Isle of culture
It must be hard for today’s visitors to imagine the Île de Nantes, in the middle of the Loire, as the industrial wasteland it became once shipbuilding finished in the 1980s. But from 2007, it has been transformed from virtual no-go area into cultural hub – giving the island back to the people and attracting tourists. The Machines de l’Ile – gigantic, surreal steampunk animals and insects lumbering through the old shipyards – have been a big hit. For summer days, La Cantine du Voyage is a huge open-air cafe on Quai des Antilles, serving healthy meals (from €11, reopens April 2020). A huge warehouse, Le Hangar à Bananes, where bananas were once brought to ripen, is now HAB, a brilliant contemporary art venue, while at night there are bars, concerts and clubbing.
The belly of the city
The place to meet locals is Marché de Talensac, the belly of the city, where everyone does their shopping. Inside the 1937 covered hall are specialities such as rum- and lemon-flavoured gâteau nantais, pungent curé nantais cheese, and fish straight from the trawler. Each weekend, farmers set up stalls outside with a cornucopia of organic vegetables, including a buzzing flea market covering the adjoining Place Viarme on Saturday. The market is ringed by friendly cafes and bars, such as Café du Coin, or the stallholders’ favourite, Café du Matin, where you can bring your cheese, charcuterie or oysters and enjoy them with a chilled bottle of muscadet.
• Tues-Sun 8am-1pm
The finest art
Visitors to France often forget that many of our provincial cities have art galleries with the same class of grand masters as at the Louvre and Musée d’Orsay in Paris, but without the queues or crowds. That is certainly the case in Nantes, where the magnificent Musée d’Arts, established by Napoleon in 1801 and recently reopened after a six-year renovation, showcases a splendid collection, from Tintoretto and Rubens to Monet, Rodin, Kandinsky and Chagall. I oversee a host of ever-changing avant-garde events here under Le Voyage à Nantes umbrella, but visitors can appreciate the museum’s 10,000-strong collection all year round.
Muscadet is the wine of Nantes, sold at every cafe and restaurant. It has been enjoying a revival as the focus has returned to quality over quantity and more organic wines. The vineyards begin just outside town, so either drive or join an organised trip through the countryside between Nantes and Clisson. Stop off at elegant 70-hectare waterside Château de Coing, run by mother-and-daughter vigneronnes, or make an appointment for a tasting with Michel Badouet, one of the leading lights in the natural wine movement. Book lunch at romantic La Cascade in Clisson (two-course lunch from €16.50), then end the afternoon with a couple of hours’ lazy kayaking on the Sèvre and Maine rivers.
Cruise the arty estuary
The magnificent Loire estuary is a natural extension to the city that we have been opening up for locals and tourists. Three art biennales have left a heritage of 30 monumental sculptures and installations as the river nears the Atlantic. A cruise (€25pp) lasts almost three hours, the landscape changing from industrial sites to fishing villages, farms and wetlands filled with wildlife, to shipyards and containers at Saint-Nazaire. The artworks will take your breath away: a half-submerged house, a giant sea snake, wild animals climbing trees, a metal tower with a house on top (that can be rented). And at the end, a €5 train ride gets you back to Nantes in 30 minutes.
The flamboyant Passage Pommeraye – a precursor of modern shopping malls, built in 1843 – may not be as famous as its peers in Paris, Brussels and Milan, but for me Pommeraye is the most beautiful, with its elaborate staircase, statues and ornaments that climb up three floors, leading to a maze of gilded galleries. Shoppers can browse fashion showrooms, cake shops and jewellery or leather workshops. Just down the road from Pommeraye’s ornate entrance, the lustrous belle époque showroom of Chocolatier Gautier Debotté (9 rue de la Fosse) is a paradise for chocolate lovers, and the talkative owner of Les Rigolettes Nantaises (18 rue de Verdun), Stéphan Le Guiriec, will explain the century-old history of Nantes’s famous fruit bonbons, inspired by Verdi’s opera.
‘Unique’ cultural centre
The striking art nouveau tower of the old LU biscuit factory is a symbol of Nantes, but when production closed in the 1980s, it became a symbol of the city’s decline. The vast building was abandoned until we created Le Lieu Unique in 2000 as an accessible and affordable cultural centre – a place for everyone in Nantes to have fun, and open daily from 11am to 2am or even 6am. It was a success from day one, offering a cheap and cheerful restaurant and waterside bar, a bookshop, a kindergarten, contemporary art exhibitions and ever-changing theatre, dance and music events, many of them free. There are even Turkish baths in the basement. It was a gamble, as this kind of venue hardly existed then in France.
• Quai Ferdinand-Favre, lelieuunique.com
Crêpes and bistronomie
Nantes probably has more crêperies than any town in Brittany (historically and culturally the city is Breton though it now belongs to the Pays de la Loire region), and visitors should experience a meal of savoury galettes de blé noir (buckwheat), then sweet wheatflour pancakes accompanied by local cider. Of the crêperies, it’s difficult to beat Heb-Ken. The Breton name means “take it as it is”, so don’t expect anything else apart from crêpes, all made with local ingredients such as ham, goat’s cheese, strawberry jam, chocolate and the traditional beurre salé – just don’t count the calories. It’s all delicious and all affordable, with prices starting at €2.70. Nantes has some inventive new bistros too, run by young talented chefs. Restaurant Ici and Le Petit Boucot are especially good value for a gourmet lunch: both offering two courses for €18, comprising perhaps mackerel with heritage tomato carpaccio and line-fished hake on a bed of creamy aubergine.
Just north-west of the 19th-century Jardin Botanique is Les Bordes de l’Erdre, a tranquil neighbourhood bordering the river of the same name. The bustling town centre may be only 15 minutes’ walk away, but this laid-back bohemian quartier is perfect for sunset aperitifs on the Pépé Guinguette, a houseboat moored on the quay, or waterside bars such as Le Bateau-lavoir and Café de l’Ile. Rent an electric boat (€25 an hour) to explore the Erdre, where a stylised Japanese garden with pagoda is hidden away on the Île de Versailles. For eating out, reserve at Le Brocéliande, where a €10 plat du jour could be a bistro classic of juicy lamb cutlets and garlicky potatoes or a vegetarian prune tagine.
Perfect bar crawl
With a lively student population of about 50,000 (out of a total of 670,000), the town centre is perfect for an evening bar crawl. Choose between specialist wine bars like Le Jeroboam (21 rue Léon Blum) and La Comédie des Vins (4 rue Suffren), where 20 to 30 wines are served by the glass, accompanied by plates of cheese and charcuterie, to Le Labo (19 rue Léon Blum), a rhumerie with dozens of rare aged and infused rums, or artisan ale bars such as Le Sur Mesure Beauregard (no website, 15 rue Beauregard). And now there is a genuine retro cocktail bar, the 19:33 Cocktail Experience (8 rue Voltaire), pretty much the first in Nantes, which serves exquisitely made tipples made by mixologist Martin Gouget, including some highly rated non-alcholic ones in a setting that resembles a carriage of the Orient Express.
Where to stay
The four-star Oceania Hôtel de France Nantes (doubles from €110 room-only) is in a recently renovated 18th-century mansion in the historic centre. Its rooms veer between art deco and contemporary styles, some with balconies overlooking Place Graslin.
Best time to visit
There are cultural festivals all year round (Cinematography of Africa, Asia and Latin America kicks off on 19 November). The city is quite rainy (800mm a year – more than London) but mild.
Trains from London to Nantes, with a change of station in Paris, take about six hours, from £110 return when booked in advance.
Jean Blaise is the founder/director of Le Voyage à Nantes festival
Looking for a holiday with a difference? Browse Guardian Holidays to see a range of fantastic trips
This article contains affiliate links, which means we may earn a small commission if a reader clicks through and makes a purchase. All our journalism is independent and is in no way influenced by any advertiser or commercial initiative. By clicking on an affiliate link, you accept that third-party cookies will be set. More information.