From Waterloo International you can go by rail all the way to Le Mans. Book early - not only to get the cheaper seats (pounds 99 on Eurostar, 0345 303030), but also to get the best connections at Lille, where you change to a French TGV (high-speed train).
The French Travel Centre (178 Piccadilly, London W1V 0AL; 0891 244123) has a limited amount of information, which you can supplement in situ with material from the tourist office at rue de l'Etoile, 72000 Le Mans (00 33 2 43 28 17 22), for basic history and the local attractions.
There are a great number of small hotels clustered around the station. These are a good bet: reasonably priced (pounds 12-40) and about a 10-minute walk to place de la Republique (from which much of the city centre branches out), Le Vieux Mans and the tourist office. Most hotels have restaurants attached, with set menus from pounds 6 upwards.
If you're thinking of going for the Le Mans 24-hours race (6-7 June) and haven't yet booked, the tourist office may be able to find you a local B&B; all the hotels in and around Le Mans are already fully booked.
The medieval, cobbled streets of Le Vieux Mans, and the Cathedral of St Julien from which they spread out, are well worth getting to know. The houses date back to the 12th century and are still in good condition. The cathedral is made up of an unusual but successful combination of Romanesque and Gothic architecture.
Make sure you take a plan of the area, as it is easy to overlook important features in the 22-acre site that is packed with eye-catching museum pieces. Buildings to look out for are the Red Pillar House on Square Dubois, which has a precarious lean to it, and Adam and Eve's House in Grande Rue.
Old Le Mans is surrounded by 500 yards of 3rd-century Roman wall, said to be the best preserved in Europe. This has 11 chunky towers, all decorated with fancy brickwork and punctuated with arrow-slits to keep enemies at bay. The city is part of La Sarthe, a region packed with chateaux and picturesque villages, so if you have the time, hop on a bus and explore the surrounding countryside.
Judging by the smart shop fronts and designer labels on show, Le Mans is a wealthy city - chic in the conservative French sense and the perfect place to buy good quality classics. Clothes aside, there is a branch of the ever-trendy FNAC store, already well established in Paris, which sells a huge selection of books, videos and CDs. This can be found in the Jacobins shopping centre opposite the tourist office.
Le Mans is packed with cafes and restaurants, although if you're sticking to Le Vieux Mans, a wander down Grande Rue or around rue des Trois Sonnettes will give you ample choice, particularly as most restaurants have a tempting set menu at less than 100 francs. For something more simple but traditional, grab a waffle or crepe from La Gaufrerie as you cross place de la Republique.
Rue des Ponts Neufs, south of place St Pierre, falls just outside the old city wall but maintains the quaintness and atmosphere of Le Vieux Mans and is filled with restaurants and bars. The road is a doll-sized, narrow lane with a surprising number of Italian restaurants, and is popular with the locals. You can grab a pint of Guinness here or head round the corner to Cafe Creme, which boasts DJ El Gringo playing a selection of "Rare Groove, House and More".