L'église Saint-Melaine de Rennes

Walking tour around religious cultural heritage

5 churches that are free to visit in Rennes

The historic centre of Rennes has a wealth of varied religious cultural heritage that can be easily explored on foot. Here are five religious buildings that are free to visit: Notre-Dame-en-Saint-Melaine, Saint-Germain church, Toussaints church, Saint-Sauveur basilica and Saint-Pierre cathedral. This tour is an open book on art history and Brittany’s cultural history.

Five churches, five stages: explore the city centre of Rennes through the lens of religious cultural heritage. The Tourism Office regularly offers guided tours of the historic centre, but you can also do a short walking tour and visit Rennes’ major churches for free. Follow the guide…

“A magnificent history course in five stages”

“These five churches in Rennes city centre create a magnificent art history course” explains Philippe Bohuon, assistant to the head of cultural heritage at the Tourism Office. Follow this walking tour in chronological order. Start with Notre-Dame-en-Saint-Melaine church, where you can look at both the Roman and Gothic architectural elements. Go towards the Vilaine river to admire Saint-Germain church (14th century-15th century), which is “a magnificent example of a Gothic church”.

On the south side, then head towards Toussaints church (17th century) “the ultimate Jesuit church”. Then turn back to the historic centre for an unmissable visit to Saint-Sauveur, which largely dates back to the 18th century. The tour is not finished until you visit the cathedral “whose 17th-century façade has a baroque flair and whose neo-ultramontan interior – in reference to Rome – dates back to the 19th century”.

A 2 km tour across the city’s iconic monuments

Throughout this route, you will have the chance to visit the iconic places and squares of Brittany’s capital: from the entrance to the Thabor gardens dominated by Saint-Melaine, cross the Vilaine after Saint-Germain and go along the Place de la République with its Palais du Commerce to then take a break at the splendid place de la Mairie, where the Town Hall and the Opera House sit opposite each other before turning off onto pedestrian streets to come to Saint-Pierre cathedral – the highlight of the show with its unique interior and treasury. Please be respectful when visiting these places of worship and take care to not disturb congregation members who are praying or the masses taking place.

The walking route is only two kilometres long, taking approximately 30 minutes (not counting stops to visit churches). Take time to appreciate this mini pilgrimage of cultural heritage.

1. Notre-Dame-en-Saint-Melaine church

Its bell tower can be seen from a distance. It is eye-catching from Place Hoche and beyond. Notre-Dame-en-Saint-Melaine church is like a lighthouse that watches over the entire city. Built on Rennes’s highest point – Thabor – a reference to the biblical mountain of Tabor, it and the cloister are part of the ancient abbey palace. The huge Thabor park was in fact originally the secret garden reserved for Benedictine monks. The church’s decor recounts the centuries of history in the building and forms a composite whole that is simultaneously Roman and Gothic. The organ is one of the elements that should not be missed, especially during the Estivales de l’orgue festival, where you can discover it in more detail before concerts.

  • Opening hours for Notre-Dame-en-Saint-Melaine church: 9 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. Monday to Saturday (Wednesday 10 a.m. to 6:30 p.m.) and 2 p.m. to 6:30 p.m. on Sunday.

2. Saint-Germain church

Saint-Germain was originally the church for rich haberdasher merchants. Its layout is rather unique, as is its bell tower: it is the old belfry tower for the guards. It is a fantastic example of flamboyant Gothic style with some more recent Renaissance elements. This was a reflection of Breton tastes and the parish’s wealth when the Parlement was in operation. Once inside, you can admire the oldest stained-glass windows in Rennes and an organ that you can also take the opportunity to hear during the Estivales de l’orgue festival.

  • Opening hours for Saint-Germain church: 9:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. from Monday to Friday, 9:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Saturday and 2 p.m. to 6 p.m. on Sunday.

3. Toussaints church

This 17th-century Baroque church was built by the Jesuits. It is next to Lycée Emile Zola secondary school, where the second trial of the Dreyfus Affair took place. The interior, in the Counter-Reformation Baroque style, has been recently restored. With its immaculate white nave, it is a type of Jesuit church that was rebuilt many times up to the 18th century. Make a note to see the three altarpieces in particular.

  • Opening hours for Toussaints church: 9:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. from Monday to Friday, 9:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Saturday and 2 p.m. to 6 p.m. on Sunday.

4. Saint-Sauveur basilica

On the other bank of the Vilaine river, Saint-Sauveur is a unique place of worship at the very heart of the city centre. The term “basilica” indicates the distinction given by the papacy to a church after several recognised miraculous events. Hence its other name “Notre-Dame des Miracles et des Vertus” (Our Lady of Miracles and Virtues) and the presence of a basilica umbraculum. The ex-voto offering for the 1720 fire is the most notable piece of the church’s miraculous story: it refers to the statue of the Virgin Mary that was found intact although the building was partly destroyed by flame. Its façade is a type of classical architecture. Another particular feature of the basilica is that it faces from east to west, which is the opposite to the original church.

  • Opening hours for Saint-Sauveur basilica: 9 a.m. to 12 p.m. and 2 p.m. to 6 p.m. from Monday to Saturday and 2 p.m. to 6 p.m. on Sunday

5. Saint-Pierre cathedral

Rennes cathedral
Destination Rennes © Franck Hamon

Rennes cathedral is a rare example of a Roman basilica in Brittany and is part of the region’s history. This is where the Dukes of Brittany came to be crowned after having passed through the Portes Mordelaises, in accordance with tradition. Like the façade, the interior had undergone a number of changes over the centuries until Monseigneur Brossay-Saint-Marc imposed the “ultramontan” style to create a miniature Roman basilica in the 19th century. Perhaps not so miniature, incidentally, as its two towers reach more than 50 metres tall and its 44 huge imitation-marble columns are impressive. The decor and paintings are worth seeing, as are the contemporary statues that were installed in 2019. Do not leave without having taken a tour of the new treasury, where a stunningly restored masterpiece awaits: an extremely rare Antwerp altarpiece that dates back to 1520.

  • Opening hours for Saint-Pierre cathedral: 9:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. from Monday to Saturday and 2 p.m. to 6 p.m. on Sunday.
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