I’ll be honest, I’m not entirely sure that I had particularly heard of La Rochelle before I booked my recent trip there. Needless to say, it certainly wasn’t on my bucket list either. On our trip to the lovely Pitou- Charantes region of France we could barely tear ourselves away from the countryside, but on this one occasion we did, and were very glad. La Rochelle has historical and military significance, and a plethora of beautiful buildings and structures to prove it. It is a sunny, welcoming city and one that is easily navigated on foot as most of the attractions are close to each other. It would be all too easy to pass time sitting next to the harbour, or in a little café, watching the world and it’s many inhabitants go by over a café au lait or a croissant, but with so much to see and do it would be a shame to miss out.
First off, the Aquarium. Being on the shore of the mighty Atlantic Ocean, it seems only fitting that La Rochelle should have an aquarium to house a selection of weird and wonderful sea creatures not only for the enjoyment of all who visit, but serving a greater purpose too. The aquarium showcases fish, shark, plankton, anenomes and turtles amongst many other fascinating flora and fauna in it’s array of tanks, tunnels and mini rainforest. Adults and children will not be disappointed as swarms of jellyfish softly and elegantly bob in a dazzling display above their heads, and will stand in awe at the impressive 10ft high shark tank. The aquarium is also a centre for research, training and awareness in marine conservation including an observation and care programme for sea turtles. An adult ticket will set you back sixteen euro’s, slightly more if you opt for the English audio guide, but it’s worth paying the extra couple of euro’s if you don’t speak French as there is quite a bit of information in French only.
Once you’ve had your fill of fish (as interesting as the aquarium is, after a while they do all start to look the same), it’s only a short stroll towards the harbour adjoining to the old town. The road here is lined with restaurants and cafés, all boasting a prominent position overlooking the marina and many of them offering seafood as you would expect – we caught sight of an oyster or two as we walked by. If you make it past the tempting gauntlet of fabulous looking restaurants you will soon find yourself walking on cobbled streets as you enter the older part of the city just beyond the prominent clock-tower. Here you will find many a boulangerie and patisserie, luring you in with the smell of freshly baked pain au chocolat and a colourful display of macaroons and meringue that look almost too good to eat. La Rochelle has it’s fair share of shops too, and whether you’re in the market for clothes, shoes, perfumes or comic books- you’ll find them all here.
We had lunch at Rawcoco, a 100% vegan and organic restaurant that is committed to providing healthy, natural meals and snacks. Joining a few other inspired places across the continent catering to extremely health-conscious individuals (ahem, this might include me), this great little place offers tasty, nutritious food that is as good for your body as it is for the planet. The containers the food is served in are all biodegradable and compostable- even the cutlery is made of birch wood; they really have thought of everything. As such, this isn’t the cheapest place to eat but it is refreshing to have a healthy take on some of the country’s finest foods. I enjoyed a baked banana/chocolate crepe which was soon washed down with a matcha latte, complete with home-made almond milk (freshly crushed on site!). Lush!
A stone’s throw from here is the cathedral. Built in the 1700’s it is as impressive a sight from the outside as it is stunningly beautiful on the inside. Savour the peace and quiet from a pew as you admire the intricate details of the stained glass windows, mosaic floors and statues all around. There is no charge to enter, and it only takes ten minutes to walk around.
If visiting the Cathedral, Old Port, and Le Grosse Horloge (town clock) wasn’t enough history for you, consider visiting ‘Le Bunker’. A remnant from World War Two, this interesting exhibit houses original artefacts from the war all within the confounds of an original bunker discovered accidentally during excavations by it’s owner. La Rochelle played an important part in the war as an Atlantic base for the Germans and was also a major submarine base. Allow at least thirty minutes to walk around this small museum which only costs 7.50 euro each. Unfortunately most of the information is in French only, but they do have an English guidebook that they will lend you that outlines the history of La Rochelle during the war.
Other things to do in La Rochelle
We didn’t have time to do anything else, and decided to spend our last few minutes of the afternoon feasting on freshly bought croissants overlooking the harbour (one can’t be healthy ALL the time!), but rest assured there is plenty more to do in and around the city. La Rochelle actually pioneered the concept of public bicycles, and everywhere you go you can find yellow bikes to rent at quite a reasonable price (starting at three euro’s for two hours). This might tempt you to explore further to one of the regions sandy beaches (Les Minimes is only about two miles from the city centre) or even as far as the Ile de Re, a small island connected to the city by bridge. There are several boats operating from the harbour which offer visitors voyage to the Island along with ‘Fort Boyard’, which was made famous by it’s namesake television programme aired in the UK during the nineties.
Being a small city, I would suggest that La Rochelle could easily be seen in a day, but if you want to make more of your visit by exploring the Ile de Re also, this could actually make a really lovely multi- day trip. The Island is popular with Parisians, and can be busy during high season.
See my post on Pitou-Charantes for more information what to do in the surrounding area.