Nantes is a wonderland for weekenders. The city, on the river Loire, has seen a cultural reinvention in the past 10 years and there’s easily enough to do to fill a week – or a few days en route south, as many people tend to do. Here’s how.
Arty, edgy Nantes, the birthplace of Jules Verne, knows a thing or two about reinvention. Once France’s busiest river port, the city grew rich on slave-trading and shipbuilding, but had to change tack in 1987 after the last boatyard closed. Three decades on, Nantes is a cool, leafy centre of tech and design. This is where Parisians want to live; in fact, they’re arriving in droves for an easier life on the banks of the River Loire, surrounded by art and cosy bistros where you can idle over a three-course prix fixe menu with a glass of local Muscadet for less than £20.
First up is the Château des Ducs de Bretagne, former home to the kings of France. This is a proper castle; encircled by chunky granite towers and a moat, but cross the drawbridge and you’re in a hi-tech museum that takes you through the city’s history.
Next, wander through the medieval quarter, where half-timbered buildings cluster round the gothic cathedral. You can’t get lost: a green line on the pavement connects all the main sights. Your destination is Place Graslin, for an apéritif at La Cigale, a lavish art nouveau hang-out for power-lunchers and lovers alike, with extravagant murals and potted palms.
Book ahead for dinner in Les Chants d’Avril, tucked away in the Champs de Mars quarter. Christophe François and his wife, Véronique (two of those Parisians who’ve escaped the capital) concoct a “mystery” three-course menu: exceptional value at £22.50. Just hope the tarragon ice cream with raspberries and creamy rice pudding is on when you visit.
After dinner, stroll over to Le Lieu Unique, a biscuit factory that’s been converted into an arts centre, with DJs and bands in the evenings, and seating that spills onto the waterfront.
To the covered market on Rue Talensac for supplies. Stock up on crispy baguettes from La Petite Boulangerie, cheeses from Beillevaire and tiny stuffed peppers from La Boite à Pâtes. Then head across town to the wonderful Musée d’Arts de Nantes, which reopened recently after a six-year, £75m renovation. There’s a new wing, the Cube, clad in translucent marble and housing pieces by Picasso and Monet.
Next door, the Jardin des Plantes is full of exotic specimens brought back by sailors returning from the tropics in the 19th century. After exploring the ornate greenhouses, have a picnic on one of the sunny lawns or grab a spot on the Café de l’Orangerie’s wisteria-draped terrace.
Time to explore the city’s elegant squares and boulevards. The Passage Pommeraye is a graceful 19th-century arcade filled with designer clothing stores. Nantes is packed with chocolate shops, a legacy of the cocoa, coffee and sugar that used to be landed here: follow your nose to Debotté, an institution for more than 160 years, and enjoy a free sample.
Ile Feydeau, no longer an island since the Loire was diverted in the 1920s, is an enclave of grand mansions that once housed the city’s wealthy shipbuilders. Look for the mascaron over every window: a stone mask depicting the personality or desires of the owner.
Nearby, on Quai de la Fosse, is the Mémorial de l’abolition de l’esclavage, a sobering monument to the victims of the Atlantic slave trade and those who sought to abolish it. You walk through a tunnel, reading the words of Bob Marley, Martin Luther King and others inscribed in stone.
Tonight, head to Pickles, where the locals can’t get enough of the imaginative dishes created by a rosbif, no less. Dominic Quirke uses only local ingredients, and the three-course evening menu is a steal at £30, plus £10 for two glasses of wine. On my visit, diners were feasting on organic lamb, stuffed octopus, foie gras and asparagus.
Next, whizz up to the 32nd floor of the Tour Bretagne, the tallest building in town. Here, a giant white stork forms the centrepiece of a bonkers bar, Le Nid (“the nest”), with chairs and tables shaped like boiled eggs. The lights of the city stretch out below and, at weekends, DJs play anything from chillout to techno.
Cross the footbridge to the Ile de Nantes, where Jules Verne meets Leonardo da Vinci at Les Machines de l’île — more mad inventor’s workshop than theme park. A 40ft mechanical elephant, which can carry 50 people, marches around, blowing spray from its trunk; creepy sea creatures, among them a giant squid and a toothy angler fish, rotate on a multistorey carousel; and pterodactyl-like herons “fly” inside a hangar, carrying passengers in baskets.
Afterwards, follow the green line past avant-garde architecture: an office block adorned with a super-sized yellow tape measure, and the Manny building, draped in aluminium netting. Back across the bridge, there’s just time to hop on the Navibus ferry and head for Trentemoult, on the south bank. Once a fishing village, it’s now a boho neighbourhood of brightly painted terraced houses.
Drop into La Civelle, a bustling waterside bistro, for a final slurp of Atlantic oysters before you head to the airport.