In a nutshell: A west-coast (ish) city with a quirky character and classic French charms.
Don't miss: Les Machines de L'Ile, Jules Verne Museum, Bouffay bar district
It will be roughly around the moment you spot the giant metallic elephant that you realise Nantes can be a little quirky at the edges. There it will be, this 12-metre-high “model” of one of Africa's great beasts of the savannah, steam spurting from its trunk as it carries 50 or so passengers on its back, as part of an unlikely stomp along the waterfront. And you will probably think: “OK, that's unusual”. But perhaps you won't notice it. Perhaps your attention will have been pulled instead towards “L'Arbre aux Herons” – a 28-metre-high “Heron Tree”, made up of steel walkways, and topped off with two enormous examples of the birds in question. Of course, visitors can climb into baskets fixed under the wings of these odd creatures and take a “flight” around the whole structure. Of course they can.
Post-industrial cities can take many different approaches to reviving the districts where life used to be about sweat and toil. But Nantes has definitely taken an idiosyncratic path. And Les Machines de L'Ile (The Machines of the Isle) – a clutch of “mechanical animals” and “steam-punk” installations, which now dominates its former shipyards – has become its star attraction. It opened in 2007, and remains an ongoing project. New works by the two artists behind it (Francois Delaroziere and Pierre Orefice) appear on the island – which sits in the middle of the River Loire, at the heart of the city – as and when finished.
But the concept is not quite as out of context as it sounds. Nantes has a strong affinity with the arty and the fantastical. It was the birthplace, in 1828, of Jules Verne, the French author responsible for literary flashes of mystery like Around The World In Eight Days and Journey To The Centre Of The Earth. Perhaps inevitably, this close relationship is saluted at the museum in the novelist's honour – on the opposite, north, bank of the Loire.
Obviously, Nantes is also very capable of entertaining tourists in more conventionally French ways. Its Cathedrale Sainte-Pierre-et-Sainte-Paul is a grand piece of Gothic religious architecture, two sturdy towers greeting the visitor. Its Fine Arts Museum is stuffed with masterpieces, by the likes of Delacroix, Monet, Picasso and Renoir. Its Bouffay quarter is filled with bars in what is a lively city with a large student population and a youthful vibe – Rue des Carmes, Rue de la Bâclerie and Rue du Bouffay itself have drinkeries galore. Place Graslin is a fine choice of location if you want to eat well – there are several excellent restaurants around edge of the square, including the feted La Cigale.
There is fun to be found further afield too. Nantes is the main city of Loire-Atlantique. The name of this westerly department of France confirms the fact that the city sits reasonably close the ocean. About 25 miles from it, to be precise, if you head directly to tiny Les Moutiers-en-Retz, and no more than 45 if you opt for the chic resort of La Baule.
Content supplied by the Telegraph’s travel expert Chris Leadbetter