Forget Paris. The cosmopolitan capital bears little resemblance to France’s smaller cities, where people walk more slowly and smile more. There are so many things to do in France that I thought it would be a pity to confine myself to Paris. A 2.5-hour train ride from Paris, Nantes is a charming medium-sized city in the Northwest of France, and where I decided to start my journey through the heartlands of France. I picked Nantes over Provence, Bordeaux, Lyon, Aix-en-Provence and, God forbid, Disneyland Paris, because I was interested in its historical ties to the region of Brittany in France.
Arriving fresh from Paris, I was surprised that there was no Metro system in what was purportedly France’s sixth largest city. Stately 18th century stone buildings fitted with ornate wrought-iron balconies were reminiscent of those in Paris, but smaller and shorter, and stood along streets that would have been dwarfed by the capital’s grand boulevards.
It was time to discover what other surprises Nantes had in store.
Exploring Nantes, France
Day 1 in Nantes
Nantes has its very own castle, which while unheard of in Singapore is totally normal in France. So of course, I had to check out the Château des ducs de Bretagne (Chateau of the Dukes of Brittany).
As the name suggests, it was where the Dukes of Brittany lived until France absorbed the region.
The castle grounds are free to visit, so I took a walk on the castle walls, enjoying views of the surrounding area and peeping through the arrowslits, carved into the walls so archers could shoot arrows at attackers without exposing themselves to attack.
After exploring the castle, I headed to the Jardin des Plantes, about 10 minutes’ walk away. The impeccably landscaped botanical gardens are also home to a charming cafe, Café de l’Orangerie, the perfect place to sit down to a pot of herbal tea or, in my case, a glass of sparkling water, given the heat.
A Cold Beer on the Square
Next, I headed to Place du Bouffay, one of the city’s major squares. Surrounded by tiny, winding streets lined with restaurants and bars, the square was filled with locals sitting outdoors under the blazing sun, gulping down glasses of cold beer. So, of course, I had to join them.
Crazy for Crepes
When the time for dinner rolled around, I settled on the nearby Au Vieux Quimper, a creperie housed in a medieval building with the timber framing that is a hallmark of historic city centres all over France.
Eating crepes and their savoury equivalents, galettes, is one of the tourists’ favourite things to do in France, but what the visitors in Paris might not know is that the famous dish originated in the region of Brittany, of which Nantes was historically a part.
Day 2 in Nantes
The next day, I was ready to continue exploring the historic centre of Nantes.
So I navigated my way to Place Royale, which is one of the most important squares in Nantes and arguably the most beautiful. The fountain was littered with locals using it as a meeting point.
From Place Royale, I followed Rue Crébillon – dubbed the Champs-Élysées of Nantes because of the number of brand name stores lining it – to Place Graslin – which is where the opera house Théâtre Graslin stands.
I couldn’t resist sitting down to lunch at La Cigale, one of Nantes’ most iconic restaurants. Its ornate art nouveau interior took my attention away from the excellent food.
Art in Nantes
After polishing off a bottle of wine with my companion, I strolled into Musée Dobré, an archaeological museum located a few minutes’ away from Place Graslin. The museum contains artefacts from all over the world, including East Asia, South America and the Pacific Islands.
The Best Coffee in Nantes
I decided to take it easy for the rest of the day, so I walked back to Place Royale and then ducked around a corner into Sugar Blue Café (4 Rue de l’Arche Sèche, open Tue to Sat 9 am to 7 pm, nearest tram stop Commerce), where some of best coffee in Nantes is served.
Day 3 in Nantes
First-time visitors to Nantes often refer to it as “that city with the elephant”. On my third day, I was determined to find that elephant.
So I headed to Île de Nantes, an island to the south of the city centre, separated from the central area by the Loire River. Île de Nantes has become one of Nantes’ fastest-expanding areas.
Machines of the Isle of Nantes
My main goal was to visit the workshops of Les Machines de l’île. The machines are a phantasmagorical collection of steampunk-style animals, insects and plants, the most well-known of which is an enormous, 12-metre tall elephant that walks around spraying passers-by with water.
Les Machines de l’île weren’t the only quirky gems to be found on Île de Nantes. I wandered past a basketball court with hoops arranged at different heights to look like trees — not to mention the public barbecue pits and trampolines designed to look like the surface of the moon.
Who needs Disneyland Paris when you have such a wacky cityscape?
Day 4 in Nantes
By my final day in Nantes, I was quite tired and determined to spend the entire day diligently avoiding sightseeing. And the Talensac neighbourhood was the perfect place to spend a lazy afternoon.
First I grabbed lunch at Marché de Talensac, Nantes’ most famous market, with its numerous stalls selling everything from fresh Italian produce to Vietnamese spring rolls.
Then it was time for a stroll on Île de Versailles.
The tiny island along the Erdre, one of two rivers running through Nantes, houses a charming Japanese garden complete with cherry trees that blossom in spring as well as a Japanese-style building and exhibition space.
Then I found a spot on a wooden platform on the banks of the Erdre, cracked open a bottle of beer and watched the sun set.
Where to stay in Nantes
I would recommend Radisson Blu Nantes. It is without a doubt Nantes’ most iconic hotel and is also home to an elegant bar with weekly jazz nights.