La Rochelle, in the Charente-Maritime region in southwestern France, was one of the most important maritime and port cities between the years 1200 and 1400. The Templars found a stronghold with their fleet of boats in La Rochelle in the 12th century, and during his reign, Aliénor d’Aquitaine gave them control of the mills around the city. During World War II, the Germans set up a submarine base in the main port, La Pallice, and La Rochelle was the last German-occupied city in France to be liberated.
Today, La Rochelle is a vibrant tourist destination, with much of its historic architecture and many old ports still intact. It still retains a port lined with private pleasure boats and yachts.
Things To Do In La Rochelle
The Old Port, The Old Port
The central attraction of La Rochelle is La Vieux Port, or the Old Port, which is lined with sailboats, yachts, and fishing boats, and is surrounded by seafood restaurants and cafes. This is a great first stop for a drink or a meal on your arrival and also for locating yourself in the city.
The Lantern Tower
First built as a lighthouse in the 1500s, the 235-foot-tall Lantern Tower was later converted into a prison. Two significant events add to the tradition of the tower, which was dubbed the Priests’ Tower after 12 Catholic priests were thrown from the tower upon their deaths in 1568. During the period of restoration from 1814 to 1830, four sergeants were imprisoned and later executed here for conspiracy to assassinate King Louis XVIII. If you walk up the stairs to the tower you will see old graffiti and also great views of the city from the top.
Central Market, The Central Market
The city’s main food market is open daily with around 60 stalls selling mostly local food and specialties. Although you may be tempted to taste all foods, fresh oysters are what you want to try first. There are many sizes and types that you can select individually, and the vendors will peel them for you so you can enjoy them on the spot. Other local foods to try are Chabichou from Poitou, a soft goat cheese and a cheesecake with burnt edges called crab cheese.
A wide range of water activities are available in La Rochelle, including jet ski rentals and excursions, sailing cruises and lessons, and kitesurfing lessons. If you’re daring enough, you can even take a flyboard lesson.
One of the largest aquariums in Europe, the Aquarium de La Rochelle, has more than 12,000 species of underwater life. The aquarium is divided into sections that showcase various bodies of water including the Atlantic Ocean, Mediterranean Sea, Caribbean, and tropical rainforests. The must-sees are the jellyfish ballet and the shark aquarium.
Best restaurants in La Rochelle
Omelette Delice is a small restaurant specializing in omelettes and egg dishes made from certified organic eggs. Basic omelet toppings include ham and cheese and smoked salmon, more elaborate toppings including duck, blue cheese and pear and beef with tomato, cheddar and barbecue sauce, and for dessert, a unique salted butter caramel omelet. All main dish omelets are served with salad, fried potatoes and toast.
The P’tit Nicolas menu changes every week depending on market availability. The prix fixe menus start at a reasonable price of 14.50 euros per person for two courses and an a la carte menu is also offered.
The best places to stay in La Rochelle
Eden West is a luxury bed and breakfast in a converted 1800s townhouse, ideally located in the center of town near the Central Market. There are four generously sized suites, each with a particular name and theme. The bathroom in the Rust Ocre suite is almost the same size as the bedroom, with a freestanding oval wood jacuzzi tub and a frame that allows you to turn the entire bathroom into a steam room. The owner’s wife is an artist whose works hang on the walls of rooms and public spaces.
The ibis La Rochelle Vieux-Port is a highly rated, moderately priced hotel in the heart of the old town and port. Standard rooms are fitted with a double bed or a double bed with a sofa and include air conditioning, free Wi-Fi and a desk.
Things To Do On Ile De Ré
Right across from La Rochelle is Ile de Ré, a resort island frequented by upscale French families, usually Parisians. Similar to the atmosphere and geography of Martha’s Vineyard, Ile de Ré has natural charm and beauty with beaches, dunes and salt marshes. The island was only accessible by ferry until 1987, when a 1.8 mile bridge was built that linked La Rochelle to Île de Ré.
Divided into 10 small towns, Saint Martin de Ré is the main village. Life and commerce revolve around the small harbor lined with fishing boats and charming low 18th century buildings with cafes, restaurants, grocery stores and boutiques on the ground floor.
Ride a bike
The most widely used mode of transport is by bicycle and there are extensive, well-marked cycle paths throughout the island. There are many bicycle shops that rent bikes by the hour, day and week.
Take a three-hour boat cruise from the port to see Fort Boyard, a 1661 fortress built during the reign of Louis XIV in the middle of the sea. The fortress has been resuscitated and abandoned on several occasions, and in recent years it has was used as a French game show board Fort Boyard.
Ernest Cognacq Museum
A sculptural limestone mansion built in 1480 has a long history of owners who were statesmen and soldiers. Today, the beautiful edifice, the Ernest Cognacq Museum, houses the vast collection of the Cognacq-Jay family, who were the wealthy owners of the La Samaritaine department store chain and lived in Paris at the turn of the 20th century. The collection is a mixture of decorative and historical objects divided into collections on anthropology, archeology, graphic arts and fine arts, ceramics, European and regional ethnography, naval history, military objects and furniture. The museum recently added a new wing dedicated to the history of the Île de Ré and to contemporary exhibitions. The garden houses a sculpture by George Washington and contemporary sculptures.
Saint-Clément des Baleines is a wide sandy beach about three kilometers long and ends in a lighthouse. A section of the beach is reserved for surfing and another section is reserved for naturists.
Best restaurants on Ile de Ré
Almost all the cafes and restaurants in the harbor offer fresh seafood, especially clams, oysters and mussels.
La Table d’Olivia at Hôtel de Toiras has one of the best restaurants on the island, where the chef expertly mixes seafood, fresh produce and eclectic spices.
The intimate dining room, decorated in a French country style, can seat only 20 people with the tables set far apart.
L’Insolite is a wine bar and bistro with an interesting selection of French wines and a menu of contemporary cuisine.
Residents and tourists line up patiently in La Martinière for their 66 flavors of artisanal ice cream and sorbets. The sugar cones are made with sea salt from Ile de Ré, and La Martinière offers an alternative style ice cream sandwich made with outer layers of French macaroons stuffed with ice cream.
The best places to stay on the Ile de Ré
The five-star Hotel De Toiras is a Relais et Chateau property with 20 rooms, some overlooking the harbor and others overlooking the peaceful interior garden. Originally built as a mansion in the 1700s for a shipbuilder, it was transformed in 2005 into a luxury hotel by Olivia Le Calvez. Each room is beautifully decorated with French antiques and fabrics by the great Parisian interior designer Yves Rochon, who used local artisans for much of the furniture. The suites have four poster beds with delicate French country fabrics.
The Villa Clarisse is a sister hotel of the Hôtel de Toiras and is also owned by Olivia Le Calvez. Located on a quiet residential street just a five-minute walk from the port, Villa Clarisse is an 18th-century mansion transformed into an oasis of tranquility with contemporary rooms, a private garden and a heated swimming pool (a rarity in France). The restaurant serves a full breakfast (included in the room rate) with homemade bread, local jams, omelets, eggs, fruit salad and yogurt. At lunchtime, the hotel can make you a personalized picnic basket so that you can have lunch on the grass in its garden. Villa Clarisse can also provide a private butler to meet all your needs. In 2021, Villa Clarisse will add a full service spa.
La Rochelle is three hours by TGV from Montparnasse station in Paris.
Ile de Ré is accessible by a local bus from La Rochelle station for two euros one way. It takes about an hour. A taxi costs around 40 euros and takes 25 minutes.
Ile de Ré is a seasonal seaside resort and the best months to visit are from May to October. August is the busiest month, so if you want to go, be sure to book your accommodation well in advance.
With the exception of the hotels mentioned above, most of the accommodation on Ile de Ré does not have air conditioning. Daytime temperatures in July and August range from 68 to 72 degrees Fahrenheit and at night drop to as low as 60 degrees Celsius.