Le Mans is no stranger to celebrity faces. Brad Pitt, Patrick Dempsey, and Keanu Reeves have all jetted in for its flagship motorsports endurance race, the 24 Hours of Le Mans. Leonardo DiCaprio’s 1998 movie The Man in the Iron Mask was shot in its exquisitely preserved medieval cité. More recently, Christian Bale and Matt Damon were in town shooting Ford v Ferrari. Yet this unassuming riverside city in France, between Normandy and the Loire Valley, still flies under the radar of most tourists.
As Le Mans celebrates the centenary of the 24 Hours race in 2023, take the time to discover the city beyond its star-studded sporting calendar. You’ll stumble upon architectural treasures, Instagrammable alleyways, and a dynamic street art scene underpinned by a fascinating Anglo-French history.
What to do
Step back into medieval times
At first glance, Le Mans’ modern city centre appears to be nothing special, but stroll up into the medieval Cité Plantagenêt, and you’ll be reaching for your camera at every twist and turn. It’s easy to imagine yourself on a medieval film set as you explore the warren of sloping cobblestone lanes and steep stairways, with its assortment of half-timbered and brick facades.
Maison du Pilier Rouge offers guided walking tours in English (every Wed, June–August, €6) which reveal architectural details and historical context that you’ll probably miss otherwise. Highlights include the imposing remains of the Gallo-Roman city walls and towers, the magnificent Saint Julien’s Cathedral, and the Maison Suspendue with its cute teddy bear waving from the window. History buffs take note: Le Mans was home to Henry II, the first Plantagenet king, and Berengaria, the enigmatic wife of Richard the Lionheart, and your guide will no doubt regale you with tales of the Anglo-French royals.
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Indulge your inner speed demon
Motorsports are the lifeblood of Le Mans, and even if you don’t know your Ferraris from your Mazdas, it’s hard not to get swept up in the excitement. If you can’t make it for the big events – the annual 24 Hours of Le Mans in June and the biennial Le Mans Classic – a visit to the 24 Hours of Le Mans Museum gets you close to the action, and you can even visit the famous race circuit (museum only: €10; plus circuit: €13).
The museum’s 120-strong fleet of vintage motors and cutting-edge sports cars are all kept in running condition, and standouts include a 1924 Bentley, the first winner of Le Mans in 1923, and a Toyota TS050 still splattered with mud from its victory lap. There’s also an impressive miniature car collection, featuring all 4,500 cars that have competed in the 24 Hours of Le Mans from 1923 through to 2022.
Guided tours are highly recommended (from €12), and guides are equally versed in motoring trivia and technical specs as they are in entertaining anecdotes of race-day capers and American movie stars. Big changes are underway for the museum in 2023: there’s a special centenary exhibition and an ambitious expansion project kicking off at the end of the year.
Meditate in nature
A short tram or bike ride from the centre, the Royal Abbey of Epau (tickets €5.50) played a leading role in Le Mans’ Anglo-French history. Founded in 1230 by Berengaria of Navarre, Queen of England, this was where she lived out the rest of her days after the death of her husband. Visit her tomb on display in the grand Abbatial Church, then take a peek inside the stark monk’s dormitories and stroll around the abbey grounds and vegetable gardens, where open-air concerts, photography exhibitions, and other events take place throughout the year.
The abbey sits on the edge of the 500-hectare L’Arche de la Nature, where the forest trails and lakes provide plenty of respite from city life. There are farmyard visits and horse-drawn carriage rides available at Maison de la Prairie, or you can rent bikes and canoes from Maison de l’Eau.
Check out the street art scene
Le Mans’ growing street art scene is celebrated during the annual Plein Champ street art festival at Gué du Maulny park in July, and several works remain on display year round (use this interactive map to locate them all). Hire a bike and follow the scenic cycle paths along the banks of the Sarthe and Huisne rivers, pausing to admire the kaleidoscopic murals of the Ancienne Usine des Tabacs (Old Tobacco Factory) along the way.
Where to stay
The most stylish spot to spend the night is Le Prince Hotel & Spa, where the gigantic king-sized beds and ambient lighting will lull you into a deep sleep. If you need extra help relaxing, the spa has a jacuzzi, sauna, hammam and various massages and treatments on offer. Doubles from €110; breakfast €15.
There’s a more homely vibe at Le Henri IV, a family-run maison d’hote set in a beautifully renovated 18th-century townhouse at the foot of the Cité Plantagenêt. Each of the five rooms has its own character, with plush carpets, distinctive artworks and lashings of natural light, while breakfast is served in the grand dining room. Doubles from €100 if you book direct, breakfast €12.
For something a bit different, check into one of the eco-lodges at Domaine de L’Epau, a 15-minute drive from the city centre. Inspired by their natural setting, each one has spacious, modern interiors with a kitchenette and terrace, and breakfast baskets are left on your windowsill each morning. The heated outdoor pool, complete with a waterfall, forest views and adjoining sauna and hammam, is a bonus. Doubles B&B from €95 in low season; €150 in high.
Where to eat
Le Mans has everything from fine dining restaurants to cutesy teahouses but check the opening hours carefully – many are closed on Sundays and Mondays, and some are only open for weekday lunches. Among the lunchtime favourites are the trendy Restaurant L’Étage, hidden on the upper floor of the Librairie Doucet bookshop, and the food truck-inspired Le Camion de Mamie. For afternoon tea – or goûter as the French call it – you can’t go wrong with a frothy cappuccino and a homemade cake at the charming Le Chaudron de Salem.
When evening rolls around, book a table at Bistrot des Gourmets for show-stopping cuisine at a still-affordable price point, or head to the welcoming L’ÉpiCurieux, where regional specialities and seasonal dishes get an innovative makeover. Out of town, Le Verger serves traditional French cuisine sourced from local farmers.
Where to drink
The Cité Plantagenêt is particularly atmospheric after dark (just watch your step on those cobblestones) and home to a cluster of lively bars. Head to Le Lapin Blanc for slick cocktails in cosy-cool surroundings, or Le Saint-Flaceau, housed in a quirky old mansion with a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it sign out front.
In the modern centre, Le 108 is the hangout of choice for the city’s twentysomethings, while La Visitation is a former convent courtyard revamped as an entertainment hub with several restaurants and bars, plus an open-air stage which hosts concerts through the summer.
Or perhaps you want to check out Le Mans’ local creations? A must for craft beer enthusiasts is La Septante-Deux, the city’s first urban microbrewery, while Distillerie du Sonneur produces 100 per cent local eau de vie, liqueurs and gin, with some rather unexpected flavours. The latter offers guided tours of their on-site distillery, tastings, and workshops (from €6).
Where to shop
All shopping streets in Le Mans’ modern centre lead to the Place de la Republique, where you’ll find all the usual high street names, as well as some great local finds. Olaf & Gustave specialises in hand-crafted jewellery, women’s clothing and accessories, while nearby Broc’Angerie is part-teahouse, part-antiques shop. Comic book enthusiasts will want to swing by Librairie Bulle, with its bookstore and art gallery, while foodies can indulge their sweet tooth atChocolaterie Bellanger (the 24 Hours-themed chocolates make a fun choice for petrol-heads) and Biscuiterie La Sablésienne, both local specialities.
The cobbled Grand Rue in the Cité Plantagenêt is peppered with artisan workshops, antique shops and music shops, while Au Coeur des Artistes brings together gifts and handicrafts from more than 20 local artisans under one roof.
One of the largest in France, Saint-Julien Cathedral combines five centuries of Gothic and Romanesque styles to dramatic effect. The pièce de résistance is the 34-metre-high vaulted choir with its 108 bay windows – the rose-hued stained glass creates a dazzling luminosity that changes throughout the day.
Trying to fly less? Perfect – Le Mans doesn’t have an airport anyway. You can reach Le Mans from London by train in around four hours. Either take the Eurostar to Paris Gare du Nord (2 hours, 16 minutes), ride the metro to Montparnasse-Bienvenue (20 minutes), then take the direct TGV train to Le Mans (54 minutes). Or, if you don’t want the hassle of navigating the Paris metro, take the Eurostar to Lille Europe Station instead (1 hour, 22 minutes), followed by a direct TGV to Le Mans (2 hours, 37 minutes). The closest ferry port is Caen, around hour, 45 minutes from Le Mans by car.
What currency do they use?
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How much should I tip?
Tipping isn’t expected, but 5–10 per cent is appreciated.
What’s the time difference?
How should I get around/what’s the public transport situation?
What’s the best view?
From July through September, take an evening stroll through the Cité Plantagenêt to admire the dazzling illuminations of the Nuits des Chimères.
Le Mans is famous for its rillettes de porc (shredded pork pâté) – pick up a pot from the open-air market by the cathedral (Wednesday, Friday and Sunday mornings).
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