28 Top-Rated Attractions & Beautiful Villages in Poitou-Charentes
The Poitou-Charentes region is a relatively undiscovered corner of France, with ancient seafaring ports hugging the Atlantic's rugged coastline and quaint medieval towns nestled on hilltops, along gently flowing rivers, and in enchanting marshlands. The area overlaps with a portion of the Camino de Santiago pilgrimage trail, and many exquisite Romanesque churches are a legacy of this heritage.
In addition to cultural attractions, natural wonders abound. Spectacular sandy beaches extend for miles along the Côte de Beauté (Coast of Beauty), and idyllic island getaways are within easy reach. Poitou-Charentes is renowned for its cuisine, including seafood stew, and locally raised Barbezieux chicken.
Discover the best places to visit in this picturesque region with our list of the top attractions and beautiful villages in Poitu-Charentes.
See also: Where to Stay in Poitou-Charentes
1. La Rochelle
Sheltered in a bay of the Atlantic Ocean, La Rochelle is a formidable seafaring port that dates back to the medieval era. 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. The Old Port has a bustling harbor with many restaurants and outdoor cafés, especially at the Cours des Dames and the Quai du Gabut.
Nearby is the Bassin à Flot, an atmospheric fishermen's quarter. At the Old Port, tourists can embark on cruise rides to the Île de Ré (one hour away) and the Île d'Oléron (50 minutes away).
Tourists will enjoy exploring the Old Town of La Rochelle, with its atmospheric pedestrian streets and stately historic landmarks. The centerpiece is the Hôtel-de-Ville (Town Hall), a lavishly furnished Renaissance building that is open to the public. The arcaded Rue des Merciers, true to its name "Street of the Haberdashers," is lined with many stylish clothing and shoe boutiques, found in the arcaded corridors.
Other must-see sights include the Aquarium, the Musée Maritime (Museum of Seafaring), and the emblematic Tour de la Lanterne lighthouse.
Accommodation: Where to Stay in La Rochelle
The old capital city of the Poitou region, Poitiers is most famous for defending Christianity in the 8th century, when Charles Martel halted the advance of Islam. Remarkable historic churches are testimony to the town's Christian heritage. A designated UNESCO site, the 11th-century Romanesque Eglise Saint-Hilaire-le-Grand dazzles visitors with its six domed chapels built around the central apse and transept.
Nearby is the 12th-century Eglise Notre-Dame-la-Grande, considered one of the most exquisite Romanesque churches in France. The richly decorated facade features Byzantine-influenced details of the Biblical scenes.
Continuing towards the river, tourists will come across the Cathédrale Saint-Pierre, noteworthy for its 13th-century stained-glass windows. Just a few steps away from the cathedral is the Baptistère Saint-Jean, the oldest surviving Christian monument in France, dating to the 4th century. The church contains Merovingian sarcophagi and Romanesque frescoes.
Near the river, the Eglise Sainte-Radegonde, is dedicated to Saint Radegonde, the Merovingian queen who became a nun and founded a monastery. Not to be missed are the ambulatory's ornately carved Romanesque capitals, adorned with figures of people and animals.
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 splendid 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 12th-century Cathédrale Saint-Pierre (renovated in the 19th century) is a masterpiece of Romanesque art. Truly incredible in its craftsmanship, the cathedral's intricately carved facade depicts Ascension and Last Judgment scenes, with more than 70 figures. 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 1858-1869 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, an interesting blend of architectural styles: a 12th-century Romanesque nave, Gothic chapels added in the 15th century, and a Neoclassical facade.
Housed in the former Bishop's Palace, the Musée d'Angoulême offers three diverse collections: archaeology (prehistoric to medieval); fine arts; and 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), Rochefort-sur-Mer was built up in 1666 as a naval port at the request of King Louis XIV. The town's maritime heritage is on display at the 17th-century Arsenal de Rochefort (military arsenal) and Corderie Royale (the old royal ropeworks building). The Musée de la Marine also educates visitors about local seafaring history. Housed in a 12th-century church (the town's oldest building), the Musée de la Vieille Paroisse has a collection of archaeological finds from the Bronze Age through the Paleo-Christian era.
Today Rochefort-sur-Mer is one of the top spa destinations in France, The town has two excellent spas that offer thermal baths with therapeutic health benefits: Les Thermes de Rochefort and the Maison du Curiste.
About 25 kilometers away is the Plage de Marennes, an expansive sandy beach popular with French families because it's safe for swimming and bathing. Situated in an estuary and surrounded by sand dunes, the calm waters are 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.
Saintes has a rich heritage reflected by its ancient monuments. Landmarks from the 1st-century AD include the Arch of Germanicus and the Amphitheatre that once seated 20,000 spectators. Three Romanesque churches reveal the town's early medieval history: the 11th-century Abbaye aux Dames with an elaborately sculpted facade; the austere 12th-13th-century Eglise Saint-Pallais; and the UNESCO-listed Eglise Saint-Eutrope, which has a meditative spiritual ambience and is one of Europe's largest crypts. The Eglise Saint-Eutrope was founded in 1096 for pilgrims on the "Camino de Santiago." The Abbaye aux Dames hosts an annual classical music festival in July.
For more insight into the town's culture, tourists can visit several museums. The Musée Archéologique displays a large collection of Gallo-Roman archaeological objects. The Musée Dupuy-Mestreau focuses on regional culture (furniture, costumes, and jewelry) and the Musée de l'Échevinage (Museum of Fine Arts) displays a collection of sculptures, ceramics, (including Sèvres porcelain), and paintings from the 15th to 20th centuries (a highlight is the Allégorie de la Terre by the Dutch master Jan Brueghel de Velours).
Saintes is also renowned for the Jeux Santons, an international festival of folkloric music and dance that takes place annually in July.
The sunny seaside resort of Royan is the most popular vacation destination along the "Côte de Beauté" (Coast of Beauty), which extends from the Gironde Estuary to the Avert Peninsula. Royan's five sandy beaches draw many sunbathers during summertime. Although much of Royan was destroyed during the Second World War, the trendy Pontaillac quarter has retained the charm of a bygone era, seen in its Belle Epoque oceanfront villas and traditional fishing cabins. Another top tourist attraction is the Sentier des Douaniers coastal path, which affords stunning views of the Phare de Cordouan lighthouse.
For families with kids, one of the best places to visit is the Zoo de La Palmyre (about 15 kilometers away from Royan). Tucked away in an 18-hectare pine forest, the zoo is home to 1,600 animals representing 115 different species, from flamingos and hippos to lions and polar bears. Children enjoy the shows featuring entertaining sea lions and parrots.
Other favorite family-friendly destinations on the Côte de Beauté include the wide, sheltered beach at Saint-Georges-de-Didonne, the sandy beaches and campsites at Meschers-sur-Gironde, as well as Saint-Palais-sur-Mer.
7. Château de La Rochefoucauld
The owners of this castle, the Rochefoucauld family, are one of the five oldest noble families in France and can trace their aristocratic lineage back to the year 1019. Reminiscent of a Loire Valley castle, the Château de La Rochefoucauld creates a grand impression with its turreted medieval towers and decadent Renaissance galleries. The castle's magnificent Italian-influenced Cour d'Honneur is one of the finest courtyards in France.
The Château de La Rochefoucauld doubles as a luxury hotel, offering guests an upscale bed-and-breakfast experience. The castle is also available as a wedding venue.
Address: Château de La Rochefoucauld, 16110 La Rochefoucauld
Official site: http://www.chateau-la-rochefoucauld.com/
8. Ile de Ré
Appreciated for its natural scenery and balmy climate, the Ile de Ré offers tourists a truly relaxing getaway. This idyllic island attracts many visitors during the summer yet still has a remote feeling. The island offers ten kilometers of pristine 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 has everything on tourists' wish lists: a 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, charming whitewashed houses, and Romanesque-Gothic church, and the village of La Flotte, which delights with its attractive fishing port and evocative ruins of a 12th-century Cistercian abbey.
The best beaches on the Ile de Ré are Le-Bois-Plage-en-Ré, with its expansive sandy shoreline, and the pine forest-fringed La Conche des Baleines, which is a great place for swimming. The Ile de Ré is a 30-minute drive from La Rochelle; the island is connected to the mainland by a three-kilometer bridge.
9. Marais Poitevin
Until the 11th century, the Marais Poitevin was part of the Gulf of Poitou. As a result of man-made canals, the area developed into an enchanting marshland now known as "Venise Verte" ("Green Venice"). This peaceful 15,000-hectare nature reserve has a dreamy quality and is best discovered by taking a ride on a flat-bottomed boat (barque) through the meandering streams and waterways.
The surrounding landscape is a patchwork of pastoral fields, leafy poplar trees, and lush meadows. A bicycle path runs along the river between the villages of La Garette and Le Mazeau, allowing cyclists to admire the verdant scenery and typical Marais houses.
Coulon is the main community of the Marais Poitevin. This alluring village has a noteworthy 11th-century church and blue-shuttered waterfront houses. Other highlights of the area include Arçais, with its charming old fishing port; Magné, which has a gourmet restaurant (the Brasserie de la Repentie) that serves specialties of the Marais area; the small hamlet of Saint-Hilaire-la-Palud; and the villages on the Sèvre River in the area around Niort.
10. Ile d'Oléron
A favorite summertime holiday destination, the Ile d'Oléron is popular because of its beautiful beaches and unspoiled nature sites. The main town is Le Château-d'Oléron, which has a 17th-century citadel and a historic oyster port that displays art exhibits. The island is easily accessible by ferry, as well as by train or car (it's connected with the mainland by a viaduct). In the village of Saint-Pierre d'Oléron, the Musée de l'île d'Oléron is devoted to the history and folk art of the island.
Many sandy beaches are found on the west side of the island near the vibrant fishing port of La Cotinière. The wild waves of Vert Bois and L'Acheneau beaches draw many surfers. Families prefer the beaches of La Brée les Bains and Saumonards in Boyardville (on the east coast of the island) because they have gentler waves.
Also 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.
Listed as a "Ville d'Art et d'Histoire," Cognac has a sense of elegance to match its location on the slowly flowing Charente River. Visitors enjoy strolling along the riverside promenade, which is graced by stately mansions. Near the Pont Neuf bridge, the Château de Cognac is a grandiose Historical Monument, which dates to the 10th century.
A few steps away from the castle is the Porte Sainte-Jacques, the entrance to the medieval Old Town, a maze of cobblestone streets lined with white-shuttered stone buildings. At the heart of the Old Town, the Eglise Saint-Léger has a simple Romanesque facade and a luminous Gothic sanctuary.
The countryside around Cognac has scenic nature trails for hiking or biking excursions. Several attractions are also within easy driving distance of Cognac: the village of Châteauneuf-sur-Charente (27 kilometers away), with its lovely Romanesque church, and the 14th-century Château de Crazannes (45 kilometers away), which awes visitors with its dazzling Gothic architecture and storybook setting in eight hectares of luxuriant grounds. The castle is open for visits as well as guided tours and offers bed-and-breakfast accommodations. Touristic boat rides along the Charente River begin in the little village of Saint-Simon (30 kilometers away).
12. Château d'Oiron
This majestic Renaissance château was once the residence of Claude Gouffier, who was the model for the Marquis de Carabas character in Charles Perrault's children's story, Puss in Boots. The château's Grande Galerie displays beautiful paintings in the style of the Ecole de Fontainebleau and the Galerie du Grand Ecuyer is adorned with 16th-century frescoes depicting scenes from Aeneid. The castle also houses the Curios & Mirabilia contemporary art and curiosities collection, which includes many surprising and whimsical objects.
Address: 10 Rue du Château, 79100 Oiron
The Marais Poitevin's most urban town, Niort is perched on two hilltops along the Sèvre Niortaise river. Henry II (King of England) and his wife Eleanor of Aquitaine built a castle in Niort in the 12th century; their son Richard "The Lion Heart" made later additions.
All that remains of that ancient castle is the twin-towered Donjon de Niort, which now houses an archaeological museum with artifacts from the Bronze Age through the medieval era. Other cultural attractions are the Musée du Pilori, which presents exhibitions of contemporary art and the Musée Bernard d'Agesci, which displays fine arts and natural history collections.
14. Château de Mirambeau
Less than an hour drive from Cognac, the Château de Mirambeau allows travelers to spend the night like the lord of a castle. A splendid example of Renaissance architecture, this refined castle has been converted into a luxurious five-star Relais & Châteaux hotel decorated in sumptuous style, ready to welcome guests seeking pampering accommodations.
The eight-hectare property has gorgeous gardens, tennis courts, two swimming pools, a spa, fitness room, and nature trails for jogging or walking. The hotel also has a gourmet restaurant that serves classic regional cuisine based on market ingredients.
Address: 1 Avenue des Comtes Duchâtel, 17150 Mirambeau
Official site: https://www.chateauxmirambeau.com/en/
15. Parc du Futuroscope (Amusement Park)
A fantastic destination for families with children, Futuroscope is a unique amusement park with a focus on imagining the future. This innovative theme park features thrilling rides such as Dances with Robots and the Sébastien Loeb Racing Experience, and interactive entertainment like Ice Age and Cosmic Collisions.
The Parc du Futuroscope (12 kilometers away from Poitiers) has many casual dining options (restaurants and take-away food), as well as an on-site accommodations at the Hôtel du Futuroscope, which is just a short walk from the theme park's attractions. There are also many hotels to choose from nearby.
Address: Avenue René Monory, 86360 Chasseneuil-du-Poitou
Official site: https://en.futuroscope.com
16. Les Lacs de Haute-Charente (Lake District)
Nature lovers will enjoy an excursion to the Lake District of the Haute-Charente (Upper Charente district), a popular destination among French families. The pleasant bucolic scenery makes the Haute-Charente Lake District a wonderful spot for picnics and camping. There are two large lakes ideal for boating and water skiing, as well as for swimming and relaxing by the water. The area is also a paradise for outdoor sports, including fishing and bird-watching. Thrill seekers will want to visit the Adventure Park in Massignac, which offers ziplining, bungee jumping, and adventure courses.
In the little town of Saint-Savin-sur-Gartempe is a remarkable abbey church that was founded during the Carolingian era. The UNESCO-listed Abbaye de Saint-Savin is called the "Romanesque Sistine Chapel" because of its exceptional 11th- and 12th-century wall paintings. The assortment of murals representing the Biblical narrative is considered among the finest examples of medieval painting in France. The most noteworthy works, which depict Old Testament stories from the Creation onwards, are found on the vaulting of the nave.
A superb view of the abbey church can be seen from the Pont-Vieux (Old Bridge) on the Gartempe River.
18. Les Jardins du Chaigne
A place of tranquility and serene beauty, Les Jardins du Chaigne are gorgeous French gardens surrounding a classical French manor house. Visitors are delighted by the variety of vibrant flowers, the fruit trees, and fragrant herbs.
The garden is divided into sections: a French garden with geometric hedging, well-groomed topiaries, lavender, and roses; the vegetable garden, with its selection of edible plants; the "Chemin d'Eau," with decorative water channels; and the "Théâtre de Verdure," an area of sloped lawn that mimics the shape of a theater.
Listed as a "Jardin Remarquable," the Jardins du Chaigne property is about 30 kilometers from Cognac and 35 kilometers from Angoulême, making it an easy and worthwhile excursion by car. The gardens are open to the public for visits from the end of May through September on Mondays, Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Fridays, and on the first weekend of the month.
Address: Le Chaigne, 16120 Touzac
Beautiful Villages in Poitou-Charentes
This picturesque medieval village is dominated by the ruins of its ancient château, with the remains of two monumental towers, the old dungeon, and two chapels. Angles-sur-l'Anglin is one of France's Plus Beaux Villages (Most Beautiful Villages). The riverside town has many old buildings; floral adornments; and the peaceful, bucolic ambience of a bygone era. Visitors will enjoy wandering the cobblestone streets and shopping at antique stores and artisan boutiques. The village is renowned for its traditional handmade embroidery.
Just outside of the village is an amazing prehistoric site, the Roc-aux-Sorciers, which reveals engravings of bison, horses, lions, and other figures created by Cro-Magnon people 15,000 years ago.
A fairy-tale castle crowns the picturesque village of Verteuil-sur-Charente, by the banks of the Charente River. Surrounded by a leafy park, the turreted Château de Verteuil is considered one of the finest castles in the Charente region. Because of its elegant architecture and sensational setting, the castle is often used as a venue for weddings and other events.
Near the castle (about a five-minute walk away), the town's old mill at the riverside, the Moulin de Verteuil, has been converted into a restaurant and tea salon with an old-fashioned interior and outdoor seating at the water's edge.
It's also worth spending time exploring the village, walking along the riverside, shopping at the boutiques in the center of town, and wandering the atmospheric narrow alleyways. The Ruelle du Prieuré leads up to the Eglise Saint-Médard, a Romanesque church that was on the medieval "Way of Saint James" pilgrimage route from Tours to Santiago de Compostela. The church contains the fantastic Mise au Tombeau sculpture created in the 16th century by Germain Pilon.
Another of France's Plus Beaux Villages, Aubeterre-sur-Dronne is a medieval hilltop village with steep cobblestone streets and red-tile roofed buildings. During the Middle Ages, travelers arrived here on the pilgrimage trail to Santiago de Compostela in Spain.
For modern-day visitors, things to do include wandering the town to admire the views of the countryside and shopping at artisan boutiques. The village has two awe-inspiring Romanesque churches: the Collégiale Saint-Jean, built in 1171, and the Eglise Saint-Jean, which was carved out of a cliff by 12th-century monks and contains a reliquary inspired by one discovered during the First Crusade at the Holy Sepulchre Church in Jerusalem.
The upper portion of Chauvigny is built on a dramatic cliff that overlooks the gently flowing Vienne River. The town is dominated by five medieval castles; the Château d'Harcourt is in the best condition. At the site of the ruined Château des Évêques, tourists can attend the Géants du Ciel (Giants of the Sky) show, where soaring falcons, eagles, great-horned owls, and other amazing birds demonstrate the ancient art of falconry. An archaeological collection at the Donjon de Gouzon gives visitors an insight into the town's heritage.
Also not-to-be-missed are the town's Romanesque churches. The Collégiale Sainte-Pierre dazzles visitors with its abundantly embellished sanctuary, featuring ornate sculptural details. The Saint-Pierre-des-Eglises chapel features Carolingian frescoes that are masterpieces of pre-Romanesque art.
Listed as one of France's Plus Beaux Villages, Brouage is surrounded by an expansive 3,000-hectare marshland. This serene countryside is dotted with oyster beds and interspersed with hiking trails that are ideal for nature walks and bird-watching. The 17th-century Citadelle de Brouage encloses the town within more than two kilometers of 13-meter-high walls, and includes seven bastions. Visitors can walk along the old citadel's ramparts to take in sensational views of the landscape.
The Halle aux Vivres presents expositions related to the history of Brouage. Tourists will also enjoy discovering the village's locally owned artisan boutiques and ateliers of paintings, ceramics, and other crafts.
At the heart of the Marais Poitevin, also known as the Venise Verte ("Green Venice"), Coulon is an atmospheric village with whitewashed marshland houses featuring colorful shutters. Interlaced with tranquil canals, the village is the capital of the Marais Poitevin (96,000-hectares of marshland protected as a Natural Regional Park). The Maison du Marais Poitevin celebrates the regional culture with exhibits about the marshland environment, rooms decorated in the typical Marais style, and a carpenter's boat-making workshop.
During summertime, the Maison du Marais Poitevin offers guided tours by foot and boat. Local boatmen also lead tours through the marshland on traditional flat-bottomed boats. Alternatively, tourists can rent canoes to explore the waterways at their leisure.
Between Poitiers and La Rochelle, the Melle is a characteristic medieval hilltop village on the "Way of Saint James" pilgrimage route to Santiago de Compostela in Spain. Because of its religious heritage, the village has three noteworthy Romanesque churches built in the 11th and 12th centuries: the UNESCO-listed Eglise Saint-Hilaire, with fabulous intricately carved capitals; the Eglise Saint-Savinien, which hosts a classical music festival in May and June; and the Eglise Saint-Pierre, with an inspiring bright, harmonious interior that contrasts its somber exterior.
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 village's Eglise Sainte-Radegonde is one of the most impressive Romanesque churches in the region. Intricate sculptural details adorn the facade, while a harmonious sense of brightness and spaciousness defines the marvelous interior.
About 40 kilometers from Cognac, the village of Aulnay has a charming Old World atmosphere. Like Aubeterre-sur-Dronne, the town was a stop on the "Way of Saint James" medieval pilgrimage road to Santiago de Compostela in Spain. The focal point of Aulnay is the 12th-century Eglise Saint-Pierre. This magnificent Romanesque church has an impressive tower and steeple, a richly sculptured facade, and fine capitals.
In a peaceful, sheltered marshland environment, Mornac-sur-Seudre is an old fishing village interwoven with canals. Today, the local industry is focused on oyster farms and salt extraction. The waterfront village is listed as one of France's Plus Beaux Villages because of its charming old-world ambience. Narrow cobblestone lanes invite visitors to take a leisurely stroll through the town. Typical whitewashed houses feature light blue or green shutters.
A must-see attraction is the Eglise Saint-Pierre, a unique fortified Romanesque church built in the 11th-century. The village has many seafood restaurants that gourmands will appreciate.
Where to Stay in Poitou-Charentes for Sightseeing
We recommend these charming Poitou-Charentes hotels in the towns of Angoulême, La Rochelle, Royan, and Rochefort:
- Hotel Saint Gelais: 4-star luxury in Angoulême, stylish contemporary decor, convenient location, quiet country feel, gourmet restaurant.
- Un Hotel en Ville: mid-range hotel in La Rochelle, steps to the waterfront, warm hospitality, delicious breakfast.
- Hotel Residence de Rohan: 3-star Royan boutique hotel, near the beach, friendly staff, heated outdoor pool.
- Ibis Rochefort: budget-friendly Rochefort hotel, walking distance to town, modern decor, secure parking.