The old port of La Rochelle is guarded by medieval towers and is one of the most magnificent cityscapes in France. Open to tourists, the towers are 600 years old.
The city never really aligned with the rest of France: it was a Huguenot stronghold in the Wars of Religion, today a staunch Protestant, and has always set its sights on the sea.
The museum in the old town will introduce you to the merchants and explorers who set out on expeditions from the port, and is filled with artifacts they brought back. Fittingly, France’s premier aquarium is located in La Rochelle.
Let’s explore the best things to do in La Rochelle:
1. Old Port
La Rochelle’s harbour is the first thing you see when you arrive, not only because it’s gorgeous, but it shows how close the city has always been to the sea. You can stroll along Quai Duperré and admire the iconic landscapes of Tour Saint-Nicolas and Tour de la Chaîne painted by countless artists including Corot, Signac and Vernet.
Then sit under the awning of one of the many marina restaurants and enjoy a delicious seafood lunch as the little sailboats come and go.
Even more beautiful at night, the brightly lit tower is reflected in the water.
2. Visit St. Nicholas
Saint-Nicolas defended the opening of the port for five centuries and is the taller of the two towers.
Named after the patron saint of sailors and fishermen, the seemingly massive 42-meter-high building is more of a full-fledged fort than just a tower.
It has a dizzying maze of connected spiral staircases that can be used for reinforcements if others are blocked by attackers.
You’ll also encounter many small niches, passages and rooms, as well as illuminating historical wonders such as the original oak stakes used in the foundations
3. Tour de la Lanterne
A few steps from the Tour de la Chaîne along Rue sur les Mars is the newest of the three towers of La Rochelle.
This one is from the 15th century, and its construction looks good for defensive purposes: an ornamental octagonal spire crowns an older, more austere circular base.
The fourth level of the tower is a prison from the 17th to 19th centuries, which could hold more than 100 prisoners.
Even now, you can make out the graffiti etched on the walls by these Spanish, French, British and Dutch prisoners.
At the top is an outdoor gallery 38 meters above the ground with panoramic views of the old town and the harbour.
4. Old Town
Worn by centuries of walkers, the cobblestone streets behind the old port are worth a leisurely stroll.
The 16th-century Renaissance Hôtel de Ville is still being restored after the fire, but can be seen on tours starting at 15:00 and 16:00. The square in front houses a statue of Jean Guiton, the Huguenot mayor of La Rochelle during the siege of Louis XIII in the 1620s.
If you do visit the town hall, you will see a marble table that he chopped with a dagger.
The streets around the town hall, such as Rue du Palais and Rue des Merciers, are lined with ornate 17th-century houses with turrets on the corners and long arcades on the lower floors.
5. La Rochelle Aquarium
One of the many cool things about La Rochelle Aquarium is how it immerses you in the underwater world, starting with a simulated submarine diving to the bottom of the ocean.
In nine different areas, you’ll encounter around 600 marine species in large tanks and terrariums.
The eye-catching focal point is the massive shark tank, with its 1.5 million litre capacity and terraced seating, giving everyone a chance to see these beasts.
Also memorable is the 360° underwater tunnel, where you can see thousands of jellyfish from below.
The aquarium seeks to reduce its impact on the natural world by breeding 20 of the species on display, and grows its own corral in 150 quarantine tanks.
6. La Rochelle Natural History Museum
It is no coincidence that La Rochelle has a first-class natural history museum, as over the centuries navigators and explorers have returned from expeditions with a variety of peculiar objects that contributed to the 18th-century Lafayette cabinet, which almost presents this The museum has not changed and is the oldest surviving natural history “cabinet” in France.
In the rest of this elegant early 19th-century building, the museum has an extensive ethnographic display retrieved from Africa, a zoo full of taxidermy, and some fantastic fossils in the basement.
7. Porte de la Grosse-Horloge
Another monument that fills the old port with historical brilliance is a majestic gate on the west side of Quai Duperré.
Passing below Gross-Horloge, you will enter the town through the main waterside opening in the medieval city walls of La Rochelle.
By the 18th century, as the city expanded, these defenses were no longer necessary.
Rising from the middle of the gate is an octagonal bell tower, which was added in 1746. The clock inside is the heaviest in the whole system, weighing 2.2 tons.
Like all old ports, the big clock is stunning in the light after dark.
8. La Rochelle Beach
The city isn’t traditionally known as a beach destination, but it’s just a three-minute drive from the Old Port.
Chef de Baie is the best, but the furthest from the city center, about 15 minutes away.
There are breakwaters here to block currents and wind, and there is a large grassy area behind the beach.
At the center is the Plage de la Concurrence, which is vast at low tide but almost disappears when it comes in.
Although the biggest and most popular of them is the Plage des Minimes, soft golden sand, close to the small promenade and the Grand Route Ferris wheel in La Rochelle.
9. Muséedes Automates/Muséedes Modèles Réduits
A single ticket gets you access to these two quirky museums on Rue de la Désirée.
The first has vintage automata from all over Europe, many dating back to the 1800s, and their complex mechanisms exposed.
Some of the automata are bazaar attractions, while others are shop window displays (now installed next to the street view), and there’s a collection of fascinating advertisements from the 1920s to the 1950s.
The Model Museum next door has the largest collection of toys in the area.
There are railroads and cars on display, but the most fascinating is the nautical section, remote-controlled entertainment with historical battles and antique model ships.
10. Henry II House
Hidden in a lovely courtyard on Rue des Augustins, Maison Henri II is a Renaissance house built in 1555. The name of the house has nothing to do with the king, but rather its style.
It’s also a glorious place, with a gallery on the ground floor and a stunning loggia above.
An interesting historical side note is that the prosecutor of La Rochelle, Hugues Pontard, died of the plague in 1565, and his son became mayor of the city at the age of 27. Inside there are exhibitions on archaeology and history of the Orniz department, to which La Rochelle once belonged.
The courtyard has a small French garden with flower beds in square boxwood frames.
11. New World Museum
The building of the museum is also a historical monument, a “hotel feature” built in 1775 in Neoclassical and Rococo styles.
The elegant salon in the mansion is an excellent setting for viewing 17th century maps, paintings and tapestries, giving you an idea of La Rochelle’s sudden wealth in South America, the Caribbean and the North American colony known as New France.
There are rooms dedicated to trade with Native Americans, with ethnographic items such as furs and original photographs of Plains Indians by renowned 19th-century photographer Edward Curtis.
There’s also a darker side, in the gallery on slavery, the realization that the museum’s lavish residences were built by plantation owners.
12. Allée du Mail
Your post-lunch stroll can start at the harbour and continue along this green avenue of elms and pines.
When the old port is crowded with tourists during peak season, you can retreat to these sidewalks and let your thoughts focus.
With you, the Rochelais family will also enjoy the tranquility and fresh air by the sea.
At the west end of the mail is the city’s World War II memorial.
Even more interesting for the kids, to the east is the miniature golf course in La Rochelle.
13. La Rochelle Bunker
You won’t know it on the streets, but Rue des Dames in the old town is home to a sizable Nazi underground bunker.
Built in 1941 to provide shelter for German U-boat commanders during air raids, it covers an area of 280 square meters and features several compartments, including an underground restaurant.
Amazingly, many of the walls are decorated with frescoes that have been perfectly preserved over the past 70 years.
The museum has display cases displaying military artifacts, as well as images showing what an officer’s daily life might be like.
14. Île de Ré
Connected to La Rochelle by bridge, the island is a summer dream with country lanes, picturesque harbours and long, golden beaches.
Like La Rochelle, the terrain here is easy for cyclists and two wheels are probably the best way to get to the many sights and beaches.
In the countryside, see if you can spot the island’s famous donkeys walking around in culottes – we won’t lie to you.
If you need your first port of call, it has to be the lovely Saint-Martin-de-Ré, with its lovely harbour and fortifications built by Vauban, a 17th century military engineer.
La Rochelle offers amazing lobsters, prawns, mussels and oysters at some of the best prices in France.
You can choose from the classic seafood platter or try the moules Charentaises, mussels cooked in a cream and white wine sauce.
Another great way to sample delicious seafood is at Marché Central, where nearby bars make deals with stall owners.
You’ll sit down and their bar will give you a tray that you can fill with seafood and take back to prepare.
You can accompany sea-fresh oysters or prawns with light white wines from Charente-Maritimes at great prices.
Where to Stay: Best Hotels in La Rochelle, France
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