The first thing to know about Nantes is how to pronounce it. You don’t pronounce the “es”; so it’s just “Nant”.
The second thing to know is where you’ll find it on a map.
Nantes is located in western France, on the Loire River and just over 30 miles from the Atlantic coast. Is it part of Brittany? Certainly not. But it used to be. Up until WWII, when change engulfed the not just France but the entire world.
Today, with its fluctuating climate and rugged landscape, Nantes still retains something of its Bretagne past, but it’s also developed a distinct identity of its own.
The city is the sixth biggest in France, and home to roughly 300,000 inhabitants. With a thriving arts scene, endless amount of cafés and bars, stunning architecture and quiet gardens, it’s a wonder the city is still relatively unknown to non-French speakers.
After spending a fantastique few days exploring the city last week, I’ve selected half a dozen of my favourite moments (which seemed to me quintessentially Nantes-esque).
Wandering around the castle
The Château des Ducs de Bretagne, once the home of the Dukes of Brittany and the Breton residence of the French Monarchy, is a stunning fortified castle that was built during the eleventh century.
Declared a “monument historique” by the French Ministry of Culture in 1862, it was given to the City of Nantes in 1915, and just over a decade later it became a municipal museum.
Today the castle today is one of the city’s most impressive buildings (alongside the Cathedral St. Pierre).
Drinking cider from a mug (& eating crêpes)
In true Bretagne fashion, the rows of crêperies in Nantes offer passersby mugs of cider alongside a cheeky pancake.
This feels a little strange at first; surely anything inside a mug should be piping hot? But it’s a charming tradition that you miss once you’re back in the UK with your miserable filter coffee.
On the subject of food and drink, I also recommend ordering Muscadet when out for dinner. This white wine, produced at the “western end of the Loire Valley”, is a local treasure and will earn you brownie points with the locals. You’re welcome.
Admiring the art
Nantes and art; where to start? I suppose a good place is Le Voyage à Nantes — an event that, every summer, takes residents on a journey of art installations across the city, joined together by a green line visible on the pavements.
During my visit, I spotted a plethora of works (old and new), and was shocked by how striking they were; transforming a pretty square into a set worthy of a Tim Walker fashion shoot.
Below is one of my favourites; La Part Manquante by Boris Chouvellon, spotted on Place Du Bouffay (as if I could have missed it…). The reason this is my favourite is because of the pineapples but, if you’re interested, you can read more about its artistic merit and symbolism here.
An example of an older installation, which has stood the test of time, is Le Nid.
Sitting atop the city’s only high rise building, Tour de Bretagne, The Nest is the work of the contemporary artist Jean Jullien in 2012.
The installation itself is a huge white bird, “half-stork, half-heron, calmly watching over the city”. However, it moonlights as a rooftop bar, with little eggs dotted around for people to sit on and absorb panoramic views of the twinkling city with its narrow streets and striking architecture. Trust me when I say it’s worth the elevator ride to get there (32 floors but surprisingly fast).
Other artistic endeavours I recommend include, amongst other things, the Musée des Beaux-Arts de Nantes and the Jules Verne museum. It’s also worth checking out The Lieu Unique, a centre for contemporary art and music, housed in an eye-catching, pastel-coloured building which was once the LU biscuit factory.
Witnessing The Grand Éléphant
Where would a blog post on Nantes be without a mention of the Grand Éléphant—the 40ft, metal elephant that moves around with people on its back.
The elephant was created as part of Les Machines de l’île, a 2007 cultural project that saw artists François Delarozière and Pierre Orefice taking to the city’s former shipyards and business sites to reinvent its industrial past. The elephant is reportedly inspired by The Sultan’s Elephant from Royal de Luxe, which toured the world from 2005 to 2007.
The best thing about this elephant is that is squirts water at unsuspecting spectators watching it walk by on one of its little jaunts.
Dressing up and going to La Cigale
La Cigale is a truly special brasserie that opened its doors on the south side of Place Graslin in 1895.
Its stunning design and Art Nouveau style, still glimmering today, is down to the ceramic architect Émile Libaudière, sculptor Émile Gaucher and painter Georges Levreau.
Rumour has it surrealists, such as the legendary André Breton, frequented the restaurant, and Jacques Demy shot scenes there for his film Lola in 1961.
Luckily, La Cigale’s menu is as delicious as its decor. From snails to seafood to steak, there are plenty of savoury dishes to fill a hungry tummy after a day of exploring the city. For dessert, I can personally vouch for both the brasserie’s creamy yet crunchy Crème brûlée and wonderfully soft salted caramel chocolate tart.
Take note: My boyfriend had to book a table a week in advance!
Visiting the Mémorial de l’abolition de l’esclavage
The slavery memorial, situated between the Victor-Schoelcher passage to the Anne-de-Bretagne bridge, was inaugurated in 2012 and is a reminder that Nantes was once one of the main slave ports in France.
Paying tribute to all those who have fought or been affected by slavery across the world, the 400m long esplanade includes 2000 glass plates, each naming ships and dates leaving Nantes on slave trade expeditions as well as the main African and American trading posts.
This path leads to an underground passage displaying the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, alongside poignant quotations, poems and milestone dates written in different languages, finishing with the sobering reminder that slavery still exists today.
Other places to visit
☕ Trentemoult: a former fishing village filled with colourful houses
☕ La Baule-Escoublac: quaint seaside resort with lots of restaurants and shops
☕ The Loire à vélo: hire a bike and take in the stunning chateaux of the Loire Valley