06 August 2013 by Annaliza Davis
48 Hours in Rennes
A town of opera and classical buildings and a great destination for city-centre shopping. Give yourself 48 hours to discover Rennes and you’re sure to fall in love says Annaliza Davis.
Rennes’s illustrious royal and parliamentary history is evident in the sculpted stone facades and landscaped public gardens. Nowadays, this university city is a fascinating fusion where open-air markets face exclusive boutiques and you can choose lunch from a gourmet restaurant as readily as from a kebab shop.
For a couple or a family, this blend means that you’re certain to find something that appeals in Rennes, and that applies to the shopping and activities as much as the range of food on offer.
The city is around an hour from port of St Malo either by road or rail, and getting around once you get there is made easy thanks to a good low-cost Metro system.
How to get your bearings
There are three key points to Rennes: the southern area around the station; the central riverside Quais (near Place de la République and the Musée des Beaux Arts (A)); and the old quarters around Place Sainte-Anne (B) and Place Hoche to the north. Almost any events or shops you’re hoping to locate can be traced from one of these three and their Metro stops.
Stunning architecture, culture and history
A visit to Rennes will inevitably take you past some of the city’s 286 timbered buildings, iconic coloured dwellings that often lean precariously forward or to one side. If you want to head directly to the old quarters, take the Metro straight to Place Sainte-Anne and walk from there to the Place des Lices (E).
In contrast to these quaint timbers are the stunning stone facades and classical architecture rather reminiscent of Oxford; these range from the soaring arches of the Palais Saint-Georges to the utterly photogenic grandeur of the opera (F) and parliament buildings (G). Many of the city’s finest constructions are thanks to an ambitious rebuilding programme following a 1720 fire that destroyed 950 houses.
City centre greenery
It would be a real shame to come to Rennes and not stroll through the Thabor Gardens (D). Stretching over 24 acres, they include fountains, an aviary, a rose garden and even a bandstand – a great spot for respite from shopping. In the summer months, open-air concerts and events are held here, making the most of the location.
Museums and art galleries
If you need a dose of culture, Rennes offers everything from musical theatre and big-name concerts to galleries and contemporary exhibitions. The Musée des Beaux Arts fine arts museum (A) is where you’ll find works by Rubens, Picasso and the showpiece by Georges de la Tour, ‘The Newborn.’
On Place Charles de Gaulle, not far from the station, you’ll spot an improbable-looking cultural centre: Les Champs Libres (H). Its avant-garde architecture houses a library, the Espace des Sciences and the Musée de Bretagne, with three permanent exhibitions and two that change regularly.
If you or your companions are culture vultures, do invest in the City Pass, which is valid for 48 hours and gives you access to the main cultural sites of Rennes (Musée de Bretagne, Espace des Sciences, Musée des Beaux Arts, Ecomusée). It also provides discounts on bus and Metro travel, on shows and activities and includes a guided visit of the town or the parliament building. Best of all, it’s only €13* – ask at the tourist office or see details online.
When it comes to shopping, you’ll be spoilt for choice and for pedestrian zones. If you have a weakness for quirky one-off shops that incite you to browse for unusual presents, you’ll find plenty of these dotted along the main streets from the Quais to the old quarter.
For maximum retail exposure and recognisable chains, there are also several shopping centres, from the 3 Soleils and Colombia (think H&M) to the rather regal ‘Galeries Lafayette’ (C) (think John Lewis or House of Fraser). These indoor centres mean that in the event of a passing shower you won’t miss out on your shopping fix.
A great surprise when exploring Rennes is that you can stroll past upmarket designer stores then find a discount shop or open-air market: there’s a change of pace that’s always delightful. On the rue Hoche, for example, you’ll find Art Discount – a modest-fronted art shop with an Aladdin’s cave of oils, pastels, watercolours and clays, canvas boards and curious sculpting tools – yet you’ll also find exclusive interior décor shops, bathroom boutiques and household ceramics.
Mixtures of markets
Always a source of wonder and delight for foreign visitors, French markets are a must for any holidaymaker – and Rennes does not disappoint. If you’re here over a weekend, don’t miss the Saturday morning market in Place des Lices (E), which is one of France’s largest and also a fine place to people-watch and pass the time. The indoor market halls known as Les Halles in rue Jules Simon are always packed with edible goodies and fresh flowers, as are the weekly markets. Look out for local specialities such as the frigousse stew and fresh breads or the local poule concou, a rare chicken, bred locally.
Useful information about Rennes
- Thursdays are when the students tend to hit the town, so the city centre is more than usually bustling on a Thursday night.
- In June, look out for the Grande Braderie when shops and stallholders offer great bargains and around 400,000 people descend on the town to grab a bargain!
- In early December, the international musical festival Les Transmusicales attracts over 60,000 visitors, all coming to enjoy prestigious established acts and bright newcomers.
Rennes tourist office
Ready to help with general information or specific suggestions, the tourist office is open every day including Sundays (unusual in France) and staff also speak English. www.tourisme-rennes.com
+33 (0)2 99 67 11 11
Great places to eat and drink in Rennes
French cuisine: Le Coup de Pinceau
29 Boulevard Beaumont, +33 (0)2 99 30 23 07
Left out of the station, two minutes. Young chef offering traditional dishes with a twist. Three-course lunch with wine €15.90*.
Lively bistrot: Le Café Noir
55 Avenue Janvier +33 (0)2 99 30 54 40
Straight ahead out of the station, on the right. All-day and late opening, even Sunday evenings. Varied menu including set 3-course for €17*.
Coffee stop: Mimo’s Garden
12 Rue Champ Jacquet, +33 (0)9 51 52 06 56
In the old quarter, contemporary yet friendly. Great for people-watching and good prices.
Quirky organic: Le Saint-Germain Des Champs
Rue du Vau Saint-Germain, +33 (0)2 99 79 25 52
Vegetarian fare homemade by Dominique. Central location, not cheap but good quality.
Bustling brasserie: Brasserie La Dalle
25 Place du Colombier, +33 (0)2 99 31 47 97
Well-placed between two shopping centres. Main meals €8*, coffees with mini desserts.
Rennes’ famous market days
Rennes is rightly famous for its markets, as there’s one almost every day somewhere in the city. Bear in mind that in France, markets are usually only mornings until around 12.30pm.
In addition to those listed below, remember the food market every day in the Halles Centrales (Place Honoré Commeurec) from 7am to 7pm and Sundays 9.30am to 12.30pm.
- Le Marché des Lices, food, flowers, gifts, with more than 300 stalls
- Place Sainte-Anne, craft market March-June and September-November
- Place Hoche, craft market in December
- Place Sainte-Anne, book market
- Place Saint-Germain, food stalls
- Place Sainte-Anne, book market
- Rue de la Baudrairie, afternoon market (12-6pm)
- Halles Centrales, antiques and bric-a-brac (8am-2pm)
- Place Sainte-Anne, food market (3-8pm)
- Place Albert Bayet, food market
- Place du Ronceray, food market (3-7pm)
The final word
This is a modern city with a mixed heritage, now home to thousands of undergraduates as well as politicians, businesspeople and families. It offers culture, festivals, museums and some of the best markets in France as well as shopping centres within the city itself. Whether you’re here for designer items or bargain shopping, you’ll find what you need in Rennes.
Picturesque… practical… perfect.