Located in the Charente Maritime in South West France, La Rochelle is the gateway to the French Atlantic. It’s a harbour city famous for its seafood.
Having grown up in Leigh-on-Sea in Essex in the UK, which is another seaside town, I love seafood. So for me, staying here almost feels like coming home, apart from the landscape is very different.
The most popular seafood here are oysters from the nearby Île de Ré, as well as scallops, mussels, and a variety of fish dishes.
The city has a long history of fishing and is home to a thriving seafood market, where visitors can sample some of the freshest seafood in France.
Whilst the harbour with all its cafés and restaurants is a real drawcard I also love wandering around the narrow streets. They’re just filled with quaint shops, old arcades and so much to feast your eyes on.
There is a charm to this place that draws you in from the minute you step foot onto its pavements.
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It also has an eventful history with a beautiful Old Port whose towers once served as a defence against invaders. It was said that the Knights Templar had a significant presence in La Rochelle during the Middle Ages.
Founded in the 12th century to protect pilgrims travelling to the Holy Land, these Christian knights helped to establish the port as a major centre of trade and commerce.
They were also responsible for the fortification of the city by building watchtowers and gatehouses around it.
As a complete history geek I love the thought of the Knights Templar being such a force within La Rochelle. Apparently, it was their largest base in the Atlantic and where they had their main fleet.
If only those streets could talk I can only imagine what they’d tell me.
Is La Rochelle worth visiting?
It’s the million dollar question. Well, the answer to that question is a resounding YES. I’ve been several times and still haven’t managed to do everything there is to do there.
On one of our visits it coincided with Fête de la Musique (World Music Day). It was wonderful as there was live music playing everywhere and the place was just buzzing.
If you love museums then you’re spoilt for choice and let’s not forget the harbour.
Walking around you can dream about what it must be like to own one of the many boats you’ll see. Always a fantasy of mine as I walk around.
When is the best time to go to La Rochelle?
I’d happily visit anytime of year but the best time is definitely in Spring and Summer. Boasting a massive 2,600 hours of sunshine a year you may as well avoid the winter months if you can.
Besides, there’s nothing better than watching the sun set over the Atlantic with a glass of something in your hand. It’s really rather magical and something you don’t want to miss.
But apart from the fact the weather is better during those seasons there’s also more to do. It’s a well known fact that many places in France come to a standstill in January and February.
In some cases there are quite literally no restaurants or cafés open at all.
The French tend to hibernate in the winter staying out of the cold. And who can blame them? Personally, I love to escape the winter for a few weeks in January and go somewhere warm.
I’m no fan of the cold and there’s only so much Netflix I can watch before I go mad.
Bottom line, it’s hard to appreciate all that La Rochelle has to offer if your teeth are chattering or it’s pouring with rain. June is my favourite month to visit as it’s just before the school holidays and the weather is fabulous.
But a trip in September can also be spectacular with all those Autumn colours.
How to get around La Rochelle
La Rochelle is a city that wants you to walk its streets and get up close and personal with what’s on offer.
Many of the streets are quite narrow so if you’re driving then my suggestion is park up, ditch the car, and take to the streets by foot.
In fact, La Rochelle actively encourages you to leave your car at home when it celebrates World Car Free Day every year on September 22nd.
They’re a pioneer in car-free programs and continue to offer more opportunities to explore the city in other ways.
One of these is cycling. I love cycling and have a gorgeous vintage blue bike complete with a wicker basket at home. I use it a lot in the summer cycling around the Charente with my hubby.
I haven’t cycled around La Rochelle yet but it’s on the list for next time we visit.
They have a great program for renting bikes which they launched in 1976 called Vélos Jaunes. Now going by the name of Vélos you can rent a bike for a day and see the city on two wheels.
History of La Rochelle
As I said earlier, during the Middle Ages, La Rochelle became a major centre for maritime trade. Especially so with the English and Dutch but it was also a major centre for piracy.
They used it as a base to launch their raids on merchant ships.
During the 16th century, it became a centre for the Huguenots, French Protestants who were persecuted for their beliefs.
In 1568, the city declared its independence from the French crown and became a republic, with the Huguenots forming the majority of the population.
La Rochelle was soon under siege by the French army, but the city held out for over a year, becoming a symbol of Huguenot resistance.
In 1628, King Louis XIII ordered the city to surrender, and many of the Huguenots were forced to flee to other countries. Despite this, La Rochelle continued to thrive as a major trading centre.
During the 17th and 18th centuries the city became one of the largest ports in France.
One of the most famous events in La Rochelle’s history was the “Blockade of La Rochelle”, which took place in 1627 and 1628.
The city was under siege by the French army for over a year, with the Huguenots desperately trying to hold out against overwhelming odds. The siege was finally lifted when King Louis XIII agreed to a treaty with the Huguenots, granting them religious freedom.
In the 19th and 20th centuries, La Rochelle continued to grow and modernise, with the construction of new port facilities, a railway station, and other infrastructure projects.
The Legends and Myths of La Rochelle
One of the most famous legends of La Rochelle is the story of the town’s patron saint, Saint Nicolas. According to legend, Saint Nicolas was born in the city and became a famous bishop known for his miracles.
He was particularly famous for his ability to control the sea and calm the storms that plagued the area. To this day, Saint Nicolas is still revered as the protector of La Rochelle and its sailors.
Another famous legend is that of the “Rochelais Dragon” who terrorised the city in the Middle Ages. The dragon was said to be a fearsome beast with sharp claws, fire-breathing, and a massive wingspan.
The people of La Rochelle were so afraid of the dragon that they built a wall around the city to keep it out.
However, legend has it that one brave young man named Guillaume defeated the dragon, saving the city from certain destruction.
The Top Attractions in La Rochelle
Explore the Old Port | Vieux-Port
La Rochelle’s Old Port is the heart of the city and a must-visit for anyone visiting for the first time. It’s a wonderfully lively harbour surrounded by colourful buildings and lined with restaurants, cafes, and shops.
Take a stroll along the harbour like I did in the picture below. Watch the boats come and go, or sit down for a coffee or cocktail and enjoy the views.
The Towers of La Rochelle
The three mediaeval towers that guard the entrance to Vieux Port (the Old Port) are iconic. The largest of these, the Saint Nicolas Tower, is open to the public and offers fantastic views over the city and the harbour.
It served as a prison and was a centre of resistance during the French Revolution.
Tour de la Chaîne (Chain Tower) was the next one to be built between 1382 and 1390. It derived its name from the big chain that had to be winched up in order to let the boats in and out.
Finally, there is La Tour de la Lanterne (Lantern Tower) which is the last lighthouse on the Atlantic Coast. Dating back to the end of the 17th century it once served as a prison.
If you do nothing else whilst you’re in La Rochelle you need to climb at least one of these towers.
The views really are spectacular and it will really give you perspective as to why they were needed. Tickets are €9.50 and include all three towers.
Walk the Ramparts for Panoramic Views
Most old cities needed protection from their enemies and La Rochelle was no exception.
The walls that once surrounded the city to keep invaders out now offer a beautiful walking path with panoramic views over the harbour and the surrounding countryside.
Walking along the ramparts is the perfect way to soak up the atmosphere of this historic city.
Visit the Maritime Museum
This fascinating museum is housed in a restored 18th-century shipyard which is very cool.
It features exhibits on the history of the city’s port, its shipbuilding traditions, and its maritime commerce.
There are also interactive exhibits for kids, making it a great family activity.
Visit La Rochelle’s Central Market (Marché Central
Housed in a beautiful 19th century building, it’s a bustling hub of activity, and the perfect place to pick up some fresh produce, artisanal goods, and local specialties.
The food market is held daily and the general market on Wednesday and Saturday. You’ll find everything from fresh seafood and cheese to artisanal soaps and candles.
And remember, markets are a way of life here in France.
Take a Boat Trip Around the Coastline
La Rochelle is perfectly positioned for you to get out on the water and enjoy the 280 miles of stunning coastline 280 miles of sandy coastline and idyllic beaches.
Surrounded as it is by picturesque islands and inlets, and a boat trip is the perfect way to explore.
Whether you want to go whale watching, visit the Île de Ré, or just enjoy a leisurely cruise then the options are endless. You can even sail around the Napoleonic Fort Boyard.
Built in the 1800 it was once home to 250 soldiers. Now it’s a popular shooting location for movies and TV shows.
My favourite way to explore and enjoy the views of the ocean is a Catamaran Cruise. We did a fantastic 2.5 hour cruise which we loved.
At only €29 each it was an absolute bargain and I’d highly recommend it as a way to finish off the day.
Visit Saint Louis Cathedral
La Rochelle’s Saint Louis Cathedral is a beautiful Gothic church that dates back to the 13th century.
The cathedral is renowned for its intricate architecture, and its stained-glass windows are particularly stunning.
I always find it so peaceful walking into cathedrals like this.There is something about them that makes me sit and reflect although the history behind many of them is anything but peaceful.
Take a Private Walking Tour
I’ve done one of these before and they’re fantastic if you want to dive deeper into the history of La Rochelle.
The guides know their stuff and what I loved was they customised the tour to our interests. It was fascinating to hear about all the little stories, myths and legends.
We also found out that La Rochelle was known as “La Ville Blanche” (the white city). Prices are around €149.50 per person and last for approximately two hours.
Bunker La Rochelle
This one isn’t for everyone but having studied both World Wars at school for my A levels I’ve always been fascinated.
The bunker was built by the German army during the occupation of France and served as a lookout and defence point.
Today, as a museum, it offers visitors a glimpse into the history of the Atlantic Wall and the role it played in the defence of Nazi-occupied Europe.
As well as visiting the museum in person you can also get a 24 hour pass for their virtual tour. Take a look at the options here >>>
Things to do with the kids in La Rochelle
Pretty much everything listed above is child friendly, but here are a few added extras they’ll really enjoy.
La Grande Roue
I’ve always been a sucker for a Ferris wheel and this giant wheel gives you panoramic views over La Rochelle.
Normally it will take you around three times to make sure you don’t miss anything. It’s a great thing to do together as a family and at only €5 per person it isn’t going to break the bank.
Take a trip to the Aquarium
Open all year around this is a great one for adults and kids. It’s one of the largest aquariums in Europe and features a diverse collection of marine animals, including sharks, rays, penguins, and seabirds.
There are also several large tanks and exhibits, including a tropical lagoon, a Mediterranean basin, and an oceanic reef, that showcase the different habitats of marine life.
Palmilud Aquatic Centre
Major Events in La Rochelle
La Rochelle is home to many great events from sporting to music there is always something to add to your calendar.
For a full list of music festivals in the Nouvelle Aquitaine click here >>>
Francofolies Music Festival
For those who love live music this popular music festival attracts thousands of visitors every year. It started in 1985 and is now a five day event featuring French acts across a diverse range of styles.
La Rochelle Jazz Festival
Created in 1998 it went by the name of Jazz Entre Les Deux Tours. It’s usually held in early October each year. Taking place over three days it welcomes musicians from all walks of life and of international, national or regional reputation.
La Rochelle Under the Stars
Since 2021, the City has been working with local players to offer an event program. It runs throughout the summer to try to revitalise La Rochelle’s nightlife in the city.
Which are the best beaches in La Rochelle
La Rochelle is known for it’s fabulous array of sandy white beaches and it’s beautiful coastline. There are certainly plenty to choose from both in and around La Rochelle.
Plage de Châtelaillon
This is a wonderful place to go as it never seems to be too busy but has miles of beautiful beach that seems to go on forever.
For us, it’s on the way home to the Charente and only a slight detour off the main road, so driving south out of La Rochelle.
There’s a lovely promenade to walk along and some great beach cafes to stop and have a drink and bite to eat.
If you’re there in early summer there is Wind and Kite Festival and everywhere you look is filled with colour and kites flying high. It’s quite a sight to see.
Plage Chef de Baie
Just 15 mins from the centre of La Rochelle this beach is easy to get to. It has an array of restaurants to choose from when you get tired of sitting on the beach.
There is also a grassy area if you’re not keen on getting sand everywhere.
I have to admit I’m not a lover of sitting on the sand itself so this is a great option.
You’re also quite sheltered by the big boulders that protect the beach from the wind.
Plage de la Conche des Baleines, Île de Ré
Île de Ré is a small island connected to La Rochelle by a bridge. It’s home to lots of hidden coves and protected wetlands.
Plage de la Conche des Baleines is its most famous beach thanks to its dunes and natural pine forest. You can find it in the fishing village of Saint-Clément-des-Baleines.
The best restaurants in La Rochelle
Located as it is on the Bay of Biscay it’s not surprising that fresh fish is available in pretty much every restaurant.
Most tourists head straight for the Old Port to eat as they’re looking for food with a view.
However, if you’re looking for a less touristy place to eat then I’d suggest heading to Saint-Nicolas, a former fishing district.
The pretty streets come alive in the evening and are full of fabulous cafés, restaurants and wine bars.
Prao at No 10
One place we were recommended to try was Prao at No 10 as they are known for sourcing local products. They also have a good veggie selection, not that hubby was interested.
It had a bit of a hipster vibe about it with high ceilings and funky lights, but I have to say the food was excellent.
La Cave de la Guignette
If you’re looking to hang out with the locals then it’s La Cave de la Guignette that you want to go. This is a bit of a La Rochelle institution and every evening the locals will gather for a glass or two of La Guignette Rouge, a speciality drink of the Charente Maritime.
Be warned though, it closes at 9pm so make sure you don’t arrive late.
Rue St-Jean-du-Pérot is lined with great restaurants and is known as the food street by locals. It’s pretty much all pedestrianised and is just off the Old Port in the centre.
You’ll be spoilt for choice and it’s hard to know where to stop as it all looks great and the atmosphere is fantastic.
Where to stay in La Rochelle
Every time we’ve stayed here we’ve stayed somewhere different. I’m not one for chain hotels and love finding something small and boutique. But with that usually comes a price tag too.
Hotel Residence de France
One of my favourite hotels was definitely the Hotel Residence de France. For a start it had a grand piano in one of the reception rooms, which appealed to me being a classical pianist.
It’s located in the centre and only a short walk from the harbour which was great from a location point of view. Everything was within easy reach.
I loved the feeling you got when you walked through the rooms as you almost felt like you were walking into someone’s living room. Our room was huge and apparently both Gérard Depardieu and Audrey Tautou have slept here too.
There is no restaurant on site, which I found a little odd, but they do offer breakfast.
Hôtel De La Monnaie
Hôtel De La Monnaie is another great place to stay overlooking the old harbour and set in an old 17th century building.
It’s a favourite with many of the musicians who are part of the Francofolies Music Festival due to its “almost” backstage access.
The original decor has been replaced with modern art and a very contemporary feel. Part of me wishes it had stayed true to its roots as a 17th-century Royal Mint.
But then I’m a sucker for history and sticking with the original style of a building.
Hôtel & Spa du Château
If you’re like me and you can’t resist a château then you’ll love the Hôtel & Spa du Château. About ten minutes from La Rochelle it’s set in a beautiful green parkland surrounded by hundred-year old cedar trees.
It’s like stepping into another world. And it doesn’t stop there as it has a bit of a chequered past too.
During World War II this 19th century château was a German headquarters and prior to that was also family property of a Cognac house.
There is also an indoor pool and spa and brings new meaning to the word tranquil located away from the hustle and bustle of La Rochelle.
How to get to La Rochelle
If you’re flying from the UK or Europe then you can fly directly into Aereoport La Rochelle-Ile de Ré. It’s about a 15 minute drive so not far at all.
If you’re living in France or staying then I’d recommend getting the train to Gare de La Rochelle. There are direct trains from both Bordeaux and Paris and both take around 2.5 hours.
The La Rochelle Tourism Website is also a wealth of information for anything else you might need.