On a small island in the Loire River in the city of Nantes, a trumpeting mechanical elephant sprays water from its trunk. The curious creature carries 50 passengers at a time, who survey former shipyards from balconies four stories up as well as the internal gears that keep its giant legs lumbering.

The “Aéroflorale II” sculpture was inspired by Leonardo da Vinci's sketches of flying machines. (Photograph by txmx 2, Flickr)

The “Aéroflorale II” sculpture was inspired by Leonardo da Vinci’s sketches of flying machines. (Photograph by txmx 2, Flickr)

It’s the star attraction of Nantes’s Les Machines de L’Île theme park, which has commandeered the once industrial Île de Nantes with a fantasy-​land of inventions inspired by native son Jules Verne. This year the sci-fi hero’s futuristic legacy is also a factor in his hometown’s reign as European Green Capital.

To spread goodwill for plant-powered energy, an eight-ton mechanized sculpture called “Aéroflorale II” has spent 2013 traversing the Continent with its creators at the helm. Outfitted with pinwheeling gadgets to suggest a flying greenhouse, the contraption equally shares the good news of Nantes, a tapestry of parks, gardens, wetlands, and bicycle lanes.

Pervaded by a spirit of creativity, the city has dreamed up a range of resourceful ideas—from audio tours and art walks to a 15th-century castle turned history museum and a warehouse converted into a hammam.

Insider Tip: Explore on two wheels by renting a bike from one 
of 100+ Bicloo stations scattered around town.

This piece, written by Amy M. Thomas, appeared in the November 2013 issue of National Geographic Traveler magazine.