• Green Traveller

Green Traveller's Guide to Nantes

Nantes is the capital of the Pays de la Loire and is a fascinating historic city - it once rivalled Rennes as capital of the old Duchy province of Brittany. It is now one of the most artistically creative cities in France, and in 2013 it will be celebrating its hard-won award as Europe's Green Capital, thanks in no small part to a wonderfully joined-up public transport network, including trains, trams and a comprehensive city bike hire scheme. Nantes may often be overlooked by holidaymakers heading to the more famous cities of France, but it's a great place to go, especially if you're looking for a city break by train as it's less than six hours from London.


The 12-m high mechanical elephant is one of the most popular attractions at the old dockyards museum of mechanical animals.
The 12-m high mechanical elephant, Nantes. Photo: Richard Hammond

Here are a few of things saw on my recent trip to the city as part of our SprInterRail Activities Adventure around Europe with RailEurope.


Watch my 2-minute video of the trip to Nantes:

What to do in Nantes


Le Voyage à Nantes

From June to September, Nantes’ public spaces and heritage sites will be turned upside down and inside out as the annual art festival - Le Voyage à Nantes - takes over the city. Expect eye-catching installations, awe-inspiring works of art, mini festivals, special river cruises, and temporary exhibitions, some of which may find a permanent place in the city. The Nantes Pass offers free admission to 30 top attractions, as well as free travel by public transport and lots of VIP extras.


Giant mechanical art

Over at the old dockyards, the artistic mind of Nantes has run riot. Where ships once stood, now monumental mechanical animals and structures roam free. This 337-hectare site is now home to a 12-metre high walking elephant, a 7-metre long, walkable ‘tree branch’ which extends out of a warehouse, a heron with an 8-metre wingspan, and dozens of galleries, workshops and warehouses, where you can watch these fantastic creations being brought to life. This is one of those places which has to be seen to be believed.


Les Anneaux de Burren are just one of the public artworks on Nantes' 5-mile cultural trail.
Les Anneaux de Burren. Photo: Richard Hammond

A trail for culture vultures

Le Voyage à Nantes Cultural Trail is the perfect way to get better acquainted with the city’s main attractions, as well as some of its lesser-known sites. Crossing Nantes from east to west, the five-mile route passes 30 permanent heritage sites, monuments and undiscovered treasures, from Nantes Cathedral to Tour Bretagne (which you can climb for a fantastic view of the city), as well as many of the art festival’s temporary creations.

Take to the saddle

With all its cycle lanes throughout the historical city, Nantes is very easy to bike around. The Nantes equivalent of Boris Bikes, Bicloo, are free for the first half hour. Spend a couple of hours exploring the the city's Latin Quarter, Bouffay, which takes in the Castle of the Dukes of Brittany, St Peter's and St Paul's Cathedral and some of the city's old timber framed houses. If you fancy a detour, head off-route to see the old LU biscuit factory (now a thriving arts centre and a great restaurant), the Fine Arts Museum, and the botanical gardens.


A botanical beauty

L'île de Versailles houses a charming Japanese garden that is one of the prettiest green spaces in Nantes. More adventurous travellers might like to explore the city's waterways by kayak or Indian canoe, which can be hired near the entrance from €3 for half an hour, or €14 for a full day.


Kayaks at Bivouac, by the Japanese Gardens at L'Ile Versailles, Nantes
Kayaking a great way to see the city

Where to eat


La Civelle

With views over the river in the city's village-like quarter of Trentemoult, La Civelle buzzes from morning to night. Inside, it's all burnished chrome and funky light fittings. Art decorates walls, staff serve contemporary market fare, like spiced smoked salmon. www.la-civelle.com


La Cigale

A wonderful art nouveau gem of a building which has been illuminating the city’s gastronomic scene for well over a century - the brasserie has become an historical monument in Nantes centre. The restaurant’s philosophy is underpinned by three words: Freshness, Quality, and Kindness, and has been the resident kitchen for the city's glitterati since it opened in 1895. locally sourced produce on the menu changes according to the season. www.lacigale.com


To market

Talensac Market, Nantes’ lively daily market, is housed in a long, bright building in the Talensac quarter just north of the city centre. It has over two hundred stalls producing a colourful array of local produce and specialities from throughout the region.


If you're looking for a boulangerie for either breakfast or lunch, I recommend Le Grenier à Pain, near the entrance to the Japanese Botanical Gardens at L'île Versailles.


The beautiful Japanese Gardens at L'Ile Versailles
The beautiful Japanese Gardens at L'Ile Versailles

Where to Stay


Villa Hamster

Easily the quirkiest place to stay in Nantes, if not all of France. A tiny space off one of the city's main squares has been converted into a famously eccentric B&B. It features a human-sized hamster wheel, an organic grain container, a water tube which guests can sip from, a double bed accessible only by scurrying up a step ladder and pair of masks and tails to really make the cage experience an authentic one. Despite the somewhat confined space, Villa Hamster is very popular, so if you're after a taste of hamster life you're advised to book early.


Hôtel La Pérouse

It’s always refreshing to find a design hotel with a sustainable soul. Everything about La Pérouse – from the über-sleek architecture, to the fair-trade breakfasts – is admirably green: even the clever air-conditioning system is designed to stop when a window is opened. If you’re desperate for a nose around but are staying elsewhere, fear not: every September the hotel opens its doors to the public during the National Heritage Open Day, when you can gaze and gawp to your heart’s content. www.hotel-laperouse.fr

Hôtel Pommeraye

This is where we stayed. It's a greener choice in the heart of Nantes' main shopping district. Verging on minimalist yet with a welcoming and cosy atmosphere, this 50-bedroomed hotel has wooden floors, contemporary furnishings, splashes of colour (fuchsia-pink chairs, terracotta walls), and spacious, comfortable bedrooms. It has been awarded Green Key status, and expect a lovely organic breakfast with bio jams, fresh fruit juice, pancakes and a variety of tea, including Earl Grey, hurrah! It’s very central too, so it’s convenient for the main train station (a couple of minutes by tram) and the city's Gare Routiere bus station (a 10-minute walk), and the city’s sights are on your doorstep. €64-€124 per night. www.hotel-pommeraye-nantes.com


Manoir de la Régate

Manoir de la Régate is an eco-friendly wonderland. The hotel is the creation of two brothers who have taken huge steps, catapulting the hotel onto the city’s green scene. There's a complex heating and ventilation system, solar panels everywhere, and heather and herb-covered roofs for insulation, amongst many of its green features. On the edge of the River Erdre, and with breath-taking views over the Château de la Gascherie on the opposite bank, the location is stunning too. Doubles start at €155. www.hotel-nantes-laregate.com


Getting around by public transport

The city centre is easy enough to get around on foot, but if you want to give tired feet a rest you'll find the city's tram, bus and ferry networks quick, efficient, and easy to use. The Nantes Pass is great value if you are staying in the city for at least a day, giving you free access to the transport network, as well as free entry to 30 of the city's top attractions and sights. The pass costs from £16.34 for 24 hours to £31.04 for 72 hours. The Bicloo bike scheme has 89 stations across the city and is free for the first half-hour, after which it's €0.50 up to an hour, €1.50 for up to 1.5 hours, and €2 per hour thereafter.


How to get to Nantes by train

From London St Pancras International Train Station, take the Eurostar to Paris Gare du Nord then transfer to Gare Montparnasse to take one of the regular direct services to Nantes, which takes roughly 2.15 hours.


For more information on how to travel by train to Nantes, see our unique rail journey planner:

Train from London to Nantes



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Disclaimer:

This blog post was researched and compiled by Florence Fortnam and Richard Hammond who were guests of www.spr-paysdelaloire.fr. They had full editorial control of this guide, which is written in their own words based on their experience of visiting Nantes in the spring of 2012. All opinions are the authors' own. Thanks to Virginie Priou and Katia Foret at www.spr-paysdelaloire.fr and Holland.com for hosting us.