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Things To Do In La Rochelle
La Rochelle is a small port city located along the Atlantic coast of western France. It is also the capital of the Charente-Maritime department and has its origins associated with the settlement of the Gallic tribe of the Santones in the 10th-century, followed by the occupation of the ancient Romans. Having served as one of France’s most important port cities from the 14th to 17th-century, La Rochelle’s old harbour is essentially a glimpse into the city’s historically significant role in several battles and regional trade.
Travellers to the city are met with an amazing array of museums and opportunities to indulge in fun activities like boating, sailing, biking; even an act as mundane as strolls through the old town will prove to be a fascinating experience in a city as diverse as La Rochelle. Detailed below is our list of recommendations for the top things to do in La Rochelle.
Walk Around the Old Town
Most of La Rochelle’s historic significance can be experienced in its old quarter, where travellers can experience the city’s old-timey heritage and walk around admiring its many sights. The Tour de la Grosse-Horloge serves as the gateway to the old town, although only the remnants of the tower remain today. With buildings dating back to mostly the 17th and 18th-century, the town is exceptionally well-preserved and features little shops and boutiques occupying the ground floor of most of these buildings.
The gloriously decorated Hotel de Ville is located at the centre of the Old Town, with the magnificent 16th-century Renaissance building Maison de Henri II located close by. The Tour de la Lanterne is an important landmark in the town as well; it was originally built as a lighthouse that also served as a prison for a while.
Enjoy Seafood at the Old Harbour
The city’s old port is an intrinsic part of La Rochelle’s identity. While wandering through the harbour on a good weather day and enjoying the splendid views of the Tour Saint-Nicholas and Tour de la Chaine is a satisfying activity in itself, the numerous quayside restaurants here offer excellent seafood varieties that are best enjoyed in the company of the aforementioned views. The port is usually packed with fishing boats bringing in the catch of the day, apart from the several tourist boats that embark on their journey from this harbour. Visitors are free to buy the fresh catch from the fishermen themselves and maybe even get one of the riverside restaurants to cook up their seafood for them.
Visit La Rochelle Aquarium
One of La Rochelle’s most popular attractions, not just among adults but also the kids, is the La Rochelle Aquarium. This family-friendly museum is divided into nine zones and contains almost 12000 marine wildlife belonging to 600 different species. The tour begins with a submarine-like container that carries visitors underwater where the actual aquarium is located and passengers are greeted by exotic marine life from the Mediterranean, Caribbean, Atlantic and Indo-Pacific oceans. An audio guide provides interesting information about all species, with special audio arrangements for children as well. A large shark tank and a 360⁰ underwater tunnel from where you can see thousands of jellyfish above are some of the highlights of the aquarium. Apart from this, the aquarium does its part for the conservation of the natural world by breeding 20 of its resident species and cultivating corals in hundreds of quarantine tanks.
Don’t forget to make a stop at the aquarium’s souvenir shop before heading out. Visitors can also try fresh seasonal delicacies at the in-house restaurant called the Café de l’Aquarium.
Relax on the Beaches
A warm sunny day spent relaxing by the seaside after you’ve exhausted the city’s attractions will sound appealing to all kinds of travellers. While La Rochelle is not traditionally known as beach destination, it still has few shores worth spending some time at. The most popular one is Place des Minimes, which is also the largest beach in the city. Apart from the soft sandy beach, there are also several shops and restaurants here that are great for spending some time in. Kids especially will love the giant Ferris wheel that offers great views of the city from the top.
The Plage de la Concurrence is a 5-minute walk from the city centre and is best enjoyed during low tide when the beach expanse spreads out vast. During high tide, the shores almost disappear. The Chef de Baie beach is the farthest away from the city centre. A large lawn-like area above the beach allows kids a great playing field. An added feature of the sea wall protects the beach from strong winds and high tide.
Enjoy a Cruise or Boat Tour
Boat tours or mini-cruises are offered by numerous travel agencies in La Rochelle. The city’s maritime attractions are a number of islands located within small distances of La Rochelle, with full-day or half-day tours available to all of them. Íle de Re is the most frequented island from La Rochelle, and because it is connected to the city via a short bridge, it can be reached via road as well. Íle de Re has scenic beaches, along with hiking trails and bike paths to keep all kinds of travellers busy. The seafood restaurants here will entice you with mouth-watering local delicacies.
The famous Fort Boyard is another local attraction encountered while out on a boat tour. It is also the filming location of a TV show that goes by the same name. Visitors are allowed on the fort when there isn’t any production underway. The small islands of Oléron and Aix are located on either side of Fort Boyard, which are also good places to enjoy cycling and walks.
Shop at Les Halles – the City Centre Market
While La Rochelle has dozens of street markets to brag about, the City Centre market is the one to look out for. While the main covered market is hosted every morning in the 19th-century market halls, Wednesdays and Saturdays witness extended open hours with stalls covering the entire square and the surrounding streets. Everything from fresh produce and seafood to locally made delicacies can be purchased from these stalls. An amazing selection of fruits, vegetables and flowers are sold outside the market hall, whereas all the meat and meat-related products, cheeses etc. are sold inside the market hall. Some of the pubs in the area even have collaborations with the producers, which means visitors can simply pick up a few plates of their favourite dishes and get into one of the pubs to enjoy their food with a drink.
Visit the Museums
There are numerous museums to check out in La Rochelle, but with the city’s extensive seafaring history, the Maritime Museum undoubtedly takes centre stage as one of the most significant museums in the city. The Maritime Museum consists of a fleet of renovated ships that feature maps, artefacts and charts depicting La Rochelle’s seafaring history. The New World Museum offers great insight into France’s association with the discoveries of the Americas and has displays of paintings, furnishings, maps and letters from those eras.
The Museum of Natural History is housed in a magnificent 19th-century building and contains a large taxidermy collection of exotic animals. La Rochelle War Bunker is a real war bunker that was developed by the Germans in World War 2 and has now been turned into a museum. The Automata Museum contains exhibits that are devoted to the art of miniatures and contains elaborate scale models.
Indulge in the Local Festivals
La Rochelle hosts several events and festivals each year, among which the Francofolies week is the most famous. Celebrated in July, this music festival is an intrinsic part of the French music scene that turns the city of La Rochelle into an open-air stage featuring Francophone artists from around the world. The ‘Jazz Festival Between the Two Towers’ takes place in October and is also a big music event in La Rochelle. Festivals associated with cinema are also an important part of the city’s identity; events like the La Rochelle International Film Festival, TV Fiction Festival and the International Adventure Film Festival are some of the major events that attract thousands of visitors annually.
The International Sail Week and The Grand Pavois are some of the largest international boat shows in the world and are organised in May and June, and September respectively.