines de l’île
‘Once seen, never forgotten’ sums up the fantastic machines on the island that divides the Loire river, the Isle de Nantes. Inspired by Jules Verne with a touch of Leonardo da Vinci’s engineering vision, the first machine to appear was the Grand Éléphant in 2007.
The Great Elephant is 40 ft (12 meters) high. He’s made of wood but as he walks out of the warehouse that is his home, he takes on a life of his own. You can take a 30-minute ride on the elephant, either on the sides or on the top where a terrace, covered by a canopy, gives you a wonderful view of the former shipyards.
The Marine Worlds Carousel (Le Carrousel des Mondes Marins)
Nantes is a maritime city so the Carousel of the Marine World is particularly close to the hearts of its citizens. Like the elephant, it’s huge—82 ft (25 meters) high and 72 ft (22 m) in diameter. There are three levels to choose for the carousel ride but think carefully before you board. This is no ordinary carousel.
On the Seabed 14 weird creatures include the Giant Crab, Reverse Propulsion Squid and the exploring Machine that dives into the machine room.
Into the Abyss is on the second level with another 6 bizarre species hanging 16 ft (5 m) like the Deep-Sea Lanternfish or the Manta Ray.
On the Sea Surface is on the top level, protected from the elements by a big top. Here a whirlpool of 24 huge mechanical waves toss around the Flying Fish, a Storm Boat, Nutshells and Jellyfish. So pick your creature, strap yourself in and set off, manipulating the mouths, tongues, jaws and tails of your chosen steed. Note that those with vertigo should choose the seabed—otherwise you might feel you’re about to be tipped out into the deep.
The Machine Gallery (Galerie des Machines)
Here's another strange world housed in a giant greenhouse full of suitably carnivorous plants, ferns and more. A Giant Ant walks slowly around, driven by 5 people; an intrepid aviator battles in the Flying Machine as wind and snow threaten to throw him out.
Don’t miss the Workshop where the machines are constructed. Climb the stairs to look down at the builders at work, creating new creatures in wood and steel. It’s like some demented factory of dream makers; you get the very strong impression that you have to be a little…how shall I put it?...mad...to work here.
From April to June and September to November, there are special events: live theater, music, dance, circus, children’s shows and visual arts. At Christmas, the place is full of sculptors from La Machine carving transparent ice creatures.
The Carousel won the most original attraction award at the Themed Entertainment Association in Los Angeles in April 2014.
Les Machines de L’île
Parc des Chantiers
Bd Leon Bureau
L’île de Nantes
Tel. from abroad: 00 33 2 51 17 49 89
In France: 0810 12 12 25
Open: May 13-Jun 26 Tues-Fri 10am-5pm, Sat, Sun 10am-6pm (and May 29, 30, Jun 9). No Elephant rides Jun 3-6
Jun 27-Jul 11 Tues-Sun 10am-6pm
July 12-Aug 31 Daily 10am-7pm
Sep 2-Oct 17 Tues-Fri 10am-5pm, Sat, Sun 10am-6pm
For all other times, check out the website (in English)
Admission: Galerie des Machines or Grand Elephant Ride 8€
Fairground with ride on merry-go-round Adult 8€
For other prices and family passes check out thewebsite (in English)
The Nantes Pass gives you a reduction (for details see page 11)
How to Get there: Tramway line 1 to Les Machines de L’ile, stop at Chantiers Navals.
Cathédrale de St-Pierre-et-St-Paul
The Cathedral of St Peter and St Paul is a soaring Gothic building, incredibly light and airy with mostly modern stained glass. Built in the local white stone, started in 1434 and finished finally in the late 19th century, it’s unlike many of France’s other 15th-century cathedrals constructed in dark stone or granite. As you enter, your eyes are taken upwards to the vaulted roof, 37 meters high. It suffered more than most from the Revolution, an explosion in 1800 which blew out the windows, World War II bombing and a devastating fire in 1972.
The major reason for visiting the cathedral is to see one of the most beautiful tombs in France, that of Francis II, Duke of Brittany and his wife Margaret, parents of Anne de Bretagne (1477-1514), who married two French kings in succession. Happily it was saved from destruction by its removal by canny priests before the French Revolution.
Margaret’s feet rest on a greyhound which represents fidelity; at Francis’s feet a lion represents strength. Four statues stand at each corner of the tomb representing Courage, Justice, Temperance and Prudence. It’s the last which is so interesting, with two faces representing wisdom (an old woman) and prudence (young woman).
Place St Pierre
Tel.: 00 33 (0)2 40 47 84 64
Open Daily 8.30am-6.15pm; Crypt Sat, Sun 3-6pm
The Isle of Nantes
The Isle of Nantes (L’île de Nantes) sits in the middle of the Loire river, dividing the city. It's now being transformed into a new hub of the town. Once the city's industrial center, it’s a great example of urban renewal. Many of the old buildings have been renovated while new, architecturally exciting buildings have been built here.
On the Isle you’ll find the fabulous Machines de L’île and the Creation Quarter, housing schools of architecture, graphic arts and design. During the summer art extravaganza, Le Voyage a Nantes (July 1 to August 28, 2016), the roof of the Architectural School is being transformed into a place to meet up with friends and look at the city; at night it becomes an American-style, drive-in cinema where you sit in old cars and watch the movie way above the surrounding buildings.
You’ll also find some of the Estuary art here, like The Rings by Daniel Buren and Patrick Bouchain that run along the sidewalk and are lit up at night. The Banana Warehouse is full of restaurants and bars. Good quality food at very good value prices, a book store, grocery store and football tables as well as deckchairs on the terrace—it’s typical of the experimental thinking that characterizes this vibrant city.
Walk through the Streets of the Old City of Nantes
The Tourist Office does excellent guided walks in English, taking in districts like the Bouffay Quarter with the Cathedral and the Castle of the Dukes of Brittany.
The Graslin Quarter takes you to the wonderful 19th-century indoor shopping arcade. On three floors, it has an imposing staircase. Nearby the delightful gardens, the cours Cambronne, are formally arranged with close-cropped trees and the facades of gracious 19th-century houses.
Jules Verne was born in the Feydeau Quarter where grand 18th-century stone houses belonged to the rich shipbuilders, whose faces you can see decorating the fronts.
Book the walks, and get maps and information at the Nantes Tourist Office (details on page 11).
Le Voyage a Nantes Summer Event (VAN) and the Green Line
Try to visit Nantes during Le Voyage a Nantes, the annual summer event lasting from the end of June to the end of August, running in 2016 from July 1 to August 28th. It’s a packed cultural program with exhibitions, installations, street theater, and strange apparitions appearing in the parks and gardens of the city like vegetal structures made of branches by the American artist Patrick Dougherty in the gardens of the Castle.
Pick up information at the Tourist Office (more details on page 11), then set off on the Green Line trail. It’s easy to follow—the trail is painted in green on the pavements and alleyways of the city to guide you.
Memorial to the Abolition of Slavery
Nantes owed much of its wealth to the slave trade which accounted for 43% of the total trade in Europe. For years, the city kept their involvement to themselves, but now the story is very well told, first at the Castle of the Dukes of Brittany, and then at this underground Memorial that is both striking and chilling at the same time. Start at the Castle where a trail takes you to the Memorial. On the way 11 information boards tell you about the places you pass that have direct links to the slave trading history, places like a slave ship builder’s house. The trail is 1.5km long and takes about an hour to do.
The Memorial is impressive, and large. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the word ‘Freedom’ in 50 languages, a map and time line, texts, songs, literary works and personal accounts are etched both in the underground memorial and on a huge glass panel running along the quayside.
The Memorial is open daily mid September to mid May: 9am to 6pm
Mid May to mid September 9am to 8pm
Information on the Memorial
The Small Riverside Harbor of Trentemoult
Take the shuttle boat from the Gare Maritime on the north bank of the Loire past the Isle de Nantes to Trentemoult and you feel as if you’ve stepped back into the 19th century. This little village with its brightly colored houses and narrow streets by the harbor was once a fishing village. Today the fishermen and sailors have been replaced by artists who keep the atmosphere and the feel of a country village—albeit one just minutes from the city. Walk away from the harbor to the streets where grander mansions housed ship’s captains, including Jules Verne’s fictional captain.
Join the locals for a meal at La Civelle (21 Quay Marcel Boissard, tel. 00 33 (0)2 40 75 46 60) where you can sit at a window overlooking the water, or eat or drink al fresco on the wooden terrace at the water's edge.
The Estuary (Estuaire) Arts Trail
The Loire runs from Nantes down the mighty estuary to the sea at St-Nazaire. All the way down on both sides of the river you’ll see some extraordinary large-scale installations, sculptures and architectural projects from international artists. There are 28 erected along the 37.5 mile (60 km) trail. You can see the ones within the city of Nantes quite easily, particularly on a guided walk.
The pieces run from some very realistic bears in trees to an extraordinary spine of a sea serpent at the western end, from a giant meter rule snaking around a building in Nantes to the house standing at a drunken angle in the Loire which if you don’t expect it, comes as something of a surprise.
If you want to take the journey to the sea past the sculptures, either do it by car or take an estuary river cruise from Nantes to St-Nazaire. There's a 3-hour tour from April to September. There are other options, including longer tours with a meal on board.
For all tickets, check out the Tourist Office cruise page.
Cycle along the Loire a Velo Route from Nantes
Nantes is on the main bicycle route in the Pays de la Loire where 800 kms (500 miles) of paths, trails and back roads specially marked out for cyclists take you along the mighty river Loire. Locally to Nantes there are three suggested itineraries.
- Take the 5-mile (8km) circuit through Nantes itself. It takes you on an easy ride past the main buildings and through the old quarters of the town.
- The Nantes to Ancenis route is a 23 mile (38 km) route taking you north east along the banks of the Loire.
- There’s a third longer route from Nantes along the south bank of the river to Saint-Brevin. This 34 mile (55 km) route takes you west past many of the Estuary art installations to the spot where the river meets the Atlantic.
For information, either check the Nantes Tourist Office or the local tourist offices of the nearby towns. All the tourist offices will provide you with maps, information on where to hire bicycles and suggestions of accommodation that cater for cyclists.
Also check out the Loire a Velo Trail website which has information on the whole route.
This website is useful for information on hiring bikes in the Pays-de-la-Loire region.
Practical Information on Nantes
Le Voyage a Nantes
9, rue des Etats (in front of the Château des Ducs de Bretagne)
Tel.: 00 33 (0)2 72 64 04 79
Nantes City Pass
If you're planning visits to museums and attractions and want to use public transport, buy the good value City Pass which gives you free access to 30 top attractions and public transport for 1, 2 or 3 days. Passes Adults: 24 hours: 17 euros; 48 hours: 24 euros; 72 hours 31 euros. Also check out other special deals like the family pass on the website.
How to get to Nantes from Paris and London
- From London by train:
Eurostar offers the best service from London to Nantes. From St. Pancras you take the train to either Paris or Lille for the change onto the TGV or TER trains, depending on the connections in Lille. The total journey time is just over five and a half hours. Book early and the return is just £109. Eurostar can also book your train from 300 connecting stations in the UK to London.
For information and tickets click on eurostar.com or telephone 08432 186 186.
For comfort book Standard Premium where the seats are bigger and there's space to work, a selection of magazines and a light meal served at your seat from the on-board staff.
- From Paris by car: The distance from Paris to Nantes is 382 kms (237 miles), and the journey takes around 3hrs 50 mins depending on your speed.
- Check the ferries from the UK to France
Travel Guide to Nantes
More to see on the west coast of France
- La Rochelle, the historic ship building centre
- Guide to the Atlantic Coast of France
- The Vendee Region on the Atlantic Coast
- The Puy du Fou, the best theme park in the world
- Get to Noirmoutiers Island via the causeway at low tide