La Rochelle’s Old Port, guarded by its medieval towers, is one of the most magnificent urban sights in France. Those towers are open to visitors and brim with 600 years of history.
The city has never really conformed with the rest of France: It was a Huguenot stronghold in the Wars of Religion, is firmly protestant today and has always set its gaze on the ocean.
The museums in the Old Quarter will tell you about the merchants and explorers who embarked on expeditions from the port and are replete with the artefacts they brought back. Fittingly, France’s premier aquarium is in La Rochelle.
Lets explore the best things to do in La Rochelle:
1. Old Harbour
La Rochelle’s harbour is the first thing to see when you arrive, not just because it’s gorgeous, but it demonstrates the close relationship the city has always had with the ocean . You can wander along Quai Duperré, savouring the iconic view of the Tour Saint-Nicolas and Tour de la Chaîne, painted by countless artists including Corot, Signac and Vernet.
Then take a seat under the awnings of one of the many quayside restaurants have a delicious seafood lunch as the little sailboats come and go.
It’s even prettier in the evening with the illuminated towers reflected in the waters.
2. Tour Saint-Nicolas
Defending the opening to the harbour for five centuries, Saint-Nicolas is the taller of the two towers.
Named for the patron saint of sailors and fishermen, the structure is deceptively large, and at 42 metres it’s more of a whole fortress than just a tower.
It has a bewildering labyrinth of connecting spiral stairways, built so one could be used for reinforcements if the others were blocked off by attackers.
You’ll also happen upon lots of little niches, passages and chambers , as well as enlightening historical curiosities like the original oak stakes used in the foundations
3. Tour de la Lanterne
A few steps along Rue sur les Mars from Tour de la Chaîne is the newest of La Rochelle’s three towers.
This one is from the 15th century and as much as serving a defensive purpose it was built to look good: A decorative octagonal spire crowns an older and more austere circular base.
The fourth level of the tower was a prison from the 17th to the 19th century, and could accommodate more than 100 captives.
Even now you can make out the graffiti that these Spanish, French English and Dutch inmates etched into the walls.
And at the top is an outdoor gallery 38 metres above the ground and with panoramas of the old town and harbour.
4. Old Quarter
The cobblestone streets behind the Old Port, worn down by centuries of walkers, deserve a leisurely saunter.
The 16th-century renaissance Hôtel de Ville is still being restored after a fire but can be seen on tours beginning at 15:00 and 16:00. The square in front has a statue of Jean Guiton, the Huguenot mayor of La Rochelle during the siege of the city by Louis XIII the 1620s.
And if you do visit the town hall you’ll see a marble table that he chipped with his dagger.
The streets around the town hall, like Rue du Palais and Rue des Merciers have rows of gorgeous 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’s Aquarium is how it immerses you into the underwater world, beginning with a simulated submarine dive to the depths.
In the nine different zones you’ll encounter some 600 marine species in large tanks and terrariums.
Centre of attention is the enormous shark tank, with 1.5 million litres and terraced seating giving everyone a chance to view these beasts.
Also memorable is the 360° underwater tunnel in which you can see thousands of jellyfish from below.
The aquarium tries to lessen its impact on the natural world is by breeding 20 of the species on display, and also cultivating its own corral in 150 quarantine tanks.
6. Muséum d’Histoire Naturelle de La Rochelle
It’s no coincidence that La Rochelle should have a first-rate Natural History Museum, as for several hundred years navigators and explorers returned from expeditions with all kinds of strange items These contributed to the Lafaille Cabinet of Curiosities in the 18th century, which is presented almost unchanged at this museum and is the oldest surviving natural history “cabinet” in France.
In the rest of this graceful early-19th-century building the museum has extensive ethnographic displays retrieved from Africa, a zoo-full of taxidermies and some wonderful fossils in the basement.
7. Porte de la Grosse-Horloge
Another monument that imbues the old port with historical splendour is a majestic gate on the west side of Quai Duperré.
Passing below the Gross-Horloge you’re entering the town via the main waterside opening in La Rochelle’s medieval walls.
These defences were unnecessary by the 18th century as the city expanded.
Rising from the middle of the gate is an octagonal belfry, which was added in 1746. The bell inside is the heaviest in the department, weighing 2.2 tons.
Like all of the old port, the Grosse-Horloge is marvellous in lights after dark.
8. La Rochelle’s Beaches
The city isn’t traditionally known as a beach destination, but there are three just a few minutes in the car from the Old Port.
Chef de Baie is the best, but also furthest from the centre, at around 15 minutes away.
The breakwater here keeps the currents and wind at bay, and there’s a large grassy patch to the rear of the beach.
In the centre is Plage de la Concurrence, which is vast at low tide but can almost disappear when it comes in.
While the largest and most popular of them all is Plage des Minimes, soft golden sand, edge by a small promenade and La Rochelle’s Grand Route, ferris wheel.
9. Musée des Automates/ Musée des Modèles Réduits
One ticket can get you into these two eccentric museums on Rue de la Désirée.
The first has vintage automatons from around Europe, many dating to the 1800s and with their intricate mechanisms exposed.
Some automatons were attractions at fairs, while others were window displays at shops (now installed along a street scene) and there’s also a fantastic set of moving advertisements from the 1920s to the 50s.
Next door, the model museum is the largest toy collection in the region.
There are railways and cars on show, but most engaging of all is the nautical section, with remote-controlled recreations of historic battles, and antique model boats.
10. Maison Henri II
Hidden in a lovely courtyard along 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 refers to its style.
It’s a glorious place too, with a gallery on the ground floor and a stunning loggia just above.
An interesting historical side-note is that the original owner, Hugues Pontard, who was La Rochelle’s public prosecutor, died of the plague in 1565 and his son François became mayor of the city at just 27. The interior has exhibitions about the archaeology and history of the Aunis province, to which La Rochelle once belonged.
The courtyard has a dinky French garden, with flowerbeds in square boxwood frames.
11. Musée du Nouveau Monde
This museum’s building is also a historical monument, a “hôtel particulier” from 1775 built in the neoclassical and rococo style.
The mansion’s elegant salons are a fitting environment in which to view 17th-century maps, paintings and tapestries that give you a window on the sudden wealth being generated for La Rochelle in South America, the Caribbean and the colonies in North America known as New France.
There are rooms devoted to trade with native Americans, with ethnographic items like furs an original photo prints of the Plains Indians by vaunted 19th-century photographer Edward Curtis.
There’s a dark side too, in the gallleries on slavery, and the realisation that the museum’s lavish home was built by a plantation owner.
12. Allée du Mail
Your post-lunch wander could start in the harbour and continue along this green avenue with elms and pine trees.
When the old port is jammed with tourists in peak season you can retreat to these walkways to get your thoughts together.
With you will be in the company of Rochelais families also out for some peace and fresh air next to the ocean.
At the western end of the Mail is a the city’s memorial for the Second World War.
More fun for kids, on the eastern side is La Rochelle’s mini-golf course.
13. Le Bunker de La Rochelle
You wouldn’t know it on street level, but Rue des Dames in the old quarter is the site of a sizeable Nazi underground bunker.
It was built in 1941 to provide a refuge for German U- Boat commanders during air raids, and covers 280 square metres with several compartments, including an underground restaurant.
Surprisingly many of the walls were decorated with frescoes, and these have been perfectly conserved for the last 70 years.
The museum has display cases with military artefacts, and tableaus that show what the officers’ daily routine might have been like.
14. Île de Ré
The island connects to La Rochelle by bridge, and is a dream in the summer, with rural lanes, picturesque harbours and long golden sandy beaches.
As with La Rochelle the terrain is easy-going for cyclists, and two wheels might be the best way of reaching the many sights and beaches.
In the countryside, see if you can spot the island’s famed woolly donkeys, which go around wearing culottes – we kid you not.
If you need a first port of call it has to be the adorable Saint-Martin-de-Ré with a cute harbour, and fortifications built by Vauban, who was the 17th-century go-to guy for military engineering.
La Rochelle has amazing lobster, prawns, mussels and oysters at some of the best prices in France.
You could go for a classic seafood platter or try moules Charentaises, mussels cooked in a cream and white wine sauce.
Another awesome way to taste the fabulous seafood is at the Marché Central, where nearby bars have an agreement with the stallholders.
You’ll take a seat, and they bar will give you a tray, which you can fill with seafood and bring back to be prepared.
You get a great price and ocean-fresh oysters or prawns to be partnered with light white wines from Charente-Maritimes.