It's difficult to tear yourself away from lively Nantes but thanks to its centrally located railway station, you can reach riverside villages, medieval towns, prehistoric art and enchanting islands in under two hours – and without ever getting behind a steering wheel.
If you do have a car, or better still a bicycle, the vineyards that surround quirky Nantes are visitable on a self-guided tour, too. There’s plenty of detailed information available on how to do that.
Here are the six best day trips from Nantes.
Travel time: 1 hour and 45 minutes
With more than a dozen beaches, 80km (50 miles) of cycling trails, five well-marked hiking paths and Europe's longest submersible road, the Passage du Gois, Noirmoutier has something for everyone. Buses stop near the historic center, Noirmoutier-en-l'île. From here, rent a bike or take a stroll along Jacobsen Jetty past the island's working salt pans where locals still cultivate the mineral by hand.
Noirmoutier also has an expansive nature reserve, Polder de Sebastopol. It draws birders and scientists from around the world but its flat, 3.2km-long (2 miles) path is great for families too. Visit in late spring to try the island’s other claim to culinary glory: the rare Bonnotte potato. This walnut-sized luxury is the world's most expensive spud and costs $600 a kilo. Stick with Noirmoutier salt as a souvenir instead.
How to get to Noirmoutier from Nantes: "Ligne 13" buses go directly to Noirmoutier Gare Routière from the ALEOP bus station behind Gare de Nantes Sud. Driving takes around the same amount of time and you don’t have to traverse the Passage du Gois. If driving over the Passage du Gois, do not rely on your GPS. Check up-to-date tidal information on the Île de Noirmoutier website before crossing.
Travel time: 1 hour and 15 minutes
Arrive early in Pornic to snag a warm baguette and then take an exhilarating seaside stroll along the rocky Jade Coast, past historic wooden fishing huts and shell-studded hideaway beaches.
Overlooked by the owner-occupied fairytale of Château de Pornic, this picture-postcard bay urges visitors to take things slowly. Lunch lazily beside the marina on fresh moules marinière. Arrange a visit to the medieval castle. Spy ancient windmills. Savor a fresh fruit sorbet at La Fraiseraie on the port. Pornic is also home to the 5500-year-old megalithic tumulus of Les Mousseaux, a stone funerary monument tucked away behind the houses on the hill behind the town center.
How to get to Pornic from Nantes: Trains to Pornic depart from Gare de Nantes.
3. Le Croisic
Travel time: 1 hour and 30 minutes
Popular with Parisians thanks to a straight-shot TGV train, low-key Le Croisic is a stylish destination near the end of the Guérande peninsula. Sightsee from your seat as the train whizzes past subtly-colored salt pans and wild marshes that teem with seabirds.
This chic Breton port town became prosperous in the 1700s. Even today, weaving in and out of its small shops is a delight. You’ll have no trouble finding a tasty meal of fresh-caught fish for lunch, or crêpes, a regional classic. But head to Le Criée for lunch where skillful chefs make the most of the daily fish market. Walk off your food with an amble along the wide, seaweed-strewn sandy beach or edge along the narrow stone jetty that stretches for half a mile (858 meters) into the sea. Its 19th-century Tréhic lighthouse has knockout views of the coast.
How to get to Le Croisic from Nantes: Direct trains to Le Croisic depart from Gare de Nantes. It’s a 10-minute walk into town.
4. The Loire River Estuary
Travel time: 1 hour and 30 minutes round trip to a full-day excursion depending on choices
Two cruises glide down the Loire Estuary from Nantes that both take in the city's maritime past and its industrial landscape: a 90-minute Croisiere Escapade en Loire trip and the three-hour Estuaire Nantes trip to Saint-Nazaire. Floating past a bucolic riverbank flecked with dazzling white egrets and working farmlands, both cruises pass some permanent art installations – these include a full-size house tilting in the river and bronze animals dangling from tree branches.
If you have time, take the longer cruise and return by train from Saint-Nazaire. You can spend a few hours visiting a real submarine, exploring the wonderful world of old ocean liners or touring the shipyard that has built some world-famous liners.
How to get to the Loire River Estuary from Nantes: Take Tram Line 1 to the Gare Maritime stop. Cruises depart from Quai Ernest Renaud at the Gare Maritime and booking is essential. The short cruise returns to Quai Ernest Renaud. For the long cruise, either travel back along the river or take the train from Gare Saint-Nazaire. It's a 20-minute walk from the dock.
Travel time: 1 hour and 30 minutes
Lined with 15th-century half-timbered buildings, the walled town of Vannes on the Golf de Morbihan is an authentic medieval port. Time it right and you can enjoy an affordable lunch beside the city walls overlooking the marina. Or head to the city ramparts for majestic views and elegant gardens. On Wednesday and Saturday mornings, a celebrated market fills the Place des Lices selling enticing temptations like tourtière aux pommes (a flaky apple pastry spritzed with Armagnac).
If you have time, try to coordinate a visit to the Cairn de Gavrinis, a 45-minute bus ride from Vannes. Short boat tours whisk visitors to this large Neolithic monument with sophisticated and enigmatic carvings that go back some 6000 years. Tours last up to two hours. Reserve in advance.
How to get to Vannes from Nantes: Direct trains to Vannes go from Gare de Nantes. It's a 20-minute walk to the historic center, alternatively, buses outside the station head to the Port. From Vannes, take Bus 23 from the Vannes Gare Routiere SNCF across the road from the train station to Larmor-Baden Centre. It's a 10-minute walk to Larmor-Baden port.
Travel time: 30 minutes
It can be enough to take the short train ride to Clisson, to forget the modern world for a while by standing on the Pont de la Vallée bridge and watching the Sèvre Nantaise river rush by. But this little village packs in so many more surprises. Wander through the acres of artfully landscaped gardens at the vast Domaine de la Garenne Lemot, a dreamy early 19th-century Tuscan-style villa. On your way, grab a sandwich in or around the 14th-century covered marketplace, Les Halles.
Clisson’s reputedly haunted 13th-century chateau has seen more than its share of blood-soaked turmoil over the centuries, and it’s well worth a visit. If you love head-banging rock, plan ahead for Hellfest, a massive four-day summer music festival that brings top heavy metal bands and hundreds of thousands of devoted fans to this idyllic town annually.
How to get to Clisson from Nantes: A direct TER train runs from Gare de Nantes to Clisson. It is then a short walk to town.