Where can you watch a giant mechanical elephant stroll past an ancient 13th-century château? Answer: Nantes.

As the former capital of the Duchy of Brittany, Nantes’ decadent châteaux and ornate palaces once housed France’s foremost dukes, duchesses and assorted aristocracy. 

Today, many of these impressive historic holdings still stand proud on the banks of the Loire, but you’re far more likely to see an impromptu street art performance than a finely dressed noble, as Nantes has slowly transformed into one of the country’s leading creative hubs. 

Nantes city in Franc

With a less-than-linear history to its name – the city was controversially annexed from its regional home of Brittany – there’s no shortage of stately sights to see, while other areas of the city host some of the best museums and art exhibitions in Europe.

With plenty of sprawling parks and open green spaces, Nantes has a decidedly breezy feel, while its myriad earthy eateries, bars and nightspots will make you feel right at home. After all, there’s a reason it ranks among the best cities to live in France. 

If you’ve taken the plunge and booked a weekend getaway, here are our must-dos to make the most of it.

Nantes aerial panoramic view France

Art attack: Embrace Nantes’ creative side

You don’t get much more creative than living, larger-than-life exhibition Les Machines de l’Île. Occupying the west side of the Île de Nantes, this area is home to a host of quirky animatronic creatures inspired by the writings of Jules Verne and the steampunk inventions of Leonardo da Vinci.

Whether you’re perched atop the 12-metre Grand Éléphant or taking a ride on the otherworldly, under-the-sea Carrousel des Mondes Marins, this exhibition is sure to have you questioning reality. 

Nantes Elephant

Once you come back down to earth, stroll across the river to Musée de l’imprimerie to gain a true appreciation of graphic art and printed books. Our top tip? Opt for a guided tour and get hands-on with some antique printing presses. 

If you’d rather get a better understanding of Nantes’ relationship with creative experimentation, then visit Le Lieu Unique. Located in a former biscuit factory, this museum showcases everything from theatre to literature, architecture to street performance. It’s as diverse as it is fascinating. 

Travelling in Nantes

Hit the historic walking trail

For unrivalled views across Nantes, first, scale the 37-storey Tour Bretagne. From here, you can survey the meandering Loire river, capture those all-important city snaps and plan your walking route. 

Afterwards, make your way to the Cathédrale de Saint-Pierre et Saint-Paul. Better known as Nantes Cathedral, this Roman Catholic landmark dates back to the 15th century and boasts an imposing Gothic style reminiscent of childhood fairy tales. 

Nantes Cathedral

Close by, the Château des Ducs de Bretagne is another of Nantes’ most important heritage buildings. Built in the 1200s, and home to the Dukes of Brittany for 300 years, the château now houses a history museum and its grounds are often teeming with chatty students and lunch breakers.

After a long day of sightseeing, take a break in the beautiful Jardin des Plantes. Bursting with colour and spread across an impressive 70 acres, the green space flourishes with more than 500 varieties of flowers and is renowned as one of France’s leading botanical gardens.

Castle of the Dukes of Brittany Chateau des Ducs de Bretagne in Nantes France

If you’re excited to explore more of northern France, check out our guide to Brittany.

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