Nantes: the history of a unique city
Apr 14, 2024

Nantes: the history of a unique city

Nantes: the history of a unique city
Julien Mainguy

French and based in Vancouver since 2014, Julien Mainguy is the co-founder of Best of France. Passionate about the cultural difference between Canada and Europe, he is leading numerous projects to create awareness, help people grow, and bring communities together.

Nestled on the banks of the Loire River in western France, Nantes stands as a city with a rich and fascinating history. Being the sixth-largest city in France, Nantes is one of the most famous and lively cities in the country. It actually serves as the capital of the Pays de la Loire region and holds a historically distinctive position at the crossroads of Bretagne and the Loire Valley. To tell the truth, it is the case for the Mont Saint-Michel, French are still debating about which region Nantes is truly from, which makes it a pretty interesting story to investigate … 

Having always been an important and strategic city on the political landscape, Nantes has witnessed centuries of cultural exchange, development and conflicts leaving behind a legacy that is both diverse and remarkable and that showcases the complexity of its history. Indeed, you should know that, until 1532, Nantes which was in the Bretagne region, was not part of France…The greatest visible heritage left of the modern city of Nantes is probably its castle: Le château des Ducs de Bretagne.

If you want to know more about the captivating history of Nantes, read what follows!

Nantes City Sign
Nantes City Sign

The Origins of Nantes

Portus Namnetum

As many other big French cities like Paris, the origins of Nantes can be traced back to prehistoric times, with evidence of human activity in the area dating back over 2,000 years. The city's strategic location at the mouth of the Loire River, a natural gateway to the Atlantic Ocean, has been an important center of trade since ancient times. The city prospered under the Gallo-Roman Empire and was known as Portus Namnetum, a busy port city that played an important role in maritime trade.

The Loire
The Loire

A port city

Indeed, the natural location of Nantes destined it to build its activity around the ocean. The city has lived from its port since Roman times. In Nantes, tin, copper and food were traded by boat. As it was the trend in Europe in the 17th century, especially in Bordeaux in France, the importation of exotic products such as tobacco from the West Indies and other spices from the East were the principal activity of the port. At the beginning of the 18th century, the triangular trade developed in Nantes which became the first port in Europe and attracted more and more wealthy curious travelers from all over the world. Some saw in this celebrity won the opportunity to create flourishing tourism companies. Private hotels, still visible today especially on the island Feydeau, are then erected to welcome the well-off travelers. Nantes thus became a tourist destination that contributed to the international influence of France. The port of Nantes continued to grow despite the French Revolution of 1789. However, the port of Nantes did not escape the violence of World War II. It will be rebuilt after the bombing but it will not regain its former glory. In 1991, the «Port Atlantique Nantes-Saint-Nazaire» was created in order to help the city to regain international influence as a port.

The Anneaux de Buren on the quays
The Anneaux de Buren on the quays

Nantes in the Middle Ages and during the Renaissance

The creation of a political and cultural centre

During the Middle Ages, Nantes emerged as a key player in the political and economic landscape of the region. It became the capital of the historic Duchy of Bretagne, the Duke's residence and center of power. The city experienced a period of great prosperity, as its geographical location allowed it to establish commercial links with various European countries. Many architectural marvels were built during this period, including the Château des Ducs de Bretagne, a magnificent fortress that remains a symbol of Nantes' medieval heritage in the center of the city.

Anne de Bretagne

The most iconic historical character of this period is without a shadow of a doubt the Duchess Anne de Bretagne.
Her castle, the Château des Ducs de Bretagne, is nowadays a museum in which her story is told in detail. She was considered the fiercest defender of the city, as brave as a man, and a feared rival during wars. You can see her statue in front of the castle as she still guards it. Her story is truly unique in the history of France. Although she was twice queen of France, she always took care to preserve the interests of Bretagne fiercely, even if it meant making it her priority and fighting against her husband the King. Her deep attachment to her region of origin is still admired today and reminds us of the love that every Frenchman has for his native region. The footprint of Duchess Anne is palpable throughout the city. She had her own library, which is why she is often represented with a book, a symbol of her interest in the arts and her wisdom.

The statue of Anne de Bretagne
The statue of Anne de Bretagne

The Edict of Nantes

Granted by Henry IV and signed in April 1598, it granted the right to worship to Protestants and put an end to religious wars. It symbolizes the victory of tolerance over civil and religious war. By this edict, in fact, France became the first kingdom in Europe where the king’s religion was not officially imposed on all his subjects. The fact that this edict was signed in the city of Nantes proves its international political and cultural importance as well as it demonstrates the will of Nantes to be a leading city in the future as this edict allowed to stop a long and bloody conflict. Although, the edict was dismissed by Louis XIV who declared Protestantism illegal with the edict of Fontainebleau

The development of the city from the 18th century to the end of the 20th century

Nantes in the 18th century

The 18th century marked a turning point in Nantes' history. The city became an important hub for the transatlantic slave trade and the city played a pivotal role in the trade of goods and African slaves transported to French colonies in America. This trade led to prosperity and rapid urban expansion. This increase in wealth led to the spawning of grand townhouses and public buildings as well as made the city more and more vibrant. Like Bordeaux and La Rochelle, the dark legacy of the slave trade remains an integral part of the city's history, and efforts have been made to acknowledge and confront this past like it is the case in the castle museum. 

Nantes in the 19th century

As is the case throughout Europe, the 19th century is marked by the transformations that industrialization brings to cities. In 1824, the Joseph Colin factory was opened in Nantes. The latter specializes in the sterilization preservation processes developed by Nicolas Appert, the preserves are then mainly produced for long voyages on boats. Brands such as Saupiquet, Cassegrain, BN (la Biscuiterie nantaise), and LU appeared in Nantes and are major agri-food companies even today. Shipbuilding is also important there, the Belem ship was built in Nantes shipyards in 1896. 

Indeed, during the 19th century, the period of industrialization and modernization that Nantes experienced was largely due to its port activity. The city became a major center for shipbuilding, as well as the production of textiles and machinery all trading through ships. As the city embraced the Industrial Revolution, it witnessed significant growth and remarkable urban development. Nantes also played a crucial role in the development of aviation, with local aviation pioneer Clément Ader who brought substantial innovations to the field.

The Passage Pommeraye, built in the 19th century
The Passage Pommeraye, built in the 19th century

Nantes facing war

The world wars did not spare Nantes, especially since the city was a strategic point in view of its opening on the Atlantic Ocean. In September 1943, the city was bombed by the Americans in order to destroy the port facilities of the city. These bombings, carried out on 16 and 23 September 1943, led to the death of many civilians and left thousands of people homeless. Moreover, the castle served as a bunker for the Germans. Two-thirds of the population left the city panicking while the Hôtel Dieu was seriously affected. Nantes began its reconstruction in 1945, the Hôtel Dieu opened again in 1967, and the castle was also renovated.

Nantes nowadays

In recent years, Nantes has reinvented itself as a vibrant cultural and art centre. Synonymous with innovation and creativity, the city has a thriving contemporary art scene and numerous festivals and events. Known as the "Ile de Nantes", the renewed quay along the Loire has been transformed into a center of architectural experimentation and cultural activity. If you plan on going to Nantes, here are the activities you should do and the culinary specialties you should taste: 

What you should visit

St-Perre and St Paul Cathedral in Nantes

It is one of the most beautiful cathedrals in France. It is one of the monuments to visit when you go to Nantes. In addition, it houses many treasures that you can admire, such as the famous tomb of Francis II, the last Duke of Bretagne and Marguerite de Foix, his second wife, parents of Anne de Bretagne. Its construction itself followed the development of the city over the centuries. Begun in 1434, the construction was not completed until 1893. It is one of the longest building blocks of religious architecture in France

Saint-Pierre and Saint-Paul Cathedral
Saint-Pierre and Saint-Paul Cathedral

The Louis XVI column of the Place Maréchal Foch

This column was originally a project presented in 1788. Its realization occurs in the middle of a revolutionary period and finally becomes a monument paying tribute to freedom. Later, it was even considered to add a statue of Napoleon to its summit. This project did not succeed, and it was not until the second restoration that the statue was completed and inaugurated in 1823.

Jules Verne Museum

Jules Verne was born in Nantes on February 8, 1828. A museum in the name of this famous author is located on the Sainte Anne hill in Nantes. Nowadays, we can even see a plaque on the house that saw the birth of Jules Verne in the district of Feydeau Island. He was one of the most creative, audacious and popular novelists. Jules Verne is one of France’s most famous writers. If you are sensitive to this author’s art, know that the city of Nantes inspired the wonderful worlds he describes in his books. Nantes was the source of the dream and inspiration for Les voyages extraordinaires. It is from the tumult of the city of Nantes that he wrote a call to the elsewhere, the Loire and its islands, the port and its boats, the city center and its crowd, the exoticism of the floral park, all these elements that have marked him and helped to build this writer’s unique romantic imagination. 

Les Machines de l’ïle

Located on L’ïle de Nantes, near the shipbuilding area Chantiers Naval, the Machines de l'île are a place where the marvellous worlds of Jules Verne, the mechanical universe of Leonardo da Vinci and the industrial history of Nantes are merging. This attraction is probably the most famous in the city, you can see giant animated mechanical animals larger than life and climb on the giant Elephant of Nantes for a breathtaking experience of an artistic and technical feat. In October 2007, the International Tourism Fair awarded this attraction its Special Jury Prize for Innovative Tourism Equipment. Such magical, imaginative animated creatures can also be seen in other French cities like Toulouse

The Elephant of Nantes

Nantes Floral parc

Situated in front of Nantes train station, Nantes floral park is a whimsical place where you can enjoy nature during a stroll along the beautiful botanical garden, the duck pond, the glasshouses, the modern pieces of art exposed and where you can take a café on a terrace.

Nantes Floral park

Castle of les Ducs de Bretagne

Located in the current city centre of Nantes, the Castle of les Ducs de Bretagne is the oldest monument of the city, with the Cathedral. It is a fortress whose walls overlook the city. From the courtyard, the visitor discovers a 15th-century Renaissance-inspired ducal palace made of Tuffeau stone. It is surrounded by other 16th and 18th-century buildings. This difference in style creates an original contrast, the newer buildings stand out for the whiteness, elegance and refinement of their sculpture compared to the rough stone of the exterior walls.

The history of the monument

François II, the last duke of independent Bretagne, was behind the construction of this castle. As was customary at the time, the purpose of this construction was to erect a defensive military fortress against the central French royal power. Obviously, this castle was also intended to be the main residence of the ducal court.

His daughter, Anne de Bretagne, took over the work to beautify the castle. She brought special care through the carved details (coat of arms, Crown of Gold...), in the image of her attachment to her childhood city that she had to leave as Queen of France by her successive marriages to Charles VIII and Louis XII.  

After the annexation of Bretagne to France in 1532, the Castle of les Ducs de Bretagne became the Breton residence of the kings of France then a military landmark and a prison in the 16th and 17th centuries, hence the place du Bouffay and its restaurant «La prison du Bouffay» still well known today.

Despite the many transformations and various damages suffered by the castle (fire of the fortifications in 1670, an explosion in 1800…), it ended up being classified as a Historic Monument in 1862.

The State finally sold it to the City of Nantes in 1915 before becoming its museum in 1924. In 1992, a 15-year restoration was launched so that the castle could welcome visitors and tourists and better house the History Museum of Nantes as well as temporary exhibitions.

The Château des Ducs de Bretagne
The Château des Ducs de Bretagne

La Tour Lu

The Lu Tower is what is left of the famous biscuit factory from Nantes, facing the castle of les Ducs de Bretagne. Originally, two towers had been erected, but following their destruction in 1970, only one was rebuilt. Nowadays, this tower is not used as a biscuit factory anymore but as a bar. To keep the original design of the Tower on which the initials  “LU” are written, the bar has been called the “Lieu Unique. Located in the city centre, on the quays, you can savour your coffee on a terrace while enjoying the Loire. Inside, you can admire the wads of artists that are exhibited

The Lu tower

Bouffay neighborhood

Sign of the medieval town built near the castle, these small pedestrian streets are made of half-timbered houses along which you can find many shops and nice restaurants. It is ideal for taking an afternoon stroll.

A part of the Bouffay neighbourhood
A part of the Bouffay neighbourhood

The Sainte-Croix Church

This church showcases flamboyant architecture mixing Gothic and Baroque. The Church occupies the place of the chapel of the castle, the first place of residence of the Counts of Bretagne.

The Sainte-Croix church
The Sainte-Croix church

What you should taste

If you visit Nantes, there are unmissable sweet and salted delicacies typical of the area that you have to try.

The gâteaux nantais

It is a soft and round cake, served in individual portions, made of almond, rum and lemon. Its texture is incredible, and its taste is sophisticated. You can buy one in most boulangeries in Nantes.

The crêpes and the cider

These are culinary specialties that let us think that culturally, Nantes is very close to the region of Bretagne. In France, the perfect way to accompany crêpes is to pair it with a brut artisanal cider. You can find great local cider in this region. Regarding the crêpes, there is a fit for everyone! There are sweet recipes as well as salted ones: those are called the “galettes”. There are so many flavours, from sweet to salted… But the most authentic and simple ones are probably ham, cheese and egg or sausage for the galette and beurre sucre and caramel beurre salé for the dessert. If you wish to try galettes and crêpes in Nantes, we recommend you the crêperie Le loup, le renard et la galette. This restaurant offers a great variety of original recipes to match all tastes with fresh products.

Galettes and cider from Le loup, le renard et la galette crêperie
Galettes and cider from Le loup, le renard et la galette crêperie

The Curée Nantais

It is a soft-textured cheese with an intense flavour made from raw cow’s milk; it is perfect for the melting and topping of a dish. It is often used in galettes and gratins or it is eaten and savoured alone with a piece of bread and a white wine like a Muscadet.

A cheese shop, Maison Frometon, in Nantes
A cheese shop, Maison Frometon, in Nantes

Rigolettes nantaises

It is a candy emblematic of Nantes. It was created in 1902, and it is made of a sugar shell filled with fruit jam. The sweet shell breaks under the tooth to release the precious nectar of fruit jam it contains. Multiple fruit flavours exist, like lemon, orange, apple or blackcurrant.

What is left of the original Rigolettes nantaises factory
What is left of the original Rigolettes nantaises factory

From Bretagne or Pays de la Loire?

A Breton region?

We could consider Nantes as a city of Bretagne because historically, it has been an important cultural and economic centre of Bretagne. It was the capital of the province of Bretagne before the French Revolution. As we have seen with the culinary culture of the city, the traditions of Nantes are largely influenced by those of Bretagne. The Breton language is still spoken there, and cultural festivals such as the Nantes Festival have deep roots in the Breton culture. Nantes has important economic relations with other regions of Bretagne. Moreover, the inhabitants of Nantes often consider themselves as Bretons and feel connected to this region.

A city from the Pays de la Loire region?

However, geographically, Nantes is not located on the Breton peninsula. It is located on the border between the west of France and the south-west of Bretagne. Since the French Revolution, Nantes has been administratively located in the Pays de la Loire region, and not in Bretagne.

On the other side, the inhabitants of other areas of Bretagne do not always consider Nantes to be part of their region, as it is often perceived as being too culturally and geographically different.

In conclusion, we could say that Nantes is culturally for a great part from Bretagne but geographically, it is from Pays de la Loire. So, if you wish to go to Nantes, you will have the chance to experience both the Bretagne and the Pays de la Loire cultures in one city!

Whether this city is from the Bretagne region or the Pays de la Loire region, Nantes encapsulates the essence of historical and cultural richness, and is representative of the French Art de Vivre. Its strategic location, tumultuous past, and contemporary spirit make it a truly unique and unmissable destination that you should visit when going to France. As Nantes continues to evolve, it remains a place where history and innovation merge, creating a captivating experience for all who visit it. If you wish to plan your travel in Nantes or in some other French cities, follow Best of France Facebook page and Instagram feed to seek advice from and tips from people passionate about France.

Place Royale in Nantes
Place Royale in Nantes