Nantes is located in the upper Brittany region of western France, on the Loire, the longest river in France. The city is accessible by Eurostar via Paris, which is around two hours away, and the city’s airport is served by a number of low-cost airlines. A vast tram network makes the city easy and cheap to explore, and simply follow the green line painted on the pavement to tour all of Nantes’ well-known local attractions on foot. Plan your stay at nantes-tourism.com
If you’re travelling to Nantes by train, make Jardin des Plantes your first port of call.
Located in the heart of the city, accessible via a large, gated entrance opposite the Gare de Nantes railway station, these stunningly beautiful botanical gardens span seven hectares and are free to view.
Created by Louis XIV and first opened to the public in 1865, the gardens have since evolved into a hive of horticultural activity, home to more than 10,000 species, complemented by giant grass-covered creatures, including a sizeable sleeping bear, inspired by children's stories penned by French author Claude Ponti.
The remarkable, dome-shaped greenhouse can't be missed. There are three in total, exhibiting everything from sweeping palms to prickly cacti, and all are fully accessible and free to access with a code obtained at reception. Free guided tours of the greenhouses can be arranged in advance.
For weary travellers, Le Petit Train de Nantes is an ideal way to get to grips with the city. Boarding from outside the Cathedral Saint Pierre Saint Paul, this miniature locomotive can hold up to 54 adults, as you’re guided by an informative commentary (this is in French, with a readable guide translated into English). Trains depart every hour from April to September, and every 30 minutes in July and August, for the 35-40-minute trip.
Groups of 10-plus get the reduced rate of €5 per person (it’s usually €6.50). Find out more at lepetittraindenantes.com
Don’t miss a trip to Les Machines de L'ile, where you can ride a 12m high mechanical elephant built from 48.5 inches of steel and wood.
The Grand Elephant travels approximately 1-3km/h, with each trip taking around 30 minutes. It holds up to 50 visitors who, once aboard, can observe the elephant’s inner workings in motion. There are seats inside and a small spiral staircase transports visitors to the top terrace. A leaf-shaped shade has been recycled from an old ship sail, a tribute to Nantes’ ship-building heritage.
A single trip costs €8.5, with a separate charge for the Carousel des Mondes Marins, which overlooks the banks of the River Loire and houses a collection of maritime-themed, steam punk-styled creatures spread across three levels that rotate 360°. Its 'big top' mimics that of a typical fairground ride and looks across to the Jules Verne Museum.
Back on ground level, take a tour of Le Galerie des Machines, where guests are treated to live demonstrations of machinists’ experiments at work. My favourite was a giant black spider, which seated four trained machinists. Its realistically thin legs reached out to the audience before it was hoisted up and moved in the direction of a nearby ant, where it clamped down for the capture.
Le Galerie des Machines requires a small charge to enter. Opening hours change with the seasons, so it's worth confirming beforehand via the website lesmachines-nantes.fr
A literary giant
French writer Jules Verne is famous for such works as Journey To The Centre Of The Earth (1864), and Around The World in Eighty Days (1873). Born in Nantes in 1828, his works were greatly inspired by his surroundings, and deeply reflect Nantes’ naturally artistic nature. Groups can find out more about him at Musee Jules Verne. Visits must be booked in advance, for parties of up to 25 people, see en.julesverne.nantesmetropole.fr
Nantes prides itself as being a green city, and is the only French city to be named a European Green Capital. Travelling around, tourists can admire many redeveloped aspects of Nantes' landscape, including the Chateau Des Ducs De Bretagne. Listed as a historical monument in 1862, this magnificent moated castle boasts the former residence of the Dukes of Brittany, and stands tall with seven distinguished towers linked by a 500m wall.
Visitors enter via a cleverly converted drawbridge into its magnificent courtyard, taking in the castle's chalky-white interior. Here, there is complimentary access to a rampart walk, where groups can enjoy unforgettable views of the city below.
Look down to observe the Miroir d'eau (which translates as ‘water mirror’), covered by approximately 2cm of water that reflects the image of the castle adjacent. Look up and you’ll be standing parallel to the Le Lieu Unique, characterised by its single cylindrical tower.
Free admission to the rampart walk is available daily from 8.30am to 7pm. The castle itself is fully accessible, but there is limited access to the rampart via a set of steep stone steps.
Outside, the stark contrast between the medieval and the modern is impressive. Inside, the Urban History Museum details the city's history from before the 17th century, and admission is €6 euros, with one group leader admitted free with 25 paying people. Guided tours are available for groups of 15 to 30 at an extra cost. For more information visit chateaunantes.fr/en/groups