When thinking about French cities, for most people, Paris, Bordeaux and maybe Marseille come to mind. All great destinations of course yet France is such a big country and there’s so much to discover that it would be a shame to limit yourself to just a couple of highlights. From the greatness of the Alps to the mundane Côte d’Azur, from the rugged landscapes in the Pyrenees to the untouched beauty of Brittany… The list of options is pretty much endless and therefore, one could never visit France too often in their lifetime. Of course, living in this beautiful country myself, I am maybe a little biased yet that’s besides the question. Today, let’s talk about La Rochelle.
If you’re a rugby fanatic, La Rochelle might sound pretty familiar. One of France’s biggest rugby clubs is located in the otherwise rather small city and the sport therefore has quite the influence on its inhabitants. Clearly, if you’ve got the chance to visit on a match day, that could be quite the experience. Yet as I didn’t get the chance to go and look at a rugby match, I needed to fill my time in some kind of other way.
One of the first things you’ll notice in La Rochelle is how well-organized and tidy everything seems to be. Where cities usually tend to be a bit chaotic and – let’s face it – not that clean, there’s nothing of that to be seen around here. Of course, the fact that most of the city-center is completely car-free helps a lot to this regard. Speaking of that, be aware that getting to your hotel by car can be a challenge even Google Maps can’t live up to, so you might be better off travelling to La Rochelle by train. Just a little advice from someone who didn’t get that advice.
1. Walk around and enjoy
As La Rochelle is centered around its historical port, it goes without saying that a walk to marvel at all the cute little and not-so-little boats can’t miss in your 24-hour itinerary. You could opt to just stay at the main port but if you’re up to it, you can walk up the coastline for several kilometers, surrounded by nothing else than water, boats and a bit of greenery. Once you’ve reached the end, you either walk back or you rent one of the very convenient Freebikes. Pretty convenient, especially since the entire landscape is pretty much as flat as it comes. If you’re in for it, you can cycle through the center all the way to the other side of La Rochelle by the Allée du Mail and have a stop at the Park Franck Delmas. From there, the docks will gently lead you back to the city.
If you’ve got the chance to visit the city on a sunny day, there’s honestly no point in doing anything else than strolling around. La Rochelle boasts many historical buildings which are marvelous to look at from the outside and parks where you can forget the rest of the world for a moment. The historical market hall offers hours worth of fun, especially if you’re an oyster-fanatic. All kinds of different species are on sale here and yes, you can taste all of them to finaly find out which one you like best. Just besides the market lays the Brulerie du Marché, which is the perfect place to enjoy a specialty coffee – we’d recommend you to take some home with you as well, you’ll regret it if you don’t.
2. Inside fun
If, however, the weather’s not on your side and you have to hide from the rain or the cold, La Rochelle luckily has some great spots to do so. The city’s aquarium is the most-visited one in France and whether you’re alone or with kids, all the different kinds of fish will be able to entertain you for hours on end. Right next to it, you’ll find the Saint-Nicolas, the former shipper men’s quarter. Filled with quirky restaurants and bars, this is the perfect place to fill your empty stomach after a long day of sightseeing. We tried Le Verre Bouteille, a great little restaurant where we’d especially recommend the plat du jour. Portions are small though, so keep that in mind while ordering.
Of course, if you want the full experience, you’ll have to spend the night at La Rochelle as well. At Un Hotel en Ville, rooms are pretty small but as always, quality comes before quantity. The bedding is one of the best we’ve ever experienced at a hotel and the rooftop terrace is a great plus, especially during summer, when the rest of the city might be a little too busy at times. If, before you go to bed, you’re in for a little nightcap, then try out La Cave 34 for a taste of France’s most interesting wines.
Still looking for more to do in La Rochelle? The Musée du Nouveau Monde lets you discover the intricate relationship between France and the American Continent. Might seem strange at first but given that La Rochelle has always been an important port, the subject actually makes a lot of sense. Not too far from La Rochelle you’ll also find Île de Ré and Île d’Oléron, two small a few kilometers from the mainland and worlds on their own.