This guide to Saint-Nazaire will, I hope, inspire you to visit. I went there not knowing what to expect and very rapidly fell in love with this great Atlantic coast city that is re-inventing itself so successfully.
Saint-Nazaire has two sides. If you’re interested in shipbuilding (Saint-Nazaire has one of the world’s biggest shipbuilding yards), World War II history, submarines, ocean liners, wind farms and Airbus it will certainly be on your list.
But Saint-Nazaire has another delightful side: with old buildings, glorious beaches, lovely walks both long and short, picturesque fishing huts, good restaurants and a little naval shopping.
Saint-Nazaire’s Mixed History
Originally just a simple fishing village, Saint-Nazaire became a major port with the coming of the railways in the 19th century. Vast new docks were built and Saint-Nazaire replaced Nantes as the main harbour on the Loire estuary emptying into the Atlantic Ocean. Perhaps inevitably it became known as the Liverpool of the West, or if you’re on the other side of the Atlantic, Little Breton California.
By the end of the 19th century, Saint-Nazaire was the main port building luxury ocean-going liners.
At the start of World War II the port was used to evacuate British troops. A major disaster occurred when the Clyde-built cruise liner SS Lancastria, requisitioned to carry British troops back from France, was sunk by German Junkers bombers in just 15 minutes. Winston Churchill banned all news coverage of the worst disaster in British maritime history (around 4,000 troops were killed) and the incident remained unknown.
In June 1940 France surrendered. The Germans occupied Saint-Nazaire and built the heavily fortified, impregnable U-boat submarine base so vital for destroying the Atlantic supply ships. Saint-Nazaire became a strategic target and in January 1943 the Allies bombed the town, burning it to the ground – though the submarine pens remained.
After the liberation of most of France in 1944, German troops who were holed up in the submarine base refused to surrender but with no supply line they were powerless. General Eisenhower ignored the German bases along the west coast and Saint-Nazaire stayed under German control until after the end of the war in Europe on May 8, 1945.
Saint-Nazaire was rebuilt in the late 1940s so there’s a lot of fairly mundane housing, flats, offices and shops. But is is changing rapidly and the seaside is being developed sympathetically.
Top Attractions in Saint-Nazaire
Start at the Submarine Base
The German submarine base was too strong to demolish without huge cost. Today it’s a major tourist attraction, housing the Escal’Atlantic Museum, a café, a bar and Saint-Nazaire Tourist Office. Get your tickets here for tours of the major industrial sites. It’s also the starting point for the coaches that take you to the shipbuilding yard and to Airbus.
Back to the other Saint-Nazaire Attractions
Make for one of the 20 beaches in and around Saint-Nazaire. There’s plenty of choice. Try the long sandy central beach for watersports, or find yourself a bit of peace and quiet on a cove around Port Charlotte to the west at La Courance or Trébézy.
Walk Beside the Sea
The long promenade beside the sea starts in the east at the Place du Commando by the entrance to the port. Large placards along the walk show the story of Saint-Nazaire; people stroll, cycle or run while others sit on the benches looking out to sea.
Take time for a detour through a small area known as La Havane. Many of the shipbuilders lived in the old houses that line the streets of Santander, La Havane and Veracruz, streets named after the destinations of their cruise liners.
Look out for ‘Sammy’, built in 1927. The monument commemorates the 198,000 US soldiers stationed in Saint-Nazaire from 1917 to 1919.
You’ll pass small fishing huts, reached by wobbling little passageways from the shore. Privately owned, the owners use them to fish, lowering the large nets hopefully but usually unsuccessfully into the water. Otherwise they are there just to sit and watch the ever changing seascape.
You can hire them; we spent an hour or so in one – a glorious, restful experience.
Hire a Fishing Hut
Look out for Tintin
You’re not the first illustrious visitor to Saint-Nazaire. 6 boards and an orientation table mark the places in the comic book Les 7 Boules de Cristal visited by Tintin, Captain Archibald Haddock and Milou. “Et puis, pensez donc: Saint-Nazaire, le port, les quais, l’océan, le vent du large, les embruns qui vous fouettent le visage…” “And then, just think: Saint-Nazaire, the port, the quays, the ocean, the offshore wind, the spray that whips your face…“
Pick up the little leaflet at the Tourist Office and set off on your Tintin journey.
Housed in a small building in the old port area, the Éccomusée museum tells the story of Saint-Nazaire’s history and industrial heritage, of the port area and the great ocean liners that were built in the city.
It’s a small museum but with enough models, maps, artefacts and photographs to take you through thousands of years of history in a delightful, digestible way.
There are plans for a new museum, but for the moment, take time for a visit and take the family.
Here’s a very good guide to L’écomusée from mechtraveller.com.
Follow the Daring Operation Chariot Raid
Saint-Nazaire was a huge problem for the Allied troops in World War II. The port and the great submarine pen housed the battleships and U boats used by the Germans to destroy the Atlantic convoys that took vital supplies from America to Britain.
Two great battleships occupied Saint-Nazaire: Bismarck and Tirpitz. Bismark was sunk in May 1941 after a fight in which the British ship HMS Hood was also sunk. Tirpitz remained.
Mountbatten came up with an audacious and extremely dangerous plan. Bombing was not possible as Saint-Nazaire was too heavily defended. So the massive Joubert dock, where Tirpitz was stationed, became the target. Or rather the seaward lock gate was the target. The idea of what became known as Operation Chariot? To destroy the gate with a ship packed with explosives rammed into the gate. And, if possible, to wreak more havoc on other sea locks into the basin where the submarine base was located.
The ‘Greatest Raid of All’ was launched by an old destroyer, HMS Campbeltown, loaded with explosives and accompanied by patrol boats carrying commandos whose job it was to go ashore a little further out and attack locks and the German defences.
It was an extraordinary attack, one of those heroic, seemingly hopeless attempts that largely succeeded.
It’s a ripping good yarn, but if you want the full details, go to the excellent Mechtraveller.com story.
The whole point of this rather long introduction is to encourage you to follow the easy Operation Chariot trail. Pick up the leaflet from the Tourist Office to walk around the 7 panels that tell you the story at various times of the raid.
Walk the Coastal Path
The famous coastal path, GR34, starts in Saint-Nazaire and runs north along the Brittany coast for over 2,000 kms/1,240 miles. It finishes at Mont-Saint-Michel. It’s not new; the original trail was created by customs officers in 1664 to intercept smugglers. It takes about 3 hours to walk the Customs Officers’, or Smugglers’ Path as it’s known, from Place du Commando to Plage de Sainte-Marguerite in Pornichet (14 kms/8.6 miles). It’s well worth the effort. Or just go for a few kilometres; the views are stunning.
Where to Stay in Saint-Nazaire
We stayed at the Originals City Hôtel de l’Europe. The 3-star hotel had good rooms, breakfast and friendly staff. There’s a useful (paying) car park opposite.
Our second night was at a charming chambre d’hôte (bed and breakfast). La Tête sur l’oreiller is in the town centre and run by the helpful and friendly owner, Agnès. There are 5 large rooms including a family room, many looking out onto the peaceful back yard where there’s limited parking. No website, so get in touch directly: email@example.com.
Or try Le Berry, a 3-star hotel near the station. It has smart modern bedrooms and bathrooms, a brasserie and bar. Rooms from €70 in the low season and from €100 high season.
There’s a good selection of budget and chain hotels in Saint-Nazaire.
Where to Eat in Saint-Nazaire
There are plenty of good restaurants in Saint-Nazaire. We ate at La Plage, one of the new restaurants in the Place du Commando. Top seafood dishes, great staff and a wonderful view of the sea.
Also in the Place du Commando, La Fabrik is a good choice for lunch (it closes at 7pm). Go here for waffles, vegetarian dishes, skewers of meat and vegetables, salads and steak and chips as well as ice creams. Tel: +33 2 51 16 96 74.
One of the most enjoyable casual meals was at Le Papillon, a bar/restaurant on the beach with extra tables on the sand. They do excellent plâteaus of charcuterie and cheese plus moules in large pans. It’s at Plage de Villès, about a 20-minute walk from the Place du Commando. Run by Igor and Melissa, who worked for 10 years in London in restaurants and bars, it’s only open in the summer.
We also had lunch at Le Maharaja, an Indian restaurant a short walk from the submarine base. First-rate tandoori dishes and classic Indian curries with a terrace for summer dining.
For a quick meal, or takeaway, try Basilic&Co. It’s a chain of good pizzerias, centrally located, friendly and good value.
Shopping in Saint-Nazaire
Saint-Nazaire is not known for its shopping. But walking to the submarine base from our bed and breakfast, I came across Comptoir de la Mer. And this sprawling shop was irresistible. Good clothing if you’re sailing, many different fishing rods, but best of all, those wooden lighthouses, birds and boats that place your bathroom right by the sea. I spent a small fortune.
Markets in Saint-Nazaire
The large main covered market, Les Halles was built in the 1950s. It’s the place for fresh vegetables, fruit, fish, cheeses and more, both French and international. It’s not particularly pretty but it’s a great place to shop for a picnic. Stalls both inside and out. Open Tues, Fri and Sun mornings. Blvd de la Legion d’Honneur. Saint Nazaire Villeport.
To the east you’ll find Penhoët Market in Méan-Penhoët. Built in 1877 it was brought here from the centre in 1936. Open Wed and Sat.
Great Places outside Saint-Nazaire
A Serpent Awaits
Drive over the impressive Saint-Nazaire bridge then turn off immediately to Brevin-les-Pins. Park in the main car park and walk along the seaside path. It will take you to the 130-metre long Serpent d’océan, best seen at low tide.
Saint-Marc-sur-Mer and Monsieur Hulot
I was brought up on Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday, a hilarious black-and-white and very old-fashioned film starring Jacques Tati. It’s become part of the folklore of France but I had no idea that the village was just a 17 km/10.5 mile drive along the coast from Saint-Nazaire and that the French had taken Monsieur Hulot quite so much to their hearts.
There are various walks and view points, helpfully shown on boards around the village relating to the holidaymaker who creates havoc in the small seaside resort.
Walk along the Smugglers’ Path (part of GR34), take bathing gear, walk down the steps from the path and swim in the blue waters of the sea.
Stay in the excellent 3-star Best Western Hôtel de la Plage, M. Hulot’s hotel. With a room looking out over the beach and the sea, and a view of M. Hulot himself standing on a rampart with exactly the right pose, it makes a great end to a stay in Saint-Nazaire. Good bar, restaurant and terrace dining.
We ate at an excellent Asian style dinner (dishes from €16.50) at Le Centre in the middle of the village. On Sundays there’s live music at 4pm.
Go Further Afield
Just to the north of Saint-Nazaire you’ll come to the Parc naturel regional de Brière. France’s second largest wetland is a glorious area of villages, natural ecosystems, animals and thousands of birds.
Salt Marshes of Guérande
Go north west and you’re in the salt-marshes of Guérande. In this huge low-lying area, the precious (and expensive) salt is produced naturally. The seawater flows through the pans producing brine.
Stop at Terre de Sel, one of the businesses producing salt. There are plenty of food stuffs to buy and they also arrange guided tours of the salt marshes.
Read about the Industrial Heritage of Saint-Nazaire: Shipbuilding, Submarines, Airbus and Wind Farms to visit.
How to get to Saint-Nazaire
Saint-Nazaire is in Brittany, in the Loire-Atlantique region.
The nearest ferry port from the UK is St-Malo used by Brittany Ferries. It’s around 200 kms/124 miles and takes around 2 hrs 30 mins. We came from Dieppe on DFDS ferries, around 500 kms/310 miles taking around 5 hrs.
More about Ferries to France from the UK.
Take the TGV non-stop train from Paris Montparnasse to Nantes (2hrs 7 mins). Then take the local TER train from Nantes to St Nazaire (47 mins).
Major European airlines fly to Nantes, as do budget airlines like easyJet and Ryanair. They fly from UK and European destinations. Catch the shuttle bus to the railway station.
More about the French Atlantic Coast
Declaration: I was on a self-driving press trip as a guest of the Saint-Nazaire tourist office. Apart from the Hotel de l’Europe & meal at Basilic&Co, the tourist office covered all meals, accommodation and entry fees.