Last Updated on 5th January 2021 by Sophie Nadeau
Located in Western France, on the fringes of Brittany and not far from the Western coastline, the French city of Nantes is not only one of the largest in France, but also one of the most overlooked. Home to a dazzling array of eateries, a fantastic selection of museums, and more things to do than you would have thought possible from an off the beaten path French destination, spending a weekend in Nantes couldn’t be easier as an easy excursion from Paris.
And that’s not all! Instead, Nantes is home to its own international airport, which serves plenty of major European cities, as well as some smaller airports across the region. The bus from the airport to the city centre is under an hour and reasonably priced, while the Nantes main train station offers great transport links to the rest of France and beyond.
And, when it comes to accommodation, there are plenty of places to stay in Nantes, meaning that the city is suitable for near enough every budget (this is especially the case during the European shoulder seasons when the prices are lower- i.e. in the spring and autumn).
I personally stayed in Hotel La Perouse and was soon enough charmed by this four-star hotel’s central location and the charming views from my bedroom window- which were particularly beautiful come sunset time! Other great hotel choices in Nantes include this boutique hotel and this luxurious accommodation.
Friday Evening in Nantes
Arrive on Friday evening and allow yourself a couple of hours to refresh and check in to your accommodation for the weekend. Unpack your things and relax before heading out into town! To find the best food, my recommendation would be to head to the Bouffay district, where you’ll soon discover that this largely pedestrianised area offers a wide range of eateries, cafés, and bistros where you can grab a bite to eat.
When I visited the city, I personally started off my Friday evening by heading to the Café du Passage (1 Place Félix Fournier), where I enjoyed a crisp glass of rosé in the shadow of the stunning Basilica and by watching the world go by. Even if you’re visiting Nantes on your own, you should know that it’s not unusual in France to sit in a café on your own (though here are my best tips for dining alone).
Afterwards, you can’t go wrong by heading to the cobbled rue de la Juiverie or rue du Château, which both offer restaurants serving a wide range of cuisines. If you’re veggie like me, then the noodles at My Little Warung (8 Rue du Château) are particularly delicious! I also particularly loved the food at Oncle Pho (9 Rue Saint-Léonard).
Saturday Morning in Nantes
Visit the Château des Ducs de Bretagne
The first thing you must do while in the city is to head to the Château des Ducs de Bretagne (Castle of the Dukes of Brittany). Once upon a time, Nantes was the city where the Dukes chose to rule their Kingdom. Though the settlement is now administratively in the Pays de la Loire region of France, Nantes retains a distinctively Breton feel and is also where Anne of Brittany (twice Queen of France) resided.
To illustrate my point about the Brittany ambience of the city, when I was on a guided tour of Nantes (a must if you’re looking to learn more about its history), our guide for the afternoon asked us each to describe our first impressions of Nantes in just three words. The gentleman to my right answered with a simple “Brittany… or not?”!! The ramparts of the Château itself are free to visit, meander along, and offer one of the best views of Nantes.
During your time at the Château des Ducs, you should also pay a visit to the Nantes History Museum, which is housed within the Castle walls. Spanning several rooms, the museum explores the city’s history, from Roman times right up until the present day. One part of the museum aims to educate visitors as to the part that Nantes played in the slave trade.
Today, visitors can gain a sobering insight into the role the city played; Nantes was responsible for over 40% of France’s involvement in the transatlantic slave trade, a fact that the city has found it hard to come to terms with. Around a ten minute walk away, along the banks of the River Loire, Nantes now has a Memorial to the Abolition of Slavery. Free to visit, this humbling underground urban path memorial has facts, figures, maps, and a timeline. More details about the Nantes slave trade can be found here.
Step inside Nantes Cathedral
Free to visit and easily one of the best cathedrals in France, Nantes Cathedral is unique in that it pretty much burnt down during restoration works in the mid-twentieth-Century. As a result, much of what you see today is actually a reconstruction, including most of the magnificent stained glass which showers the ecclesiastical building in various hues.
Luckily for the history buffs among us, some of the Cathedral survived the bombing of WWII and the subsequent (but unrelated) fire which happened during restorations. What has survived includes some impressive medieval doors, several chest tombs depicting effigies of those who lie beneath, and of course, the crypt which has Roman roots.
Wander around the Bouffay District
After exploring all that the Château and its museum have to offer, take the time to explore all that the Bouffay District has to offer during the daytime. Asides from the winding streets, independent shops, and hidden and forgotten courtyards, one of the top things to discover is the Église Sainte-Croix.
Boasting one of the most impressive belfries of any ecclesiastical building in the city, this church is free to enter and happens to be the place where Jules Verne was baptised, as well as the location where his parents were married just a year prior.
Step inside at any given moment, and you’ll soon also discover plenty of stunning stained glass windows as well as a 19th-century traditional French Organ. Nearby, the Passage Sainte-Croix is easily one of the best-kept secrets of Nantes and hosts unusual art exhibitions on a regular basis.
Saturday Afternoon in Nantes
Head to Machines de l’Ile
To truly discover all that the Machines de l’Ile area of the city has to cover, you’ll want to dedicate an entire afternoon to this weird and wonderful tourist destination. So unique is this Nantes attraction, that it’s singlehandedly places Nantes on the tourist map, with visitors from all around the world arriving in the city with the primary intention of discovering the Machines of the Isle of Nantes.
Since 2007, the La Machine production company has been producing impressively large constructions and fantastical mechanical creations on the former shipyards of Nantes. Particularly impressive projects of note include the 12-metre elephant on which 49 passengers can be transported across the island (just be sure to book your tickets in advance) and the almost 25 metres high Marine Worlds Carousel.
Saturday Evening in Nantes
Enjoy a drink at Le Nid Nantes
End your day the right way by soaking up the best view in Nantes. Located at the very top of the Tour Bretagne, Le Nid Nantes offers an indoor bar, as well as a wrap-around terrace which offers panoramic 360-degree views of the entire city.
Though the drinks are a little pricier than at other venues across the city (and you’ll have to pay €1 for the privilege of using the lift up and entering the bar), the view more than makes up for the fact! Standing at a dizzying height of 32 floors, from the top you can enjoy a bird’s eye perspective of the Cathedral, the typically Nantes architecture, and more.
Sunday Morning in Nantes
Explore the hidden gems which Nantes has to offer
If you truly want to make the most of your weekend in Nantes, then you might consider delving a deeper into the city on a more local level. What this may well mean is to be on the lookout for some of the best-kept secrets and hidden gems which the French settlement has to offer.
Among my favourite off the beaten path places to discover include the hidden courtyard and garden of La Psalette (a medieval mansion and secluded courtyard close to Nantes Cathedral), La Porte Sauvetout Medieval Gate (all that’s left of the once-grand medieval fortifications surrounding the city- nearby you can grab some of the best coffee in Nantes at GLAZ), and the free to visit secret gardens on the Ile de Versailles.
Go shopping for new and vintage books
After you’ve wandered through Passage Pommeraye and discovered some of the lesser-known gems that the city has to offer, why not dive into some new and used bookshops and discover the city from a new perspective (and to purchase some souvenirs to bring back home!)
During my solo trip to Nantes, I was particularly enthralled to discover an abundance of historic, quirky, and unique bookshops in Nantes, and even managed to pick up several local history books for a very reasonable price!
A personal favourite of mine was Coiffard Books, which is set across two sides of a pedestrian-only street. Boasting features such as oak panelling and books stacked from floor to ceiling, I was particularly enthralled by the expansive travel section! Find all the details for opening times here.
Sunday Afternoon in Nantes
Take a day trip to Clisson
For those who wish to experience the beginning of the Loire Valley, an easy day trip from Nantes is that of Clisson. Pretty, picturesque and with its own set of crumbling ruins and wealth of medieval history, this beautiful town has more than enough to entertain any traveller over the course of an afternoon.
From Nantes, it takes just under half an hour to reach Clisson (should you opt to take the fast train). Otherwise, the journey will remain the same price and take under an hour in each direction. However you reach Clisson, once there, some of the top highlights include exploring the Italianate style Domaine de la Garenne Lemot & La Villa Lemot & La Maison du Jardinier and soaking up the quiet ambience of the town.