Fabulously French, La Rochelle is a lively seaport town with a café-lined waterfront, elegant shopping streets and lots to see and do.
Although wealthy from its trade in salt, wine and cognac, La Rochelle suffered terribly for its Huguenot (Protestant) sympathies during the French wars of Religion when in 1627 Cardinal Richelieu starved the town for 14 months until it surrendered. It not only recovered but also regained its prosperity, trading with the New World with many of the French settlers emigrating from here to Canada and America.
Three naval landmarks from the 14th and 15th centuries still dominate the harbour entrance: the Tour de la Chaine (the oldest), the Tour Saint-Nicolas and the Tour de la Lanterne.
Visit the Quebec exhibition in the Tour de la Chaine, and don’t miss seeing the sensational views from the observation deck at the top of the Tour de la Lanterne. The walk from the Vieux Port to the modern marina of Port des Minimes will give you a great feel for the town, and takes just 30 minutes – or see it from the water by taking the bus de mer, a small boat which runs between the two. Round off the day with a relaxed harbourside stroll while the port lights up and restaurants, cafés and bars really come to life.
Stroll around town
From the Old Port, walk through the huge Gothic gateway of Porte de la Grosse Horloge and into the maze of 17th and 18th century streets stretching back from the harbour. Now pedestrianised, they’re filled with bustling boutiques, while particularly beautiful mansions can be found on nearby rue Réaumur, rue Admyrault and rue Saint-Jean. Architectural highlights include the Hôtel de Ville, begun around 1600 during the reign of Henri IV (join a guided tour to see inside) and the Hôtel de la Bourse, built during the 18th century.
Between Quai du Gabut and Quai Georges Simenon, is Le Gabut, a neighbourhood with so many coloured wooden houses that you might be forgiven for thinking you are in Scandinavia. Here you’ll also find the Maritime Museum and the Aquarium, as well as the Tourist Office, in front of which are rows of bright yellow bicycles for hire. Free for the first two hours (and only 1.10€ per extra hour), they’re a great way to explore over 160km of cycle routes in the city and around the surrounding area.
On Wednesdays and Saturdays the daily market in Place du Marché (the place to go for fresh seafood) spills out into the surrounding streets.
2 Quai Georges
Simenon, Le Gabut
+33 (0)5 46 41 14 68;