What to do in Nantes

By Cristian G. Guasch •  Updated: 08/14/22 •  8 min read

Located in the Pays de la Loire region, Nantes is the sixth largest city in France, with some 300,000 inhabitants and a metropolitan area where another 600,000 people live.

Until the 19th century, it was the country’s most important port and a strategic point for the slave trade to America. During the 20th century, local development was tied to the shipping industry, with shipyards as the driving force of the economy.

Today, Nantes is one of the most important student cities in France; it preserves a beautiful medieval historic center and an urban and cultural life with bohemian overtones.

In addition, the Muscadel wine, an emblem of the region, is produced here. Among the attractions to see in Nantes are: the Castle of the Dukes of Brittany, Bouffay Square, the Cathedral, the Talensac Market and the Jules Verne Museum, since the famous writer is a native of this city.

Castle of the Dukes of Brittany

The Castle of the Dukes of Brittany is the most important historical monument to see in Nantes. This Renaissance fortress, built between the fourteenth and eighteenth century, is located near the train station and houses the Museum of History of Nantes.

A visit inside is not to be missed: the bright rooms house temporary exhibits that tell the history of the city and revisit the dark period of the slave trade in Nantes, which was one of the most important centers of slavery in Europe.

The castle is ideal for a leisurely tour, walking along the 500-meter upper walkway linking the seven towers of the fortress (from up there the views of Nantes are fantastic) or plunging down a fun slide from the imposing 15th-century ramparts. The castle is surrounded by a moat from where a very nice park is born.

Bouffay Square and District

One of the best ways to start a visit to Nantes is in the Place de Bouffay, the heart of a beautiful pedestrian district located about 200 meters from the Castle of the Dukes of Brittany. The cobblestone streets converge on the square, where the beautiful half-timbered houses are the perfect setting for lunch in the sun in the restaurants, bars and cafes of the place.

At night, this area of terraces is the liveliest in Nantes, the meeting point for locals, students and tourists to drink and have fun. The Bouffay district is the soul of Nantes, where the 15th century buildings shine and the famous Apothecary’s House (Maison de l’Apothicaire) stands out, with beautiful sculptures on its three-story facade.

Nantes Cathedral

What to do in Nantes

One of the Catholic buildings to see in Nantes is the Cathedral of St. Pierre and St. Paul, was built from 1434 and completed five centuries later, in 1891. Its initial Romanesque style yielded completely to the Gothic influence. One of the attractions of this temple is that inside is the tomb of the Duke of Brittany, Francis II, considered a masterpiece of French sculpture during the Renaissance.

It also has a secret garden, called Garden of the Psallette, which communicates with the crypt. Sacred music concerts are very frequent in the Cathedral, known in the region for its incomparable acoustics.

Nantes Museum of Art

One of the most important museums to see in Nantes is the Nantes Art Museum, it operates inside a 19th century palace, the magnificent Palais des Beaux Arts (to which a modern building called Cube was annexed), and was reopened in 2017, after being closed for six years for renovations. It has an incredible art collection ranging from the 13th century to the present day, including paintings and sculptures by Auguste Rodin, Gustave Courbet and Claude Monet.

Talensac Market

Shopping at the Talensac market is an unforgettable experience. More than 200 stalls selling fruit, vegetables, cheese, meat, fish and even clothing occupy this fantastic market (covered, semi-covered and open-air), where flavors and aromas invade the senses. It is open from Tuesday to Sunday mornings and only closes on Mondays. The best day to visit is undoubtedly Sunday.

Le Lieu Unique

Another of the places to see in Nantes is Le Lieu Unique, an avant-garde complex in everything related to theater, music, dance and art, which operates in a former cookie factory. All kinds of exhibitions, workshops and artistic expressions from Nantes and the region parade through this eclectic site, in a place that is always on trend.

It also has a spa complex called Oriental Zein, a discotheque, a bookstore and a café-restaurant that is very busy at all hours. The building’s tower is crowned by a large cookie box, which pays homage to Nantes’ recent past.

Very close to Le Lieu Unique, on Rue de la Biscuiterie, is an art installation called Le Grenier du siècle, consisting of a large number of tin boxes stamped against a wall. These boxes were closed by the inhabitants of Nantes on December 31, 1999 and will not be opened until January 1, 2100.

Pommeraye Passage

The Passage Pommeraye, also known as Galerie Pommeraye, is a beautiful shopping mall to see in Nantes with a glass roof in the manner of Italian galleries such as the Victor Emmanuel II in Milan. Built in 1843, it has a beautiful marble staircase and a glamorous Renaissance style that shows off its 25 stores selling clothing, handbags, perfumes and jewelry. Its three floors receive fantastic lighting, with elegant corridors decorated by statues and works of art.

Machines of the Ile de Nantes

What to do in Nantes

A former shipyard in the city houses the incredible Machines de l’Île de Nantes, a dreamlike world inspired by the novels of Jules Verne and embodied in unusual machines representing animals. This veritable mechanical jungle features a 48-ton elephant, an ant, a spider and a heron, among other apparitions of this fantasy bestiary. Without a doubt, the machines on the island are one of the great attractions to see in Nantes.

The Carrousel des mondes marins (Carrousel of Marine Worlds), with sea creatures such as octopuses and huge crabs, is also displayed on the river bank. One of the best things to do in Nantes is to ride the gigantic 35-meter mechanical elephant, a unique experience in the world.

Another of the complex’s ambitious projects is expected to be inaugurated by 2022. It is the fantastic Heron Tree, an installation that emulates a tree of titanic dimensions, with hanging gardens and 22 walkways that parade between the branches. The most incredible thing is that a giant metal spider will inhabit one of the tree’s sectors.

Garden of Plants

The Jardin des Plantes (Jardin des plantes, in French) is one of the most beautiful botanical gardens in France and one of the most beautiful places to see in Nantes. It has an incredible collection of African orchids, tulips, magnolias, maples, cedars and all kinds of flowers, in a setting of ponds, canals, fountains and statues.

The botanical garden, which is very close to the train station, has an area of 70,000 square meters and is estimated to be populated by more than 10,000 species of flowers and plants. Particularly striking is the glass greenhouse, called Serre de L’Île des Palmiers, dating from the 19th century.

Tower of Brittany

Another must-see in Nantes is the Tower of Brittany, undoubtedly the best viewpoint in Nantes. This building, the only one that stands out among the low houses of the city center, has 32 floors and on the highest level operates a pub called Le Nid (The Nest), which has a very particular decoration: the bar is the silhouette of a stork and the seats are its eggs. The skyscraper, which offers incredible 360-degree views, is 144 meters high and was designed between 1965 and 1977 by architect Claude Devorsine.

Jules Verne Museum

A two-kilometer walk from the city center leads to the Jules Verne Museum. The famous writer, author of titles such as Around the World in 80 Days, Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea and Journey to the Center of the Earth, was born in Nantes, more precisely at number 2 Jean-Bart Street.

This museum honors the memory of Verne and his adventure stories. Original manuscripts, first editions of the writer’s novels and objects belonging to him are exhibited here, along with an interactive area that will surprise children.

Memorial for the Abolition of Slavery

As mentioned above, Nantes was one of the most important centers of the Atlantic slave trade in Europe. That dark history is evoked in the moving Slavery Abolition Memorial. It is a monument composed of 2,000 glass plates placed on these docks of the Loire, from where the so-called slave ships sailed. Each plate has the name of one of the ships. It is estimated that more than 600,000 African slaves sailed from here to America. The memorial was designed by Polish-born artist Krysztof Wodiczko and American architect Julian Bonder. This monument is one of the most historic monuments to see in Nantes.

Versailles Island

The Island of Versailles is located in the course of the Erdre River, which a king once called the most beautiful river in France. This island has an area of 1.7 hectares and is the last one on the Erdre before reaching its mouth. It is a very beautiful area to stroll for hours and discover the beautiful Japanese garden, surrounded by exotic plants and a very welcoming natural environment.

Cristian G. Guasch

I have traveled the world visiting 18 countries, including Japan, most of Europe and North America. I love to learn about the culture and history, taste the different dishes and enjoy the beauty of this planet. I also work completely remotely, and this helps me discover new places all year around.