Nantes: A Tapestry of French Culture and Charm
By Noreen Kompanik
GoNOMAD Senior Writer
Once known for having a lackluster reputation, the town of Nantes has developed into a Parisian favorite getaway for those tiring of the capital city’s rat race.
Pronounced (naunt), this vibrant and historically rich city is located on the Loire River in Brittany, western France about 240 miles southwest of Paris.
The train is the best way to reach Nantes, taking around 2 to 2.5 hours on high-speed TGV (Train à Grande Vitesse). It’s a relaxing journey and much faster than getting caught in French road traffic.
Nantes may be a place many haven’t heard of, but like me, once you’ve discovered the endearing town, it’s an immediate fall-in-love experience.
Impressive revitalization has changed the city, as once dreary industrial suburbs have transformed into a picturesque and charming place to visit.
Despite its revitalization efforts, however, Nantes has never lost its historic Breton character.
History of Nantes (For Better or Worse)
To know the Nantes of today, you must reach back into the annals of history to understand its storied past.
Nantes’ captivating history dates back to pre-Roman times. Actually, its origins can be traced back to ancient Gaul. The Romans conquered the area in the 1 st century B.C. and established a trading port.
Despite the Frankish invasion, Nantes retained its Gaul (Celtic) character and flourished during the Middle Ages as a major port city and a key center of trade and commerce. In the 15 th and 16 th centuries, Nantes experienced a period of economic growth and cultural development with not only shipbuilding but unfortunately, also the Atlantic slave trade.
The city’s port served as a departure point for ships transporting enslaved Africans to French colonies in the Americas, particularly to Caribbean sugar plantations.
During WW II, Nantes suffered heavy damage, especially during Allied bombing raids in 1943 and 1944. The city was liberated by American troops in August 1944. After the war, extensive reconstructive efforts began to rebuild its damaged infrastructure, revitalize the waterfront, and revive its industries.
The city’s prosperity can be seen today in its stunning architecture and well-preserved historic sites.
Staying in Nantes
Immediately arriving at Maisons Du Monde I was captured by its chic, glam charm. The 47-room boutique hotel is located in the heart of Nantes’ historic center. It’s a delightful place and the staff is extremely welcoming.
Exhausted after a long flight from San Diego to Paris and the train ride, I was more than ready to check into my room, grab a quick shower and head out to dinner. The location of the hotel made it so convenient to discover the town’s many treasures.
Maisons Du Monde’s atmosphere is cozy yet cutting-edge. My room was small (not unusual by European standards), but my favorite kind because it’s comfortable without wasting unnecessary space.
There’s not really a lobby per se, but rather a gathering room and breakfast area that feels homey and relaxing.
Dining in Nantes
The front desk staff were more than happy to recommend a local restaurant, which happened to be a perfect choice for me and a friend who joined me for dinner.
La Cigale, located just two blocks from the hotel is situated in a town square with indoor and outdoor seating.
While dining outdoors is usually my preference, the hotel staff recommended we not miss seeing the interior of the restaurant.
What incredible magic! The 19 th-century décor was not only opulent, it was almost Parisian and not something you’d ever suspect to find in a small French town. So much so that it’s one of the most beautiful places I’ve dined in all of France.
The brasserie is filled with colorful tilework, elegant artwork, historic drop lighting, and gold touches everywhere. All the tropical palms add to its luxurious but laid-back feel.
Waiters are dressed in formal white shirts, black vests, and ties and exude class and pride in carrying out their tasks.
The menu changes daily however there is always a fish of the day selection, leading me to select a perfectly-prepared sea bass.
After a French coffee and a shared plate of classic French Profiteroles, my friend and I headed back to the hotel for a much-needed rest.
A helpful travel tip is that with Nantes being a smaller town, you’ll want to brush up on your French or use an app like Google Translate, as not all residents can fluently speak or completely understand English.
If you really want to deep dive into a destination you’ve never been to before, hire a local guide who knows his or her hometown best.
I’ve always loved the ‘insider’ look into places I would have never known existed and that guidebooks don’t even mention or go into any detail.
And if you only have two days to explore a location as I did, you don’t want to waste time trying to figure it all out on your own.
Visiting Château des Ducs de Bretagne
Also known as the Castle of the Dukes of Brittany, the Château is an impressive fortress that once served as the residence of the Dukes of Brittany.
The 13th-century castle, one of the most iconic landmarks in Nantes, has a long and storied history with a mix of architectural styles, including Gothic, Renaissance and Classic elements.
Nantes History Museum housed within its walls was a wonderful way to explore and learn about the city’s rich past.
Awe-Inspiring Cathédrale Saint-Pierre-et-Saint-Paul
This breathtaking Cathédrale is a masterpiece of Gothic architecture and known for its intricate stained-glass windows depicting biblical scenes and saints.
Its magnificent organ is considered one of the best in France. You couldn’t possibly miss the location of the cathedral as it dominates the city skyline with its towering spires and imposing presence.
It’s not only a beloved place of worship but also a cultural and historical treasure. And here’s an insider tip: if you climb to the top, the panoramic views of the city are absolutely stunning.
Magnificent Jardin des Plantes
Translated as “Garden of Plants,” this botanical delight is home to a diverse variety of plant species including trees, flowers, shrubs, and herbs.
I loved its many themed gardens showcasing different types of flora and landscapes such as roses, medicinal plants, and alpine, each with its own special character and charm. Greenhouses on site contain delicate and exotic plant species.
Well-maintained walking paths meander through the property providing a peaceful setting. Sculptures blend harmoniously with their surroundings. Benches and seating areas scattered throughout the garden beckon visitors to take a break, relax and drink in the serene beauty.
Discovering Musée d’Arts de Nantes
For a relatively small town, Nantes sports an impressively renowned art museum located in the heart of the city right between the cathedral and Jardin des Plantes botanical gardens. And the price of admission is only 9 euros.
Its collection of 13,000 pieces of artwork includes paintings, drawings, sculptures and decorative arts dating from the Middle Ages to the 21 st century, offering a journey through centuries of artistic expression. I found beautiful works by Botticelli, Delacroix, Monet, Picasso and Kandinsky, among others.
Another amazingly artistic place to visit is Le Passage Pommeraye, a three-leveled neoclassical gallery that contains impressive art pieces, statues and elegant shops.
Wandering around Nantes, my friend and I just happened upon it, and what a fascinating venue it was.
Exploring Hangar à Bananes
This is a fascinating vibrant cultural and scenic recreational area that was once a seedy industrial port along the Loire River.
It has undergone a remarkable transformation, becoming a dynamic and popular hub for contemporary art, entertainment, dining, and exploring.
Trendy eateries range from casual bistros to waterfront dining along with cafes and bars, and it’s quite a popular gathering spot for local residents.
The area is also well known for its street art scene. Colorful wall murals, fascinating graffiti and urban art installations all add a creative and energetic vibe to the Hangar.
Visitors can also rent bikes or electric scooters to more easily maneuver the area.
Getting out on the Water
If a destination I visit is near the water, you can bet I’m going to look for a boat or river cruise. These offer a completely different perspective from their watery viewpoint.
The River Edre is a great spot to hop on a scenic boat ride as the river is known for its picturesque landscapes, lush greenery, charming riverside homes, and elegant mansions dotting the shores. It’s also another way to see historic buildings and architectural gems.
I so admire French Chateaus (I’m sure because of my French family history), but as a result of being on the river, I was able to ooh and ahh over yet another castle along the riverbank. Château de la Gaudinière, a lesser-known palatial structure was built in the 18 th century and eventually purchased by the city of Nantes in 1992. Though it was completely restored to its original appearance, it remains unoccupied.
As we glided down this peaceful waterway, our fellow cruisers either remained silent, holding hands with their partner, or speaking in hushed tones. It was as if none of us wanted to disrupt the tranquil, relaxing ambiance. Many times, the only sounds were from the guide pointing out particular sites on the river, or the calls of ducks, swans, herons, and other waterfowl in their natural habitat.
The surroundings were so picturesque, it was difficult to choose what to photograph as every bend in the river brought more lovely views.
Final Thoughts on My Visit to Nantes
I’ve always loved small French towns, so visiting Nantes was a captivating experience that blended history, art, culture, and natural beauty. From the grandeur of the Château des Ducs de Bretagne to the innovative art installations of the Île de Nantes, the city offers a unique blend of tradition and modernity.
I so enjoyed exploring its charming cobblestone streets, indulging in the local gastronomy, and immersing myself in the vibrant cultural scene. Whether I was strolling along the banks of the Loire River, admiring the stunning architecture, or discovering the hidden gems of the city, Nantes certainly captivated me with its rich heritage and creative spirit.
With its warm and welcoming atmosphere, this is a destination that leaves a long-lasting impression, inviting you to return and explore its wonders time and time again.