In Morbihan on the southern side of Brittany, Lorient is an oceangoing city of five ports, with the second-largest fishing harbor in France and an enthralling former naval base. Nearly everything you do in Lorient will have a maritime theme, whether you explore an indestructible Nazi submarine base or dive into the high-tech world of yacht racing at the Cité de la Voile.
The very name of “Lorient” is linked to the French East India Company, which was based in the port up to the 1870s. Their headquarters was the fine Hôtel Gabriel, and there’s a museum all about the company in Port-Louis, a brief crossing from Lorient’s ferry port.
Let’s explore the best things to do in Lorient:
1. Cité de la Voile Éric Tabarly
The only museum in Europe entirely dedicated to sailing, this attraction is an interactive and child-friendly celebration of the sport.
Each year there’s a new high-profile main exhibition, which revolves around modern long-distance racing and navigation.
And to keep younger minds interested there’s loads of multimedia, rigging games, radio-controlled sailboats and even a ten-seater simulator transporting you straight to the high seas in a racing boat.
The museum is named for Éric Tabarly, who won a host of prestigious races in the 60s and 70s aboard his cutter, Ped Duick.
This legendary vessel is also on display at the museum.
2. Keroman Submarine Base
Despite most of Lorient being flattened during the Allied bombing raids in the Second World War, this gargantuan Nazi submarine base survived almost unharmed and couldn’t be taken until the war ended.
It was later re-used by the French Navy until being turned into a visitor attraction by the city.
For two hours you’ll get a well-informed tour of K3, the largest of the blocks, measuring 170 meters in length by 20 meters in height.
The guide will show you around the individual pens, explain how the facility was constructed and recount the history of the U-Boats in Lorient.
3. Tour de la Découverte
In the port enclosure on Le Faouëdic hill is this 40-meter granite watchtower that was built in 1786 to replace a smaller earlier structure.
Although it looks a lot like a lighthouse, that was never the building’s purpose as the tower was intended to monitor port activity and keep an eye out for smugglers.
Later it became a semaphore to communicate with other maritime stations around the bay.
There are 216 steps to the top, where a supreme view of the port awaits.
4. Espace Découverte du Sous-Marin Flore
Also at Lorient’s submarine base is Le Flore, a Daphné-class craft, launched in 1960 and active until 1989. In 2010 the submarine was put into dry dock in one of the base’s concrete cavities and opened as a museum vessel.
So a day out at this attraction is a trip through the cramped but interesting confines of a Cold War-era vessel, all the while getting helpful titbits about torpedo tubes, living quarters and propulsion systems from the audio-guide.
There’s also a separate museum building, which offers a bit of context about Lorient’s early years and growth as a port, as well as what the infrastructure was like when this site was still a military base.
5. Musée de la Compagnie des Indes
There are half-hourly ferries across the Bay in Lorient to Port-Louis.
And this is a trip you have to make if you’d like to get to grips with Lorient’s roots.
That’s because inside the 17th-century Vauban fort is the Compagnie des Indes Museum, which documents the rise of the French East India Company and how Lorient grew around it.
There are permanent and temporary exhibitions of model ships, antique maps, printed documents, fabrics, porcelain and art relating to East Asia.
Also worth your time in this complex is a museum devoted to the French Navy.
6. Hôtel Gabriel
When you’re in Lorient, find out if there’s going to be something going on at the Hôtel Gabriel, which holds regular workshops and exhibitions.
This 18th-century neoclassical palace in the port enclosure was once the salesrooms for the French East India Company.
It was razed during the war but was rebuilt stone for stone in the 1950s.
The Hôtel is the most conspicuous memorial to the wealth that was created with silks and spices traded by the company.
The first floor holds the city archives while the galleries on the ground floor put on temporary shows.
There’s a pretty parterre in the courtyard, which hosts Breton cultural events like the national competition for bagpipe bands and the Festival Interceltique, which we’ll cover later.
7. Keroman Port
For a lot of visitors the appeal of a place like Lorient lies in simply being here and observing all the activity of a real port city.
The Keroman Fishing Port deserves a mention, as it’s France’s second most productive for tonnage of fish caught, just behind Boulogne-sur-Mer.
Get up first thing to catch the frenzied trading at the 600-metre-long auction hall: Deals are conducted by an old ritual that no outsider could hope to grasp.
And then the fish is packed into ice created by a factory pumping 200 tons a day and loaded onto trucks as part of an operation on a mind-blowing scale.
8. FC Lorient
The city has a football team to proud of, as plucky FC Lorient have clung to the top flight of French football for many years despite almost impossible odds.
In that time they’ve developed some future France internationals like Laurent Koscielny and Kévin Gameiro.
Home matches are played at the 16,000-seater Stade du Moustoir, a few steps north of the city hall.
On match-days things can heat up nicely, especially in the Tribune Sud stand, which is the home of the Merlus Ultras supporters group.
The best atmosphere though is for the Breton Derby with rivals Stade Rennais, which takes place once a season.
9. Notre-Dame-de-Victoire Church
In the post-War years, Lorient embraced modern design for its rebuild.
And though this architecture doesn’t have the same mystique as in more historical cities, there are a few monuments to check out.
The standout is this church, made of reinforced concrete in the mid-1950s.
In the interior there’s a rotunda illuminated from the ceiling by small black and yellow windows, creating beautiful shafts of light.
In other locations around Lorient are several lovely art deco buildings, designed in the 1930s by Italian architects fleeing Mussolini’s regime.
10. Groix Island
The region’s second-largest island is a ferry ride from Lorient, and it would be worth your while booking accommodation here for a night or two to get the most out of this unspoiled place.
A walking trail hugs the island’s coastline and will bring you past little beaches with slender ribbons of white sand and hulking rock-forms like the sea battered cliffs at the Trou de Tonnerre (Thunder hole). On a rise above the port is the island’s idyllic main village, which is a bit more animated on Tuesdays and Saturdays when the market sets up.
The port itself used to be France’s largest tuna fishing base, and there’s a museum discussing this period and the Bronze Age megaliths scattered around the island.
11. Ferry Trips
In Lorient the sea is such a way of life that tickets for Batobus water shuttles are interchangeable with bus passes.
So you’d be remiss not to climb aboard and see where your sense of adventure leads you.
We’ve already mentioned Port-Louis, and this town has laid out a free, 21-stop walking tour around its most noteworthy sites.
Batobus also serves Gâvres, which is on the headland opposite Port-Louis.
This used to be another important deep sea fishing port, and the headline feature is the long dune system that connects the town to the mainland.
And you can’t miss Riantec either, which has uplifting coastal scenery, enhanced by its little wooded islands.
Step ashore to track down a Roman road and several Neolithic dolmens.
12. Scorff Valley
Lorient is at the confluence of the Scorff and Blavet rivers, just before the Blavet reaches the ocean.
If you’d like to see Morbihan at its wildest and most remote, the Scorff River can be your reference point for a few days of hiking or even a canoe adventure.
You’ll have more than 400 kilometers of trails to navigate along the river’s densely wooded banks.
And you’ll never be far from a fascinating historic site as there are more than 40 in the Scorff Valley, among them the Celtic Iron Age village Kerven Teignouse.
13. Blavet Valley
The lush Blavet Valley, which extends north from Lorient, is just as beautiful as the Scorff but has a different set of charms.
Minutes upriver in the town of Hennebont is a branch of the Haras Nationaux, the national stud farm responsible for breeding Brittany’s native horse species.
On an everyday visit you’ll be granted a guided tour of the stables and can peruse the horse museum, but there are also special events at different times of year, including Christmas.
In Melrand you can bring younger children to find out what life was like in the year 1000 AD at a reconstructed medieval village, complete with kitchen gardens and rare animal breeds.
14. Festival Interceltique
The city streets, port, Moustoir Stadium and Hôtel Gabriel are taken over by Lorient’s celebration of Celtic heritage every August.
During the first fortnight of the month some 700,000 visitors pour into Lorient for an extravaganza that encompasses all of the Celtic nations, from Galicia in Spain to Scotland.
Music and dance are the festival’s lifeblood, with 200 shows planned and thousands of performers booked.
The traditional instruments that call the tune are the bombard, a double-reed pipe, and the bagpipes, which are a symbol for Brittany.
15. Zoo de Pont-Scorff
For younger visitors there’s a large zoo with many of their favorite animals less than ten kilometers from Lorient.
Big cats like cheetahs, lions, tigers and panthers are all here, while there are Asian elephants, hippos, rhinos and giraffes among the park’s herbivores.
There are more than 600 animals in total, and many live in innovative enclosures, like the macaws, which fly freely above your head.
The zoo is also involved in conservation, and 20 species here including the spectacled bear and Geoffrey’s Cat are part of breeding programs.