Rennes Introduction Walking Tour, Rennes

Rennes Introduction Walking Tour (Self Guided), Rennes

Rennes began its existence as Condate Redonum, a Gallic and Roman town at the confluence of the Ille and Vilaine rivers. During medieval times, it became one of the three major cities of Brittany, together with Vannes and Nantes. The city played an important role in the Stamped Paper Revolt in 1675. During the French Revolution, it became the headquarters of the republican army in the fighting with the royalist insurgents.

The biggest event that changed the cityscape was the fire of 1720. Because of the devastating fire, the center is divided into north and south parts. The north center, the more affluent part of the city, was rebuilt with stone, using squares and broader streets on a grid plan. Most of the grand buildings of the 18th century are found in this part of town.

A good number of medieval houses survived the fire. These colorful half-timbered houses were built from the late medieval times until the French Revolution. They are an essential part of the architectural heritage you will find in Rennes and Brittany. Today they draw tourists to the city in large numbers.

The Parliament of Brittany is the most famous 18th-century building in town. In the west is Town Hall Square with City Hall and the Opera House. At the east end of Saint-Georges Street are Saint George Palace and gardens. In Saint Germain Square in the southeast are Saint Germain Church and the footbridge to Emile Zola Quay.

Lices Square, once a medieval jousting ground, is now the legendary Market of Lices. The square is lined with old private townhouses built after the fire of 1720. Remains of the ancient city ramparts can still be found by the Mordelaise Gate, the Duchesne Tower, and the Rasiller-du-Baty Square. Rennes Cathedral is on the Chapter Street.

Rennes is called a city of art and history. It has preserved an important medieval and classical heritage within its historical center. There is also art and recreation in Rennes, and of course, "Joy of Living," as locals call it. Come and get some.
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Rennes Introduction Walking Tour Map

Guide Name: Rennes Introduction Walking Tour
Guide Location: France » Rennes (See other walking tours in Rennes)
Guide Type: Self-guided Walking Tour (Sightseeing)
# of Attractions: 10
Tour Duration: 2 Hour(s)
Travel Distance: 2.9 Km or 1.8 Miles
Author: DanaU
Sight(s) Featured in This Guide:
  • Place de la Mairie (Town Hall Square)
  • Parlement of Brittany
  • Marche des Lices (Lices Market)
  • Porte Mordelaise (Mordelaise Gate)
  • Rennes Cathedral
  • Palace of Commerce
  • Lycée Émile-Zola
  • Museum of Fine Arts of Rennes
  • Saint George Palace
  • Parc du Thabor (Park of Thabor)
Place de la Mairie (Town Hall Square)

1) Place de la Mairie (Town Hall Square) (must see)

The story of the Fire of Rennes begins with a drinking party in a carpenter's shop on Tristan street. On the night of December 23, 1720, a domestic fight, a broken lamp, and a fire. Flames leaped from roof to roof in the narrow, medieval streets. The city was consumed in "a sea of fire." A providential downpour on the December 30th stopped the blaze.

The city north of the river Vilaine had to be rebuilt. The King, Louis XV, sent his architect, Jacques Gabriel. Gabriel's plan is founded on large squares and streets intersecting at right angles, giving the city a logical form. Gabriel started with Parliament Square and Town Hall Square (Place de la Mairie).

The Town Hall Square is vast. On the west is the Baroque-style Town Hall, a monument of the reconstruction of Rennes. The building has two identical wings flanking the clock tower alcove in the center. The right-wing is the civil court. To the left is the Town Hall. The belfry of the clock tower is topped with an onion dome. The building was constructed in the elegant style of Louis XV.

The Town Hall shares the west side with the Rennes Opera House. On the east are Saint-George street and its half-timbered houses, the Saint George Palace, and gardens. In the southeast is Saint-Germain Square, with Saint-Germain Church. The Saint-Germain footbridge spans the Vilaine River, connecting the square to Emile Zola Quay.
Parlement of Brittany

2) Parlement of Brittany (must see)

During the Old Regime of France, some provinces had more rights than others. The nobles of Brittany were determined to defend their rights, known as the "Brittany freedom." The resistance to royal powers, involving the defense of its institutions and the privileges of the nobility, was widespread. All this ended in 1789 when the Ancien Regime was overthrown. Since 1804, the Parlement has been the Court of Appeals of Rennes.

The Parlement of Brittany is the most important heritage building in the city and one of the symbols of the province's history. It is located in Parlement Square, close to Town Hall Square. Constructed in 1655, it was designed by architect Salomon de Brosse, who also built Luxembourg Palace in Paris. In 1994, fishermen, angered at the price of fish, rioted in the Square. Flares caused a fire on the roof, and the building was seriously damaged.

Five years later, after restoration, the building reopened. The Great Chamber's coffered ceiling had been spared damage by a layer of refractory bricks under the roof. Painted canvases by Noel Coypel adorn the ceiling. The room was designed by Charles Errard, a painter for Louis XIV. A renowned artist of the time, he participated in designing early Versailles.

The Parlement of Brittany was one of the few buildings spared by the Great Fire of 1720. Restorations and renovations have brought back the building's stunning pre-17th-century artwork. Sculpted ceilings, panelings, and allegorical paintings adorn the building throughout. Guided tours are available year-round.
Marche des Lices (Lices Market)

3) Marche des Lices (Lices Market) (must see)

"Lices" corresponds to the English word "Lists." The lists were barriers that separated contending knights at tournaments. Here, in 1337, at the age of 17, the future Constable of France, Bertrand du Guesclin, unhorsed a dozen knights. In 1622, Bertrand's field of honor became a market. The market opens for business on Saturdays.

By 1658, the Lices Market had become a large square. Wealthy status-proud Parlement members built private mansions by the square. The half-timbered and stone mansions are imposing. The hotel de la Noue and the Racapé-de-La-Feuillée building are timbered. The hotel de Montbourcher and the hotel du Molant, home of Le Carre restaurant, are of stone.

In the 19th century, Les Halles Martenot (The Martenot Halls) were built in the Square. The Halls are named for their architect, Jean-Baptiste Martenot. They were inspired by the Baltard Halls in Paris. The two Halls are made of bricks and steel, covering an area of 1,300 square meters. Besides the market, the Halls also host salon events and exhibitions.

It is 7:30 am on a Saturday. It is Market Day in Rennes. It seems everyone in the city has come early to shop. Giant ermines, the totem animals of Brittany, peer out from windows around the Lices Market at the doings on the square. The ermines are stationed behind the windows during renovations. They are attentive to the food.

The ermines and the shoppers are curious about the seasonal fruits and vegetables, fresh fish and seafood, and all other edibles produced in Brittany. It is a huge display. Chefs and restauranteurs come to replenish their supplies. Musicians set themselves up between the stalls. Food trucks and vans are busy.

There are lines for galette saucisse, a Breton pork sausage wrapped in a buckwheat crepe. Ciders, bread honey, beers, it's all here. Bar terraces line the square. Visit Delirium Cafe, Pavilion, La Grappe, the pub Webb Ellis, and the oyster bar at l'Abri Market. The people shop and feast. The ermines watch and wonder.
Porte Mordelaise (Mordelaise Gate)

4) Porte Mordelaise (Mordelaise Gate)

In the third century, during the time of the Empire, there was a small Gallic village called Condate Redonum. Condate was destined to become Rennes, the capital of Brittany. The ruins of a Gallo-Roman wall, built between 275 and 300 AD, can still be seen. There was an ancient gate built on the site. It was replaced in about 1452 by the Mordelaise Gate.

The new ramparts and gates refer to the parish of Mordelles. By 1470 the rampart fortifications had been established, protecting the city on three sides. A fourth had been planned, but the construction was discontinued for lack of funds. The Mordelaise Gate is a horseshoe-shaped artillery bulwark with a protected entrance on the side.

The city's fortified perimeter was partially taken down by Royal order in the 17th century. The Mordelaise Gate remains a symbol of the city and an artifact of military architecture. Until Brittany was absorbed by France, the Breton dukes and Duchesses entered Rennes through this gate on their way to be crowned in Rennes Cathedral.

A promenade has been developed to link the Lices Square, the Hyacinthe Lorette Square, and the Duchesne Tower to the Francois Mitterrand Mall. To enter Rennes in style, come as Royalty once did, through the Mordelaise Gate.
Rennes Cathedral

5) Rennes Cathedral (must see)

The earliest cathedral of Saint-Pierre was replaced by a Gothic-style religious edifice in 1180. This took two centuries to build. The Gothic facade collapsed in 1490. The reconstruction works were started by Yves Mahyeuc, a senior Dominican of the Jacobins Convent and Confessor to Anne of Brittany. This important figure, who became the bishop of Rennes, started a construction site that outlived him.

The present facade of Neoclassical granite towers was built in four sections. The first tower was finished by 1543. Tugal Caris, a French architect, built the second tower in 1564. The third, done by architect Pierre Corbineau, was finished in 1678. The architect François Hoguet completed the towers in 1704, at their present height of 48 meters, and added the escutcheon of King Louis XVI between them.

During all the changes, architects rebuilt the interior as a Roman basilica. The nave and choir, however, had not been restored. After a great stone fell from the roof of the choir, it was decided to demolish all these parts and rebuild them. Reconstruction was done in the same style as the facade, using 44 massive white granite columns throughout. In 1841 Godefroy Brossay-Saint-Marc became bishop of Rennes. He wanted more changes.

Godefroy was wealthy and had powerful connections, including Pope Pius XI and Napoleon III. Changes focused on interior decor. The Tro Breizh, the region's iconic pilgrimage of the Seven Saints of Brittany, is depicted in the nave and the ambulatory by artist Jobbe-Duval. Charles Langlois covered the granite columns with stucco.

Statues of the four Evangelists by sculptor Laurant Esquerre overlook the transept. They were installed in 2019 at the opening of the new Cathedral treasury. The most prized treasure is a Flemish altarpiece dating from 1520. Display cases hold gold and silver crosses, censers, a Papal chalice, and precious liturgical vestments.
Palace of Commerce

6) Palace of Commerce

In the mid-19th century, the river Vilaine was canalized. The stream was covered over between the bridges Nemours and Berlin. The imposing Palace of Commerce was built here from 1885 to 1929. The architects were Jean-Baptiste Martenot, followed by Emmanuel Le Ray. The building was intended to make the south of the city attractive.

The Palace separates the district of Upper Rennes from Lower Rennes, below the canal. The building sits on Republic Square. The facade is made of tuff stone and granite. Arcades, caryatids, and sculptures wrap around the ground floor. The pedestrian pavilion is called the Passage of the Legion of Honor.

The Palace of Commerce is laid out in a vague horse-shoe shape with wings facing north. Each wing has eleven bays and arcades, lending a touch of elegance. At first, the building was a stock exchange. Later it was home to the public library and the School of Fine Arts. It currently houses the Post Office, the Cafe de la Paix (Peace Cafe), and a phone exchange.

The central part of the Palace has paired Corinthian columns. The elegant portico has a pediment holding a cartouche with the inscription "Palace of Commerce." The Dutch architectural and urban design firm MVRDV is currently working on the redevelopment of the Palace and its surroundings on Republic Square.
Lycée Émile-Zola

7) Lycée Émile-Zola

The Lycée Emile Zola is a secondary school in Rennes, located on Avenue Janvier (January Avenue). It is the oldest school in the region of Ille-et-Vilaine. Established in 1035 it is not for nothing called "the Old School." The current building is the 1859 creation of architect Jean-Baptiste Martenot. Construction elements are brick and limestone.

The school is one of the premier French schools created in 1802. It was opened in 1809, replacing the Municipal and Royal College of Saint-Thomas and the Central School of Ille-et-Vilaine. In the 19th century, the author Victor Jarry created his famous character Ubu here. In 1899 the school hosted the second trial of Alfred Dreyfus, a French artillery officer of Jewish ancestry whose trial and conviction in 1894 on charges of treason became one of the most polarizing political dramas in modern French history.

Previously the school had gone by the name of College Royale under the Restoration of the monarchy of Louis-Philippe in 1830. It was known as the Imperial School of Rennes under the Second Empire of Napoleon III. It was under the Second Empire that Jean-Baptiste Martenot began his renovations of the school compound.

Martenot followed the Louis XIII style in building, using his bricks and tuff stone. The entrance was changed to face the new railroad station. The cornerstone was laid in 1859. A chapel was constructed to replace the chapel of St. Thomas, which was in ruins.

In 1971 the school was named after the French writer Émile Zola. The site now constitutes the Émile Zola school complex, including a middle and a high school. Today the school specializes in the sciences and social studies.
Museum of Fine Arts of Rennes

8) Museum of Fine Arts of Rennes

Among the changes brought about by the French Revolution was the creation of most French museums. The museums needed art collections and there was a bumper crop of these. The Museum of Fine Arts of Rennes, established in 1794, received the collection of Christophe-Paul de Robien, former president of the Parlement of Brittany.

At the time of the Revolution, the Robien collection was one of the largest in Europe. Drawings, prints, paintings, antiques, and sculptures, all went to the museum, which today is in the former University Palace located at 20 Emile Zola Quay. The building dates from 1847. Since 1911 is devoted entirely to the museum collections.

The museum collections cover the 14th to 20th centuries. Primitive and Renaissance works include the School of Fontainebleau. The 17th-century art features French, Italian, Dutch, and Flemish masters. The 18th-century collection centers on French and Italian schools. More than 300 19th-century works show interest in landscapes and legends.

Twentieth-century paintings and sculptures show Fauvism, Cubism, Abstractionism, and Surrealism art movements. The drawings are the treasures of the museum. They include pieces from Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, Bellini, and Durer to Watteau, Denis, and Picasso.
Saint George Palace

9) Saint George Palace

The year was 1032 AD. Duke Alain III of Brittany founded the Benedictine Abbey of Saint George in the name of his sister Adele, who was a Benedictine nun. Adele became the convent's first abbess. In the 1660s, Magdelaine de la Fayette, the 38th abbess, commissioned architect Pierre Corbineau to design her a new abbey.

Corbineau, assisted by another architect from Laval, Tugal Caris, built the new abbey, Saint George's Palace, on the site of a former Benedictine edifice of the 11th century. Two stones were laid; one by the Bishop of Rennes, and the other, by the redoubtable Magdelaine. The stones had copper plates calling the bishop "illustrious" and the abbess "celebrated."

In 1792, the Revolution forced abbess Julie Barreau de Girac and 24 nuns, three novices, and eleven lay sisters to give up the Abbey. The stone cross above the pediment was destroyed, and the abbey properties became barracks. In 1970 the cross was restored as a reminder of the building's heritage as an abbey.

The abbey building features a long gallery of nineteen windows within granite arches. The gallery can be reached via a double staircase with stone balustrades. Two pavilions are at each end of the gallery. There are dormer windows on the mansard roof. Above three windows in the center is a pediment surmounted by a stone cross. Iron bars bolted to the facade above each arch spell out the name MAGDELAINEDLFAYETTE.

Since 1930 the building has been listed as a Historical Monument of France.
Parc du Thabor (Park of Thabor)

10) Parc du Thabor (Park of Thabor) (must see)

Formerly the Garden of a Monastery, Park of Thabor takes its name from Mount Tabor in Israel, where Jesus was transfigured. The Park was built on 25 acres on the highest hill in Rennes. It has rare trees, fountains, French, English, and botanical gardens, aviaries, orangeries, waterfalls, and sculptures.

The monks of Saint-Melaine Abbey started their vegetable gardens here in the 18th century, and that tradition of growing botanicals has persisted since then. The abbey was founded on the site of an ancient Roman necropolis by Saint Melaine, 6th century Bishop of Rennes. Gardens and orchards, tended by monks, surrounded the abbey. It was an attractive refuge for monks only. Unfortunately, it also occasionally was a holiday pillage spa for impulsive Vikings. The French Revolution opened things up.

In the early 19th century, the Park of Thabor was not yet publicly owned, but it was open to all. The planting of the Park and its gardens began in 1868. With the arrival of Napoleon III to the throne, the city built English, French, and botanical gardens on the site. These three important elements are combined in the Park.

The Carre Duguesclin is an English bowling green. Greenhouses and the French gardens face the vast central lawn. Beyond the English garden, at the far end, is a rose garden with over 2,000 varieties and a botanical garden holding 3,200 species from five continents. Classical sculptures by French artist Charles Lenoir liven things up.

Landscaping continued in the twentieth century. Fountain systems were refilled, waterfalls installed, and the Catherinettes garden was created. There were mills and caves, a music stand, and an aviary. There is a carousel, a restaurant, and a bar. Throughout the year there are concerts, festivals, and exhibitions. It is a "park for all seasons."

More than 1.5 million people visit the Park of Thabor each year. They stroll through the gates into one of the most beautiful gardens in France. The Park is open daily at 7:30 am.

Walking Tours in Rennes, France

Create Your Own Walk in Rennes

Create Your Own Walk in Rennes

Creating your own self-guided walk in Rennes is easy and fun. Choose the city attractions that you want to see and a walk route map will be created just for you. You can even set your hotel as the start point of the walk.
Rennes Historical Churches Walking Tour

Rennes Historical Churches Walking Tour

Historical churches occupy a significant place in the cultural identity of Rennes, France. Travelers with a keen interest in religious history and architecture will find plenty to look at in this town.

Standing out majestically among the local ecclesiastical landmarks is Rennes Cathedral. Built in the 12th century, it underwent a centuries-long transformation from its Gothic origins to its...  view more

Tour Duration: 1 Hour(s)
Travel Distance: 2.1 Km or 1.3 Miles
Medieval Houses Walking Tour

Medieval Houses Walking Tour

From the late Middle Ages through to the end of the Ancien Régime (the period of Bourbon rule in France, from 1589 to 1789), a multitude of half-timbered houses were built in Brittany, and particularly in Rennes. Even today, the Breton capital is where half-timbered houses remain the most prevalent style of architecture, and a key element of the cultural heritage of the region reiterated in many...  view more

Tour Duration: 1 Hour(s)
Travel Distance: 0.9 Km or 0.6 Miles