Wendy Mewes, author of this excellent guide to cycling the Nantes-Brest Canal, has this overview of Rennes, the capital of Brittany.
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Rennes, the capital of Brittany, is an inland city in the east of the region. It houses not only the regional administration body, but a fine university bringing a very large student population. There’s a lively and gregarious atmosphere year-round. Many bars and music venues provide stimulating night-life, with the biggest buzz around Place des Lices, rue St Michel and the Place Ste-Anne.
A fire in 1790 destroyed much of the centre, leaving an impressive medieval quarter in the west and a development zone alongside for neo-classical public buildings like the town hall and the opera house. The 17th Parliament building is a must-see: tickets for a tour are available at the tourist office.
The tourist office adjoins the Chapelle St-Yves, an architectural wonder in itself, but now containing a free exhibition on the development of the city with the themes of water, wood, stone and metal. This makes a good starting point before wandering in the old streets to the north. Possibly the most ancient house in Rennes is at No.12, rue de la Psalette.
To the south of the river Vilaine (sadly nothing more than a separation for fast-moving lines of traffic) is a major cultural centre, Les Champs Libres, which contains the superb state-of-the-art Musée de Bretagne (French only) (don’t miss it!) and the Espace des Science (French only). The train and bus stations are also in this area.
Rennes has many churches, including the gloomy Cathedral of St-Pierre, a mostly 19th century Italian-style basilica. More interesting is the Eglise Notre-Dame en St-Melaine, a former abbey church with frescoes and a huge statue on the tower. The Jardin du Thabor, Rennes’ best open space is adjacent to this church.
Cycling around Rennes
Rennes is busy traffic-wise, but does have cycle lanes in the centre, and some of the older parts are pedestrianised. There is a public bike hire scheme (French only). See our bike rental listings for other options in Brittany, or use our bespoke service.
The Forêt de Paimpont, claimed as the Brocéliande of Arthurian tales, is 25km to the west of Rennes. This is a good place for cycling breaks, with 300km of trails broken up into loops of 11, 15, 30 and 43km. A VTT topoguide of routes is available from the tourist office at 5 esplanade de Brocéliande 35380 Paimpont.
Go east if you’re interested in castles – the chateau at Fougères is one of the best in Europe, and Vitré and Combourg also rate highly.
Getting to Rennes
You can cycle down the canal towpath (Green Way V2) to Rennes from St-Malo, which has a daily Brittany Ferries service to Portsmouth. The route is detailed in the Red Dog guide, Brittany’s Green Ways (see also the author G.H. Randall's Freewheeling France article on cycling Brittany's green ways).
Rennes is also accessible by TGV train from St-Malo, Nantes and Paris – see also our information on taking bikes on French trains.
The city is also the focal point for all major road networks across Brittany.
Accommodation and food
There are several campsites within easy reach of Rennes, including the three-star Municipal campground, Camping des Gayeulles on Rue Maurice Audin. Rennes has a range of hotel accommodation, but self-catering residences, some central, are a cheaper option. See the tourist office site for details. The Hotel des Lices is a good, friendly, medium-priced choice.
If you want a first-class meal, try Le Cours des Lices at 18 Places des Lices, a large square which is the site of the best food market in Brittany on Saturday mornings. The regular indoor Halles are a short walk from the Palais de Commerce, south of the river. The Crêperie St Georges (11 rue du Chapitre) is not cheap, but an amusing twist in taste and décor on the traditional Breton crêperie. Auberge du Chat Pitre is the place if you want a medieval menu, costumed staff and musical entertainment (booking essential).
My Footprint guide to Brittany has many more food and accommodation recommendations and reviews.
Wendy Mewes is the author of eight books about Brittany, including the Red Dog guide The Nantes-Brest Canal and the Footprint guide to Brittany. She organises many walks and provides professional guided visits through Brittany Heritage Services. You can follow Wendy on Twitter @brittanyexpert