La Rochelle: A brief history
Originally founded in the 10th century on a rocky platform, the fishing village of La Rochelle developed into an important port during the 12th century. The town enjoyed independence from the French and English crowns thanks largely to its powerful trade (mainly in salt and wine) and came to adopt the ideas of the Reformation. With its fleet and fortifications this “Trade Republic” and stronghold of French Protestantism posed a threat to the king’s plans to establish absolute sovereignty over a unified France.
In 1627 the royal armies, led by Louis XIII and Cardinal Richelieu, laid siege to the town. After several months of famine on an unprecedented scale, La Rochelle implored the king for a royal pardon. Starving, decimated and forced into submission by Louis XIII, the town lost its privileges and saw its trade ruined and its ramparts demolished.
The town would only recover its commercial and intellectual prestige in the 18th century thanks to the triangular trade plied by local ships transporting sugar from the West Indies and furs from Canada.
With its famous fishing port, international marina and modern infrastructure, La Rochelle has been a major tourist destination since the 20th century.
La Rochelle is a fantastic destination at any time of the year, whether for a day, an afternoon or an evening out.
The Old Port and Old Quarters
When arriving by car the simplest solution is to follow the outer ring road (known as the “rocade extérieure”), take the exit marked “La Rochelle Centre” and follow signs for “Centre” and “Parking du Vieux Port”. This car park is located at the foot of the Tour de la Lanterne (also known as the Tour des Quatre Sergents) and is a good departure point for exploring the town on foot.
Just a few hundred metres away you will find yourself at the Old Port (Vieux Port), surrounded by the lively hustle and bustle of La Rochelle.
A short walk along the quay brings you to La Rochelle’s old quarters via the Porte de la Grosse Horloge, formerly the port-side entrance to the town. Step through the gate to discover the picturesque arcade-lined streets of Rue du Palais, Rue du Minage and Grande Rue des Merciers.
A plethora of eating options is available for lunch and dinner in the restaurants located under the old arcades and the terraces lining Quai Duperré.
From the Old Port to Les Minimes
If this is your first visit to La Rochelle a walk along the coastal path stretching around the south side of the Old Port to the marina in Les Minimes is a must.
As you cross Quai Duperré, named after the La Rochelle-born admiral who commanded the French fleet during the Invasion of Algiers in 1830, glance to your right to see the two famous towers guarding the entrance to the Old Port.
On the left is the Tour Saint-Nicolas, formerly a fortress, while on the right is the Tour de la Chaîne, which unsurprisingly owes its name to the huge chain that once linked the two towers, barring entrance to the port at night.
Simply stroll alongside the Old Port until you reach the Tour Saint-Nicolas and then follow the jetty that leads out to the marina in Les Minimes.
As you near the marina you truly gain a sense of the importance of yachting to La Rochelle. On the right, thousands of masts stretch out as far as the eye can see, while on the left many shipyards and businesses can be found offering boat-related services and equipment.
After around one hour of walking you have two options for returning to the Old Port: You can either take the Waterbus ("Bus de la Mer") directly from Les Minimes to Quai Duperré. Or by walking back the way you came you can enjoy the views over the entrance to the Old Port and town. You can also shorten your journey by taking the shuttle ferry ("Passeur électrique") from the outer harbour directly to Quai Duperré.
Nearby: the Ile de Ré Bridge and Châtelaillon-Plage
From La Rochelle, follow signs for La Pallice to reach the three-km long bridge opened in 1988 linking Île de Ré to the mainland. If you simply want to look, a belvedere (viewing point) provides stunning views over the bridge and the island without having to pass the toll booths.
Heading south from La Rochelle towards Rochefort you can relax or enjoy a drink at Châtelaillon-Plage, located just over 10 kilometres to the south of La Rochelle. The seaside promenade offers fantastic views of the coast and its islands.
(original French text adapted from www.bernezac.com )
What to visit in La Rochelle
Hôtel de Ville (Town Hall)
Consisting of a Flamboyant Gothic-style outer wall protecting a Renaissance-style main building, the town hall possesses several souvenirs of life in La Rochelle, including some from the 17th-century siege of the town. Daily visits are organised at 3 pm in June, increasing to two visits per day in July, one at 3 pm and one at 4 pm.
This military edifice, built as a keep in the late 14th century, symbolises the power and wealth of La Rochelle. Standing 42-metres high, its architecture features a maze of stairs and corridors built within the walls. Don’t miss the magnificent views over the town, harbour and islands. Tel.: +33 (0)5 46 34 11 81
Tour de la Chaîne
The Tour de la Chaîne dates from the late 14th century. It owes its name to the huge chain that was previously joined to the Tour St Nicolas when the town wanted to prevent ships from entering the harbour. Having been restored a few years ago, it now contains a permanent exhibition entitled “La Rochelle, Atlantic Capital, Huguenot Capital”. Tel.: +33 (0)5 46 34 11 81
Tour de la Lanterne, also known as the "Tour des Quatre Sergents"
Standing 70-metres high and topped with an octagonal spire in the Gothic style, this tower served throughout its history as a lighthouse and prison. Inside, the graffiti carved by British, Dutch and Spanish privateers and military prisoners bears witness to the tower’s history. Tel.: +33 (0)5 46 34 11 81
Hôtel de la Bourse (Stock Exchange)
This perfect example of 17th-century architecture consists of two wings connected by a gallery of columns. It has a unique beauty thanks to its perfect proportions and the harmonious simplicity of its lines, making it one of La Rochelle’s most accomplished monuments.
La Rochelle Aquarium
In the centre of the town facing the Old Port stands one of Europe’s largest private aquariums. Travel to the heart of the oceans as you meet over 12,000 sea creatures and discover the biodiversity of the Atlantic Ocean, the Mediterranean Sea and the Tropics during a two-hour visit. From fragile jellyfish to fascinating sharks, the aquarium provides a unique and dreamlike journey to understanding the sea.
Buy tickets online at www.aquarium-larochelle.com
• Opening hours: open 365 days a year
• October to March: 10 am – 8 pm
• April to June, and September: 9 am – 8 pm
• July and August: 9 am – 11 pm
Last entrance 90 minutes before closing.
Partner restaurants for the 44th festival
1. Café de la Paix 54 Rue Chaudrier | +33 (0)546 41 39 79
Situated next to the Olympia cinema, Café de la Paix invites you to sample its daily specials in a magnificent Belle Époque setting. Affordable prices and generous portions.
Open every day except Sunday, from 7 am to 10 pm.
2. Crêperie des Halles 1 Rue des Cloutiers | +33 (0)546 27 93 97
Savoury pancakes made from 100% buckwheat flour, 25 years’ experience, a warm, family-friendly atmosphere and good humour assured! Set lunch menu available for €12.50.
Open lunchtime from Monday to Saturday, 12 pm to 2 pm; dinnertime from Monday to Wednesday, 7 pm to 9 pm, and Fridays and Saturdays from 7 pm to 9.30 pm. Closed on Thursday evening and Sundays.
3. Iséo Bistrot de la mer 4 Place de la Chaîne | +33 (0)546 41 06 08
Exceptional cooking at an exceptional location. Here, sophistication meets great food and wonderful sea views. Chef Kham creates dishes fusing subtle aromas and classic seafood. The menu at Iséo emphasises innovative flavours and the freshest produce.
Open daily from 12 pm to 2 pm and from 7 pm to 10 pm.
4. Baïtona 30 Rue Saint-Jean-du-Pérot | +33 (0)546 50 07 01 | 06 45 75 52 55
Baïtona offers simple yet inventive dishes prepared using the freshest ingredients of the season. With its modest and unpretentious cuisine, Baïtona aims to bring a splash of colour to local produce and traditional, time-honoured recipes. Bistro menu and original pizzas.
Open daily from 12 pm to 3 pm and from 6 pm to midnight.
5. L’Avant-Scène 2 Rue Saint-Jean-du-Pérot | 06 09 25 24 81 | 06 06 79 88 67
Located inside La Coursive and offering quick hot food (daily special at €9.90), large salads (€12-€15) and sandwiches (€3.50-€5). There is even a dish named after the Festival (a mix of crudités, fruit, fish rillettes, cheese, etc.) priced at €16.50. Sweet and savoury food served all day long.
Open daily from 9.30 am to 1 am.
6. Café Coulisses 24 Rue Verdière | 09 54 68 29 62
Located behind La Coursive, Café Coulisses is a friendly brasserie open every lunchtime from Monday to Sunday and evenings from Wednesday to Saturday. The varied menu features house-made burgers, salads and omelettes, as well as a set lunch menu starting at €13.50.
Open daily and non-stop from 8.30 am to 1 am.
7. L’Aunis 14 Rue Saint-Jean-du-Pérot | +33 (0)546 41 03 00
These neighbours of La Coursive offer a variety of set menus, fresh fish and traditional cuisine in a friendly atmosphere. A longstanding and loyal partner of the festival.
Open every day except Monday lunchtime from 12 pm to 2 pm and from 7 pm to 10.30 pm.
8. Crêperie La Bigoudène 63 Rue Saint-Jean du Pérot | +33 (0)546 50 01 34
A traditional, family-run Breton crêperie with a shaded patio near the Tour de la Lanterne. Fresh local produce, 100% buckwheat pancakes and house-made salted butter caramel. Feels like a home from home.
Open daily from 12 pm to 2 pm and from 7 pm to 10 pm.
Restaurants / Wine bars
9. Métamec 19 ter Place du Maréchal-Foch | +33 (0)546 50 69 03
This restaurant and wine bar has a warm, inviting atmosphere, with music played later in the day. It offers simple dishes using fresh ingredients and a traditional and varied wine list.
Open daily except Wednesday from 12 pm to 3 pm and from 6 pm to 2 am. Evening service from 8 pm through to midnight!
10. Ze'Bar 13 bis Rue de la Chaîne | +33 (0)546 07 05 15
“Cave à manger” (wine bar serving deli-style food) offering natural wines from small producers.
Restaurant service every evening from 6 pm to 2 am.
Quick snacks / Takeaways
11. Initiative Catering Ecole Dor | 05 46 30 34 37 | 06 81 22 13 01
The association Initiative Catering offers a mouth-watering moment of relaxation. Join us in the courtyard of École Dor (24 rue Saint-Jean-du-Pérot) for a drink or to sample the innovative menu of locally produced preserves such as terrines, rillettes, vegetable pâtés and vegetarian dishes.
Open every evening (except during special events) from 7 pm to 1 am.
12. Le P'tit Bleu Cours des Dames | +33 (0)546 28 32 65
A fishing boat parked on Quai des sardiniers. Le P’tit Bleu is the ideal place to feel like you’re on holiday even during a break, from lunchtime to dinnertime non-stop. It serves platters of 9 oysters direct from the producer, priced from €7 to €8.50 depending on size, and simple, informal food grilled à la plancha, all washed down with a glass of Muscadet sur Lie, Saumur-Champigny or a rosé from Île de Ré.
Open daily from 12 pm to 11 pm.
13. Le Carthage 17 Rue Léonce Vieljeux | +33 (0)546 27 36 26
Grilled meat, couscous, kebabs and sandwiches priced between €5 and €10, served by the friendly owner and available for takeaway or for eating in the large dining room!
Open daily from 12 pm to midnight.
14. Basilic’O 41 Rue du Palais | +33 (0)546 41 26 71 ● 30 rue du Temple | +33 (0)546 29 76 18
Located near to the harbour, next to Galeries Lafayette, this Italian restaurant and delicatessen offers dishes for takeaway or eating in, including classic antipasti and Italian specialities. It also offers quick set lunches starting at €6 (Rue du Temple).
Open daily except Sunday from 10 am to 7.30 pm.
15. French Coffee Shop ● 46 Rue Chaudrier | +33 (0)546 34 82 41
French Coffee Shop is a tearoom serving a range of delicious hot and iced drinks made from tea, hot chocolate, milk and coffee. Available to enjoy in-house or to takeaway; also serves cakes, pastries, sandwiches, salads, wraps and gratins.
Open from Monday to Saturday, 7.30 am to 7 pm.
16. Ernest le Glacier 48 Cours des Dames | +33 (0)546 43 48 65 ● 16 rue du Port | +33 (0)546 50 55 60
Don’t forget to visit our friend Ernest le Glacier and sample the many flavours on offer.
Open daily from 12.30 pm to 11 pm.
Where to enjoy a drink in La Rochelle
Métamec 19 ter Place du Maréchal-Foch | +33 (0)546 50 69 03
This bistro and wine bar has a warm and inviting atmosphere, with music played later in the day. It offers simple dishes using fresh ingredients and a traditional and varied wine list.
Open daily from 7 pm to 2 am, service from 8 pm to midnight except on Sundays.
Les Pérot-Quais 15 Rue Saint-Jean-du-Pérot | +33 (0)546 41 43 68
Charles-Éric and Thierry offer a menu of theme-based “balanced meals” served in a warm atmosphere and a refined decor.
Open every day except Monday from 7.30 pm to midnight.
Le Vinophone 29 Rue Saint-Jean du Pérot | +33 (0)546 29 16 03
Wine bar offering a vast selection of organic wines and spirits to be enjoyed alongside oysters, artisanal cured meats and farm cheeses. Original selection of background music.
Open daily from 5 pm to 2 am.
Ze'Bar 13 bis Rue de la Chaîne | +33 (0)546 07 05 15
Cave à manger (wine bar serving deli-style food) offering natural wines from small producers. Non-stop restaurant service.
Open every evening from 6 pm to 2 am.
Other highlights to discover
Visit La Rochelle using the Pass Rochelais
Clocher St Barthélémy (St Barthélémy Belfry), Palais de Justice (Law Courts), Grosse Horloge (Clock Tower), Maison Henri II (House of Henri II), Maison Nicolas Venette (House of Nicolas Venette), the Cathedral, Eglise St Sauveur (St Sauveur Church), Eglise Notre-Dame (Church of Our Lady), La Porte Dauphine (Dauphine Gate), La Porte Royale (Royal Gate), and the Market.
The surrounding area
The coasting stretching either side of La Rochelle offers, to the north, cliffs and the villages of L’Houmeau and Nieul, and Aiguillon Bay with the towns of Esnandes and Charron, the capital of mussel breeding. To the south lies a series of beaches offering a wide variety of water sports.
A few kilometres to the east of La Rochelle, tourists can enjoy boat trips into the marshes of the Marais Poitevin, aptly nicknamed the “Green Venice” thanks to the many canals crisscrossing this natural park.
If you are staying in the region, make sure to spend a day on Île d'Aix, the last true island in the Charente-Maritime region, with Oléron and Ré now linked to the mainland via bridges and Île Madame accessible at low tide by car.