There are no local wines (try the strong cider instead) but plenty of other cultural and gastronomic delights in the heart of Brittany. Watch out for drunken carpenters, though

Why go now?

Why go now?

The capital and cultural centre of Brittany, Rennes is also a university city with more than 30,000 students living there, giving the place a vibrancy that visitors miss in mid-summer. October is an ideal time to experience the busy street life and pavement cafés before the weather turns cooler, unless you prefer to wait until early December when the town holds the Transmusicales de Rennes (known throughout France as Les Trans), one of the best music festivals in Europe.

Beam down

The only direct flights from Britain are on Air France (0845 0845 111, from London City to Rennes airport, a 15-minute bus ride from the town centre. If you book at least a week in advance, the airline has a lowest fare of £159 return. St Malo is the nearest Channel port served by Brittany Ferries (08705 360 360) from Portsmouth. A return weekend trip for a car plus two passengers, including a cabin on the outbound (overnight) trip, is £93.50 (until 15 November). By train, the journey from London Waterloo via Lille or Paris (where you must change stations) takes around six hours, for £110 return.

Get your bearings

The centre is quite compact, with the older and more interesting part of the city north of the River Vilaine, and the newer commercial district to the south. The narrow river runs east to west down the centre of the main thoroughfare and is bordered by quays lined with elegant houses, so the route is very wide and grand. North of here at the western end is what remains of the old medieval city, most of which was burnt down by a drunken carpenter in 1720. The city was rebuilt of granite in Classical-style with the Place de la Mairie as the focal point.

Check in

In the heart of the old town is the Hÿtel des Lices (00 33 2 99 79 14 81) on the square of the same name. A double room costs less than £30. Also very central, and similarly priced, is the Hÿtel de Nemours just south of the river (5 Rue de Nemours, 00 33 2 99 78 26 26). If you want to spend less, you will need to head further south around the station , where the Hÿtel Riaval has double rooms from £14 to £20 (00 33 2 99 50 65 58). Recommended for families is the Hÿtel de la Tour d'Auvergne (on the boulevard of that name), where rooms include a shower or bath for £17 to £21 (00 33 2 99 30 84 16). You may get a better deal with the tourist office's "Weekend in Rennes" package (00 33 2 99 67 11 11).

Take a hike

You can walk to just about everywhere of interest. The cobbled streets of the medieval town are mostly traffic-free, while the wider pavements of the 18th-century area open out into grand squares with attractive fountains. Starting from Place de la Mairie, it is a short stroll to the Palais de Justice, former home of the Brittany parliament. Built in the early 17th century (of stone, so it survived the fire), it is worth a quick look inside at the Grand Chambre. From here walk down the Rue Lafayette to St-Pierre Cathedral and wander round some of the surviving 15th and 16th-century streets.

Lunch on the run

If it's still warm enough to eat outside, try the pavement cafés in the old town around the Place des Lices - many of the locals eat here. Also worth a look is the area around the Place St-Anne; try the Café Breton in the Rue Nantaise (00 33 2 99 30 74 95). One of the most popular cafés in Rennes is the Piccadilly (00 33 2 99 78 17 17) in the Place de la Mairie.

Cultural afternoon

The Musée des Beaux-Arts is known for its collection of French paintings from the 17th and 18th centuries, including several masterpieces by Chardin, the greatest of still-life painters, plus some works by Gauguin and Picasso. In the same building (20 Quai Emile-Zola, 00 33 2 99 28 55 84) is Le Musée Breton, revealing life in "Little Britain" when it was an independent duchy.

The icing on the cake

Seven miles north-east of the city is the Forest of Rennes, the nearest of several large remnants of the huge areas of woodland that once covered much of inland Brittany. A network of signposted paths meander through the mixture of oak, beech, chestnut and birch trees, making it a great place for an afternoon walk or cycle ride - bikes can be hired in Rennes, information from the tourist office, at 11 Rue St-Yves (00 33 2 99 67 11 11).

Bracing brunch

For perfect croissants, go to the Boulangerie Hoche (17 Rue Hoche, 00 33 2 99 63 61 01). If you want to sit for a while watching the leisurely comings and goings through the Place St-Anne, the Café de la Place does superb café au lait and has a good selection of pastries (00 33 2 99 78 31 03). Or, try the Crêperie St-Georges near the 17th-century former Abbey of St George.

A walk in the park

Next to the church of Notre-Dame-en-St-Mélaine, a former 13th century abbey, is the Jardin du Thabor, a large, landscaped park that was once the abbey's orchard. It covers 27 acres and includes various themed gardens, including botanical, formal French and rose gardens, plus a small zoo.

Sunday morning, go to church

The main place of worship is St-Pierre Cathedral. You may be surprised by the number of locals who come to mass here; don't try to see the inside on Sunday morning unless you're prepared to join in. It's hemmed-in by a warren of medieval houses in the heart of the old town. Maybe that's why most of the effort was put into the interior - full of paintings and gilded stucco, and a superb carved-wood altarpiece considered to be the best of its kind anywhere. There has been a cathedral here since the sixth century - this is the third, and was built after the previous building collapsed in 1762.

Demure dinner

If you're staying in one of the inexpensive hotels mentioned above, you may feel you can splash out a bit on dinner - after all, this is France. If so, the place to go is Auberge St-Sauveur (00 33 2 99 79 32 56) in the 16th-century canon's residence next to St-Pierre Cathedral, where you will be served good traditional French food with set menus from £12 to £30. If you're counting the centimes, the Au Marché des Lices (3 Place-des-Bas-des-Lices, 00 33 2 99 30 42 95) does excellent food in a relaxed setting for £6 a meal.

An aperitif

Through the heart of the old town runs the busy Rue St-Michel, lined with 16th-century houses now mostly converted into cafés, boutiques and bars. By night, these are bustling and spilling out on to the pavement well into the small hours, but earlier in the evening it's possible to sit outside and enjoy a quiet drink - although there's no point in asking for a bottle of local wine as there's no such thing; try some strong Brittany cider instead. The Café Méliÿs on the Quai Lamennais is another good place for a drink, especially if you prefer a bit more space.

Window shopping

There are several elegant shopping arcades along the quays lining the river, but on Saturday morning don't miss the Place des Lices market - one of the largest in France. The central food market south of the river is also worth a visit for the fantastic choice of local produce, especially fish and seafood.