10 Top Tourist Attractions in La Rochelle & Easy Day Trips
With its weather-beaten towers and salty sea air, La Rochelle has the distinctive character of an ancient port town. La Rochelle lies between Nantes and Bordeaux on a picturesque bay of the Atlantic Ocean. Imposing fortified towers guard the entrance to the town, while the fishing quarter enjoys a protected position. La Rochelle has a delightful old town that is full of impressive historic monuments. A stroll through the cobblestone streets is a journey back in time, from the Middle Ages to the 18th century. Walk along the medieval fortifications, visit the Renaissance Town Hall, admire Baroque churches, and see evidence of 17th-century Protestant temples. La Rochelle is a cultured city with an astounding array of museums. Outdoor activities include yachting, biking, nature hikes, and seaside relaxation. For the perfect beach holiday, the dreamy Island of Ré is just a few minutes away.
See also: Where to Stay in La Rochelle
1 Vieille Ville (Old Town)
At the center of La Rochelle's historic quarter is the Hôtel de Ville (Town Hall) built between 1595 and 1606 in a richly decorated Renaissance style and surrounded by an older defensive wall. The Town Hall is open to the public; the building features a gorgeous arcaded courtyard interior and is beautifully furnished. At the northeast corner of the Hôtel de Ville, is the Grand Rue des Merciers, a must-see sight. This alluring ancient street is lined with half-timbered medieval houses and handsome Renaissance buildings. Numbers 3, 5, 8, 17, and 23 are particularly beautiful. True to its name (Rue des Merciers means "Street of Haberdashers"), the arcaded rez-de-chaussée area is filled with many shops selling everything from clothing and shoes to fine chocolates.
One of the focal points of the city, the 15th-century Tour de la Lanterne was built as a lighthouse and was formerly used as a prison. Another top attraction is the Maison de Henri II, an opulent 16th-century town house located on a quiet side street (11 Bis Rue des Augustins). This splendid Renaissance mansion reveals the work of La Rochelle's great sculptors. The colonnaded windows feature Etruscan and Ionian-style decorations. On the Rue du Palais are two impressive 18th-century buildings with exquisite facades: 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, which is a remnant of the old town gate.
2 Vieux Port (Old Port)
The bustling sea port of La Rochelle is crowded with quaint old fishing boats and lined with trendy sidewalk cafés. 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. In an important location on the harbor, the Tour Saint-Nicolas was designed as a fort to protect the city from invaders. This tower has an irregular shape and its interior is a maze of old staircases, corridors, and rooms. The Tour de la Chaîne lies on the Rue sur les Murs (Street of Walls) as it was connected to the medieval town's defensive walls. This tower takes its name from the chain that was drawn across the mouth of the harbor at night during the Middle Ages. From the south side of the harbor, there is a magnificent view of the harbor and the town. To the south of the Vieux Port, the Bassin à Flot is the charming fishermen's quarter.
3 La Rochelle Aquarium
Go on an exciting deep-sea journey to experience the vibrant colors and fascinating variety of marine life. The La Rochelle Aquarium presents more than 12,000 species, from the Atlantic Ocean, the Mediterranean, and the tropical seas in tanks with three million liters of seawater, making it one of largest aquariums in Europe. Visitors discover all kinds of marvelous sea life, from transparent jelly fish to scary sharks. 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 that is designed at their height level. Fittingly, this popular tourist attraction lies opposite the Old Port near the sea in the Port des Minimes district where there is a small beach that's a locals' favorite. The aquarium also has a souvenir shop and a tropical-themed café with a scenic view of the yacht harbor.
Address: Quai Louis Prunier, La Rochelle
4 Musée d'Histoire Naturelle
Discover the world of natural history at this fantastic museum, which is one of the oldest museums in France. With more than 2,500 square meters of exhibition space, the museum displays an astonishing collection. The exhibits feature fascinating 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. A tour of the museum concludes with the Jardin des Plantes (Plant Garden), a flourishing garden filled with plants from all over the world.
Address: 28 Rue Albert 1er, La Rochelle
5 Musée du Nouveau Monde (Museum of the New World)
Housed in a lovely 18th-century mansion, the Museum of the New World documents the history of France's relationship with the New World (North and South America) since the 16th century. The collections are presented in stunning Neoclassical spaces, and the exhibits range from old maritime maps to historic information about trade routes in Brazil and the Caribbean. There is an interesting set of shipowners' furniture and art, and several rooms describe the native people of Canada (New France). A spectacular piece by José Conrado Roza, called La Mascarade Nuptiale portrays a Brazilian dwarf in the King of Portugal's court. Another work by this artist depicts scenes of the "savages" (natives) of Guyana.
Address: 10 Rue Fleuriau, La Rochelle
6 Musée des Beaux-Arts (Museum of Fine Arts)
This excellent fine arts museum is housed in the Hôtel de Crussol d'Uzés, an exquisite Neoclassical building that was formerly a bishop's palace. The museum has an extensive array of 900 European paintings and drawings from the 15th to 20th centuries. The 20th-century collection includes noteworthy pieces by Alberto Magnelli, Maurice Denis, and Gaston Chaissac. There is a special focus on works of the 19th century, with masterpieces by Camille Corot, Paul Huet, and Gustave Doré. Also interesting is the display of realist artists from the region (William Bouguereau, Eugene Fromentin, and Theodore Chassériau). Because the museum has a 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, begin with an exploration of the Protestant movement of the Huguenots. The Protestant Museum (Musée Protestant) is dedicated to sharing the history of Protestantism in La Rochelle as well as in the surrounding areas of Aunis and Saintonge. In the center of La Rochelle's old town (2 Rue Saint-Michel), the museum presents a rich collection of historical information in chronological order. Beginning with the Wars of Religion fought between Catholics and Protestants (1561-1598), continuing through the Great Siege of 1627-1628, until the revocation of the Edict of Nantes in 1685, the museum tells the story of the Protestants' struggles.
The Protestants of La Rochelle had several places of worship, which they called temples. The Great Temple, on the old square of the chateau (Place de Verdun), was founded in 1577 by the Prince of Condé but was transformed into a cathedral after the Great Siege of 1628. Other Protestant temples at the Salle Saint-Michel (location of the Musée Protestant) and the Salle Gargoulleau 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). Unfortunately, the new Temple was destroyed in 1685 and all that remains is the plaque above the door of the Chapel of Saint Louis.
8 Musée Maritime (Museum of Seafarers)
This museum welcomes visitors onto the ships of La Rochelle seafarers. Moored at the La Rochelle docks is a fleet of eight different ships that visitors are allowed to tour. Highlights include the France 1 weather observation vessel, the Saint Gilles tugboat, and the Angoumois fishing trawler. Also on display are several classic yachts that are still used by the owners to sail in regattas. Boat conservation work (restoring traditional boats) is another aspect of the museum, along with a project focused on preserving the memory of seafarers. Through its presentation of beautifully renovated historic ships, the museum brings the city's rich sailing heritage to life.
Address: Ancien Bassin des Chalutiers, La Rochelle
9 Parc Charruyer
This peaceful park is right in the heart of La Rochelle. The Charruyer Park begins at the intersection of Rue Saint Jean du Pérot and the Chemin du Rempart, extending along the old fortifications. Unlike most French parks, the Parc Charuyer 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 an idyllic river (home to local ducks) with quaint footbridges for pedestrians. 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 lies in a Neoclassical building designed by Jacques Gabriel and constructed between 1742 to 1762. The magnificent interior is exquisitely decorated in the Baroque style with rich ornamentation. The ceiling frescoes are especially lovely.
Address: 17 Rue Chaudrier, La Rochelle
Where to Stay in La Rochelle for Sightseeing
We recommend these great hotels and guesthouses in La Rochelle, close to attractions like the old town and museums:
- Eden Ouest: luxury bed-and-breakfast, central location, 18th-century mansion, charming hosts, individually-decorated guestrooms, private steam rooms.
- Central Park Hotel & Spa: 4-star hotel, chic decor, spa and wellness area, concierge service.
- Un Hotel en Vie: mid-range pricing, quiet and convenient location, welcoming hosts, bright decor, delicious breakfast.
- Premiere Classe La Rochelle Centre - Les Minimes: budget hotel, clean rooms, secure underground parking.
Day Trips from La Rochelle
Ile de Ré
Enjoy a relaxing getaway at an idyllic island in the Atlantic Ocean. On the north side of the wide Bay of Pertuis d'Antioche is the Ile de Ré, a picturesque island with extensive salt pans and oyster beds. This is the perfect place to enjoy an authentic seafood meal at a small restaurant. The main town is Saint Martin-de-Ré, which is a designated UNESCO World Heritage Site. With its small fishing boats, charming villages, and beautiful beaches, the Ile de Ré is a wonderful destination for a seaside holiday or a quick day trip from La Rochelle. The Ile de Ré is connected to La Rochelle by a three-kilometer bridge, just a short drive away.
About 12 kilometers north of La Rochelle is the village of Esnandes, renowned for its Romanesque church. The church was altered in the 14th and 15th centuries but still has its original facade, which was incorporated into a defensive wall. There are also fine sandy beaches near the town.