Rennes in France is not a city that most foreign tourists visit. It is not on the radar of most visitors, and probably not on any bucket list. That, however, is a shame because if you are looking for a charming French city, with plenty of history, interesting food, and lovely architecture, this will be right up your alley. This guide covers the best things to do in Rennes and what you can expect to experience here.
The capital of Brittany is called Bretagne in French, and is not to be confused with Grand Bretagne (which is actually French for Great Britain). Brittany used to be an indepdendent duchy with its own distinctive flag and language (Breton).
The capital of Bretagne, Rennes’s history predates the Roman empire. It was a small Gallic village, with Celtic origins as early as 2BC. Those Celtic origins continue to be heard in names of places and people in Bretagne.
After the Romans invaded, its location about 55 km (34 miles) away from the English Channel, made it an important strategic base. If you are a fan of the Asterix and Obelix comic books, it is in this era and region where the brave Gaulois are fighting Julius Caesar and the evil Roman Empire.
After the fall of the Roman empire, the Vikings came and went, and the Bretons as they became known, became an independent duchy. Like William the Conqueror who was a one door down in Normandy, the Duchy of Bretagne had mixed relationships (i.e. many wars) with its neighbors in England, Normandy, and the rest of France.
This continued until 1491, when Anne of Bretagne inherited the duchy at the age of 14. She was one of the most eligible brides on the market (i.e. rich) and the King of France Charles VIII (and his army) insisted that she marry him. In order to save the city of Rennes which was under siege, she acquiesced.
And thus the duchy of Brittany became part of France. Its culture is distinct enough from the rest of France to, every once in a while, raise the ugly head of separatism with its own Federalist movement.
But to French people, Rennes is a hidden gem in France that voted one of the top places to live in France by a national newspaper.
- 1) Parlement de Bretagne
- 2) Le Cour des Lices (and farmers’ market)
- 3) Cathedral Saint Pierre
- 4) Musée des Beaux-Arts (Fine Arts Museum)
- 5) Parc du Thabor
- 6) Try some Pommeau de Bretagne AOC
- 7) Crêpes and Cider
- Frequently Asked Questions
1) Parlement de Bretagne
The seat of the Breton Parliament was established in 1485 under the Duchy of Brittany, and continued after Brittany became a part of France. The Kings of France and their descendants reluctantly let Bretagne continue to maintain its own parliament (under the agreement insisted upon Anne).
It was spared in the great fire of 1720 (when almost the entire downtown core of Rennes was destroyed).
But that all came to an end with the French Revolution and storming of the Bastille in 1789. The Bretagne Parliament was dissolved by the French National Assembly but famously never ratified by the Parlement itself. The Bretagne Parliament met on the same day to declare the decision “null and void forever”.
The building remained an important reminder of Brittany’s independent roots until a 2nd great fire partly burnt down the building in 1994.
It has been extensively renovated and today houses the Courts of Justice along with several fine examples of 17th-century French pictorial art. Since it is a working government building, visits can only be made with a reservation with the Tourist Office.
Interesting anecdote: In 1899, the scandalous spying trial of Alfred Dreyfus, a Jew, was held in Rennes. It was a case of anti-semitism that shook the conscience of France, and its repercussions are still felt today. Today the building where the trial was held, is a high school called Lycée Émile Zola after the author of the famous text J’accuse, proclaiming Dreyfus’ innocence. You can read more about French history here.
2) Le Cour des Lices (and farmers’ market)
The heart of the city, this large square holds many restaurants and bars. But probably one of my favorite things to do in Rennes is to visit the giant farmers’ market, the Marché des Lices.
The market runs every Saturday from 7:30 am to 1:30 pm. It is one of the biggest markets in France, even bigger than the ones in Paris.
3) Cathedral Saint Pierre
The earliest church on this site was in the 6th century, replaced by a gothic cathedral that has been continually under construction and renovation since the 12th century. It was badly damaged during WWII but is now fully rehabilitated.
4) Musée des Beaux-Arts (Fine Arts Museum)
A stunning fine arts museum on Quai Emile Zola that was established in 1794 to hold artwork confiscated from nobles, government buildings, and churches in the area. It holds many rare works, including drawings by Leonardo da Vinci, Botticelli, Donatello, and Picasso.
☞ READ MORE: Leonardo da Vinci in Amboise, France
5) Parc du Thabor
A beautiful park combining the classical French and English garden styles with a cave, basins, and a rose garden with more than 2,000 varieties of roses.
If you enjoy nature, you must put this on your bucket list of things to do in the city. It is definitely a beautiful place to spend an hour or two.
6) Try some Pommeau de Bretagne AOC
This alcoholic aperitif (17% vol.) is Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée (meaning it is specific to this region), is made from two-thirds unfermented apple juice and one-third cider brandy.
It is aged in oak casks for at least 14 months and is absolutely delicious.
7) Crêpes and Cider
You cannot visit this part of Brittany and not indulge in some Breton crêpes and wash it down with a mug of cider. There are two types of crêpes, savory and sweet.
Savory crêpes are filled with toppings similar to a pizza: ham, cheese, spinach, etc. depending on what you prefer. Sweet crêpes are usually topped with a fruit coulis, chocolate, nutella, ice cream, etc. You could also try a crêpe suzette.
There are many small crêperies all over town, but for the best atmosphere, head over to one of the many restaurants in the Cour des Lices or Rue Saint Georges.
Frequently Asked Questions
How to get to Rennes, France?
From Paris Montparnasse station, it takes about 1.5 hours on the train direct to Rennes. There is also a small international airport, with direct flights from across Europe.
How many days should you stay?
Two nights is likely sufficient, including the night you arrive. If you are planning a weekend trip, make sure you arrive with enough time to explore the Marché des Lices which runs every Saturday morning from 7:30am to 1:30pm.
Where to stay?
There are quite a few hotels around the train station, which are quite central with a good amount of shops and restaurants nearby. That being said, the area is quite modern and doesn’t quite have the old world charm that the area around Marché des Lices does. It is a pleasant 10-minute walk from the train station to the Marché des Lices.
Hotels around the train station
€€€ – Novotel SPA Centre Gare
Hotels around Marché des Lices
€€ – Hôtel Lanjuinais
€€€ – Hotel De Nemours
☞ READ MORE: The Unvarnished Side of Visiting Mont Saint Michel
So I hope I’ve inspired you to visit this hidden gem in France. If you do make it out there, comment back and let me know your favorite part of the city.
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