Population (2016) 609,198
Nantes is a city of reinvention. Once France’s most important port and then an industrial centre, the capital of the Loire-Atlantique department was known locally as une belle endormie, a ‘sleeping beauty’. But following major rejuvenation, the city has awoken with a jolt; emerging, not as France’s prettiest town, but as one of its most culturally alive, with a reputation for being edgy and playfully vibrant.
To get the best view of Nantes you have to ascend a 12-metre-tall mechanical elephant that sprays water, blows steam and sounds his trumpet at pedestrians walking alongside him on the ground below. It is one of many mechanical animals that can be found at Les Machines de l’Île de Nantes; a fantastical site situated on the three-mile-long urban playground that was once the docklands.
After the little ones have a spin on the funfair carousel, you can walk off the fun and frolics along the banks of the River Loire to Musée Jules Verne. Here you can pour over first-edition books and hand-edited manuscripts of Nantes’ most famous son, as well as interactive displays of his most colourful books including Around the World in Eighty Days. The Musée d’Histoire Naturelle also hosts children-friendly and interesting exhibits.
But in Nantes, you don’t really have to enter a museum to enjoy the thrills of the city’s cultural offerings. Even on your way to work or during your lunch hour, strolls in and around the city will be enlivened with quirky art installations that pop up in parks, gardens and city streets. It can sometimes seem that no space has been left unturned in the city’s urban renewal project and even some of its old industrial warehouses have been rejuvenated to house trendy cafés and artist studios.
While the city is a living, breathing urban project, it is also home to classic culture, including one of the country’s best symphony orchestras and a top opera company in Théâtre Graslin, perfect for an end-of-week night out. Weekends off work can be spent strolling around the pedestrianised city centre and shopping along the Rue Crébillon and the neo-classical Passage Pommeraye shopping arcade.
Although it is outside of Brittany, Nantes still holds onto some of its Breton past, mainly through plentiful servings of crêpes and cider. You’ll also find a bit of Breton magic on Quai Turenne where people still uphold the tradition of placing coins between bricks in the hopes of making wishes come true.
With big names such as Airbus coming to Nantes, as well as other smaller companies, it’s no surprise that between 6,000 and 9,000 people move here every year, in what is becoming one of France’s fastest-growing cities. Its latest refresh may have revived the city as a cultural capital, but regardless of what direction Nantes takes next, it will no doubt remain one of France’s most popular places to live and work.