10 Top-Rated Attractions & Things to Do in La Rochelle
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With its weather-beaten harbor and salty sea air, La Rochelle has the distinctive character of an ancient port town. Imposing fortified towers guard the town, which overlooks a picturesque bay of the Atlantic Ocean and is surrounded by medieval ramparts.
La Rochelle has a delightful historic district, which is full of impressive old buildings. A stroll through the cobblestone streets is a journey back in time, from the Middle Ages to the 18th century.
This cultured city boasts an astounding array of museums. It's also a place for outdoor activities, such as biking, sailing, nature walks, and seaside relaxation.
For the perfect beach getaway, the dreamy Island of Ré is just a few minutes away. Several other day trip options are within easy travel distance, including Rochefort, the elegant 17th-century naval base, and the small country village of Esnandes.
Learn about the best places to visit and things to do in La Rochelle with our list of the top attractions.
See also: Where to Stay in La Rochelle
Note: Some businesses may be temporarily closed due to recent global health and safety issues.
1. Vieille Ville (Old Town)
Brimming with old-world ambience, La Rochelle's historic quarter invites tourists to take their time wandering around and admiring the sights. At the center of the Vieille Ville is the richly decorated Hôtel de Ville (Town Hall). Nearby on a quiet side street (11 Bis Rue des Augustins), the opulent 16th-century Maison de Henri II (open to the public) exemplifies Renaissance grandeur.
At the northeast corner of the Hôtel de Ville, is the Grand Rue des Merciers ("Street of the Haberdashers"), lined with half-timbered medieval houses and stately townhouses. True to its name, the street has many clothing boutiques in its rez-de-chaussée arcades.
A focal point of the city, the 15th-century Tour de la Lanterne was built as a lighthouse and was formerly used as a prison. Just north of the Tour de la Lanterne on the Rue du Palais are two splendid 18th-century buildings: the Palais de Justice (Law Courts) and the Bourse (Stock Exchange).
At the end of the Rue du Palais is the 14th-15th century Porte de la Grosse-Horloge (Door of the Grand Clock), a remnant of the old town gate and the entrance to the Vieille Ville's quaint area of pedestrian-only lanes.
2. Vieux Port (Old Port)
Spending time at the bustling Vieux Port is one of the most exciting things to do in La Rochelle. This is where visitors can embark on a cruise or simply enjoy an authentic seafood meal. The harbor is filled with small fishing boats (and touristic boats) and lined with enticing restaurants, many of which have pleasant outdoor seating that spreads out onto the cobblestone street facing the port.
The entrance to the Vieux Port is guarded by two medieval towers, the massive Tour Saint-Nicolas on the east side and the imposing Tour de la Chaîne on the west. The Tour Saint-Nicolas was designed as a fort to protect the city from invaders.
The Tour de la Chaîne on the Rue sur les Murs (Tower of the Chain on the Street of Walls) takes its name from the chain that was drawn across the mouth of the harbor and attached to the defensive walls at night during the Middle Ages. The south side of the harbor affords a sensational view of the harbor and the town.
3. La Rochelle Aquarium
An immersion into the vibrant colors and fascinating variety of marine life in the deep sea, La Rochelle's Aquarium presents hundreds of species, from the Atlantic and Indo-Pacific oceans, the Mediterranean, and the Caribbean seas.
Visitors will see all kinds of marvelous creatures, from transparent jelly fish and spotfin lionfish to long-snouted seahorses and bonnethead sharks. Some aquarium residents are endangered or protected species, such as the hawksbill turtles and coral reefs.
In addition to providing educational content, the aquarium supports conservation projects. For instance, the Aquarium has a Center for Sea Turtles that cares for stranded turtles. This center is the only one of its kind found on the French Atlantic coast.
The aquarium offers an audio-guide tour that explains interesting facts about the marine wildlife, and children are given their own special audio guide with a route designed at their height level.
The aquarium also has a souvenir shop and a restaurant, the Café de l'Aquarium, which serves fresh seasonal cuisine in a bright dining room with floor-to-ceiling windows that look out onto the Vieux Port.
Near the museum is the Port des Minimes district, where a small sandy beach is a locals' favorite.
Address: Quai Louis Prunier, La Rochelle
Official site: http://www.aquarium-larochelle.com/en
4. Musée d'Histoire Naturelle
This fantastic museum of natural history dates back to the 18th century. With 2,300 square meters of exhibition space, the museum displays an astonishing collection of around 10,000 objects found by naturalists and ethnographers from all over the globe.
The collection allows visitors to understand the richness and diversity in the natural world, while learning about the science and history.
Highlights of the museum include the archaeological collection, especially the paleolithic tools and an assortment of ancient items from Africa; a geology collection focused on mineralogy and fossils; the zoology collection, in particular the seashells, birds' eggs, and birds' nests; as well as examples of extinct animals such as the dodo.
A tour of the museum concludes with the Jardin des Plantes, a botanical garden with plants from all over the world.
Address: 28 Rue Albert 1er, La Rochelle
5. Musée du Nouveau Monde
This Museum of the New World documents the history of France's relationship with North and South America since the 16th century. Covering topics such as colonialism and slavery, this unique museum occupies the Hôtel Fleuriau, an 18th-century mansion in the Vieille Ville.
The collections are presented in spacious Rococo and Neoclassical salons, which are decorated with exquisite furniture and art that reveals the world of shipowners and their enormous wealth.
Exhibits range from old maritime maps to historic information about trade routes in Brazil and the Caribbean. A spectacular piece by José Conrado Roza, called La Mascarade Nuptiale portrays a Brazilian dwarf in the King of Portugal's court.
Address: 10 Rue Fleuriau, La Rochelle
6. Musée des Beaux-Arts
This exceptional fine arts museum in the Vieille Ville occupies the Hôtel de Crussol d'Uzés, a bishop's palace built during the era of King Louis XVI. The museum displays around 900 European paintings and drawings from the 15th to 20th centuries.
There is an emphasis on works of the 19th century, with masterpieces by Camille Corot, Paul Huet, and Gustave Doré. Another focus is on Realist paintings created by artists from the region.
Because the museum has limited space to show its collection, the presentation changes regularly. The museum also features temporary exhibitions throughout the year.
Address: 28 Rue Gargoulleau, La Rochelle
7. Protestant Heritage: Museum & Temples
To understand the religious heritage of La Rochelle, a good place to begin is with an exploration of the Huguenots' Protestant movement.
The Musée Protestant in the Vieille Ville (2 Rue Saint-Michel) traces the history of Protestantism in La Rochelle. The museum presents information about the Protestants' struggles in chronological order – beginning with the Wars of Religion in the 16th century and continuing through key events such as the revocation of the Edict of Nantes in 1685 until the modern era.
The Protestants of La Rochelle had several places of worship, called "temples." The Great Temple at the Place de Verdun was founded in 1577 but was transformed into a cathedral after the Great Siege of 1628. Other Protestant temples were also returned to the Crown after the Great Siege.
Since the Protestants didn't have a place of worship in 1628, King Louis XIII donated a piece of land for their temple on the Prée Maubec, now the location of the Chapelle de l'Hôpital Saint-Louis (Rue du Prêche), which was destroyed in 1685 – all that remains is the plaque above the door.
8. Musée Maritime
This maritime museum, moored at the La Rochelle docks, is a fleet of eight beautifully renovated ships, which visitors are allowed to tour. Highlights include the France 1 weather observation vessel, the Saint Gilles tugboat, and the Angoumois fishing trawler.
Boat conservation work (restoring traditional boats) is another aspect of the museum, along with a project focused on sailing heritage and preserving the memory of seafarers.
Address: Place Bernard Moitessier, La Rochelle
9. Parc Charruyer
This peaceful park is right in the heart of La Rochelle, extending along the Chemin du Rempart, the town's old fortifications. Unlike most French parks, the Parc Charruyer is not heavily landscaped and in many areas feels more like an unspoiled nature site.
The park is filled with a remarkable variety of trees and flowers, including a hibiscus garden. There is a small river (home to local ducks) with footbridges for pedestrians. The park also has a two-kilometer walking path and a children's play area.
At the south end of the Parc Charruyer, there is another green space along the seafront called the Allée du Mail, which was a meadow where fairs and festivals took place in the 15th century. This expansive lawn has been used since the 17th century to play Mail, the French equivalent of croquet.
10. Cathédrale Saint-Louis
Although the Cathedral of La Rochelle does not compare to medieval Gothic cathedrals found in other cities of France, it is still a special place of worship. The cathedral is a Neoclassical building designed by Jacques Gabriel and constructed between 1742 to 1762.
The magnificent interior is decorated in the Baroque style with rich ornamentation. The ceiling frescoes are especially lovely.
Address: Place de Verdun, La Rochelle
Where to Stay in La Rochelle for Sightseeing
With its impressive monuments and old-world charm, the Vieille Ville is an inviting area for exploring the tourist attractions, since so many sights are within walking distance. Another lively spot, the Vieux Port has plenty of atmosphere, stunning harbor views, and a wide selection of restaurants. For those who prefer a more relaxing place to stay, the Ile de Ré offers gorgeous island scenery, quaint seaside villages, and some of the most luxurious accommodations – and is just a short drive away from La Rochelle.
- In the heart of the Vieille Ville, the Maison des Ambassadeurs is a five-star boutique hotel in a noteworthy historic building. Guests may take advantage of the hotel's garden/patio area featuring an outdoor swimming pool. The hotel's inviting mid-century modern lounge offers refreshments and snacks. Amenities include a 24-hour front desk, concierge, and room service. A hearty breakfast buffet is available for an additional charge.
- The beautiful resort-like Hotel de Toiras is found on the harbor of Saint-Martin-de-Ré. The most exclusive hotel on the Ile de Ré, this five-star Relais & Châteaux property offers the ultimate in luxury with plush guest rooms featuring exquisite old-fashioned decor. The hotel is housed in a 17th-century shipowner's mansion, surrounded by lovely gardens with an outdoor swimming pool. The hotel offers excellent amenities, including a refined brasserie-style restaurant.
- Another upscale lodging on the Ile de Ré, Le Clos Saint-Martin Hotel & Spa (one of the "Small Luxury Hotels of the World") is a four-star boutique property that ensures a pampering experience. The guest rooms feature minimalistic yet classic decor with a soothing earth-tone color scheme. Those seeking relaxation and recreation will appreciate the hotel's spa, two swimming pools, and a fitness center. In addition to the hotel rooms, the property has a private villa, which is ideal for a large family or small group or friends.
- Conveniently located in the historic Vieux Port area, Un Hôtel en Ville is steps away from many excellent restaurants and a short walk to the old harbor. The bright, cozy guest rooms feature simple yet stylish contemporary decor. This small boutique hotel is run by a welcoming couple who offer superb hospitality. The hotel serves a generous buffet breakfast that includes local and organic products. Guests love the rooftop terrace with its fabulous views of La Rochelle's monuments.
- In an appealing quiet spot on the Ile de Ré, the four-star Relais Thalasso Hôtel-Spa l'Atalante provides sleek contemporary-style guest rooms with ocean or countryside views. The resort-like property includes a beach, spa, two swimming pools (indoor and outdoor), fitness center, and bike rentals. Foodies will enjoy the hotel's gourmet restaurant, which specializes in cuisine of the terroir made with regional ingredients, especially fresh local seafood.
- Perfectly situated at the center of historic La Rochelle, the Hôtel de Paris is a great base for exploring the Vieille Ville and the Vieux Port. This two-star boutique hotel occupies an 18th-century townhouse. The cozy guest rooms feature cheerful decor and views of either the city or the hotel's courtyard garden. The hotel has a 24-hour front desk and a small dining room where breakfast is served (for an additional charge). A parking lot is located close to the hotel at the Place de Verdun.
- The Hôtel Première Classe La Rochelle Centre - Les Minimes provides affordable accommodations about a 25-minute walk from the historic center of La Rochelle, it is close to the aquarium (just a 10-minute walk). This two-star hotel has the feel of a youth hostel, however, it does offer clean, cheerful rooms. A generous breakfast buffet is available at a reasonable price. For added convenience, the hotel has a paid parking lot.
- The ibis La Rochelle Vieux Port offers comfortable accommodations in the Vieux Port area. The rooms are basic but include televisions, Wi-Fi, and private bathrooms. Breakfast and parking are available for additional charges.
Day Trips from La Rochelle
Ile de Ré
Travelers can easily escape to this relaxing island as a day trip, weekend getaway, or a longer seaside holiday. Just a short drive away (about 20 to 30 minutes), the Ile de Ré is connected to La Rochelle by a three-kilometer bridge.
This idyllic island is prized for its seaside scenery, adorable villages, beautiful sandy beaches, scenic bike paths, and hiking trails. It's also famous for its salt marshes and delectable seafood specialties.
The Ile de Ré is a place to relax, slow down to a more leisurely pace, take nature walks, and enjoy authentic meals at the island's seafood restaurants. The island's historic capital, Saint-Martin-de-Ré, is a designated UNESCO World Heritage Site. This port town has an attractive harbor filled with little fishing boats that deliver fresh catches daily.
Built in the 17th century around the Charente River, this historic maritime city was developed as a naval base for King Louis XIV and his military arsenal. The city is designated a "Ville d'Art et d'Histoire" ("City of Art and History") because of its important heritage. The top attraction is the Corderie Royale de Rochefort, the factory that produced rope for the royal navy.
Exemplifying classical French architecture, this splendid building now houses the Centre International de la Mer (maritime museum). Rochefort is 35 kilometers south of La Rochelle, about a 40-minute drive away or less than one hour by train.
About 12 kilometers north of La Rochelle is the village of Esnandes, renowned for its Romanesque church, the Eglise Saint-Martin d'Esnandes. The church was altered in the 14th century when a crenelated defensive wall was added. However, it has retained its original facade, and the interior is generally well preserved.
Near the town of Esnandes are several fine sandy beaches, which are popular during summertime.
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Southwest France: La Rochelle is surrounded by the picturesque landscape of the Poitou-Charentes region, which has many cultural attractions. Just a one-hour drive away is the ancient town of Saintes, renowned for its Romanesque churches and Archaeological Museum. Even more historic churches are found in Poitiers, about a two-hour drive away. The summertime beach resort of Royan is only a 90-minute drive from La Rochelle.
Farther south in the Aquitaine region, Bordeaux abounds with architectural treasures. The entire city is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, with over 350 buildings classified as historic monuments. For those seeking the best of the Atlantic coastline, the pristine sandy beaches of Arcachon and the fashionable seaside resort of Cap-Ferret are within a one- to two-hour drive from Bordeaux.
More Charming Historic Towns to Explore: Many detour-worthy towns are found in the Brittany region, considered one of the best places to visit in France. Rich in history, Nantes (a two-hour drive or 2.5-hour train ride) has a fortified 15th-century castle, which contains a museum, garden, and café-restaurant. Other highlights of Brittany, about a three-hour drive away are Rennes, the old capital city, and Vannes, an enchanting medieval town on the Gulf of Morbihan.
In the famous Loire Valley, the ancient town of Le Mans (about a three-hour drive from La Rochelle) brims with old-world charm. Le Mans' unique "Cité Plantagenêt" (historic district) is a delightful little world of tidy cobblestone streets, handsome half-timbered houses, and ornate Renaissance mansions.