La Rochelle: France's Third Most Visited City

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James Martin

La Rochelle, one of France's most beautiful and historic port cities, is situated on the Bay of Biscay on the west coast in the Poitou-Charentes region. Located between the cities of Nantes to the north and Bordeaux to the south, La Rochelle is a good base to use for travels to the Bordeaux wine country or to visit Cognac. Despite being relatively unknown to Americans, La Rochelle is the third most visited city in France.

You can travel to La Rochelle by train, bus, or car. The high-speed TGV from Paris to La Rochelle takes about three hours and arrives at the La Rochelle Ville central railway station. Once you are there, you can rent a car to explore this historic town and beautiful valley. You can also explore parts of La Rochelle by foot—the old port is steps from the train station and the Aquarium is about five minutes away.

The Aeroport de La Rochelle, located 5 kilometers from the city, serves Airlinair (Air France), Ryanair, Flybe, and Easyjet. You can take a bus into town from the airport (Monday through Saturday take line 7 and on Sundays take line 47)—buses run every 30 minutes.


La Rochelle's weather is dominated by a Gulf Stream which moderates temperatures and keeps La Rochelle comfortable through the year. While you won't usually find winter frost or snow in town, if you travel inland you may encounter colder weather.

Things to Do in La Rochelle

The centerpiece of La Rochelle is its heavily fortified old port, called the Vieux Port. Behind the three 14th-century stone towers is the medieval core of the city lined with shops and seafood restaurants, a good place to take a walk.

Walk the Historic City: You can go into the two towers, the tour Saint-Nicolas and the tour de la Chaine and then wander through the alleys and stop for lunch or dinner at one of the quaint restaurants that serve the local specialties—oysters from Marennes-Oleron and mussels from Bouchot. For dessert, you must have la merveille, a traditional doughnut.

Within La Rochelle's historic quarter is the Hôtel de Ville (City Hall) built between 1595 and 1606 in a Renaissance style surrounded by the older defensive wall. This historic building is open to the public.

Another nice walk in the area is along the canal of Marans, and out on the dock Louis Durans.

Visit the Aquarium: Many go to La Rochelle just to see their impressive modern Aquarium. The La Rochelle Aquarium is one of the largest private aquariums in Europe and attracts 800,000 visitors a year.

Take the elevator disguised as a submarine from the reception area down to the aquarium halls. It's easy to spend a day there and become mesmerized as you walk through the areas featuring marine life from the Atlantic and Mediterranean and then on into huge areas devoted specifically to jellyfish or sharks.

See Cousteau's Calypso: The history of La Rochelle is connected with the sea, of course, so there's a floating Maritime Museum to visit. There are three vessels which you can board to tour the museum's displays. Five other historic vessels are moored there but are not open to the public. The Calypso, which carried Jacques Cousteau and his crew on expeditions around the world, was sunk in an accident in Singapore and subsequently was donated to the La Rochelle Musée Maritime.

Take a Boat Tour: Boating trips are very popular. You can take a motor tour of the port area or go out sailing with an experienced skipper.

Hit the Beach: The sandy Minimes Beach is located within view of luxury yachts and is in an area of upscale boutiques and restaurants. You can wade in the sparkling blue water, sunbathe, and have a picnic. From the beach, you can spot the famous lighthouse, a replica of the 19th-century light station, "The Lighthouse From the End of the World," in Patagonia.

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