The city of Nantes has emerged from its post-war depression roots to be positively alive with artistic endeavour, particularly during the Voyage à Nantes festival between 6 July and 1 September. Visitors come for the culture and stay for the hip bars, quirky boutiques and convenient access to the Loire Valley and the Atlantic coast.
One such Nantes fan is American design student Danny Haffel, who is currently studying in the city and suggests trying out On Va Marcher Sur La Lune . “They’re trampolines made to look like a fake moon so you feel like an astronaut. It’s such a quirky and fun experience – free of charge too.” If that sounds out of this world, wait until you see the resident elephant at steampunk theme park Les Machines de L’ile : this 12-metre mechanical beast sprays water and lets you ride on its back. Yes, really.
If you’d rather keep both feet on the ground, worry not, since Nantes Atlantic Loire Valley is made for walkers. Put your phone’s GPS away and follow the green line that winds its way past the city’s top attractions. Here’s a tip: beat the crowds by tracing it backwards.
The route comes alive during the annual arts festival, when public buildings such as the contemporary arts and music centre Le Lieu Unique are dressed up for the occasion. Housed in an old biscuit factory and hosting more than 100 performances each year, it is currently sporting a jaunty manmade bird’s nest around its iconic tower.
Even if you visit outside of the “voyage”, art lovers are spoilt for choice with the 60km arts trail Parcours Perenne leading through the city and beyond. Chloé Gautier, who runs boutique tour company Naow Excursions, says: “All along the trail you can discover artworks. To me, the most impressive is the wooden sculpture Résolution des Forces en Présence in the Parc des Chantiers – you also get a beautiful view of the Loire at sunset here.”
Back to earthlier pursuits, Nantes has plenty to offer the avid shopper. The colonnades of the Passage Pommeraye are filled with stores of every style, while antique hunters can browse the brocantes (secondhand shops) and art galleries along rue Jean-Jaurès. There’s also a weekly flea market on Saturdays at Place Viarme – with about 120 stalls, it sells everything from vintage books and postcards to tables, chairs and local ceramics
Although Nantes Atlantic Loire Valley may provide a side of the country you haven’t seen, this is still France, and that means food. Whether you’re looking for Michelin-starred dining, traditional local dishes or a cocktail served with a fried egg penny sweet, you can find it here. The latter comes courtesy of Le Nid , perched at the top of la Tour Bretagne, a 37-storey skyscraper in downtown Nantes. This urban eyrie has egg-shaped chairs from which to survey the skyline.
Tear yourself away from the city itself and you’ll discover natural beauty and history to rival Nantes’s arts scene. Entrepreneur Pierre-Antoine Arlot, who grew up in Nantes and has recently returned to crowdfund a cafe on L’île de Nantes, recommends La Civelle restaurant in Trentemoult fishing village. “It’s got a great view overlooking the river, and it’s easy to get to by public transport boat, Navibus. There’s also La Guinguette du Belvédère, a new summer spot on the river to have a drink and watch the sun go down.”
Speaking of drinks – this is a region made for wine lovers. Most vineyards around the area offer tours and tastings – many free of charge. At Vignoble Marchais , about 20 minutes’ drive from Nantes, you can enjoy a vineyard visit and a tasting, then stay overnight in a repurposed barrel, complete with lights, a kettle and a double bed, with breakfast included. There are also several wine trails you can follow, stopping off at various wineries to try the local crisp and cooling muscadet.
An hour outside the city, La Baule Bay combines a serene stretch of coast with a pine forest and elegant villas. Relax on the terrace of a beach restaurant, sunbathe on the golden sand, or get active with surfing, sailing, kitesurfing or standup paddle boarding (SUP). Alternatively, head to Pornic , which has a pretty beach, fisheries and an old port to explore, or hike along the coastal footpath at Chemin des Douaniers for stunning views.
Just a short flight from the UK, Nantes Atlantic Loire Valley is the weekend break that’s waiting to be discovered.