Best Things to See and Do on the West Coast
From adrenaline-filled adventure to lounging around, the west coast has it all, here are our top things to see and do on France’s west coast. Note: this article is part of the megafeature “West Coast Road Trip“.
The west coast features some of France’s most beautiful and historic cities. The seat of a bishopric near the end of the Roman Empire before being conquered by the Bretons, Nantes in the Loire-Atlantique is now the sixth largest in France. Half an hour from the Vendée, La Rochelle is known as the Jewel in the Bay of Biscay. Also in the Charente-Maritime département is historic Saintes, the first Roman capital of Aquitaine and a Town of Art and History. Further south, you’ll find the world capital of wine Bordeaux.
Creativity is flourishing in France, so it’s no simple task to summarise artistic sites and places to visit, but here is an overview to get you started.
Nantes’ Estuaire Arts Trail is an itinerary along 60km of the river banks and estuary, showcasing 33 different artworks. You can explore the trail by foot, bike, car or even boat every summer, and the purpose is to integrate art into its environment, set against a backdrop of the countryside and the river that leads from the town centre all the way to the Atlantic. Learn more about the current exhibition online or in the tourist offices. bit.ly/3CAKBjP
Also fascinating, The Summer Journey (Le Voyage à Nantes) runs from early July to mid-September, bringing art indoors with exhibition spaces, but also on a larger scale outdoors. Often thought-provoking, sometimes controversial, these installations demonstrate the city’s integral links to creativity. levoyageanantes.fr/en
In La Rochelle, the Fine Arts Museum is housed in a suitably beautiful neo-Classical palace but is currently under renovation – keep an eye on the website for the latest information on dates for reopening. museedesbeauxarts.larochelle.fr
Happily, there are no such restraints for Bordeaux Musée des Beaux Arts, which is affectionately known as MusBA. Located in Cours d’Albret, its permanent collection includes fine examples of Renaissance, Impressionism and Symbolism and it’s a beautiful space to wander around. musba-bordeaux.fr/en
It’s hard to go anywhere in France without coming across ancient history, and the west coast certainly has its share. There are Roman remains in almost every town and city, particularly Saintes’ amphitheatre and the magnificent 15m double archway known as Arc de Germanicus that was once the entrance to the town. saintes-tourisme.fr
Over in Nantes, there are also Gallo-Roman remains, notably the ancient city walls that are still partly visible. For real history buffs, of course, Nantes’ main draw would be the château or Nantes Cathedral whose construction began in 1434 but continued for quite some time – until 1891, in fact! cathedrale-nantes.fr
Finally, for Classical architecture, you can’t beat the picture-perfect manors and châteaux lining the Loire, many of which are visible from the river. Venture east of the city to see Château de Goulaine, a Renaissance beauty in white Tuffeau stone. chateaudegoulaine.fr
Rivers criss-cross these west coast cities and towns, boosting the economy in times gone by and now serving the tourism industry. Take a leisurely boat trip on the Bateau Libellule if you’re in Nantes, either a 90-minute outing on the Loire through the centre of town or the longer sunset cruise, which includes a platter of delicious local produce.
You can enjoy similar serenity in Saintes, from a charming electric-powered boat for up to eight people to a canoe or kayak if you prefer to paddle your own. The Charente winds its way through the town, and the tourist office can help you to book the trip that best appeals to you. saintes-tourisme.fr
Fans of cycling naturally adore France, where the sport is given its due. On the west coast, you have plenty of cycle trails plus a real bonus in the Vélodyssée, the 1,200km Atlantic cycling trail that begins further north in Roscoff and leads you through Nantes, along the coast to La Rochelle and all the way to the south of France in Hendaye.
More than 70% of the route is on traffic-free paths, each stage clearly marked for its level of difficulty – around Hossegor, the Léon-Cap Breton stage is 33km and ideal for beginners and families. cycling-lavelodyssee.com
Whichever location you’re in on the west coast, you’ll see SUP (standup paddle-boarding) but also surf opportunities, as the Atlantic coast is a world-famous location for the right conditions and has the added advantage of clear waters. In La Rochelle, there’s everything from kite-surfing on the sand to surfing and windsurfing: check the tourist office website for an idea of what’s on offer. holidays-la-rochelle.co.uk
In Hossegor and Cap Breton, you’ll be spoilt for choice, but try Tao Magic Glisse surf school (taomagic-glisse.com/en) or Hossegor Lake Paddle (hossegor-lakepaddle.com) for paddle-boarding on the lake.
In Bordeaux, you might not be able to surf but you can still try something different: hire a Segway, which gives you a new perspective as you explore and allows you to fit in so much more in a day. It also saves on tired legs! bit.ly/3Cw7hBM
For those who really want to unwind on holiday, you can’t beat a Thalasso Spa Retreat, and in La Rochelle, La Grande Terrasse tops the list. This boutique hotel on Châtelaillon-Plage offers a stunning terrace overlooking the sea, a Nuxe Spa offering massages, treatments, sauna and steam room as well as a pool with incredible views… and an excellent restaurant to boot. la-grande-terrasse.com
You can also be pampered in Bordeaux, at Le Grand Hôtel: a stunning Regency building in the heart of the city at Place de la Comédie. It offers luxury suites and its Spa Guerlain has a state-of-the-art fitness suite… but wouldn’t you rather have a full-body massage? bordeaux.intercontinental.com/en
From France Today magazine
Lead photo credit : The Arc de Germanicus in Saintes as seen from the river © S. Laval
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