City breaks with kids: Nantes
Not any more … Nantes is a wonderland for kids and parents. The city, on the river Loire, has seen a cultural reinvention in the past 10 years and there’s easily enough to do to fill a week – or a few days en route south, as my family and I tend to do. The best place to start is the Île de Nantes, the creative hub of the city on an island in the river. Here, the masterminds at Les Machines de L’ile Nantes have created a steampunk playground where a robotic elephant carries passengers on its back (rides €8.50 adults, €6.90 children) and sprays water on bystanders. Nearby, a carousel inspired by Nantes native Jules Verne and his novel 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea whirls visitors around on mechanical masterpieces such as smoke-breathing dragons, flying fish and fearsome anglerfish (ride prices as above). It’s possible to tour the workshop and see future creations taking shape.
The fun isn’t limited to the Île de Nantes: every summer the city has a makeover with street art installations through a project known as Le Voyage à Nantes. The artworks, along with the permanent attractions, are linked by a route marked with a green line painted on the pavements. We spent an afternoon walking that line and hopping on and off the trams to see them.
One of the best historic attractions is the 15th-century Château de Ducs de Bretagne, a turreted and moated castle in the city centre, which is dedicated to telling the story of the city from the days of Queen Anne de Bretagne. Displays, videos and exhibits explain the history of Nantes’ kings and queens, the city’s shipbuilding past and links to slavery, along with its history of biscuit-making.
The city’s tram system is easy to use and the Pass Nantes (for one, two or three days; €25, €35, €45) means you can ride it with the added bonus of free access to many leading attractions for that one-off fee.
However, Nantes is also a great city for cycling. We hired a couple of Dutch-style family bikes and pedalled around for an afternoon, following the green line and venturing up the river Erdre (which runs north out of the city) to an island called Île de Versailles. We discovered a sweet Japanese garden and weird and wonderful plants and trees, paths and bridges to explore. The cycling route out of the city along the Loire makes for a great adventure, too, with outdoor art installations from the Estuaire Project dotted along the river. Highlights include a house partly sunken in the river, with lights on and smoke coming from the chimney, a fearsome serpent in the water, and a fountain that only shoots up out of the water when you sit on a particular shore-side bench.
Where are all the other kids?
With its huge concourse to belt around on, the Île de Nantes is the obvious place to let them run wild. We loved the small moonscape with trampolines in each crater that provided hours of entertainment, while we sat on deckchairs in the sun sipping cold drinks from a booth. Not far from the chateau, a large playpark in the Square Mercoeur features a Japanese artist’s monster artwork that doubles as a slide. Next to this, the Miroir d’Eau (water mirror) is a splash-park where 32 jets shoot up out of a shallow pool. It proved a great place to cool off, but spare clothes would have been useful. Meanwhile, the botanical gardens, Le Jardin de Plantes, offers nearly 20 acres of green space with huge greenhouses, pretty walkways and bridges, ponds and sculptures to explore.
When we weren’t picnicking in the many green spaces, there were plenty of family-friendly eateries to tempt us. On the Île de Nantes, the huge La Cantine du Voyage offers a menu of just one dish per course (two courses plus drink: lunch €10, dinner €13) across dozens of refectory tables. The ingredients for the dishes are grown in the neighbouring kitchen garden (there’s an undercover skate park at the other end of the warehouse to watch as you wait).
For something quirky, go to Le Nid (“the nest”) on the 32nd floor of the city’s highest building Le Tour de Bretagne. Designed by cartoonist Jean Jullien, the bar features an enormous outstretched stork: its back provides the counter, and its eggs are the stools and tables. It’s just nibbles and drinks on sale (coffee €2, fruit juice €3, platter of cheese €7.50), but it’s worth a visit for the spectacle and the amazing view of the city.
This being the former Breton capital, it’s a good place to try a crêpe or savoury galette with Le Coin des Crepes serving a good selection of fillings (from €3). The child-friendly cafe Le P’tit Qu’a Fait (menus from €13.80/€9.30 for children) serves fresh, organic food in a setting designed specifically for kids, with smaller furniture and toys. In the city centre, we had lunch at Le Select, which serves hearty French staples in a bistro rammed with vintage bric-a-brac that fascinated the kids.
One lunchtime, we jumped on the Navibus (river bus) to cross the river to the fishing village of Trentemoult. It’s a pretty little place and has a few good restaurants including La Guingette (lunch menus from €13, child’s menu €8.50). If you want to take home souvenirs, Petit Beurre biscuits, salted butter caramels (made with Guerande sea salt, from the coast near Nantes) and Rigolette sweets from the city’s much-loved confectioner are the things to seek out.
City apartments are a great accommodation option in Nantes, and there are plenty in the centre. Le Pont Levis flat, let through Welcome Home Nantes sleeps up to six (from €120 a night for four, week from €630). It proved a spacious and stylish retreat for our stay. It’s right next to the Chateau de Ducs de Bretagne, and easy walking distance from several attractions or the tram stop. The friendly owner, Henrietta, helped us find parking.
Alternatively, Adagio has four-bed studios at its apart-hotel between the chateaux and Jardin des Plantes (from €117 a night, or €86 a night if staying seven nights). A short tram ride away from the city centre is the five-star campsite Nantes Camping, which has two-bedroom chalets from €62 night. It also has playparks, mini-golf and there’s a leisure complex 100 metres away. Accommodation ideas with a twist include themed apartments from Suprenantes, which has a family-friendly apartment called De La Terre À La Lune (From the Earth to the Moon), which sleeps two adults and two children under 12 and costs €139 a night.