Le Mans is best known for motorsport and its two major car races: the 24 Hours of Le Mans (every June) and Le Mans Classic (biannual, next event July 2020). But there’s far more than just the thrill of the track here. The city is just an hour from Paris by train or 2-3 hours from the ferry ports, and boasts a beautiful medieval heart lined with half-timbered houses and a Gothic cathedral masterpiece, museums and biscuit boutiques, and Michelin-starred restaurant Auberge de Bagatelle.
Petrolheads from all over the world flock to Le Mans’ two summer motoring events. The most famous and prestigious is the 24 Hours, an extraordinary test of endurance in which teams of 2-3 drivers compete to drive a single car for the greatest distance possible in a 24-hour period. The race, which began in 1923, demands that drivers balance speed with longevity, avoiding mechanical failure as far as possible. The 2019 race was won by the No. 8 Toyota TS050 Hybrid for the second year running, driven by Sébastien Buemi, Kazuki Nakajima and Fernando Alonso.
For year-round visitors, the 24-Hour museum devoted to the race is well worth a stop, presenting its history and depicting its most glorious moments. It is also fully interactive and great for kids. Guided tours can be booked in advance. The other summer event, the biannual Le Mans Classic, pays homage to vintage racing cars. If you’re a vintage car owner yourself, you can register to take part and drive on this legendary circuit.
In Le Mans itself, 7.5km from the race track, there are plenty of treasures to explore. Encircled by a remarkably preserved Roman wall, the old town is known as the Cité Plantagenêt and reflects the different periods of its construction from the 11th through to the 15th century. In this beautifully restored area you find Loire Valley’s largest concentration of half-timbered houses, plus the St-Julien cathedral, a masterpiece of Gothic and Romanesque architecture. Beside the cathedral stands the ancient ‘menhir’, a standing stone considered the ‘belly button’ of Le Mans, and visitors are encouraged to rub the stone when they visit. A stop at the Carré Plantagenêt museum is a good way to learn more about the city and the wider region; the building itself is a marvel of contemporary architecture that boldly incorporates an old print works into its design. The tiny but exquisite Musée de la Reine Bérengère is also worth seeing.
Elsewhere in town, head to Le Sablésienne to taste the local butter biscuit, the sablé, and to the Cave Pédro for a tasting of the renowned Loire Valley wines. There are restaurants to suit all tastes and budgets in Le Mans, but for truly memorable haute cuisine book a table at Auberge de Bagatelle, run by a French-Belgian couple in a beautiful old farm building. To admire Le Mans’ architectural icons after dark, catch a sound-and-light show (‘son et lumière’) as part of the Nuit des Chimères in July and August. Cobblestones and facades turn into projection screens as a kaleidoscope of colour and images illuminate the city, with gargoyles and fantasy figures guiding you from one stunning scene and location to another.
Although there is no airport in Le Mans, getting to the city is easy from the UK, just a 2- or 3-hour drive from the Channel ferry ports or an hour by train from Paris.