Whether you want to marvel at contemporary art, operate a mechanical spider, or see a whale’s skeleton, Nantes’ museums are as diverse, eclectic, and fun as the city itself. From Jules Verne’s wild creations to one of the best art museums in France — here’s a round-up of the best.
Reopening its doors in 2017 after a lengthy renovation period, the new Nantes Art Museum (Musee d’arts de Nantes) is impressive for both its size — its now the largest museum of its kind in western France — and its diversity of exhibits. The six-year renovation has seen the addition of a new contemporary building, a glass and marble edifice nicknamed the ‘Cube’, as well as more than 900 additional works on display. The permanent collection includes everything from primitive to modern to contemporary art, dating from the 13th century to the modern day, and featuring artists such as Georges de La Tour, Max Ernst, Sonia Delaunay, Gaston Chaissac, Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, Pablo Picasso, and Raymond Hains.
At the heart of Nantes’ Graslin Quarter and within walking distance of the Passage Pommeraye and Théâtre Graslin, the Dobree Museum (Musée Dobrée) is a historic landmark in its own right, housed in a striking neo-medieval palace. Named after private collector Thomas Dobrée, the museum houses a huge collection of art and artefacts, including some magnificent Romanesque sculptures, ancient tapestries, antique furniture, and some interesting Egyptian and pre-Columbian finds. Extensive renovations are ongoing, with plans for a new museum to open its doors in 2021, although sections of the museum, including the gardens and temporary exhibition halls, remain open.
Nantes’ Natural History Museum (Muséum d’Histoire Naturelle) isn’t large in size, but its diversity of specimens make it one of the most impressive in the country. There are permanent exhibitions on zoology, botany, ethnology, and mineralogy, and highlights include the gigantic skeleton of a Rorqual whale, a huge collection of taxidermy birds, a reptile exhibit that features live snakes, and a gigantic ant farm. The museum offers free entrance on Sundays, as well as hosting regular temporary exhibitions.
Home-grown writer Jules Verne is one of Nantes’ most famous exports, renowned for his wildly imaginative Voyages Extraordinaires books. While the crowds flock to the Iles de Machines to see his creations brought to life, fans can also learn more about Verne’s life and works at the Jules Verne Museum. Located in a striking 19th-century house overlooking the Loire River, the museum is filled with antique furnishings, personal items, original manuscripts, and first-edition books, with interactive exhibitions and multi-media displays suitable for all ages.
The Iles de Machines is Nantes’ star attraction, but while the Giant Elephant and Marine Worlds Carrousel are the show-stoppers, the Galerie de Machines allows visitors to venture behind the scenes and learn how the incredible machines are designed, created, and perfected. Guided tours of the museum show the fascinating process of bringing these fantastical creatures to life and present the prototypes and test models of some of the most famous Iles de Machines projects. Highlights include a giant mechanical spider, a flying heron, and a giant ant, and visitors can even climb aboard and operate the machines under the supervision of the guides. Even more impressive is the European Flight Test Centre, a state-of-the-art wind tunnel flight simulator used to test out the flying machines.
One of Nantes’ most unique museums, the Printing Museum (Musee de l’Imprimerie) tells the history of the city’s printing trade, but it’s the collection of antique printing presses and equipment that is most intriguing. The interactive exhibitions showcase printing equipment used over five centuries and visitors can even operate some of the machines and try out historic printing tools, as well as admire the vast collection of original prints.
Most visitors to Nantes’ Château des Ducs de Bretagne are content to stroll around the castle gardens or admire the views from the ramparts, but it’s well worth heading inside to visit the Nantes History Museum (Musée d’histoire de Nantes), which reopened in 2016 after extensive renovations. Visitors can explore the castle’s 19th-century interiors, while uncovering the history of the city through multimedia displays and exhibitions including ‘Nantes and the Revolution’, ‘An industrial and colonial port’, and ‘An Atlantic City? Today and tomorrow’.