La Rochelle is a historic port town in the west of France, off the Atlantic coast in the department of Charente-Maritime. It’s the perfect little city for a weekend break and a great base from which to explore the area. Rich in culture, architecture and gastronomy, there’s loads to see and do here…
Top things to do in La Rochelle
La Rochelle’s state-of-the-art Aquarium is one of the most beautiful in Europe. It’s one of the top ten provincial tourist attractions in France and a must see when you visit. It holds three million litres of water and is home to more than 12,000 marine animals. Sharks, jelly fish, and pouting fish of all sorts keep the whole family entertained. They also have a thriving turtle population and specialise in treating sick turtles bought here specifically for the turtle team’s expertise. When the turtles are well, they’re released back into the sea with a GPS tracker attached and you can follow their progress via the Aquarium website (details www.aquarium-larochelle.com/en/preservation/behind-the-scenes-blog/turtles-go)
Marché de la Rochelle in the Saint Nicolas district
Don’t miss a visit to the daily market (Wednesday is the biggest market day) in a 19th century building in the former fishermen’s district, quartier Saint Nicolas. You’ll find it between the train station and the Vieux Port, an area of cobbled streets and ancient arcaded buildings. Apart from the fabulous display of fresh produce, this market has an “à table” local producers scheme. Basically you get a plate at the market, buy some bread, wander round and choose what you want from the stall holders from fresh succulent oysters, scrumptious cheeses, paté, charcuterie, seasonal fruits etc and then enjoy your lunch onsite.
Towers of La Rochelle
You just can’t miss the famous Towers of La Rochelle. Looking out to the Atlantic, the Tour Saint-Nicolas (14th century), the Tour de la Chaîne (14th Century) and the Tour de la Lanterne (12th and15th century) are the remains of a great fortification building campaign undertaken in the City of La Rochelle from 1199. The “Tour Saint Nicolas” and “Tour de la Chaine” form the majestic gateway to the Old Port and for ten centuries formed the key defensive bastions to the city. The Tour de la Lanterne, the oldest lighthouse on the Atlantic coast, was once a navy prison and contains over 600 examples of graffiti carved into the walls by prisoners in over 3 centuries. Climb the towers to get fabulous views over the city, port and sea.
Enjoy an aperitif on a boat
Not many visitors discover one of the locals favourite bars but of course I’m going to share it with you! Head to the Maritime Museum and next to it is the France I, a former meteorological ship. It’s now a bar and restaurant. It’s the perfect place for an aperitif with a simple plancha (snack), oysters or seafood platter. I loved that there are no plastic cups or straws onboard, only reusable eco cups. Watching the sunset from the wooden deck, you really feel as if you’ve cast off and escaped. lefrance1.com
Discover a bar with a secret courtyard
L’Imprevu is in a lovely square lined with bars and restaurants the locals love. The staff are welcoming, the beer and wine are good, plus it has a great cocktail list. Sit out on the terrace or the romantic secret courtyard of this former mansion and simply enjoy the moment. Address: 1 bis Rue de la Fourche
Visit a museum
Discover the history of La Rochelle and the area with a visit to La Rochelle’s museums. The museums of Art and History of La Rochelle bring together two municipal museums – the Museum of the New World and the Museum of Fine Arts. La Rochelle was one of the major trading ports and emigration points to the new world. The port of La Rochelle was the last sight thousands of emigrants saw before setting sails for the Americas and Antilles. The museum of the new world explores the relationship between France and the Americas and its collection include paintings, sculptures, ancient maps and decorative arts as well as eighteenth-century French furniture and rare American colonial furniture.
There’s also the Museum of Natural History and the Maritime Museum.
Take to the seas to discover the coast of La Rochelle. Head to Fort Boyard or go island hopping to Ile de Ré, Ile d’Oleron and Ile d’Aix. Take a two hour, half-a-day or full day trip. Departure points are the Vieux Port, Cours des Dames or the Esplanade Saint-Jean-d’Acre. You can even take an electric boat ride between the old port and the Minimes Marina.
Pop to the tourist office when you’re in La Rochelle to get boat ride details as schedules change with the seasons. Address: 2 Quai Georges Simenon
Relax on the beach
Spread your towel on the sands at Plage de la Concurrence, a short walk from the Vieux Port. Behind the beach is the Parc Charruyer which is great for families with an animal park, mini golf, and a big park.
Take a detour – to the Ile de Ré
Cross the Pont de l’Ile de Ré and visit one of France’s most beautiful islands. You have to pay (on the way in only) and it’s a busy crossing at peak times but when you get there it’s an island paradise. Just 30km long and 5km wide but with long sandy beaches, vineyards, beautiful villages of whitewashed villages, salt marshes and oyster beds. You can take the bus which leaves each hour from La Rochelle train station (lesmouettes-transport.com). Or take a 40 minute boat ride to St Martin en Ré (April to October), one of the prettiest villages on the island. iledere-larochelle.fr/
Dine with the locals
There are lots of touristy type restaurants around the waterfront – many of them very good, some of them excellent (André’s). But if you want to go where the locals go for a taste of authentic La Rochelle rue St-Jean-du-Perot is locally known as the ‘food street’ of La Rochelle. The street is home to top restaurants serving classic French cuisine as well as world cuisine. Just minutes from the old port but often overlooked by visitors it’s a great place to enjoy nightlife with lots of bars and clubs. It’s a friendly, festive streets.
Overnight at Hotel Saint-Nicolas ***. Located in the St. Nicolas area, 2 minutes from the old port and 200 meters from the station is the comfortable and welcoming Hotel Saint-Nicolas. It’s 86 rooms are comfy in a quiet road. www.hotel-saint-nicolas.com