In just 90 minutes, the high-speed TGV train from Paris will bring you to the similarly refined and beautiful Nancy, one of the “Top French Cities.” It’s so beautiful, in fact, art lovers may feel a sense of “coming home” with all the things to do in Nancy, France that revolve around the arts and architecture.
You could say Nancy’s love affair with man-made beauty began in the 18th Century with the arrival of the de-throned King of Poland, Stanislas Leszczynski. Stanislas showed incredible creativity and forward-thinking in his urban planning which turned Nancy into a showcase of gorgeous architecture.
Fast forward to the late 1800s and Nancy becomes the birthplace of Art Nouveau. Throughout this relatively short period, artists and artisans went about Nancy creating pieces that united form and function with lovely organic, flowing decoration.
Today, Nancy is an enticing fusion of old and new. The city exudes refinement and style from days gone by while the universities in Nancy help to create an environment of innovation and vibrant, youthful energy.
The architecture of Nancy, France
Old Town (Ville Vieille) and the 18th-Century district
When Stanislas Leszczyński was given the Duchy of Lorraine in 1738 he was inspired to create what is now considered one of the most beautiful squares in all of Europe: Place Stanislas. His vision was to join the old, medieval quarter with the “new town” (Ville Neuve) built in the 16th century. Architect Emmanuel Héré made this vision a reality and Place Stanislas became, and remains, the heart of the city still today.
The “square” is actually a massive pedestrianized rectangle lined with beautifully ornamented classical buildings of creamy stone, stunning gilded wrought-iron gates, and gorgeous rococo Fountains of Neptune and Amphitrite. It makes a perfect starting point for a tour of the city’s awe-inspiring works of art.
In 1983, the entire Place Stanislas, all its buildings and two neighboring squares, Place de la Carriere and Place d’Alliance were named a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Place de la Carriere is connected to Stanislas by a pretty paved avenue and the Corinthian Arc du Triomphe. It was once the Renaissance Square where jousting tournaments were held. Though it dates back to the 17th-century Héré was commissioned to remodel the square to harmonize with Stanislas overall vision.
Small but beautifully manicured Place d’Alliance is lined with lime trees and is generally quieter and less refined than the other two squares making for a calm oasis in the city. It’s named to honor the treaty signed between France and Austria in 1756.
There are many fine examples of classical architecture in the center of Nancy including no less than five palaces in Place Stanislas alone. The largest is Hotel du Ville (Town Hall) which boasts banisters by Jean Lamour who also crafted the iconic gilded iron railings and gates that are a highlight of the square and earned Nancy the nickname: “The City With Golden Gates.”
Also in Place Stanislas is the 18-century masterpiece of architecture, the Grand Hotel De La Reine. The elegant Louis XV style interior with Belle Epoque influences makes for a luxurious stay right in the heart of Nancy’s beauty.
Nearby is the grandiose Ducal Palace which dates back to the late 15th century. At one time it was the residence of the Dukes of Lorraine but today it’s a museum showcasing the history of this region.
Leaving the beautiful UNESCO site of squares and heading into Old Town will bring you to the medieval and Renaissance quarter and Place Saint Epvre. This is the oldest square in Nancy and is home to the Gothic Saint Epvre basilica and its beautiful but imposing bell tower.
Wandering the streets of Old Town you’ll see Renaissance period mansions, some of which are now hotels. Haussonville is one of these mansions turned hotels where you can stay in luxurious comfort in a refurbished 16th-century building.
Ville Vieille is also where you’ll find the Baroque-style Nancy Cathedral, the 14-century Porte de la Craffe, the 16th-century Porta de la Citadelle and the 17th-century Port Saint-Georges.
New Town (Ville Neuve) and Art Nouveau
Although Paris is often thought to have the best examples of the art form, Nancy is actually known as the birthplace of Art Nouveau so it’s no surprise that the city is home to so many glorious examples of this influential art form.
The showpiece of Art Nouveau in Nancy is the Villa Majorelle which was created by artist, Louis Marjorelle and architect, Henri Sauvage. The design of this building was ground-breaking and inspired many other architects in Nancy to follow suit.
Note: Villa Majorelle has been closed to the public for some time due to renovations but will be re-opening in spring 2020!
Close to the Villa Majorelle you will find more examples of Art Nouveau architecture including the France-Lanord Building and the Jaques Pharmacy.
The Saint Marie Park area is home to the famous l’Ecole de Nancy where the Art Nouveau movement really flourished. You can read more about the school and museum below but be sure to stop and admire the building itself as well as the many houses in the area adorned with stylized organic decoration. Of special note are the Biet House and the Rue Felix Faure.
Saurupt Park is another area of architectural interest. In 1901 Jules Villard planned an epic gated residential park consisting of 100 Art Nouveau inspired villas. Unfortunately, only six were completed as plans had to be adapted to market demand. Look for the Caretaker’s Lodge, Villa les Glycines and Villa les Roches.
Many more Art Nouveau style buildings can be found in the business district of Nancy. Here you’ll see banks, shops, and offices displaying some of the decorative arts adopted by the talented artists of this time. Of particular note are the Credit Lyonnais Bank, Génin Seed Merchants, Brasserie L’Excelsior, and Goudchaux Shop.
Art, artists, and museums
Classical and innovative architecture are not the only art forms that found a home in Nancy, France. According to Nancy Tourism: “In 1871 Nancy saw an influx of artists, industrialists, investors and patrons of the arts who had fled the regions annexed by the Germans after the Franco-Prussian war.” Thanks to this movement decorative, applied, and fine arts are also prominently featured almost everywhere you look.
Musée de l’Ecole de Nancy
If you want to admire more Art Nouveau and learn about the history of this artistic movement your first stop should be the Musee de l’Ecole de Nancy (Museum of Nancy School). The original school was created by Emile Gallé, fellow artists and art-loving locals in 1901 and was also known as ‘Alliance provincial des industries d’art’. Their mantra was “art in all, art for all”
The museum opened in 1963 and is the only one in the world that is completely devoted to Art Nouveau. Here you’ll find rooms re-created in the period style as well as beautiful collections of glassware, furniture, ceramics and all sorts of Art Nouveau objets d’art.
Musee des Beaux-Arts
Sitting in the prime location of Place Stanislas the Musee des Beaux-Arts. A gorgeous museum full of paintings by European artists dating from the 14th to the 21st centuries. Many of the masterpieces on display are by famous artists like Caravaggio, Delacroix and Rubens.
There’s also a modern art collection including pieces by Piccaso and Matisse and a sculpture collection with pieces by artists like Rodin and Guidi.
In addition to all these works, there’s a fabulous Daum collection of Art Deco glassworks. Daum has been producing some of the most renowned pieces of glass art for over 120 years. Here you can follow the history of Daum from the 1880s to the 1990s and view more than 600 incredibly stunning pieces.
Daum is still making limited edition glass creations today and you can purchase a piece for yourself at the Daum shop on Place Stanislas. If these pieces are out of your budget there is also a factory shop at Cristalleries where you can purchase seconds or end-of-line pieces at a discounted price.
Modern Day Nancy
Although Nancy remains a refined and art-focused city it also offers plenty of modern-day and leisure delights. Enjoy art of a different sort by strolling through one of Nancy’s lovely parks like Jardin de la Citadelle or Parc de la Pépinière.
Maintain your energy for sightseeing with Nancy’s sweet specialties like macaron de Nancy, bergamot de Nancy or baba au rhum. After a day of soaking up all the beauty relax with a glass of Côtes de Toul AOC wine or a cold beer from one of Nancy’s breweries.
In the evening join the locals and university students in the many bars and restaurants around Old Town and Place Stanislas. If you love beer Le Ch’timi has 150 brews to choose from and later there’s Les Caves du Roy for dancing the night away.
The easy access from Paris makes Nancy a great destination for a day trip or weekend getaway but there’s enough to see and do here that you could easily spend a week and take your time exploring Nancy’s incredible beauty.
*This post was made possible with sponsorship from France Tourism. As always, all opinions are our own.
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Born in England, Sarah developed her wanderlust at a young age as she traveled around Europe with her parents. As a young adult she spent every penny she could on experiences as opposed to possessions. Eventually she found a way to earn a living doing what she loved: traveling, writing and capturing images of the wondrous world we live in. When not on the go Sarah enjoys time in her “sometimes home” of Vancouver.