At the confluence of three great rivers lies this handsome city, replete with all the key French niceties and laden with heritage. The shopping and eating's good too.

Why go now?

Why go now?

Only pounds 99 from Gatwick, and just two hours from Paris by TGV, Nantes is the main city on France's western coast. It is enjoying something of a boom, despite concerns over the long-term effects of a recent oil spill. March, when the clear spring light reflects from cream-coloured mansions, and before the streets are full of visitors heading to the Loire valley chateaux, is a good time to explore this refreshingly unpretentious destination.

The icing on the cake

Pay tribute to Nantes' nautical heritage on the Maille Breze, an escort ship anchored at the Quai de la Fosse (tram stop Chantiers Navals). Visit the engine-room or imagine spending months at sea in the relatively cramped living quarters. Guided tours last 60 or 90 minutes and cost Fr30 (£2.75) or Fr45 (£4.14) respectively. It's open from 2pm to 5pm at weekends. Those of a more literary but still adventurous bent may prefer the Jules Verne Museum at 3 rue de l'Hermitage, which displays various first editions and objects connected with the writer's life (closed on Sunday morning). Entry is just Fr10.

Walk in the park

Its origins lie in 17th century herbal gardens and the plant specimens carried back by navy captains, but today, the Jardin des Plantes opposite the railway station is a well-tended and varied park with hothouses (unfortunately open only from 10am to noon at weekends), a large collection of ducks and waterfowl, superb trees and a children's play area. Take something to read and follow a winding trail to secluded benches at the top of a small rise, or bring along some nuts and feed the deer.

Beam down

GB Airways (0345 222111) will fly non-stop from Gatwick from 16 March with an introductory £99 fare. Brit Air (not British Airways) has a lowest fare of £192.50 (0845 0845 111). The TAN shuttle bus from Nantes- Atlantique airport to the railway station takes 20 minutes and costs Fr38 (£3.50). A taxi is around Fr110. The train fare from London Waterloo on Rail Europe Direct (0990 848 848) via Lille or Paris is £110.

Get your bearings

Nantes lies at the confluence of three rivers, the Loire, the Erdre and the Sevre, but the main area of interest lies on the Loire's north bank, around the junction of the cours des 50 Otages and cours Franklin- Roosevelt. The main tourist office is on the left as you enter the FNAC building (a former stock exchange) on place du Commerce (00 33 2 40 20 60 00), though it is available by phone for only a couple of hours each morning), and there's an information booth inside the Chateau des Ducs.

Check in

The appropriately named Jules Verne Hotel is just off the cours Franklin- Roosevelt, at 3 rue du Couedic (00 33 2 40 35 74 50), and doubles start at Fr480 (pounds 44). Rooms at the slightly grander Hotel de France, in a former mansion (rue Crebillon, 00 33 2 40 73 57 91), start at Fr350 (£33) for a single. The tourist office will send a list of hotels on request.

Take a ride

Public transport is cheap and simple: as well as the usual bus service, Nantes has two intersecting tramlines: travel along each of them in turn if you want some idea of the city's scale and diverse neighbourhoods. A 24-hour ticket costs Fr21 (£1.95) - punch it the first time you use a bus or tram and it's valid for unlimited travel until the same time the next day (available from the information shop at 2 allee Brancas, along from the Commerce transfer point).

Lunch on the run

There's no shortage of cafes, sandwich stalls or kebab outlets throughout the central area. However, Nantes' historical ties are with Brittany, so pause for a traditional galette (savoury crepe) and a kir Breton (made with cider instead of white wine) at the inexpensive Creperie St Leonard (8, rue St Leonard).

Shop till you drop

You may enjoy a Saturday-morning wander round the flea market on Place Viarme, where genuine antiques can be found among the more pedestrian goods. Most of the large stores, including Galeries Lafayette, are on rue du Calvaire, but the place for really luxurious window shopping is rue Crebillon and surrounding streets. No serious shopper would miss walking down the grand central staircase in the Passage Pommeraye, a 19th-century shopping arcade, or buying some berlingots, small boiled sweets, from a boulangerie.

Sunday morning - go to church

Much of the Cathedrale de St-Pierre-et-St-Paul was damaged by a 1972 fire, but you wouldn't know it now. Beautifully restored, it now houses a poignant bilingual plague commemorating the soldiers of the British Empire who fell in the First World War and the fabulous Renaissance tomb of Francois II, Duke of Brittany, and his two wives.

Bracing brunch

If you visit only one cafe in Nantes, make it La Cigale brasserie, opposite the opera on place Graslin: Nantois have been dining here in style for more than a century, in opulent but comfortable art nouveau surroundings. Breakfast is served from 7.30am to 11am, while weekend brunch goes on until mid-afternoon and costs Fr75 - £6.95 (oysters and smoked salmon are recommended).

Cultural afternoon

The Musee des Beaux Arts at 10, rue George Clemenceau, is open 10am- 6pm and costs Fr30 (£2.75), except on Sundays, when it is free and opens 11am-6pm. It has a collection of paintings from the 18th century to the present, including several by Paul Delaroche. Abstract paintings by Nantes- born artist James Guitet are on show until 15 March.

Take a hike

Start by admiring the sculpted and wrought-iron facades of the 18th century mansions on allee Turenne, built with profits from the slave trade, then continue along the parked area towards place Neptune and the moats around the Chateau des Ducs, originally constructed on the banks of the Loire (much of the river system has since been filled in). Turn left up the cours St-Pierre and continue to the Pont St Mihiel. Wander through the Japanese gardens on the Ile de Versailles before returning along the riverside towards the Monument des 50 Otages - a memorial to a war-time tragedy - and taking a tram back to the centre.

Demure dinner

There are too many good restaurants to do them justice in a single weekend. Check out the western end of rue Kervegan or, better still, rue Beauregard in the old city for both regional and ethnic cuisine. La Baie des Cochons (14 rue Beauregard, 00 33 2 40 47 59 84) has seriously delicious menus at Fr89 (£8.25) and Fr119 - specialities include king prawns in a tarragon sauce, duck, and roast sucking-pig - and Loire valley Muscadets start at Fr55. Reservations are recommended.

An aperitif

Start the evening in true French style with a relaxing pastis (Fr13 - £1.20) on the terrace of La Bourse, at the corner of place du Commerce and allee Brancas, or find a place to settle inside with a cocktail (alcoholic, Fr40; non-alcoholic, Fr25) and tune in to the local small-talk.