19 things to do in Rennes France
Rennes in France was a must-visit for me as I wanted to wander the ancient streets with all those glorious coloured half-timbered houses. Known as a city of heritage and art its historic centre has preserved its classical and medieval heritage with over 90 protected buildings.
A brief history of Rennes
The name Rennes comes from a Celtic tribe of Gauls that lived here called the Redones and the name came from what is believed to be their ability with horses. Due to its strategic position at the juncture of the Ille and Vilaine rivers, it eventually became integrated into the Roman territory. The area became known as the Amorican peninsula which included Brittany and Normandy.
As an independent state in the middle ages, Rennes was one of three cities that were considered the territory’s capital, Nantes and Vannes were the others. The Cathedral of Rennes became the coronation site for the Dukes of Brittany.
During the Breton War of 1357, the cousin of the English King, the Duke of Lancaster laid siege to Rennes but the city held out for nearly a year and the English gave up. The French army of Charles VIII also attached Rennes in 1491 and the defenders of Rennes were determined to hold their city.
The Duchess of Brittany however negotiated and as a result, her peace treaty meant that she would marry Charles VIII and bring Brittany into the French Kingdom.
In 2021 archaeologists discovered the mass graves of those who had died during the siege buried in a cemetery outside the Jacobin Convent in Rennes.
The city was almost completely destroyed by fire in 1720 and was rebuilt with wide streets and the main road running along the Vilaine River. The few buildings that survived the fire included the Palais de Justice which was where the Parliament sat in Brittany until 1655.
- 19 things to do in Rennes France
- A brief history of Rennes
- How to get to Rennes
- Is Rennes France worth a visit?
- 19 Must see places to visit in Rennes
- Walk through Rennes’ most beautiful squares
- Parks in Rennes
- Music and Art in Rennes
- Food in Rennes
- Where to stay in Rennes
- Tours of Rennes France
How to get to Rennes
On the high-speed TGV train line, it only takes around 2 hours to get to Rennes from Paris. If you are driving expect to spend around 4 + hours on the road to Rennes.
Is Rennes France worth a visit?
Absolutely Rennes is an amazing place to visit in France. It has over 250 stunning half-timbered buildings but there is more to Rennes than these stunning buildings. Your first stop should be the Tourist Information Centre.
19 Must see places to visit in Rennes
Rennes tourist information centre and Saint-Yves chapel
The Tourism Office of Rennes is hosted in the Saint-Yves Chapel, an elegant Gothic style Historical Monument that was built at the end of the 15th century.
Originally attached to a hospital managed by the Augustinians of the Mercy of Dieppe the Chapel is now home to both the tourist office and an exhibition tracing the history of Rennes and its architecture. You can book tickets and tours either at the office or online before you visit Rennes.
The Odorico Mosaics
This is one of the fascinating tours you can book through the Tourist Office. At the end of the 19th-century Italian mosaicists came to Rennes and were designing mosaics around the city. The mosaics can be found on shop floors, entrances and facades all around Rennes.
The tour will take you to see the Opera’s façade, the St. George’s swimming pool and other fine examples of the Odorico family art in Rennes. The tours start at €7.50.
Walk through Rennes’ most beautiful squares
Rennes historic centre is a small walkable area that can easily be explored on foot.
Place des Lices
A must-do is a visit to the Place des Lices where knights used to joust and is now the location of one of France’s largest markets. Food shopping in the incredible Marché des Lices at the Saturday food Market is a visit well worth making. The place is chock full of vendors of every type. This is the largest market in France outside of Paris.
Within the Marché des Lices, you will find fruit and vegetables, but also some spécialités bretonnes like a mind-blowing variety of seafood, oysters locally farmed in Cancale and typical Breton pastry Kouign Amann. There is a cheese Hall, garlic that you have never seen before. Areas of the market are dedicated to various items such as flowers and plants, seafood, fruit and vegetables, cheese and dairy products and the market seems to go on for miles.
Place Ste. Anne is the very heart of the old town of Rennes and a favourite spot for photographers and Instagram influencers the medieval centre around the Place Ste-Anne holds around 286 incredible coloured half-timbered buildings. In 1720 there was a fire that burnt down most of the city but this area of cobbled streets and crooked houses was re-built.
Place Sainte-Anne is probably going to be your first stop in Rennes and it’s easy to get to on the underground or by bus from any part of the city. The station exit comes up in the centre of Place Sainte-Anne and you will immediately spot the cafes and bars surrounding the square where you can hang out and people watch for hours.
Couvent des Jacobins
The Jacobin Convent reopened its doors in this square in 2018. The former 14th-century convent is now one of France’s most beautiful conference centres. It includes a church, a cloister and convent buildings. In 2018, the building became the Rennes Métropole convention centre. Made up of remarkable architectural elements, major archaeological discoveries were made there before the restoration work and guided tours are offered through the Tourist Office.
Notre-Dame de Bonne-Nouvelle
The Church that sits on Place Sainte-Anne was built between 1884 and 1904 to replace the old destroyed church. Also known as the Saint-Aubin Church the building has never been completed and was under scaffolding and renovation when we visited so we couldn’t see inside.
Built in the Gothic style of the 13th century, the basilica was inspired by the cathedrals of Chartres, Clermont and Amiens. The copying of those buildings is noticeable in the design of the rose windows of the transepts are a direct copy of the rose window on the west façade of Chartres, and the four lancet windows are copied from the Cathedral at Amiens.
Rue de La Soif (Road of Thirst)
Off the Place Sainte-Anne, you will see the rue Saint-Michel which is nicknamed the Road of Thirst because there are dozens of bars all along the street which are frequented by the many students who make their home in Rennes.
On the Rue Saint-Michel, you will note there is a bar every 7 metres which is a French record. A small cobbled street that has existed since the Middle ages it is home to 13 bars and the place to hang out in the evening in Rennes.
Place de la Mairie
The central square in Rennes contains the Town Hall on one side and the Opera House on the others. There is almost perfect symmetry between the two buildings but they were built a century apart.
Rennes City Hall
The Baroque style Rennes City Hall was built after the 1720 Great Fire of Rennes and it consists of two building joined by a clock tower. One of the buildings houses a Pantheon devoted to people killed in the First World War. Right under the clock is an empty niche, where once was a statue of Louis XV that was later destroyed. This building was constructed in the elegant style, of Louis XV. It is accompanied by an 18th-century watchtower nearby. Inside lies an impressive staircase, waterfall and tapestries from the Royal Factory Fabric of France and the School of Bruges.
Opéra de Rennes
The city’s opera hall stands on Place de la Mairie, sits facing City Hall. Dating from 1836 the Opera House is a Historic Monument with an entrance hall painted by Jean-Julian Lemordant depicting a Breton dance folk dance with about twenty dancers in Breton costume.
While the house only seats around 640 in the audience it has close to a 100% attendance record and by reaching out to new attendees it has developed a program of workshops and the attendance of rehearsals by the audiences.
The medieval city gate is called the Mordelles Gate – Portes mordelaises was built in the mid 15th century and was once the main entrance to the town of Rennes. The way from the gate into the city was also called the “Royal Doorway” because the Dukes of Brittany walked through the gate after swearing to defend Brittany’s freedom and before they entered the Cathedral Saint-Pierre de Rennes.
The Duchesne Tower dates from the 15th century and is situated within the fortified wall of Rennes, reconstructed between 1447 and 1459 and extending to the grand gate, the Porte Mordelaise, which was built in the same era. Next to the former artillery centre, this fascinating structure once played a significant role in the protection of the city. The tower takes its name from Jehan du Chesne, the principal gatekeeper of Rennes and the tower’s first inhabitant.
Cathedral Saint-Pierre de Rennes
The Cathedral Saint-Pierre de Rennes is a historical monument and it was within the old Gothic church that once stood here that in 1483 Henry Tudor promised to marry Elizabeth of York which sealed the end of the War of Roses in Britain.
The parliament building was constructed and designed by the architect of the Palace of Luxembourg in Paris, in 1655. Parliament was dissolved during the French revolution and these days this phenomenal building now houses Rennes’ court of Appeal. You can take a tour of this incredible building which looks rather plain from the outside but is absolutely incredible on the inside.
L’Eglise Notre Dame en Saint-Melaine
Situated on the edge of the lovely Parc du Thabor, with a history of construction that runs from the 6th century to the mid-19th century, Notre-Dame-en-Saint-Melaine is an especially significant cultural site within Rennes. The building is a mix of Roman, Gothic and neoclassical styles. The interior is no less fascinating, containing a particularly beautiful 15th-century fresco depicting the baptism of Christ.
Parks in Rennes
Parc du Thabor
Parc du Thabor is a central park that covers over ten hectares. It was designed in the 19th century on the site of the Monks of the Abbey of Sainte-Melaines’ small garden. It contains several gardens including a French style, English style, a Rose Garden with thousands of varieties, greenhouses, a botanic garden and a bandstand.
The Parc du Thabor is one of the many locations for the Tombées de la Nuit, an annual outdoor summer festival celebrating arts and culture across the city.
Parc des Gayeulle
Set in a hundred hectares of fields in northeast Rennes, Gayeulles is currently the city’s largest park. Its many sport and leisure activities are cleverly incorporated into the natural landscape of wooded areas, lakes and clearings. The park originally opened in 1967 and was extended in 1978 with the addition of a series of parcels of land, making it possible to access Rennes’ forest directly without having to take the road.
Music and Art in Rennes
Rennes is famous for being one of France’s most festive cities and every month in Rennes there is some kind of festival. Due to its large student population, Rennes has music and art events that range from electronic music to Jazz to contemporary art and design.
Les Champs Libres
Located in the heart of Rennes, Les Champs Libres was built in 2008 in a former railway station. this modern glass building houses the cultural centre of Rennes, including Rennes’s central library, the Musée de Bretagne and a science centre, including a planetarium.
Musée de Bretagne
Within the Champs Libres, this is a regional museum that brings Brittany’s thousands of years of human history to life. There are more than 300,000 items in the museum’s collection including over 35,000 coins. Exhibits include medieval manuscripts, an Iron Age statue, Nazi bicycles and much more.
Musée des Beaux-Arts
The Rennes Museum of Fine Arts was created out of the French Revolution as a place to hold the works seized from 1794 from various civil and religious buildings in Rennes.
Most of its exhibits come from the home of Christophe-Paul de Robien who was President of the Parliament of Brittany.
This collection including paintings from Botticelli, Durer, Rembrandt and Leonardo da Vinci along with sculptures, Egyptian, Greek and Celtic artefacts.
Food in Rennes
Rennes is where you come if you are a foodie. With its international reputation for the food scene, some must-eats include the Breton Galette a savoury buckwheat crepe, Crêpes which are the sweet version of the galette, tartiflette which is sort of scalloped potatoes on steroids and of course it must all be washed down with the famous Breton Cidre.
Many of the restaurants around Place Ste-Anne square specialize in Breton dishes at the Creperie Sainte Anne I was in heaven with a Galette stuffed with tartiflette – heaven on a plate. Keep your eyes open if tons of the locals are gathering and eating there that’s where you should head.
As a Canadian, I must point out that you can get Quebec Poutine in the heart of Rennes and the locals tell me it is “awesome”.
La Reserv is a traditional French bistro serving classic French cuisine and although the interior is lovely take a table on the outside terrace for some people watching.
If you are headed to the Marche then don’t forget to hit up a food truck and experience the traditional La galette-saucisse a simple pork sausage wrapped in a cold buckwheat crepe. Often served with a variety of sauces to choose from and some frites this handheld food is the ubiquitous street food in Brittany. You can also snack on one at any of the myriad cafes in the area washed down with a cidre.
Where to stay in Rennes
Le Magic Hall
Le Magic Hall is located in the Centre Ville district in Rennes, 600 m from Rennes University Hospital and a 1-minute walk from the Palais des Congrès or Saint Pierre Cathedral. There is also a terrace on-site and a public garden nearby. Guests have the possibility to take drum lessons at the hotel at an extra cost.
Every room is uniquely decorated in a cinema, dance, theatre or music theme. They are fitted with a flat-screen TV and free WiFi access is available throughout the property.
A buffet breakfast with organic fresh and products is available every day. Homemade meals are also available on site.
Fancy a stay in a gorgeous castle? The Chateau d’Apigné is set in a beautiful 25-hectare park, 8 km from Rennes. It features spacious and luxury rooms in a classic 19-century décor and large beds.
The rooms are situated in the castle or in the Pavilion Elizabeth appendix. All rooms are soundproofed and have free access to Wi-Fi, sports channels. Each room has a private bathroom either with bathtub or walk-in shower.
Les Tourelles restaurant serves traditional cuisine in a gourmet style along with a daily breakfast.
La Demeure de Marnie
La Demeure de Marnie is a bed and breakfast set in a 16th-century building in the centre of Rennes. It offers cosy and elegantly decorated rooms, some with a private balcony. The guest rooms at La Demeure de Marnie feature parquet floors and are fitted with chandeliers. Each comes with free Wi-Fi access and a private bathroom.
Breakfast is provided every morning and is served in the guest room. Guests can relax in the lounge with fireplace, on the outdoor terrace and in the garden.
Hotel Anne de Bretagne
Hôtel Anne de Bretagne Situated in Rennes City Centre, Hôtel Anne De Bretagne offers air-conditioned accommodation near the old city and its cafés and restaurants. It offers free WiFi in the entire hotel.
The buffet breakfast is served daily. A bar is available for guest to relax in after a day of sight-seeing.
Breizh Cocon offers self-catering accommodation located in the centre of Rennes. Free WiFi access is available. The property is 300 m from République Metro Station. Each unit has an oven, microwave, a coffee machine, as well as a toaster and kettle. Some units include a dining area and/or a terrace. Guests can also relax in the garden.
Tours of Rennes France
There you have it my list of 19 things to do in Rennes France, I can’t wait to get back there and wander those beautiful squares and parks again.
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