“Le Mans” means racing: nearly a century after the first race, the venerable 24 Hours of Le Mans is still going strong.
Racing enthusiasts can pay homage on the track and even drive part of it while the track uses public roads.
Then visit a veritable treasure trove of racing heritage at the Track Museum.
However, Le Mans is more than a track, and it’s worth your time even if you’re not interested in cars.
The King was born in Le Mans, where Richard the Lionheart’s wife Belengalia of Navarra lived and died, and the City of Plantage is a true medieval house that remains untouched by time.
On summer evenings, the Nuit des Chimères light show illuminates ancient Le Mans with whimsical projections, telling the story of the city in a way that captivates children and adults alike.
Let’s explore the best things to do in Le Mans:
1. Gorse City
Proud of its ties to the Gorse family that ruled England for over 300 years, Le Mans adopted the name for its old town in 2003.
Roughly following the contours of Gallo-Roman walls, Cité Plantagenêt has many streets with romantic old houses with wooden structures, as well as Renaissance palaces with elegantly carved walls.
Get a guide from the tourist office for as long as possible to make sure you don’t miss any surprises.
Also try to schedule your Le Mans tour on one of the city’s Heritage Days, when many of these private mansions open their doors to the public for free tours.
2. Le Mans Cathedral
Passing through the old town, once you enter the Place du Cardinal Grente, the cathedral takes your eyes off of it, not quite as ornate as many of northern France, but just as grand.
The most striking thing to see from the outside is the series of flying buttresses that encircle the apse, most appreciated in the Huguenot square.
The building’s southwest corner also has an odd spot: a Stone Age stele was placed here in the 1770s, and centuries of weathering have given it its oddly layered silhouette.
Models inside show the evolution of the building, which dates back 500 years and took its current form in the 13th and 14th centuries.
Check out the nave’s Romanesque capitals and plenty of original stained glass windows.
3. La Nuit des Chimères
Translating to “Dream Night”, the seven main monuments at Le Mans in summer from Tuesday to Saturday are canvases for artistic light displays.
These whimsical projections have historical themes that match their landmarks; the cathedral has Gothic frescoes featuring knights, zodiac signs, angels, and legendary beasts.
At the Belengarh Palace in Reine, Belengaria of Navarre, wife of Richard the Lionheart, is depicted as a ghostly white lady.
Gallo-Roman walls are dotted with images you see on Roman mosaics, monsters from mythology, and builders and architects who built the ancient Vendunum.
4. Gallo-Roman Walls
There is a stunning 500-meter long Le Mans 3rd century rampart between the Cathedral and Sarthe.
This is one side of what was once a huge rectangle that protected the city with strict lines with 26 towers.
Get an up-close look at the beautiful geometric pattern of alternating layers of sandstone, white limestone, red brick and pale pink mortar.
Another reason to come in for a better look is to see how the rubble of the early monument was reused on the walls, you can identify some of the columns and gables in the structure of this structure.
5. 24-hour track
Chances are you can’t say the name “Le Mans” without following it with “24 Hours”. This speaks to the popularity of the event since its inception in 1923. The 24 Hours of Le Mans is the oldest racing race still in progress and remains one of the ultimate tests of the skill and endurance of drivers and vehicles, as the car is 85% of the time at full speed.
The track is a pilgrimage for racing fanatics and a noteworthy modern heritage for everyone else.
Certain sections of the track are used as public roads for most of the year, while the race itself is usually held on a weekend in mid-June.
6. Musée des 24 Heures du Mans
Only a legendary race like the 24 Hours of Le Mans deserves its own museum.
Gas heads will no doubt make the most of this attraction, but most people will appreciate the machines gathered here.
Of the 120 cars on display, 40 were racing cars.
The museum also tells the story of how the game came about and introduces you to some of the memorable characters from its storied history.
In addition to the many cars in the competition, you’ll also find official Audi safety cars, vintage gas stations, legacy cars from the early days of the car, and goggles and racing suits from former champions.
7. Historic Buildings
With the help of the tourist office, you can cross off an entire collection of fantastic old houses from your list as you stroll.
The stunning Maison d’Adam et Ève at 69 Grande-Rue was incorrectly named because the fine Renaissance relief above the door actually shows Ariadne and Bacchus, not Adam and Eve.
The large Hôtel de Vignolles on Place Saint-Pierre, with its steeply sloping roof, was built in 1549 and would protrude like a thumb at Le Mans at the time due to its distinctive Parisian design.
Finally, the 16th-century Maison de la Tourelle, hidden behind the cathedral, is named for the lovely turret that juts out from the corner of the house, and has lovely gables and castle-like chimneys.
8. Local Food
Le Mans is a serious meat-eating city, with a succulent quality that dates back to the Middle Ages.
This applies to pork and beef, especially poultry such as capon and guinea fowl, which are cooked with potatoes and mushrooms in most dishes, which are also abundant in the Sarthe countryside.
But when people think of Le Mans, the delicacy that comes to mind is Rillettes.
This is shredded bacon, cooked very slowly in the fat for ten hours, until it becomes a pate smooth enough to spread on a baguette.
Rillettes are sold in glass jars and are also available in duck, chicken and fish varieties.
9. Abbaye de l’Epau
One of the finest Cistercian abbeys in France, on the edge of Le Mans, dates back to 1229 and was founded by Queen Berengalia.
She will die there a year later and be buried in the monastery, even though the exact location of her remains is unknown – although her colossus (portrait of the tomb) is easy to find.
As you stroll through this peaceful monastery, keep an eye out for historic flourishes such as the lovely arches on the south façade, tracery in the rose bushes, 14th-century frescoes and 13th-century refectory doors.
10. Taser Museum
The Museum of Fine Arts in Le Mans, housed in the former bishop’s palace, gleams with its archaeological treasures of ancient Egypt.
Donated to the museum by the early 19th-century explorer Édouard de Montulé, these consist of approximately 125 works dating back 6,000 years.
The large exhibit is the gilded sarcophagus of Nakhmontou, a priest of the 17th Dynasty, 3,500 years ago.
The painting gallery provides a good summary of the development of European art, from medieval Italian primitive Bartolomeo Bulgarini to 19th century landscape painter Camille Corot who influenced Impressionism.
11. Maison de la Reine Bérengère
If you remember La Nuit des Chimères, next to these three half-timbered houses from the 15th century, Queen Berengaria is depicted as a ghost.
Well, the story goes that she died in a building that once stood here, even if that’s unlikely to be true.
The buildings you see now are well cared for, with the façade of number 9 engraved with the Archangel Gabriel and the Virgin and Italian arabesques.
Visit museums documenting Le Mans’ historic trades, such as pewter and weaving, and display paintings and photographs of the city from the 19th century.
On the top floor is a quirky old crest (the ornament that once crowned the roofs of city houses).
12. Natural Arch
Just 10 minutes from the centre of Le Mans, you are in a natural park managed by the city, covering more than 450 hectares.
It’s hard to imagine a better way for young people to understand our relationship with nature and agriculture.
Paths in the pine, chestnut and oak forests take you to different sites, such as the Maison de l’Eau, which teaches topics such as water treatment, and has an aquarium with trout, snapper and barbet and other regional freshwater species.
Then there’s the Maison de la Prairie, with its glass apiary that shows you the bees at work and all of Sarthe’s farm animals.
Then, deep in the forest, is La Maison de la Forêt, with a large enclosure that houses regional wild species such as deer, wild boar, partridge and pheasant.
13. Vertical Museum
As always, the Natural History Museum at Le Mans has its origins in the treasure chests of 18th century high society.
The revolution soon opened its doors for all, and the predecessor of the Musée Vert opened in 1799 with many existing specimens. In total, there are 400,000 objects, used in geology, botany, paleontology and zoology.
Of course, in the early days there were many of the 100,000 shells, several of which belonged to extinct mollusks.
The petrology department collects meteorites from the 18th and 19th centuries, while the paleontology room is filled with Mesozoic fossils from 2.52 to 66 million years ago.
14. Spaycific’ Zoo
Le Mans has plenty of places to keep little visitors entertained, and a fun day at the nearby zoo with over 600 animals.
The park’s Exotarium will keep you safe from creepy tropical reptiles such as snakes, crustaceans, frogs, lizards, spiders and insects.
There is an Australian section where wallabies and dingoes have plenty of space to roam.
But the star of the show is Keas, a large alpine parrot from New Zealand, notorious at zoos for his cheekiness and mischief.
The African Aviary is the second largest in the country at 12 meters high and is one of the only places where storks can be kept in captivity (they have a wingspan of 3 meters).
15. Papeia Park
Finally, for kids under 10, there is a small theme park where you can spend half a day.
For babies, there are safe climbing areas, bouncy castles, carousels and petting zoos.
Then there are a variety of roller coasters, rocking boats, log water tanks and more exhilarating playground rides like Cyclone and Apache for older kids.
There are restaurants and kiosks around the park, including Crêperie, and there are plenty of shady woodlands and green lawns for picnics.
Where to Stay: Best Hotels in Le Mans, France
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