Once you disembark at Nantes, you may not want to get back onboard. (Luxury ships like Hapag-Lloyd’s MS Europa make calls at this historic city, strategically located at the gateway to both the Atlantic and the Loire Valley.) Once a major shipyard and France’s largest port, Nantes today is an under-the-radar destination with enticements galore. Named Europe’s Green Capital for 2013, Nantes is witnessing a sea of change—from major artistic events to the arrival of swanky new hotels like the Radisson Blu housed in the former Palais de Justice. This buzzing metropolis displays effortless cool as it reinvents itself for the 21st century. Here are our picks for an itinerary that’s guaranteed to have you falling under Nantes’ spell.
Radisson Blu Hotel’s lobby lounge displays works by local artists.
Art and Ambles
There’s a decidedly Brooklyn spirit on the Île de Nantes, as the former industrial docklands morph into a hip haven of eateries, design stores, and large-scale art installations. The island’s revived riverbank has been transformed into a playground for young and old alike. Case in point: Les Machines de l’Île, a whimsical creative project inspired by the imagination of Jules Verne, the city’s famous native son. Imagine seeing a giant mechanical elephant—built from sycamore and steel—stomping through the streets with 49 passengers on its back, spraying water out of its trunk all the while. Les Machines also encompasses a giant carousel where visitors can ride on magical sea creatures (like a giant squid from the abyss, a distressed ship riding a storm-tossed sea, a fish whose jaws open and close during the ride).
This original venture—the brainchild of a street theater troupe—is part of the large-scale urban regeneration of Nantes. Nearby, the old banana warehouse has been converted into a string of cafés facing the river—most with deck chairs for taking in the views. Along the Loire, the city has also inaugurated an artistic trail called Le Voyage à Nantes—dotted with permanent works from major artists like Daniel Buren. One of our favorites: The building for the Harmonie Atlantique insurance company has become a “weather station” with lights on the façade actually predicting the weather (e.g., clouds, sun, or rain) four hours in advance. This trail stretches along the Loire estuary all the way to the river’s mouth at Saint-Nazaire, the famous shipyard where the Queen Mary 2 was built.
The Rings by Daniel Buren are part of an artistic trail along the Loire called Le Voyage à Nantes.
For a fun wander around the city, we highly recommend Christel Dugast (email@example.com), a multi-lingual guide who works with all the major cruise lines. Travel agents and tour operators can contact Rose-Marie Durassier (rosemarie.[email protected]; 011-33-0-2-4020-6007) at the Nantes tourism office for itinerary questions and assistance with client bookings. Along with the Île de Nantes, a walking tour should take in the medieval quarter with its soaring Gothic cathedral and the Château des Ducs de Bretagne. This moat-ringed fortress is now a fabulous, high-tech museum that explores the maritime history of Nantes, which prospered on the Atlantic triangular trade in the 18th century. Note that the city’s Museum of Fine Arts is closed for an overhaul and won’t reopen for a few years’ time.
Facing the city across the Loire, the traditional fishing village of Trentemoult makes for a perfect spot for lunch. Using a metro ticket you can hop on the Navibus, which traverses the river in six minutes, then wander the alleyways lined with colorful houses.
Another must-visit: The former LU (Lefèvre-Utile) biscuit factory was transformed in 2000 into a hip cultural venue called Le Lieu Unique (the same acronym now stands for “the unique place”). Like a lighthouse on the river, the building—beautifully painted in rainbow hues to suggest the delightful treats once made inside—has become emblematic of Nantes itself. Inside, there’s a restaurant, bar, event space for live music shows, design bookstore, and even a hammam in the basement.
Gourmet Delights and Local Libations
Chefs love Nantes because they have some of Europe’s best products—from both the land and sea—at their fingertips. Visitors can satiate their gourmet cravings at a number of fine eateries. If you’re hankering for classic brasserie-style fare, a meal at La Cigale is a must. Classified a historic monument, the restaurant is decorated with ceramic tiles and wood sculptures. It was a favorite hang-out of the surrealists, and today it’s a lovely place for a lingering breakfast, lunch, or dinner surrounded by Art Nouveau splendor.
Les Machines de l’Île is a whimsical project featuring a giant elephant made from steel and sycamore.
To impress a date, book a table at the Michelin-starred L’Atlantide overlooking the Loire. The lunchtime menu at 35 euros is a steal.
Formerly the second in command at the Michelin-starred La Mare aux Oiseaux in the region’s Brière Natural Park, Nicolas Guiet made a splash in Nantes when he opened L’U.Ni last year behind the Lieu Unique. Locals appreciate his creative approach to surf and turf with exotic touches and garden-fresh vegetables.
For cocktails with a view, head to the 32nd floor of the Tour de Bretagne, a nondescript office tower built in 1976, where a bar called Le Nid (“the nest”) has a privileged perch over the city. Artist Jean Jullien designed it as the refuge for a white bird—half-stork and half-swan—whose giant body forms the bar counter. Even the tables and stools were built to resemble giant egg shells.
Nantes is an ideal jumping-off point for discovering the Loire Valley, and you can wet your whistle for Loire wines at the Maison des Vins de Loire on Place du Commerce, where tastings and workshops are offered.
Like the elegant 19th-century shopping arcades in Paris and Brussels, the Passage Pommeraye is a destination in itself. Flooded with light from a glass roof, the boutique-lined passage is embellished with neo-classical sculptures. Situated near the cathedral in the Bouffay district, Maison Lemaitre is a historic épicerie brimming with fine local foods.
Gautier-Débotté has been wooing chocoholics to 9 Rue de la Fosse since 1823. Classified a historic monument, the boutique sells specialties like brandy-soaked Muscadet grapes covered in chocolate. Le mascaron nantais pays homage to the city’s ancient merchants’ houses, decorated with mask-like faces carved in the limestone and granite façades. The chocolates themselves, flavored with hazelnut praline, are etched with these masks.
Château des Ducs de Bretagne is a museum housed in a fortress that explores Nantes’ maritime history.
Make a Date at the Courthouse
If you find yourself seduced by Nantes, you may want to book a room to stay over and enjoy its charms. (Nantes is only two hours from Paris by high-speed TGV.) Perhaps nothing better symbolizes the city’s urban renaissance than the new Radisson Blu Hotel on Place Aristide Briand. The former Palais de Justice was renovated to the tune of 30 million euros in a meticulous project that lasted three years. Behind the neoclassical façade, the most luxurious hotel in town opened in November 2012 with 142 rooms, a Nuxe spa, and a restaurant housed in the majestic courtroom. Kick back in the lobby lounge with a glass of champagne and admire the contemporary art on display: the lobby doubles as a gallery promoting local artists.
General Manager Cyril Casabo ([email protected]; 011-33-0-2-7200-1000) welcomes guests like VIPs. “Luxury today is about service,” he told Luxury Travel Advisor. Passionate about the hospitality industry, Casabo started his career as a boy at the Royal Barrière in Deauville. “When I was eight years old I knew that I wanted to be a GM one day.” As the director of global sales for the Rezidor Hotel Group in North America from 2005 to 2008, he developed close relationships with top travel agents. He took the reins of the Radisson Blu Nantes prior to its launch. “It’s a very exciting time to be in Nantes. The city is capitalizing on economic growth to build its touristic image.” Indeed, the old police station next door will soon be transformed into a balneotherapy spa.
La Maison dans la Loire is a creation by the French artist Jean-Luc Courcoult.
Booking Tips: Every room comes with free Wi-Fi, but the 40 “Business Class” rooms also have complimentary Nespresso machines and a generous breakfast buffet included in the room rate. Guests checking into one of the 15 Junior Suites (we loved Junior Suite No. 306 with its skylights under the eaves) also get a welcome glass of champagne at the bar, while guests of the five suites enjoy a bottle of champagne in-room.