A good stretch of water does wonders for the appeal of most places, and Nantes is no exception: situated on the River Loire in the Loire-Atlantique region, it owes its appearance to the 18th-century prosperity created by its maritime trade, and today the river separates the old town on the north bank from the more industrial Ile de Nantes and south bank. Nantes was the limit of navigation for seagoing ships, so the quays were once awash with exotic cargoes from the Far East and West Indies.
Silting of the river ended the city's days as a working port, and two of the channels where ships once moored have been filled in to make way for Nantes' sleek tram system. Today, most visitors arrive from the east aboard one of 20 TGVs a day from Paris (Rail Europe, 08705 848 848; www.raileurope.co.uk) or by plane from Gatwick on British Airways (0870 850 9850; www.ba.com) or Air France (0870 142 4343; www.airfrance.com/uk). The three-line tram system and the buses make it easy to get around, especially with a Nantes City Card, which gives unlimited use of public transport (including the airport shuttle), free admission to most of the city's tourist sites and guided tours of the city on foot or by boat (available from hotels and tourist offices, the 24-hour card costs €14/£10, 48-hour for €24/£17 and 72-hour for €30/£21; it is free for under 12s).
In the centre of Nantes is the Ile Feydeau - its name may suggest it's an island but actually it is no more - full of elegant merchants' and ship owners' town houses which are noted for their wrought-iron balconies. On its Cours Olivier de Clisson is a tourist office (the other is at Place Saint-Pierre; both 00 33 2 40 20 60 00; www.nantes-tourisme.com). Most the city's sights are within walking distance of Ile Feydeau or a few tram stops along the river.
Nantes has over 120 hotels, with plenty in the old town. One of the most central at 24 Rue Crébillon, just off Place Graslin, is Hôtel de France (00 33 1 55 33 16 55; www.hotels-exclusive.com/hotels/france), which occupies an 18th-century mansion, doubles from €82-€99/£59-£71). Also near Place Graslin at 2 Rue Boileau is the recently refurbished Hôtel Pommeraye (00 33 2 40 48 78 79; www.hotel-pommeraye.com, doubles from €59-€92/£42-£66). In contrast, Hôtel La Pérouse (3 Allée Duquesne, cours des 50 Otages, 00 33 2 40 89 75 00; www.hotel-laperouse.fr, doubles from €99-€137/£71-£98) has letterbox windows and designer furniture. Beside the castle and cathedral at 6 Rue Henri IV is L'Hôtel (00 33 2 40 29 30 31; www.nanteshotel.com, doubles from €72-€82/ £51-£59). All prices include breakfast.
Nantes frequently tops French "quality of life" surveys, and even a weekend is enough to understand why France's sixth largest city should receive the compliment. It has the vibrant cultural life one expects of a university town, the old quarter and waterfront are rich in vernacular buildings, and the quality of design behind all aspects of the tram network is a source of real civic pride.
It's easy to cycle (bike hire from Location de Velos, 18 Rue Scribe; 00 33 2 51 84 94 51; open daily 8am-8pm, €8/£6 per day) by traffic-free paths along one of the river banks of the Loire and Erdre - described by King Francis I as "the most beautiful river in France".
Those with a penchant for Muscadet can take a tour of the vineyards that grow to the south of the city and learn in cool cellars about the nuances of the appellation which is best known for Sèvre et Maine Sur Lie. Chocoholics still benefit from Nantes' historic trade with the West Indies by the presence of long-established makers such as Chocolatier Gautier-Debotte at 9 Rue de la Fosse. Try the Muscadet Nantais, a chocolate filled with a white grape marinated in local wine.
Nantes was the birthplace of the artist James Tissot and the novelist Jules Verne - there's a walking trail linking places associated with him, and this year marks the centenary of his death.
Good times to visit are 10, 13 and 16 April, when Nantes holds its carnival with a traditional float parade through the streets, and throughout May and June for the Spring Arts festival which focuses on baroque music, songs, plays and dance from the 16th and 17th centuries.
There are plenty of opportunities to exercise the credit card in the principal shopping street of Rue Crebillon from which you can enter the arcaded Passage Pommeraye of 1843, lined with shops and sculptures representing Nantes' trades. The Passage is so elegant and unusual in having a series of dramatic staircases that it featured in the 1961 film of Lola with Anouk Aimée playing the heroine. The Marché de Talensac on Place de Talensac is the town's largest market (Tues-Sun), but the best place for bric-a-brac is Rue Jean Jaures.
The most famous biscuit in France, the Petit Beurre, is made in Nantes under the LU brand which was set up in 1850 and takes its name from the surnames of husband and wife founders Jean-Romain Lefèvre and Isabelle Utile. You'll find shops and stalls selling its highly collectable biscuits boxes and Art Nouveau posters created for the company.
The regional cuisine emphasises simplicity and relies on flavours created from local food and wine. Duck or frogs' legs with parsley and garlic may be cooked in Muscadet; pasta in squid ink. Few menus lack fresh sea food - pike, salmon, shad and elver and from the Atlantic oysters, whelks, scampi, scallops, crabs and shrimps. Sardines were first tinned on the estuary.
No tour of Nantes should omit the castle, even though it is being transformed into the "grand historical museum" of Nantes (reopening in 2006) on 4 Place Marc-Elder (00 33 2 40 41 56 56; tram stop Duchesse Anne). Dating from the 15th century, the deeply moated castle retains the appearance of a fortress and it has long been a residential palace. It was here that the liberal Edict of Nantes was signed by Henry IV in 1598 - its better known revocation in 1685 led to a huge influx of Huguenots to Britain.
Just north of the castle is the cathedral, which was begun in 1434 but not completed until 1891. Don't miss the remarkable marble 1507 tomb of the last Duke of Brittany - described as one of the finest Renaissance monuments in France - guarded by the four figures of Justice, Strength, Moderation and Prudence.
To the east of the cathedral and behind the Chapelle de l'Oratoire is the Musée des Beaux-Arts at 10 Rue Georges Clemenceau (00 33 2 51 17 45 00). Open 10am-6pm daily except Tuesday, its permanent collection includes paintings by Ingres, Courbet, Kandinsky and Picasso.
Further east on Boulevard Stalingrad and directly opposite the station is the botanical garden, noted for its camellias, cacti and the national collection of magnolias thanks to Nantes' trading links. It's open daily from 8.30am to 5.30pm (later in summer). Exotic plants were the hallmark of the gardens of the ships' captains who retired to the village of Trentemoult, a warren of narrow lanes on the south bank of the Loire. Palms thrive in the mild climate of the fashionable village, now home to artists as well as restaurants selling such curiosities as black spaghetti made with squid ink, tripe with Muscadet and beef with anchovies.
The LU biscuit factory used to be on the opposite side of the railway from the castle, but the building on Quai Ferdinand Favre has been converted into a lively cultural and entertainment centre called Le Lieu Unique (00 33 2 40 12 14 34; www.lelieuunique.com), distinguished by its extraordinary tower.
THE RIVERSIDE L'ATLANTIDE (16 Quai Ernest Renaud; 00 33 2 40 73 23 23) A landmark restaurant where chef Jean-Yves Gueho has won awards for such dishes as roast quail and braised celery ravioli. Menus from €25-€60 (£18-£43).
LA CIGALE (Place Graslin; 00 33 2 51 84 94 94; www.lacigale.com) On Nantes' finest square, this is the city's most famous brasserie. A riot of colourful Art Nouveau tiling, it is renowned for its oysters and seafood. Menus from €11-€24 (£8-£17).
LE PONT-LEVIS (1 Rue du Chateau; 00 33 2 40 35 10 20). Opposite the gatehouse of the castle, with an interesting menu that includes bass in a cream of sea urchin sauce. Menus from €13.38 (£9.27).
L'ILE VERTE (3 Rue Siméon Foucault; 00 33 2 40 48 01 26) offers high-quality vegetarian and organic cuisine. Menus from €9-€13 (£6-£9).
LES BATEAUX NANTAIS (departs from Quai de la Motte Rouge; 00 33 2 40 14 51 14) For a moving setting take a boat along the River Erdre. Les Bateaux Nantais offers dinner cruises from €39 (£28).
For more information and bookings, contact the Nantes tourist office on 00 33 2 40 20 60 00; www.nantes-tourisme.com
Merrily down the Loire
Saint-Etienne is a place of transition. It rests on a series of hills between the fruitful valley of the Rhône and the more barren lands of the Massif Central. And it is also in the process of change from a declining mining town to a 21st-century city. Aiding this process is a series of excellent museums. You can find out about the life of a miner at the Musée de la Mine; the Musee d'Art et d'Industrie celebrates manufacture of bicycles, ribbons and guns; and the Musee d'Art Moderne has exactly what it suggests.
Amid the sprawl that developed in the 19th century, St-Etienne has a disproportionate number of squares and some excellent places to eat the solid local fare. Try Aux Deux Cageots (00 33 4 77 32 89 85) on Place Grenette or Le Bistrot de Paris (00 33 4 77 32 21 50) on Place Jean Jaurès.
When renaissance poets described "la douceur angevine" they were referring to Anger's warm climate, but it goes further than that: here douceur is part of the lifestyle. This pretty, welcoming town is full of places where you can eat and drink well.
In Angers eels are a local delicacy and one place to taste them is the Les Templiers (00 33 2 41 88 33 11), with its medieval décor. Along the river, you'll find fish restaurants serving dishes such as salmon tournedos with light, fruity red wines from the region.
Over the river in Doutre or near the town hall, there are many places to try other specialities such as rillauds (potted pork), duck and calf's head.
Next to the impressive black and white chateau with its ancient tapestries is the Maison du Vin de l'Anjou (5 Bis Place Kennedy) where you can try regional wines. Look out for the Coteaux du Layon Chaume, a honey-flavoured white wine to accompany foie gras or dessert. If you prefer Cointreau, the distillery is just outside town (00 33 2 41 31 50 50).
In the evening, enjoy oysters or eels with wine at a table on the Place du Ralliement.
Reims is a good place for traditional rustic food. But what the region is really famous for is Champagne, invented here, and you can visit some of the best known Champagne houses, from Mumm to Piper-Heidsieck.
The town even has its own sweet and crunchy "biscuit rose de Reims", designed for dunking in Champagne. Although the town's historic centre was destroyed in two World Wars, many buildings were expertly restored. Most restaurants and bars can be found on the Place Drouet-d'Erlon between the station and the great cathedral. You may be tempted by andouillettes (pig's intestines sausages) particularly famous in nearby Troyes. Perhaps a more palatable delicacy is cooked ham seasoned with champagne, mustard and Reims vinegar.
You'll also notice the region's rich, creamy Chaource cheese in many dishes.
Amy Cook and Simon Calder
For more information and bookings, contact St-Etienne tourism on, 00 33 892 700 542; www.tourisme-st-etienne.com, Reims tourism on 00 33 3 26 77 45 00; www.reims-tourisme.com, or Angers on, 00 33 2 41 23 50 00; www.angers-tourisme.com