Question: why do travelers come to France? Some people are history buffs, some are gourmands, but some are what we might call whimsy-hunters—poetic souls that look for beauty, quirkiness, and wit among the day-to-day. If you are one of these Francophiles, welcome to your favorite new destination: Nantes. This small city is unapologetically fanciful and chockablock with delightful discoveries.
Opened in 1895, La Cigale is a bombastic layercake of art deco style, starting with ornate tiles on the wall, continuing up with carved wooden reliefs above the doors, and finally topped off with painted wooden beams on the ceiling. In the center of the dining room is the restaurant's mascot, a wooden cicada, in a dress, balanced atop of a grand clock. Minimalism be damned. The arrival of the breadbasket paired with Brittany butter, France's best and creamiest, will snap your focus back to your plate. Follow this with fresh oysters and a glass of local Muscadet wine, and leave with all five senses satisfied.
To Join the Circus
Part workshop, part showroom, and part amusement park, the Machines de l'Ile Nantes is whimsy overload. Built as an homage to Nantes' native son Jules Verne, this complex, still in development, showcases fantastical animatronic creatures based on Verne's writings. The center ring in this three-ring circus is the life-sized motorized elephant. Carrying passengers on a pagoda-style platform on its back, the elephant clomps along Nantes former shipyards like a zoo runaway. The other main attraction is a three-tier "marine world" carousel. In lieu of horses, squid, anglerfish, turtles, and other oceanic creatures promenade around.
Insider Tip: If you want to ride these attractions, come during "Fairground Days," weekends and Wednesday after 2 pm.
As far as shopping malls go, the Passage Pommeraye (Rue de la Fosse, 33 2 40 48 78 17) may be dainty, but what it lacks in size, it makes up in a wallop of ornamentation. Built in the mid-1800s, this arcade is a riot of neoclassical curlicues. A plunging three-story staircase takes you into the central atrium, encircled with white Grecian statues leaning back into wrought-iron lamps. The space is capped with a glass roof that bathes the whole corridor in sunlight. If you're feeling flush, shop the silk scarves at Hermès. If your Euros are a bit more pinched, treat yourself milk chocolate rochers at Maison Georges Larnicol.
When the sun sets, walk long the riverfront and you'll find Les Anneaux, an art installation of 18 light-up loops equally spaced along the Quai des Antilles, each one framing the city's skyline. Like a trail of breadcrumbs, these rings lead you to La Cantine du Voyage, an outdoor bar/restaurant/shop just opened in June. On approach, the structure looks like a steel hanger, but sprinkled with candy-colored signs and pop-art shapes. Jubilant crowds mingle around picnic tables, and couples scoot striped beach loungers together for a tête-à- tête. Competitive souls challenge each other to petanque or foosball. Drink the local beer, a Bretton cider, or eat some of the barbecued chicken.
Insider Tip: Come earlier for lunch and you can also hit the gift shop to peruse cookbooks, condiments, and wine.
To Isle Hop
Every good city needs a good urban escape, and Nantes has a simple solution: Trentemoult isle. After a short ferry ride, you'll come to this little fishing village pilled high with colorful houses and little alleyways. The carefree vibe here is distinctly Mediterranean, as are the terracotta tiles used on the rooftops. Crisscross the street scene, snapping photos, before settling in at La Civelle. A lunch of shellfish perched on the balcony watching the tide wash out feels several nautical miles away from any urban upheaval.
To Snooze in Style
Amid all this playfulness, it would be a shame to bookend your days in a beige hotel room. The newly opened Hotel Sozo provides an antidote. Converted from a chapel, the Sozo is decked out in dramatic touches like vaulted ceilings and stained glass windows. But its historic backdrop is balanced with cheeky modern touches like bare-bulb lamps sporting wings and neon-hued club chairs. A twirling kaleidoscope of styles, the Sozo delights while providing the standard comforts of a hotel in its class.
Getting to Town and Around
Nantes is an easy journey. On Air France, a flight from Paris to Nantes takes about an hour. The TGV train from Paris is about two hours. Various cruise lines including MSC Preziosa stop in Nantes, but Nantes can also be added as an overnight excursion if you are docking in major cruise ports like St Malo or Le Havre. Find info on tram and public transportation through the Tan website. The Navibus Loire provides crossing to Trentemoult every 10 minutes during rush hour. Nantes Tourisme offers a city pass that bundles admission for sights and transportation and can provide a savings.
Photo credits: Hotel Sozo courtesy of Hotel Sozo; all other photos courtesy of Nantes Tourisme