17 Top-Rated Tourist Attractions in Poitou-Charentes & Beautiful Villages
A beautiful and undiscovered region of France, the Poitou-Charentes is defined by the sea and its gently flowing rivers. Bordering the Atlantic Ocean, Poitou-Charentes lies in between the Loire Valley, the Gironde River, and the Limousin region. Its seafaring history began in La Rochelle during the medieval era and flourished through the Renaissance, while Rochefort-sur-Mer served as a naval port for King Louis XIV in the 17th century. The riverside towns of Poitiers and Angoulême are famous for their religious importance and stunning ancient Romanesque churches.
From rugged coastline to enchanting marshland, Poitou-Charentes has one of the most varied landscapes in France. Sunbathe on gorgeous beaches along the Côte de Beauté (Coast of Beauty). Escape to idyllic islands and relax on pristine sandy shores. Visit small villages, shop at artisan craft boutiques, and indulge in authentic cuisine. Poitou-Charentes is renowned for its fresh oysters and mussels, seafood stew, and special Barbezieux chicken only found in this region.
1 La Rochelle
Beautifully located on a café bay of the Atlantic Ocean, the ancient seaport of La Rochelle has a distinctive character. The Vieux Port (Old Port) is guarded by two massive towers, the Tour Saint-Nicolas and the Tour de la Chaîne, which served defensive purposes during the Middle Ages. Flanked by the Quai Duperré and the Cours Wilson, the Old Port has a bustling harbor and a busy café scene. Nearby is the Bassin à Flot, an atmospheric fishermen's quarter.
Tourists will enjoy exploring the quaint Old Town of La Rochelle with its atmospheric pedestrian streets and impressive landmarks. The centerpiece of the historic quarter is the Hôtel-de-Ville (Town Hall), a lovely Renaissance building that is open to the public. The building has a beautiful courtyard and is lavishly furnished. The Grand Rue des Merciers is a medieval arcaded street lined with enticing shops. The name means "Street of the Haberdashers" and there are still many stylish clothing and shoe boutiques found in the arcaded corridors. Other must-see sights include the 16th-century town house Maison de Henri II and the 15th-century Tour de la Lantern lighthouse that is one of La Rochelle's most emblematic sights.
2 Poitiers Churches: Saint-Hilaire-le-Grand & Sainte-Radegonde
Poitiers stands proudly on a rocky plateau above the Clain and Boivre rivers, overlooking a valley spanned by high bridges. The old capital city of the Poitou region, Poitiers is most famous for defending Christianity in the 8th century. In 732, Charles Martel fought a battle near Poitier defeating the Arabs and halting the advance of Islam.
The most important historic monument in Poitiers is the Eglise Saint-Hilaire-le-Grand, a remarkable UNESCO-listed 11th-12th century Romanesque church. The church stands on the burial site of Saint Hilaire (Bishop of Poitier in the 4th century) and contains relics of the Bishop, which made it a pilgrimage destination for the faithful who wished to pay homage to Saint Hilaire. During the Middle Ages, the Church of Saint-Hilaire the Great was an important stop on the "Way of Saint James" pilgrims' trail to Santiago de Compostela in Spain. The most noteworthy aspect of the church's architecture is its six domed chapels built around the central apse and transept. The church was severely damaged during the French Revolution and restored in the 19th century. To reach the Church of Saint-Hilaire (26 Rue Saint Hilaire), start at the Place du Maréchal-Leclerc, where the 19th-century Hôtel de Ville (Town Hall) is located, and continue west along Rue Théophraste-Renaudot and Rue Saint-Hilaire.
After visiting the Church of Saint-Hilaire, walk a few steps away to the Eglise Notre-Dame-la-Grande. This 11th-12th-century church is one of the most richly decorated Romanesque churches in France. Notice the Byzantine-influenced details of the Biblical scenes on the facade and in the colorfully decorated interior. A short walk away (heading towards the river) is the Cathédrale Saint-Pierre. The cathedral is worth seeing for its 13th-century stained-glass windows. South of the cathedral on Rue Jean Jaurès is the Baptistère Saint-Jean, the oldest surviving Christian church in France. Built in 356-368 AD by the order of Saint Hilaire, the church has 6th-century frescoes and houses a Merovingian archaeological museum.
On the east side of the town is the little Eglise Sainte-Radegonde. This church was built in the 11th century on the site of an earlier church, which housed a tomb of the town's patron saint. The crypt, choir, and west tower date from the 11th century, while the nave and west doorway were constructed from the 13th to the 15th centuries. The ambulatory has beautiful capitals decorated with many figures of people and animals. The crypt contains the 6th-century sarcophagus of Sainte Radegonde, daughter of the pagan King Berthar of Thuringia and wife of the Frankish King Clotaire I.
The historic town of Angoulême has endured a tempestuous history despite its lofty position high above the Charente River, seemingly far from the troubles of the world. The town's Ramparts offer gorgeous views of the countryside, but these medieval walls were necessary to defend the city. Still the Wars of Religion left the town severely damaged. The Cathedral of Saint-Pierre, Angoulême's finest building was constructed from 1105 to 1128 and restored around 1650. The cathedral blends Romanesque and Byzantine styles. The facade displays more than 70 figures depicting the Ascension and the Last Judgment scenes and the interior features harmonious classical columns and four domes that offer a sense of spaciousness.
Other highlights include the Hôtel de Ville (Town Hall) built in 1858-1866 on the site of a Château of the Dukes of Angoulême. The only surviving remnants of the castle are the Tour Polygone (13th-century tower) and the Tour de Valois (15th-century tower). Nearby is the Eglise Saint-André, a Gothic church with beautiful 17th-century stalls. Housed in the former Bishop's Palace, the Musée d'Angoulême, offers three diverse collections: archaeology (prehistoric to medieval); fine arts; and overseas art of the Maghreb, Africa, and Polynesia. Angoulême hosts a well-attended Comic Strip Festival every January.
Listed as a Ville d'Art et d'Histoire (City of Art and History), this regal seaside town was founded in 1666 as a naval port at the request of King Louis XIV. Nowadays, Rochefort-sur-Mer is more of a spa destination, but visitors can still discover the town's military and seafaring heritage. Tourists can visit the imposing 17th-century Arsenal and a replica of the Hermione, the naval ship that the Marquis de Lafayette sailed to America in 1780 to help fight the War of Independence. The Maritime Museum has more naval memorabilia, and the Corderie Royale, the old royal ropeworks building, features exhibitions on maritime themes. The Musée de la Vieille Paroisse, created by the Geographic Society of Rochefort in 1878, displays archaeological finds and historical research.
One of the top spa towns in France, Rochefort has two excellent spas: Société Thermale de Rochefort and Maison du Curiste. About 25 kilometers away is the Plage de Marennes, a beautiful beach popular with French families because of its safe waters. Situated in an estuary and surrounded by sand dunes, the water is protected from waves and tides. Children enjoy wading in the shallow areas and making sandcastles on the shore. There's also a playground and a café.
Steeped in history dating back to antiquity, Saintes has a rich heritage reflected by its monuments. The Arch of Germanicus, a triumphal arch erected in AD 19, was originally part of a bridge that spanned the river. The Gallo-Roman Amphitheater is one of the oldest structures of its kind, which had seating for 20,000 spectators. Founded in 1047, the Abbaye Sainte Marie aux Dames exemplifies Romanesque architecture with ornate sculptural decoration above the doorways. The 12th to 13th-century Eglise Saint-Palais is an austere church that was associated with the abbey. The Romanesque Eglise Saint-Eutrope houses the tomb of Saint Eutropius. This stunning Romanesque church was founded in 1096 for pilgrims on the "Way of Saint James" trail.
Saintes' museums give an insight into the town's culture. The Archaeological Museum displays a large collection of artifacts. The Musée Dupuy-Mestreau focuses on regional culture (furniture, costumes, and jewelry) and the Musée des Beaux-Arts displays Sèvres porcelain; local ceramics; and French, Flemish, and Dutch paintings from the 19th to 20th centuries. Saintes is also renowned for its Jeux Santons an international folklore festival that takes place annually in July and presents folkloric dancing, music, and singing from all over the world.
The sunny seaside resort of Royan is the most visited of the beach resorts along the "Côte de Beauté" (Coast of Beauty), which extends from the Gironde Estuary to the Avert Peninsula. Although much of Royan was destroyed during the Second World War, it was rebuilt in an attractive style. The Pontaillac quarter has retained some of the Old World atmosphere, whereas the ultra-contemporary cathedral has a stunning modern design. The biggest tourist attraction of Royan is nature. The town has five sandy beaches that draw many sunbathers during summertime.
Just outside the town of Royan, the top attraction for families with children is the Zoo de La Palmyre (about 16 kilometers away). The zoo is home to 1,600 species-from flamingos and hippos to pandas and polar bears. La Palmyre Zoo is appreciated for keeping animals in a relatively natural environment. Children enjoy feeding the giraffes popcorn from their hands. Other favorite seaside destinations on the Côte de Beauté include the sheltered family-friendly beach at Saint-Georges-de-Didonne, the Meschers Beach that has camping facilities, the large sandy beach in Saint-Palais, and the Grande Côte Beach and La Palmyre Beach bordered by pine-tree forests.
7 Château de La Rochefoucauld
The Château de La Rochefoucauld is reminiscent of the magnificent châteaux of the Loire Valley. Built between the 12th and 16th centuries, this marvelous castle features a blend of architectural styles including impressive medieval towers and majestic Renaissance galleries. The magnificent Cour d'Honneur (Grand Courtyard) shows an Italian influence and is one of the finest courtyards in France. The owners of the château can trace their lineage back to the year 1019 with Foucauld, Lord of the Roche region. The Rochefoucauld family is among the five oldest noble lineages in France. The Château de La Rochefoucauld was also the ancestral home of François de la Rochefoucauld (1613-1680), who was the author of the famous Maxims. About 25 kilometers from Angoulême, the château is well worth a detour. The Château de La Rochefoucauld doubles as a hotel, offering guests an upscale bed & breakfast experience.
Address: Château de La Rochefoucauld, 16110 La Rochefoucauld
8 Ile de Ré
Appreciated for its idyllic scenery and balmy climate, the Ile de Ré offers tourists a truly relaxing getaway. This island attracts many visitors during the summer yet still has a remote feeling. The island offers ten kilometers of fine sandy beaches and a wild terrain of pine forests, marshes, oyster beds, hollyhocks, and fields of rosemary. The Ile de Ré is a paradise for sports enthusiasts; sailing, surfing, and cycling are popular activities. The UNESCO-listed village of Saint Martin-de-Ré delights visitors with its quaint ambience, colorful fishing harbor, stylish boutiques, trendy cafés, and gourmet restaurants.
Ile de Ré has two Plus Beaux Villages (Most Beautiful Villages): the quintessential port village of Ars-en Ré with its winding medieval streets, beautiful whitewashed houses, and historic Church of Saint-Étienne church; and the village of La Flotte-en-Ré with its impressive 12th-century Cistercian abbey and 17th-century fortifications. The best beaches on the Ile de Ré are Le-Bois-Plage-en-Ré beach with its pristine sandy shores and La Plage de la Conche beach bordered by a pine forest. The Ile de Ré is a short drive from La Rochelle connected by a three-kilometer bridge.
9 Marais Poitevin
Along the Atlantic coastline around La Rochelle, this expansive marshland covers an area of 15,000 hectares. Until the 11th century, this swampy area was part of the sea. As a result of man-made canals and natural channels, the Marais Poitevin developed into an enchanting area. This special nature reserve has a dreamlike quality and is best discovered by boat. Take a traditional flat-bottomed punt ride through the little streams and waterways, lined by poplar, ash, and alder trees. The surrounding landscape is a patchwork of arable fields, pastureland, and meadows. It is also possible to explore the area by car, horse-drawn carriage, or bicycle. A pleasant bicycle path runs along the river between the villages of La Garette and Le Mazeau, allowing cyclists to take in the scene of typical Marais houses and flourishing meadows.
Coulon is the main village of the Marais Poitevin region. This beautiful village has a noteworthy 11th-century church and quaint, brightly colored houses. Other highlights of the area include Arçais with its atmospheric old port; Magné, which has a renowned restaurant (Brasserie de la Repentie); the small community of Saint-Hilaire-la-Palud; and the villages on the Sèvre River in the area around Niort.
10 Ile d'Oléron
A popular holiday resort, the Ile d'Oléron is the largest French island after Corsica. The island is easily accessible by ferry as well as by train or car (it's connected with the mainland by a viaduct). During summer, the island draws many vacationers because of its beautiful beaches and gorgeous nature sites. The main town is the port of Le Château-d'Oléron, which has a 17th-century citadel. In the village of Saint-Pierre d'Oléron, the Musée Oléronais is devoted to the history and folk art of the island.
On the east side of the island are extensive oyster beds. Every year in August, the island celebrates its fishing heritage and local gastronomy with the Fête du Chenal d'Ors. This festival allows visitors to watch oyster and mussel boats at work and includes delicious tastings of freshly prepared seafood. Most of the best sandy beaches are on the west side of the island near the fishing port of La Cotinière. The Grande Plage has 12 spectacular kilometers of fine sandy beach. With their wild waves, the Vert Bois and L'Acheneau are popular with surfers. Families prefer the beaches of Saint-Trojan les Bains, Boyardville, and Saumonards with their gentler waters.
Niort is a picturesque historic town that invites tourists to explore its hidden wonders. Stroll around the Saint-Liguaire quartier, following the Sèvre River. Discover quaint half-timbered houses around Rue Saint-Jean. Visit the Musée du Pilori in the 16th-century Hôtel de Ville (former Town Hall), a classified Historic Monument. Admire the Eglise Notre-Dame with its impressive tower and exquisite Aubusson tapestries. To discover the town's cultural heritage, visit the Musée Bernard d'Agesci, which offers three museum collections in one: beaux arts (fine arts), natural history, and education. Henry II of England and Richard Coeur-de-Lion built a castle in Niort in the 12th century. All that remains of the castle are the dungeon consisting of two massive towers, which now houses a museum of regional archaeology.
About 35 kilometers away from Niort is the magnificent Château de Dampierre built in 1550 by the Duc de Luynes. The château was later rebuilt between 1675 and 1683 by Jules Hardouin-Mansart, the architect who designed Versailles. The Château of Dampierre is renowned for its beautiful gardens. André Le Nôtre created one of the gardens with decorative pools, parterres, and lime alleys. The other garden is a lush woodland area.
About 20 kilometers north of Bordeaux, the elegant town of Cognac is filled with inspiring architecture, quaint narrow streets, and charming buildings decorated with potted flowers. The old town has many lovely 17th and 18th-century mansions. Other highlights include the Château des Valois built between the 13th and 16th centuries and the Eglise Saint-Léger that blends Romanesque and Gothic styles. Several attractions are within easy driving distance of Cognac: Merpins, which has ruins of the Roman town of Condate; the village of Châteauneuf-sur-Charente with its beautiful Romanesque church; and the scenic river port town of Port-Hublé.
13 Château d'Oiron
This majestic Renaissance château lies on the border of the Loire Valley and the Poitou-Charentes region (approximately 65 kilometers away from Poitiers). The château was once the residence of the Comte de Caravaz (Count of Caravaz), who created of the character Marquis of Carabas in Charles Perrault's fairy tale, Puss in Boots. The château's Grande Galerie displays beautiful French Renaissance paintings and the Salle des Gardes is adorned with 14th- to 16th-century frescoes depicting scenes from the Aeneid. The château has an exquisite Renaissance Chapel built in the 16th century. There is also an interesting permanent collection of Curios & Mirabilia contemporary art.
Address: 10 Rue du Château, 79100 Oiron
14 Les Jardins du Chaigne
A place of tranquility and serene beauty, Les Jardins du Chaigne are gorgeous French gardens surrounding a 19th-century manor house. Visitors are delighted by the variety of vibrant flowers, the fruit gardens, and the pleasant chestnut trees. The garden is divided into sections: a French garden with geometric hedging, well-groomed topiaries, lavender, and roses; the vegetable garden with its wonderful selection of edible delights; the water garden with superb vistas; and the "petit théâtre," which is an area of sloped lawn that mimics the shape of a theater. Spend some time on a patch of grass and soak up the marvelous views. The Jardins du Chaigne property lies about 25 kilometers from Cognac and 35 kilometers from Angoulême, making it an easy and worthwhile excursion by car.
Address: Le Chaigne, 16120 Touzac
15 Château de Mirambeau
Between Cognac and Bordeaux in the charming little village of Mirambeau, the Château de Mirambeau is a historic monument. Dating back to the Middle Ages, the château was renovated in Renaissance style in the 17th century. The Château de Mirambeau has been converted into a luxurious five-star Relais & Châteaux hotel decorated in sumptuous style, ready to welcome guests seeking a pampering overnight stay. The château is surrounded by an eight-hectare park that overlooks the Gironde Estuary. The property has tennis courts, two swimming pools, and nature trails for jogging or walking. The hotel is also renowned for its gastronomic restaurant with cuisine created by Maxime Deschamps, a Michelin-starred chef.
Address: 1 Avenue des Comte-Duchâtel, 17150 Mirambeau
16 Parc du Futuroscope (Amusement Park)
Families with children will enjoy a day or afternoon spent at Futuroscope, a unique amusement park focused on science and technology. This innovative park features wild rides, entertaining shows, and seven themed restaurants. Kids can relive history with a time travel game, hop on a special train ride, discover the wonders of the universe with Cosmic Collisions, follow the story of the Petit Prince, and dance with robots while a DJ mixes music. There is also a cinema in a theater shaped like a Giant Tomato. The Parc du Futuroscope lies about 12 kilometers away from Poitiers. The amusement park has an affordable hotel on site.
Address: Avenue René Monory, 86360 Chasseneuil-du-Poitou
17 Les Lacs de Haute Charente (Lake District)
Nature lovers will enjoy an excursion to the Lake District of the Charente region. This pristine area is a paradise for outdoor sports enthusiasts. There are two large lakes ideal for boating and water skiing as well as relaxing by the water. Hiking and horseback riding are also popular activities. Thrill seekers will want to visit the Adventure Park in Massignac, which offers zip lining, bungee jumping, and adventure courses.
Beautiful Villages in Poitou-Charentes
This picturesque medieval village is dominated by the ruins of its ancient château, with the remains of two impressive towers, the old dungeon, and two chapels. Angles-sur-l'Anglin is another of France's Plus Beaux Villages. The riverside town has many old buildings decorated with potted flowers, and the peaceful setting offers the ambience of a bygone era. Visitors love wandering the cobblestone streets and shopping at the little boutiques. The village is renowned for its traditional handmade embroidery.
Aubeterre-sur-Dronne is one of France's Plus Beaux Villages (Most Beautiful Villages) about 50 kilometers from Angoulême. This medieval hilltop village has a typical tree-lined town square, steep cobblestone streets, and red-tile roofed buildings. During the Middle Ages, the village was a stop on the pilgrimage trail to Santiago de Compostela, Spain. Tourists will enjoy wandering the town, taking in the views, shopping at traditional artisan boutiques, and seeing the village's spectacular church. The incredible underground church, the Eglise Saint-Jean, was carved out of a cliff by monks in the 12th century and has a replica of the tomb of Joseph of Arimathea from the Holy Sepulchre Church in Jerusalem.
About 40 kilometers from Cognac, the village of Aulnay lies on the medieval pilgrimage road to Santiago de Compostela in Spain. The focal point of the village is the Eglise Saint-Pierre. This magnificent Romanesque church has a splendid tower and steeple, a richly sculptured facade, and fine capitals.
The little town of Brouage lies less than 20 kilometers from Rochefort in an area of expansive marshland, which gives it a serene ambience. Brouage was built between 1630 and 1640 and is a fine example of a fortified town of the pre-Vauban period. The town is surrounded by 13-meter-high walls with seven bastions. Two gates within the walls were designed to allow entry.
On the Vienne River, the town of Chauvigny lies about 24 kilometers away from Poitiers. This historic town is famous for its five medieval châteaux and its well-preserved 11th- to 13th-century Romanesque church. The Collégiale Sainte-Pierre has a sensational facade with many interesting sculptural details and a splendidly decorated sanctuary.
Surrounded by the Poitevin marshland, this atmospheric village is one of France's Plus Beaux Villages (Most Beautiful Villages). Coulon is the most important town of the Venise Verte (Green Venice) in the Marais Poitevin. The village has traditional marshland houses with whitewashed walls and colorful shutters as well as elegant Renaissance buildings. The Maison du Marais Poitevin, which used to be a toll house, is now a museum that celebrates the regional culture. The museum features exhibits of the area's flora and fauna, rooms that are designed like a typical Marais house, and information about the traditional punt boats of the Marais Poitevin. In the village of Coulon, visitors can hire punts and spend a few hours exploring the area on a leisurely boat ride.
Between Poitiers and La Rochelle, the medieval village of Melle was an important stop on the "Way of Saint James" pilgrimage route to Santiago de Compostela in Spain. Because of its religious heritage, the village has three remarkable Romanesque churches: the domed Eglise Saint-Hilaire with beautifully carved capitals; the Eglise Saint-Savinien, which has a classical music festival in spring and summer; and the harmonious 10th-century Eglise Saint-Pierre.
An important fishing port about 30 kilometers from Talmont-sur-Gironde, the village of Mornac-sur-Seudre is renowned for its oyster farms and salt marshes. The village is listed as one of France's Plus Beaux Villages because of its impressive Romanesque architecture. The 11th-century Eglise Saint-Pierre is especially noteworthy. The village has a peaceful setting in the marshland near a sheltered sea port.
The little town of Saint Savin lies on the left bank of the Gartempe River. The village has an 11th-century Abbey Church with some of the finest 12th-century Romanesque wall paintings in France. The most remarkable are those on the vaulting of the nave, covering an area of 412 square meters and illustrating the Biblical story from the Creation onwards. From the Pont-Vieux, the old bridge over the Gartempe River, there is a superb view of the church from a distance.
The village of Talmont-sur-Gironde enjoys a majestic setting on a cliff overlooking the Gironde Estuary. One of France's Plus Beaux Villages, Talmont-sur-Gironde was founded for King Edward I in the 13th century. The village was designed as a fortified town and is still surrounded by its ancient ramparts. The town has many narrow streets lined with red-tile roofed, whitewashed houses. The Eglise Sainte-Radegonde is one of the most important Romanesque churches in the region. The village lies 20 kilometers south of Royan.
On the Charentes River less than 40 kilometers north of Angoulême, the village of Verteuil-sur-Charente was a stop on the medieval pilgrimage route from Tours to Santiago de Compostela in Spain. The village has an enchanting turreted château, which from a distance looks like a fairy tale castle. The Château de Verteuil is considered one of the finest castles in the Charente region. To explore the town, take the steep steps from Rue du Temple up to the Chemin des Dames, which leads to the church. The 12th-century Eglise Saint-Medard boasts a fantastic Mise au Tombeau, a life-sized, painted terracotta sculpture of the Entombment of Christ created in the 16th century by Germain Pilon. For those spending the night, the 15th-century Couvent des Cordeliers monastery is now an elegant hotel surrounded by a beautiful park and golf course.