With its striking medieval castle, atmospheric Old Town, and fantastical Jules Verne-inspired amusements, Nantes is one of France’s most unique and dynamic cities, but the must-see attractions are just part of its story. For those looking to dig beneath the surface and experience the city like a local, here are some ideas for non-touristy things to do in Nantes.
Dating back to 1937, Talensac Market is a local institution and it’s still Nantes’ biggest market. Get there early to stock up on fresh produce and practice your French with the stallholders. Marvel at the heaps of fresh fish and seafood, brought in from the coast, and pick up a freshly baked gâteau nantais to accompany your morning coffee. Alternatively, head there on a Saturday morning to browse for bargains at the lively flea market.
Nantes is proud of its bike-friendly city center and a vast network of cycle lanes makes it possible to get just about anywhere on two wheels. Sign up for the Bicloo city bike scheme and make the most of the self-service bikes which cost just €1 a day. Each time you pick up a bike, you get 30 minutes free, which is plenty of time for cycling between the sights.
Running along the west coast of the Île de Nantes, Quai des Antilles is the go-to spot for an evening ‘apéro’ (apéritif) with friends or a post-sightseeing beer on a sunny afternoon. The riverside is crammed with bars and cafés, and it bursts into action after sunset. Highlights include the 18 neon rings that light up the quayside after dark, created by artist Daniel Buren; the Hangar à Bananes, which hosts music concerts and cultural events in a reconditioned banana warehouse; and the Canteen de Voyage, which fills up with pop-up restaurants throughout the summer months.
On the south bank of the Loire River, the historic fishing village of Trentemoult is the retreat of choice for city-dwellers looking to escape the city for an afternoon. Catch the Navibus ferry from the Gare Maritime on Quai Ernest Renaud and admire views of the Île de Nantes as you sail across the Loire. In Trentemoult, the maze of colorful streets and ancient buildings harbor a thriving community of artists and artisans, and it’s the ideal spot to shop for handicrafts, stroll the waterfront, or sip coffee at a riverfront café.
Nantes’ most famous shopping street — Rue Crébillon — is so popular that locals have coined their own verb as a reference to it, ‘Crébillonner’, which roughly translates to ‘window-shopping’. For a more local experience, take a walk down Rue Jean Jaures, where the many art galleries and antique stores offer plenty of bargains. Meanwhile, Place Viarme hosts a huge Saturday flea market, where you can put your haggling skills to the test.
While the idyllic Jardin des Plantes draws the biggest crowds, in-the-know locals head north to the quieter but equally beautiful (and free) Japanese garden on the Île de Versailles. With landscaped gardens, water features, and Japanese-style bridges, it’s the perfect spot for a picnic, plus you can hire boats and canoes to paddle around the island. A bit further out of the city, the vast Parc de Procé is the best place to find peace and quiet outside of the city.
While Loire River sightseeing cruises and wine-tasting tours make popular options for a day trip from Nantes, the cheapest way to discover the Loire is by walking or biking along the waterfront. The most interesting route follows the Estuaire trail between Nantes and St Nazaire, linking contemporary art sites along both banks of the Loire and serving up some fun photo opportunities along the way, including a half-sunken house in the river, a sea snake, and a gigantic clock.
Housed in the legendary LU biscuit factory, the Lieu Unique is Nantes’ leading center of contemporary arts, and it hosts a busy schedule of art exhibitions, live theater, performance art, and cultural events. Run by Jean Blaise, the creative mastermind behind the annual Voyage à Nantes festival, there’s always something exciting happening and there are a number of bars and restaurants on-site so you can spend an entire evening indulging your artistic side.