Vannes old town is fortified by the Romans in the medieval times. The city is a gateway to the Gulf of Morbihan by the Marle estuary south of Brittany. Being the capital of Morbihan, Vannes old town has a pretty port, medieval architecture, beautiful gardens, squares, food scene, etc., to discover.
After several days of nature exploration following our road trip itinerary for Brittany, we felt exhausted and longed for a leisurely outing. Therefore, the visit to Vannes old town was a perfect excursion to fit our schedule.
We strolled into the old town from the harbourside. The highlights of the Vannes old town are:
- Port de Vannes
- Place Henri-IV
- Half-timbered houses in Breton style
- Jardin des Remparts
- Saint-Patern historic centre
- Important buildings
- Local shops and stores
Port de Vannes
Right step outside of the Q-Parking, we found ourselves facing the semi-circular plaza Place Gambetta direct in front of the Vannes port. The walkway to the south along the harbour is long and sheltered with planted avenues of trees. It reaches the peninsula at Conleau.
Many boats and yachts docked on the port, next to each other without any gap. Low-rising apartment buildings neatly surround the small port.
Walking towards the main entry gate of the old town from the port, we passed the Place Gambetta, a busy trafficking place where most cars also drive through the square. Place Gambetta has several modern restaurants and cafes with extensive outside seating areas and great views.
St Vincent Gate(Porte St Vincent Ferrier)
The historic monument Saint-Vincent Gate at the northern end of the harbour is a former city gate in Vannes. Entering through the medieval gate, we got lost in the medieval architecture and the winding medieval alleys of Vannes old town.
Those medieval alleys connect several plazas in the old town. One of them is particularly worth seeing, the Place Henri-IV. It is a historic walking area that showcases 16th-century buildings and intriguing museums.
La Cohue – Musée des Beaux Arts de Vannes
La Cohue is home to the Vannes Fine Arts Museum. Inside the building, the hall teems with life from medieval times, the stone, archways, and the passageway. La Cohue used to house many stalls on the ground floor and the ducal courthouse on the first floor.
I dropped in and was curious about the white paper-shaped objects hanging around. Later, from several information boards outside we found the answers. That was an exhibition presenting the exceptional techniques of advanced folding and structure crumpling. The artists had created organic shapes using sheets of baking paper.
Cathédrale Saint-Pierre (Saint Peter’s Cathedral)
Cathédrale Saint-Pierre, directly opposite the Museum of Fine Arts, is a Basilica built on the remains of an ancient Romanesque cathedral. The cathedral is a mix of architecture, including the tomb of the town’s patron saint, St. Vincent Ferrer.
Porte Prison (historical landmark)
Walking towards the east behind the cathedral and along the Rue Porte Prison is a fortified Prison Gate, one of the oldest entrances to the walled town. It connects to a beautiful half-timbered house that attracted more of my attention.
Half-timbered houses in Breton style
Half-timbered houses have traditional Breton architectural trends. Those houses boast three or four floors with corbels jutting out from a wall. The higher floors of the half-timbered houses are wider than the ground floor, allowing a wide passage on the public road while increasing the surface area on the upper floors.
The ground floors of the houses contain an extensive selection of shops, boutiques, and cafes. It is also so easy to find a place for a break.
Jardin des Remparts
A fraction of the original ramparts is still intact and consists of a large section of the battlement walls, sturdy towers, and arched entrances. One of the towers was originally part of the courtyard of the Chateau de l’Hermine.
Next to the ramparts is a well-maintained garden. Several walking paths neatly divide the garden into patches. The garden is a tranquil place to rest after a long walk through the old town. The pretty little buildings next to the river are the original washhouses for Vannes. By all means, It is worth walking the length of the walls and taking in the views of the gardens and the Vannes old town.
Saint-Patern historic centre
Around the church of Saint Patern is another charming historic centre. The church was named after the first known bishop of Vannes. Though it is not a must-see place, the view of the church from the Jardin des Remparts is attractive.
The Saint-Patern quarter is full of small restaurants and cafés. Its entire neighbourhood sits on the slopes of the Boismoreau hill. And, it is also the oldest part of Vannes with lovely houses.
Vannes Hôtel de Ville
Left the old town at the northwest corner is the majestic town hall, the Hotel de Ville on Maurice-Marchais square. The opulent building is next to an impressive former school.
The town hall framed by north and south wings has a façade that is particularly rich in decoration. There are square pillars on the side wings, semi-columns on the central tract, alternating triangular and gables, cartouches and busts, and volutes.
I admired the beautiful symmetry and wished to have a look inside. But due to the pandemic situation, it was closed to the public. Later, I have learned that the building has a monumental double staircase illuminated by a massive skylight.
Préfecture du Morbihan
The Préfecture du Morbihan, built on a U-shaped plan, is an administrative building located in Vannes, capital of the French department of Morbihan. The decoration refers to Breton history with representations of Nominoë, Count of Vannes, and Alain Barbetorte, two heroes of Breton independence. And the building is surrounded by a five-hectare park that largely resembles an English Garden.
Local shops and stores
Right behind the main gate, St Vincent Gate, are all well-preserved medieval streets & half-timbered houses, whose ground floors are shops and stores selling the specialties of Brittany. I popped in several shops as we passed through the Vannes old town and could not resist the temptation of the baked goods. Some stores specialize in one type of goods, such as wines and ciders. Others sell general Breton products, from baked sweets, canneries, Breton Enamel with blue and white patterns to the typical Breton rain jackets. I lingered in one store and bought many sweets and baked products that had caught my eyes.
Travel tips for Vannes Old Town
Where to stay
Since Vannes is a good base to explore southern Brittany, France, it also has numerous accommodations in the old town. Below two accommodations are directly in the centre of the town:
How to get there
The TGV train from Paris to Vannes takes less than three hours. In general, there are several scheduled trains a day. Vannes train station is about 700 metres to the edge of the Vannes Old Town.
The major roads E60 and N166 reach Vannes. There are plenty of parking places directly outside the old town, and the closest one is next to the harbour, Q-Park Port, about 100 metres to the main gate of the old town.