Last Updated on 9th August 2019 by Sophie Nadeau
Scratch beneath the surface and you’ll soon discover that Nantes has plenty of unusual attractions and quirky things to do to entertain even the most discerning of travellers. Here’s your ultimate guide to the best of hidden gems and secret spots in Nantes that you won’t want to miss on any visit to the Western French city.
Even as the sixth-largest city in France, Nantes is often overlooked in favour of its other equally large neighbours. After all, each year countless hordes of tourists flock to sip the wine of Bordeaux, admire the glittering lights of the Eiffel Tower, or soak up the ambience of the Pink City, aka Toulouse. However, Nantes more than deserves your time, and not just because of the Machines d’Île and the historic heart…
Les Biens-aimés bookshop
For those who enjoy their coffee served with a side of reading, Les Biens-aimés bookstore (literally translated into English as ‘the beloved’) is a must-visit. Located in the very heart of the Bouffay district of the city, an area presided over by the impressively large Sainte-Croix Church, this is easily one of the best bookshops in Nantes.
Nantes Cathedral External Chair
Impressive and perched high above the Château des Ducs (the fortified structure that defines the Nantes skyline), Nantes Cathedral took a staggering 450 years to build. Unlike many French cathedrals, construction of this ecclesiastical building started to the West since the planned Eastern wing of the structure was impeded by the existence of the medieval town’s ramparts.
Unfortunately, this was short-lived and the Cathedral was badly damaged during the Allied bombing of WWII. Further destruction was to follow as the Cathedral caught fire during restoration works in the 1970s (in a fire that started in a similar circumstance to that of Notre Dame).
Look to the right-hand side on the front façade of the great Nantes Cathedral, which happens to be a full two metres higher than that of Notre Dame de Paris, and you’ll soon spy a ‘Cathedral Chair’ to its base. This pulpit of sorts dates back to the 15th-century when the Cathedral of Saint-Pierre was granted preaching rights.
Le Nid Bar
Though this panoramic rooftop terrace is certainly the worst-kept of Nantes secrets, Le Nid Bar certainly still deserves its place within this article thanks to the sheer beauty of the view to be found from the top of floor 32 of the Tour Bretagne. Best seen at sunset when the light is at its best, head up here with friends to sip on a cocktail, soak up the atmosphere, and enjoy the 260-degree view of Nantes!
Rainbow Steps of Nantes
Located just below the Tour Bretagne, the Rainbow Steps are a vibrant addition to an otherwise typically modern French street. Installed on rue Beaurepaire to celebrate Pride, these steps have only been in situ for a couple of years. Nearby, there are plenty of chain stores and even a supermarket.
Nantes timber-frame houses
There are only a dozen or so timber-framed houses to be found in the heart of Nantes today. Like much of medieval Europe, once upon a time, the entire city would have been a maze of little passages, small side streets, and full of timber-framed houses.
Though the medieval streets exist in Nantes still to this day, the fire-hazard that timber-framed houses pose means that most of them have been replaced with sturdier stone buildings. Some of the best examples of timber houses in Nantes include that of Rue de Geurande and that of 7, rue de la Juiverie.
Café du Passage
For a beverage served with a side of history, you simply need to head to the Café du Passage. Though there is ample indoor seating for days when the weather is less than ideal, the tiled-filled passage offers shade with a fantastic view of the Basilique Saint-Nicolas. So order your hot espresso or a crisp glass of rosé wine, sit back, and enjoy the view!
La Psalette Garden
One of the best-kept secrets of Nantes is the Psalette Garden. Close to the Cathedral, La Psalette is a 15th-century former mansion house which was constructed so as to serve as the residence for the Archdeacon of the Pays de la Mée.
Today, La Psalette has been owned by the City of Nantes since 1912 and is closed to the public, though its various Gothic windows and turreted façade can still be admired from afar. Surrounding the Hôtel is a green-filled park with ample public seating and wonderful views onto Nantes Cathedral.
Nantes Cathedral Crypt
There has been a cathedral at Nantes for well over a millennia, though as a result of fires, wars, and other tragedies over the years, little of the original cathedral survives to this day. That is to say, the part of the cathedral that was built above ground! Luckily, much of the Roman crypt still survives and can be explored for free to this day.
Nantes Cathedral crypt is easily one of the best secret spots in Nantes and can be accessed via the Psalette gardens. Free to visit, wander inside and you’ll soon discover several well-made panels which retell the story of Nantes, as well as its cathedral (though these are, unfortunately, only in French). The crypt also displays some of the most prized treasures in the Cathedral’s collection.
La Porte Sauvetout Medieval Gate
As you might imagine from such an important historic settlement, Nantes once boasted impressive medieval walls that encircled the very heart of the city. Today, almost all of these walls have been destroyed, damaged and dismantled, with the stonework repurposed for other buildings around the city.
One of the last vestiges of Medieval Nantes to be spied within the French city today is to be found in the form of La Porte Sauvetout (also known as the Haut-le-Pied tower), close to the Basilique Saint-Nicolas. If you’re looking for a great coffee spot nearby, then you need to look no further than GLAZ (10 Rue Cacault). I can particularly recommend their fantastic iced coffee!
Place Ferdinand Soil murals
Throughout Europe, there are plenty of beautiful cities in which you can enjoy street art, including, of course, the French city of Lyon and the Belgian city of Ghent. Nantes, too, has its fair share of murals (or ‘murailles’ as they are-so called in French), most notably those found in Place Ferdinand-Soil. Close to the Basilique Saint-Nicolas, these bright and colourful murals depict fak shop fronts and residences.
Passage Sainte Croix
Situated beside an impressive church of the same name, Passage Sainte-Croix is an oasis of calm in the very heart of the city. Home to a larger than life fig tree and several benches where you can sit and relax for a little while, the covered part of the passage is also home to an ever-changing display of modern artworks, meaning that no two visits to the pedestrian walkway will ever be the same!
Slide down Nantes Ducal Palace ramparts
Each year, artists, architects, and designers are invited to Nantes in order to create fantastical creations in the very heart of the city. One of the more fun and interactive installations has been a fixture of the city since 2017 and is a slide which is quite literally affixed to the side of the Ducal Palace Ramparts.
Only open on select days, this fun hidden gem of Nantes will allow you to ‘slide’ through history, all the while enjoying a panoramic view of the city. Standing at 12 metres (40 feet) high, for opening times and further information, check the Ducal Château’s website.
Maison des Engins, The first town hall (Mairie) of Nantes
If you’re looking to enjoy Nantes’ foodie scene and enjoy drinks en terrasse, then the Bouffay district is a must-see. Home to many bars, bistros, and clubs, this arrondissement is also where you’ll find the forgotten Nantes ruins of the Maison des Engins.
Constructed at the end of the 15th-century and now located close to café Le Perroquet, this former mansion house was transformed into the city’s first town hall. Unfortunately, much of the property was demolished in the 20th-century so as to create the new rue des Échevins. Today, you can wander past and even spy an old fireplace quite literally on the side of the road.
A Nantes day trip to Clisson
As the ‘gateway to the Loire Valley,’ it’s pretty fair to say that Nantes has no shortage of château inspired day trips to be taken from the city centre. But by far one of the best side excursions from the city is that of Clisson, a beautiful and yet highly underrated town just a fifteen-minute train ride away from the centre of Nantes (that is if you make sure to take the fast train!)
Once in the fairytale town of Clisson, you’ll soon discover a sleepy French town that was once on the fringes of the Kingdom of Brittany. Home to many a quirky café and typically French bistro, historical highlights of the town include a Romanesque former Carmelite Church, the ruinous and crumbling fortified château, as well as plenty of Italianate architecture.
Discover the Vineyard of Nantes
Of course, French wine is world-famous. However, it’s really the reds of Bordeaux, the rosé wines of Provence, and the champagne of Champagne that are truly well-known. As such, one of the best-hidden gems of Nantes is its large vineyard growing white-grape varieties, which can be found just outside the city limits. Book a guided tour like this one for a glimpse of wine from Nantes!