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Life in Rural France

Living the French Dream….The Good, The Bad, and The Hilarious

Two towers in the ocean with the La Rochelle skyline

Visiting La Rochelle: Top 9 Things To Do

La Rochelle is one of the jewels in the Charente Maritime’s crown. Steeped in history, this picturesque mediaeval port town offers everything from architecture and culture to gastronomy and beaches. And of course, there is also a stunning coastline.

With more museums than you can throw a stick at you’ll never be stuck for something to do. And as you stroll through the cobblestone streets into the historic district you’ll feel like you’re taking a trip back in time.

The fortified towers guarding the city and the ramparts surrounding it add to the drama and theatre of the landscape. There’s no better place to sit and enjoy the picturesque bay and take in the salty air.

Before we dive in I want to mention the La Rochelle Océan Pass. It’s quite literally your passport around the town. It includes more than 30 activities and gives unlimited access to public transport in La Rochelle. 

There are three pass options: 48 Hours, 72 Hours or 7 Days and the savings are big. As you can imagine visiting all these places adds up quickly, especially as a family. And it’s not just limited to La Rochelle itself, but also includes sites in the surrounding areas.

THE TOTAL VALUE OF ACTIVITIES IN THE PASS: €185 not including reductions

Everything can be done online and once you’ve chosen your duration and paid the fee you just download the pass onto your phone. You’ll get a QR code which you show each time you want to use it. 


Table of Contents

What are the MUST SEE places to visit in La Rochelle?

I’ve curated a list of nine top spots that are worth checking out. All these can be done with the family and include a selection of inside and outside options to account for the weather. Even in La Rochelle you can still get rain.

Saling boats in the water at an old harbour or port in La Rochelle France

No 1 - The Vieux-Port - the Old Port

One of my favourite places to spend time when I go to La Rochelle is the Old Port. It’s a wonderful place to sit first thing in the morning as the sun is coming up. The sleepy town is just coming to life giving you time to enjoy a coffee and croissant looking across the quay. 

But it’s just as wonderful in the evening when the sun is setting. Eating seafood and sipping a cocktail in one of the many restaurants whilst overlooking the floating harbour is an experience not to be missed.

The Old Port is the first thing you’ll see when you come into La Rochelle. It’s filled with small fishing boats and you’ll see lots of colourful buildings lining the harbour along with the many cafes and restaurants. 

If you enjoy ice cream and waffles then the best place to go, without a doubt, is Ernest Le Glacier. Their salty caramel ice cream is out of this world..

Strolling along the quays is part and parcel of a visit to La Rochelle. The Quai Duperré is closed to traffic and offers a panoramic view of the towers and the basin. It leads you to the old town and if you cross the bridge over the Maubec canal and turn right, you’ll come to the Quai du Carénage. It’s a lot quieter than Quai Duperré and there are no restaurants or cafes. 

The Cours des Dames is another favourite of mine. It stretches from the Tour de la Chaîne to the Grosse Horloge. It’s a wide and shaded promenade thanks to beautiful rows of trees which can be quite a relief in summer.

It’s always very lively with street performances, arts and crafts, painters, musicians, and of course, the restaurants, brasseries and cafes.

No 2 - La Rochelle Old Town (Vieille Ville)

Old street with archway and cobbled pathways

If you’re a history geek like me then you absolutely have to visit the historic quarter and soak up the atmosphere. You enter the old town at the junction of the Quai Duperré and the Cour des Dame.

You’ll pass through the Big Clock Gate (porte de la Grosse Horloge), a remnant of the old town gate, which acts as the passageway between the port and the city centre.

Right at the centre is the Hôtel de Ville (town hall), a 16th century building which was partially destroyed by a fire. You’ll see a statue of Jean Guiton, the Huguenot mayor, in front of the building which was erected during the siege on the city by Louis XIII. 

If you like mediaeval buildings then make sure you go to Grand Rue des Merciers (Street of the Haberdashers). It still has a lot of shops and boutiques and lots of wonderful half-timbered buildings lining the street.

Dominating the city is the Tour de la Lanterne, the 15th century lighthouse that also acted as a prison. Look out for the graffiti on the walls that is said to have been created by prisoners held captive there.

If you want to soak up a little Renaissance grandeur then a visit to Maison Henri II is worthwhile. Built in 1555 it’s typical of that era with a lovely courtyard and gallery on the ground floor. It’s open to the public so you can explore to your heart’s content.

Finally, the 18th-century buildings of the Palais de Justice (Law Courts) and the Bourse (Stock Exchange) can be found on the Rue du Palais. Again, worth a look if for no other reason than to admire the architecture.

No 3 - The Three Towers at La Rochelle

Defending the city of La Rochelle are three towers which have been part of the city’s history for centuries. All the towers were originally built to be lived in but from the 16th – 18th centuries two of the towers often housed Huguenots and foreign sailors. And in the 19th century officially became military prisons.

A tour of the towers is well worth it as you never know who or what you might see. Tickets are €9.50 and include all three towers.

Buy your tickets here >>>

Tour Saint-Nicolas (Saint-Nicolas Tower)

A large concrete tower silhoutted against an iron ring

The first tower is the Tour Saint-Nicolas, a former lighthouse that was built in the 12th century to guide ships safely into the harbour. According to legend, the construction of the tower was aided by the fairy Mélusine, who upon seeing the sailors struggling to complete it, offered to help.

She promised to finish the tower in one night if the sailors promised never to reveal her secret. The sailors agreed, and in the morning they were both amazed but a little terrified by the mysterious presence that helped them. They kept their promise not to reveal her secret, and the tower became known as a symbol of Mélusine’s power and magic. 

In the 19th century, the tower was converted into a museum dedicated to the history of La Rochelle’s port. And now, we can visit the tower to learn more about the city’s rich cultural heritage.

Tour de la Chaîne (Chain Tower)

View of two towers across the water with a view of the city of La Rochelle

The second tower is the Tour de la Chaine, a defensive tower that was built in the 14th century to protect the city from invaders. The tower is located at the entrance to the old harbour and served as a crucial point of defence during times of conflict.

The name came from the big iron chain that had to be winched up to allow the ships to enter. Unfortunately, the tower was blown up in the uprising against the monarchy during Louis XIV’s reign. So for some 300 years or so it was left open to the elements until work began to restore it in the 20th century. A new roof was installed along with the rampart walkway tourists use today.

The tower is steeped in legends and tales that have been passed down from generation to generation. But the one that gets my imagination is of a young girl named Marie who lived in La Rochelle. She was said to be in love with a sailor but her father didn’t approve.

He completely forbade her from seeing the sailor. Determined to be reunited with her love, Marie climbed to the top of the tower and threw herself into the sea. Her body was never found, and it is said that her spirit still haunts the tower to this day.

La Tour de la Lanterne (Lantern Tower)

A red lighthouse ni the sea with a castle spire

No 4 - Muséum d'Histoire Naturelle de La Rochelle

Display of ancient artefacts in a museum

As a thriving port you can just imagine the amount of explorers that have passed through the city gates carrying with them artefacts from their travels. Luckily for us these are exhibited in the Lafaille Cabinet of Curiosities, an old cabinet that originated from the 18th century, which remains almost exactly the same today.

The archaeological collection, which includes palaeolithic tools, is fascinating. Other collections include specimens of local flora and fauna, such as birds, reptiles, and mammals, as well as a wide range of fossils, rocks, and minerals. 

All these have been donated by travellers, explorers and collectors from all over the world.

Find out more at the official museum website www.museum.larochelle.fr

No 5- Charruyer Park

A stretch of parkland with grass and trees in la Rochelle

La Rochelle is known for its harbour, seafood and gorgeous coastline but nestled in the heart of the city is Charruyer Park. Sitting on the old fortifications along Chemin du Rempart is a wonderful stretch of green parkland.

Created between May 1887 and December 1890 it all came about through Mademoiselle Adèle Charruyer, daughter of Etienne Charruyer, shipowner. She bequeathed 100,000 F to the City of La Rochelle which financed the whole thing.

The thing that’s so lovely about this is how natural it is. It’s not heavily landscaped and has a lovely unspoilt feel to it. 

It stretches for about 2 kms and covers approximately 50 hectares with a small river, children’s play area and animal park. And the best part is, it’s free to enjoy.

No 6 - Aquarium La Rochelle

Pathway through a large tank of fish in an Aquarium

As one of the largest Aquariums in Europe with around 12,000 species of sea life, you should definitely add this to your list of places to visit. It’s split into different sections including:

  • Atlantic Coast
  • Mediterranean Sea
  • Open Sea and Jellyfish
  • Caribbean Sea
  • Indo-Pacific Region
  • Sharks
  • Marine Turtles
  • Tropical Forest
  • Gallery of Lights
  • Children’s Voyage

It’s absolutely spectacular and has so many great initiatives such as the Centre for the Study and Care of Sea Turtles. And I bet you didn’t know that an Octopus has super powers. Using its past experiences and amazing memory it can adapt to pretty much any situation it finds itself in. And it can lift ten times its own body weight using its 240 suckers on its 8 arms.

Everyone is catered for with audio tours for adults and a different option available for the kids. You’ll learn so much about the inhabitants of the Aquarium and so much more. It’s perfect if the weather isn’t playing ball and you want to keep the little ones occupied. You’ll need to allow about two hours to really do it justice.

You’ll also want to visit the Brasserie Là-Haut for a bite to eat as it has a lovely terrace and views over the Vieux Port

For opening times and to buy your tickets online visit the Aquarium Website >>>

No 7 - Cathédrale Saint-Louis

The front facade of a cathedral or church in La Rochelle

This cathedral holds some fascination for me due to the fact there are tombstones of the Knights Templar discovered during an excavation. It was partially built on the church of Saint-Barthélémy which was destroyed during the religious wars in 1568.

It’s a magnificent piece of architecture rich in history and was classified as a historical monument in 1906.

The style is very reminiscent of the Versailles cathedral and the original plans were signed by Jacques V Gabriel, the first architect of the king. Unfortunately, building didn’t begin till after he’d died in 1742 and was overseen by his son who also became architect to the king. As with so many cathedrals it took a long time to build it and it wasn’t actually completed until 1862.

One of the most popular legends is that of the ghostly figure of a nun who is said to haunt its halls. According to local folklore, the nun once lived in the cathedral and was known for her kindness and compassion.

However, after her death, her spirit was said to have remained in the cathedral, wandering its halls and watching over the people of La Rochelle. To this day, many people believe that the ghost of the nun can still be seen roaming the cathedral, a testament to her enduring legacy.

Another popular legend is that of the secret underground tunnels running beneath the cathedral. These tunnels are said to have been used by the knights and monks who built the cathedral as a means of escape in times of danger.

Some even claim that the tunnels were used by smugglers and pirates who used them to smuggle goods into the city undetected. Their exact location remains a mystery, but their existence continues to be the subject of much speculation and intrigue.

For more information visit the La Rochelle Centre Website >>> 

No 8 - Musée Le Bunker de La Rochelle

Front of a building that used to be a bunker during the second world war in La Rochelle

Also known as the Atlantic Wall Bunker, it was built by the Germans during the Second World War as part of a massive fortification along the coast of Europe designed to protect against an Allied invasion. Today, the bunker is used as a museum and memorial to the events of the war and the sacrifices made by those who fought and lived through it.

Construction of the bunker began in 1942 and was completed in 1943. It was designed to withstand heavy bombardment and was equipped with powerful guns and observation posts. but was never put to the test.

After the war it was left to decay and more or less forgotten about until the late 1990s when it became a historical site.

There are all sorts of exhibits on display such as military equipment including guns, tanks, and other weapons. They also have a collection of historical documents and maps related to the war, photographs and artefacts from daily life. The films and sound recordings really help to bring it all to life.

A memorial wall dedicated to the fallen soldiers is a harsh reminder of the human cost of conflict. I found it fascinating and could have spent longer if I’d had a bit more time. 

Entry is €9.00 for adults and €6.50 for 5-12 year olds.

For more information on opening times and history visit the Bunker La Rochelle Website 

No 9 - Musée Maritime

Old ships in a harbour that form part of a maritime museum in La Rochelle

Moored in the docks at La Rochelle at the south end of the Port des Minimes is a fleet of eight beautifully restored ships. Collectively they are known as the Maritime Museum and visitors can tour three of the ships immersing yourself in the town’s seafaring history.

The ships include the Angoumois, a fishing trawler, the France I which is a weather observation vessel, and the Saint-Gilles an old tugboat.

You can take a step into a world at sea and peek into the engine room, have a look at the living quarters and admire the artifacts such as the old charts and maps. If you fancy it you can indulge in drinks and a bite to eat aboard the France 1.

For more information and tickets visit the Musee Maritime Website >>>

More things to do around La Rochelle

If you love beaches then this round up of the best beachs in La Rochelle, Île d’Oléron and Île de Ré – The Best Beaches to Visit Near La Rochelle

And if spending a weeked in Île d’Oléron is on your To Do List then this itinerary of things to see and do is perfect – A Weekend in Ile d’Oléron | An Hour from La Rochelle

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