Saint-Nazaire’s industrial heritage offers the visitor a fascinating mix of sights. I have to admit that they weren’t on my bucket list but after a visit to the city, I’ve changed my mind.
Here’s a list of must-see industrial heritage attractions in Saint-Nazaire which happily is a relatively compact city and so is very easy to get around. Most of these attractions are good for families with excellent explanations and hands-on exhibits. The exceptions are the tours of the Chantiers de l’Atlantique and Airbus which are mainly coach tours.
I started with the soft option: a tour around the Escal’Atlantic which tells the story of the great passenger liners. The ships built in Saint-Nazaire by the world-famous Chantiers de l’Atlantique are names to conjure with, like SS Normandie where the first-class dining hall was longer than the Hall of Mirrors at the Palace of Versailles. 700 rich passengers sat down to eat here 3 times a day.
The rich travelled in style; the poor in steerage. The rich went on endless vacations; the poor were escaping the poverty of the old world for the promise of the new.
The tour (both French and English tours available) takes you through the geographic spread of destinations from the 19th century onwards. You walk past boards showing how the ships speeded up from Saint-Nazaire to the overseas ports; you learn the stories of the passengers; you watch a moving old film of the arrival in New York of so many displaced from Europe.
You look into small cabins, see how useful the luxury Louis Vuitton travel trunk was, peer down at the huge engine rooms, go out on deck and finish in the mock-up of a restaurant where kosher and pet menus were offered along with lavish 7-course feasts for those 700 diners.
Chantiers de l’Atlantique
The Chantiers de l’Atlantique is a remarkable institution. This is one of the great shipyards of the world; the place where cruise ships, military ships and latterly, the electrical substations that power offshore wind farms are developed and built.
The company has built over 70 passenger ships in its history, among them SS Normandie, SS France, and RMS Queen Mary II.
Today they are foremost in building new cruise ships for the world’s biggest companies: Celebrity Cruises, Caribbean Cruises, MSC and more.
Chantiers de l’Atlantique Tour
You can take a 2-hour tour of the shipyards, but only in a coach with a French guide (and English headphones). The shipyard keeps its industrial secrets and you cannot take pictures. You also have to provide ID (passport, not a driving licence) before getting on the coach at the Tourist Office.
The visit takes you through security and into the areas which cover the whole process of building these great ships. It’s an insight into how complex it is. You start in the steelyard where steel in different forms is cut and assembled into various sections.
The coach drives you past huge buildings where larger sections are being welded together. You look at huge steel sections and wonder what they are then realise you’re seeing part of a huge hull, or the middle part of a cruise ship.
You see the ships’ interiors in the hangars where they are being fitted out. You get out of the coach at the final stage, to watch two huge gantry cranes lift blocks (up to 1,400 tons) into place. The ships are now in the docks that will eventually open to launch these huge, and hugely impressive, beauties on their journeys around the world.
Information and tickets for the Chantiers de l’Atlantique.
Watch the Ships Launch
Every time a ship is launched, the whole town celebrates. Join the locals flocking to the two main places to see the ships leaving the Loire estuary, the Vieux Môle and Place du Commando.
For an excellent in-depth description of the Chantiers de l’Atlantique, read my partner’s article on mechtraveller.com.
The Espadon is a French submarine built in 1958. Decommissioned in 1985, she was towed to Saint-Nazaire to become the first French submarine on display to the public. The Espadon was substantially restored in 2021 and opened to visitors in July.
I find submarines sinister from the outside and claustrophobic inside. So my visit was rather fast, particularly as you need a certain amount of knowledge to appreciate the finer points.
There are two audio guides in English, both activated automatically as you walk through the ship. One is the story of the youngest sailor in the crew which I took. It’s good if you want to understand his reactions to the ship (very much like mine). The second is told from the point of view of a journalist who was on board when the Espadon undertook her most famous patrol. She was part of the arctic team exploring under the pack ice in the Norwegian Sea in May 1964.
You climb down a steep staircase into the submarine. Walk along a narrow passage past complicated equipment, past the torpedo bay, the control room and crew quarters, one shower room and one toilet (for the 63 man crew!) and look down at the engines.
You’ll find Espadon in the fortified lock opposite the main submarine base where the Tourist Office is housed.
Information and tickets for the Espadon submarine
The EOL Centre éolien – Offshore Wind Farm Visitor Centre
The visitor centre about wind farms is unexpectedly great fun. It’s very hands-on, with lots of small models to explain how winds and wind turbines work. And it teaches both children and adults about this great source of energy. You blow, you cycle, you pit yourself against the wind…with consequences.
The French have been slow in adopting wind power. But now the wind farm just off Saint-Nazaire is up and running. Two more of them are about to come on line, in Fécamp (Seine- Maritime) and Courseulles-sur-Mer.
The centre’s here in Saint-Nazaire as the Chantiers de l’Atlantique are building the electricity substations.
Information and tickets for the oelian centre
Up on the Roof
Go up onto the roof where there’s a great view of the shipyards and the sea, and the turbines slowly turning in the distance. When we were there an outdoor photographic exhibition showed the restoration of the Espadon. And there’s a useful information sign showing where the turbines are located and explaining more about the projects.
Look a little closer
We walked further along the quayside for a fascinating, closer glimpse at the huge pylons that are driven into the sea bed to hold the eolians.
The sight of these just reinforced my first impression of Saint-Nazaire – everything is very BIG!
Airbus is a huge and significant industry in France. The headquarters are just outside Toulouse, but Saint-Nazaire has two production sites. Here Airbus produces various parts of airplanes and assembles, equips and tests the fuselage sections of different aircraft including the A380 jet liners.
They are transported to assembly line locations in Europe either by sea for the larger components or by Airbus’ Beluga cargo aircraft. This strange looking aircraft is affectionally named the baleine volante (flying whale). Whenever it flies over the city, everyone looks up.
You can take a tour of Airbus, though if you come from outside the EU (and that applies also to UK residents) you have to book 3 weeks in advance. You also need to take a passport with you as an identity document. Like the Chantiers de l’Atlantique, Airbus is extremely wary of industrial espionage – so no photos!
Information and tickets for Airbus Tours
Read a General Guide to Saint-Nazaire for other attractions, where to stay, eat and shop.
Saint-Nazaire Tourist Office
Brittany Tourist Office
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
French Atlantic Coast Guide from Brittany to the Spanish border.
Drive along the Loire Valley from Saumur to Saint-Nazaire