La Rochelle, affectionately called La Ville Blanche from its white limestone buildings, is a laid back yet lively city in the Charente-Maritime department of southwestern France. La Rochelle is famous for its bustling port steeped in maritime history, medieval towers and glorious seafood.
Stretching out to the sand peninsular of Ile de Ré, La Rochelle’s watery geography makes it a hot-ticket destination for water sports enthusiasts of every stripe. Nothing encapsulates this better than the Red Bull cliff diving event held each May when thousands of extreme sports fans gasp in awe at the death defying leaps.
Located two hours north of Bordeaux, La Rochelle is split into three distinctive areas – the port, the old town and the historical centre. Although the city centre is beachless, the nearby Ile de Ré is encircled by miles of fine sandy beaches.
Our guide to La Rochelle will give you the lowdown on visitor highlights, including ideas for getting active and the best places to stay, eat and party.
La Rochelle Highlights
Take in the majesty of the Gothic architecture, feast on delicacies from the city's vast food markets, or hit the Atlantic beaches for a spot of surfing or kitesurfing.
Le Grand Pavois
From 16th September the huge manmade harbour of Les Minimes plays host to Le Grand Pavois, Europe's most prestigious nautical event. Drawing in thousands of spectators and over 700 different seafaring vessels, the busy marina explodes with exhibitions, competitions and activities for sailors and inquisitive enthusiasts. Everyone is welcome to get involved; for a small fee entrants can take a trip out to sea in some of the world's most outstanding yachts, catamarans and show boats, try out the latest water sports, take part in a stand up paddle race or get involved in Minime's beachvolley tournaments. (Prices are €10 for adults and €6.50 for kids).
Red Bull Cliff Diving La Rochelle
Vertigo sufferers beware, The Red Bull Cliff Diving spectacle is one of the most gut wrenching extreme sports events in the world. Every year a band of mad or fearless (you decide) professional divers leap from the iconic 14th century Tour Saint Nicolas, plummeting into the fresh waters of the Bay of Biscay. From 17th May more than 70 thousand onlookers pack in along the harbour from Cours de Dames to Quai du Carénage to watch the world's biggest cliff diving event. Looming more than 27 metres above sea level, talented high divers compete on the second stop of the European tour, diving down at eye watering speeds.
Produce and flea Markets
Stretching from the historic centre to the old town, La Rochelle boasts 14 different markets a week, ranging from fruit and veg to antiques. A diverse offering of regional delicacies, freshly picked flowers, native spices, covetable oddities and even, fashionable vintage finds, the bustling stalls are alive with all the sounds and smells of an authentic French market. Spilling out into the recesses of the city limits, stroll along the cobbled streets and stock up on local treats like freshly farmed oysters, Cognac and Ile de Ré sea salt.
The Three towers of La Rochelle
One for the history lovers, La Rochelle is steeped in a rich naval past harking back to the 14 century. The city's three prominent towers loom over the vast limestone landscape that encompasses the nautical entrance to the harbour. An eye opening lesson in French maritime history, explore the Tour de la Chaine, Tour de la Lanterne and Tour StNicolas, climbing the labyrinthine style passages to the parapets overlooking the city's fortresses. Learn about La Rochelle's dark past and the role these daunting towers played in its horrible history. (Prices start at €6 per tower or €8 for all three).
La Rochelle – Île de Ré Airport (15 mins)
Pharmacie des Arcades, 8 Rue Chaudrier 17000 La Rochelle.
La Poste, 6 Rue de l'Hôtel de ville 17000, La Rochelle.
Abeilles Taxis la Rochelle, 101 Rue des Gonthières 17140 Lagord.
ParkingThe centre has seven underground car parks situated on the outskirts. Day trippers can take advantage of the city's amazing ecotransport, using their swish electric park and ride buses. You can also park on the street, but the city is divided into two pay scales, one with a day tariff of €4.20 for the city outskirts, and a two hour limit is imposed in the centre.
A maze of little cobbled streets, frustrating one-way systems and convoluted entrances to the old town, most La Rochelle residents will tell you to ditch the car and hop on a bike. Recently the city rolled out one of France's greenest public transport systems consisting of buses, bikes, sea ferries and electric cars – all running on either solar power or an electric hybrid. The new snazzy system is really easy to use and can be accessed with a London oyster-style card purchased from the tourist office.
Flying into La Rochelle airport, use the Yelo bus service to reach the city centre in 15mins (Tickets are €1.30), otherwise big airports like Bordeaux and Nantes are a two hour train journey away.
High speed shuttle trains (TGV) run from Paris straight into La Rochelle station. Trains run regularly and only take three hours, you can take a Eurostar connection changing at Paris Montparnasse.
La Rochelle Activities
Flyboarding at Minimes Beach
Like something out of a futuristic scifi film, Flyboarding is the newest extreme sport to capture our imaginations. A unique hybrid of high tech machinery, get strapped into an aquatic jet pack and soar through the water at insane speeds and with surprising agility. A self regulated propulsion system of high pressure water jets let you dive and soar through the choppy surf, learning impressive aerial tricks whilst local sunbathers look on in astonishment. Located at the 'Plage des Minimes', you can hire jet boots or hover boards for around €100 for 30mins from local leisure company, AMR.
Canoe down the canals of Green Venice
An hour inland from La Rochelle's rugged coastline you'll find one of the region's most untouched natural paradises. The largest area of marshland on the Atlantic coast, Marais Poitevin or 'Green Venice' stretches for miles up and down the quaint channels and canals that extend over 900kms.
Bursting with native wildlife, drift past the wild flower meadows and listen to the soft call of birds in the lowhanging poplar trees. Trains run every three hours from La Rochelle station costing around €10, driving time is 50 minutes.
Cycle across to Ile de Ré
Heaven on earth for cycling buffs, Ile de Ré is a tranquil, lowkey island just over the impressive La Rochelle toll bridge. Once you reach the beautiful island, take advantage of over 100kms of rugged cycle tracks, winding through the salt flats, vineyards and oyster farms. Made up of ten towns, Ile de Ré is an easy day trip for casual cyclists and family day trippers, cruising across the seafront and popping into the distinctive historical towns. You can cycle over for free or take the No.51 'bike bus' from Place de Verdun.
Kitesurfing at Plage de Chatelaillon
A quick 20 mins drive outside of La Rochelle centre is Charente-Maritime's prime kite surfing spot. A beautiful golden beach with an Atlantic breeze perfect for windsports, Le Chatelaillon beach is renowned for its kicking northern gusts, pulling in kitesurfing enthusiasts from all over the country. Thanks to the region's unique micro-climate and reliable wind, kitesurfing is popular up and down the seven km beach. You can hire equipment or take a few lessons with local favourites, Chatel Kite School. A two hour session starts at €45 including all the latest equipment.
There can be no better way of embracing La Rochelle's maritime tradition than sailing out to sea on a king-sized catamaran. Setting off from a private mooring, Kapalouest Catamaran takes private parties and groups out to sea to explore the bay, offering trips to landmarks like Fort Boyard. Finish off the day with a glorious sunset dinner. With prices starting at 25 € per person, Kapalouest Catamarans can be an inexpensive way of injecting a bit of luxury into your La Rochelle stay.
Where to stay
Hotel de l'Ocean
Boasting excellent views of the port, this small central hotel is a quaint, clean, two star affair situated on the historic marina. Walking distance from the centre of town, the comfortable rooms offer all the mod cons at reasonable prices. Brilliant for families, the compact rooms can accommodate up to four people and are just a stone's throw from the famous Aquarium and ferries to Ile de Ré. Leaving the hotel you are slap bang in the middle of the busy port, packed with traditional brasseries, shops and bars. Prices start around €55 p.p.
36 cours des Dames, 17000 La Rochelle, France. Tel +33 (0)5 46 41 31 97
Un Hotel en Ville
A smart three star hotel in the centre of La Rochelle's old town, this modern guest house offers cheap prices for amazing service. With rooms that will make you second guess your bill, Un Hotel en Ville offers contemporary chic with a boutique vibe. Situated in a quiet square a few metres from the busy old port, take a glass of champagne up to the rooftop terrace and salute the sunset as it sets over the historic skyline. Small but perfectly formed, rooms start from €60 p.p.
20 Place Du Maréchalfoch, 17000 La Rochelle, France. Tel +33 (0)5 46 41 15 75
Camping Au Petit Port de l'Houmeau
A quiet idyll for camping lovers, Au Petit Port is situated on the fringes of the city. Offering traditional pitches for caravans and tents as well as rustic cabins, large villas and mobile homes, the camp site sits between the busy centre of La Rochelle and the untouched paradise of Ile de Ré. Overlooking the towering bridge connecting the mainland and the island, Au Petit Port has its own pebbled beach, jacuzzi, swimming pool, restaurant and offers bike hire on site for you to explore the region at you own pace. Pitch prices are a reasonable €20 whilst traditional cabins start from €62.
Rue des Sartières, 17137 L'Houmeau, France. Tel +33 (0)5 46 50 90 82
LaVille – Vue sur Cour
Owned by the hostess with the mostest, Marika, this topnotch chambre d'hôte kitted out in bourgeois chic will knock your socks off. Restored to tasteful elegance, the grand town house offers four themed rooms, each regally furnished with Frenchcountry style bedding and ornate brass finishes. A one minute walk from the picturesque old town, head out into the bustling city centre and savour the famous bars and restaurants on your door step. A romantic setting for love struck couples, Vue sur Cour combines the familiarity of a family home with all the finesse of a boutique hotel.
10 Rue Léonce Vieljeux, 17000 La Rochelle, France. Tel +33 (0)5 46 27 70 59
Where to eat
Le Mail restaurant
A firm favourite on the busy La Rochelle restaurant scene, Le Mail has been serving up some of the city's best seafood for over four generations. An unassuming spot to relax and take in the scenery, Le Mail has been honouring relationships with local oyster farmers since 1924 – making sure you taste Ile de Ré's finest harvest. With panoramic views onto the port ahead, this local's hangout is the perfect place to savour the Bay of Biscay's finest catch of the day.
16 Allée du Mail, 17000 La Rochelle, France. Tel +33 (0)5 46 34 12 52
Le Cabanon des Pêcheurs
A busy fish restaurant serving up fresh, beautifully presented seafood next to the market in La Rochelle's port. There's a good wine list and the menu's not limited to fish and seafood - you'll get a delicious steak here as well. But, it's the fish that steals the show and traditional French flavours are blended with eastern ingredients for a refreshingly modern twist. The desserts are to die for and a warm welcome is backed up with good service. A great find. Open Tuesday to Saturday.
16 Rue Thiers, 17000 La Rochelle, France. Tel +33 (0)5 46 45 37 35
Le Soleil Brille Pour Tout Le Monde
Priding itself on its principles to make 'happiness on a plate', Le Soleil Brille Pour Tout Le Monde is a nice little bio restaurant offering homemade tarts, quiches and gallets from fresh ingredients sourced from the adjacent market. A multicultural mash up of international cuisines, this small, humble restaurant is a great lunchtime spot set in the centre of La Rochelle's historic old town. A nice thrifty find, lunch at Le Soleil Brille Pour Tout Le Monde won't break the bank, with mains starting at €8.
13 Rue des Cloutiers, 17000 Rochelle, France. Tel +33(0)5 46 41 11 42
A Côte de Chez Fred
Partners with one of the city's busiest fisheries, A Côte de Chez Fred does what it says on the tin, frying up the day's catch brought in by the neighbouring fishmongers. A rough and ready rustic treat, dinner at this small and easily overlooked fish restaurant is a lesson in how to eat like a local. Lashings of fresh seafood, washed down with regional wines and finished off with a snifter of Pineau des Charentes – a local fortified wine. Make sure you reserve a table on the terrace as it's the best place to soak up the atmosphere.
30 Rue Saint-Nicolas, 17000 La Rochelle, France. Tel +33 (0)5 46 41 65 76
In a league all of its own, Christopher Countanceau is La Rochelle's only two Michelin star restaurant. The reference point for contemporary regional cuisine, dinner at this exclusive sea-fronted restaurant is an unbeatable melange of carefully crafted local delicacies and creative reinventions, inspired by world cuisine. Retaining its two star status since the late 80s, commended chef to the stars, Christopher Countanceau, continues to push the envelope with dishes like curried turbot and oyster jelly.
Plage de la Concurrence, 17000 La Rochelle, France. Tel +33 (0)5 46 41 48 19
Where to party
One for all you salty sea dogs, La Guingette is an old sailor's haunt that hasn't lost any of its charm. A littleknown backstreet favourite with students and seafaring locals, La Guingette is steeped in history, which you can tell from the historic rum barrels and cool limestone interior. A true character building founded in 1933, nights at Le Guingette revolve around their infamous home-brew wine concoctions that should certainly be drank in moderation! The perfect apéro spot to chat the breeze with friendly locals, drinks are cheap and free flowing until the early hours.
8 Rue SaintNicolas, 17000 La Rochelle, France. Tel +33 (0)5 46 41 05 75
Les Mauvais Garçons
A noisy little bar full of energy and fun loving residents, Les Mauvais Garçons is a great late night watering hole for dancing, live music and copious amounts of cocktails. A guaranteed good night out, partying starts at sunset and carries on until the early hours with a cool, breezy terrace upstairs and a crazy clubcumcellar downstairs. Weekends can get a tad lively with djs, bands and acoustic acts so make sure you bring your dancing shoes!
9 Cour du Temple, 1700 La Rochelle, France. Tel +33 (0)5 46 41 72 11
Bar du France 1
The perfect extension of La Rochelle's naval history is the Bar du France 1. Situated on the top deck of a naval cruiser, the bar is moored right in the centre of the port, offering outstanding views out across the marina. Part of the maritime museum, this is a great pit stop on your way back past the aquarium and is very childfriendly. An unforgettable spot for drinks at sunset, embrace that holiday feeling as you bob gently on the calm waters and relax in the waning sunshine.
Rue Sénac de Meilhan, 17000 La Rochelle, France. Tel +33 (0)5 16 85 27 72
One for the night owls, La Calhutte is a relaxed little hole in the wall bursting at the seams come closing time. Famed for its potent house special 'La Jacqueline', nights easily turn into day as people line the streets until the early hours, sipping their fortified wine and enjoying the moonlight. A throwtogether affair inside, people pack out the quaint chestnut bar for a good ol' sing along to throw back 80s anthems, grabbing an unsuspecting dance partner for a jive around the bar.
5 Rue de la Fourche, 17000 La Rochelle, France. Tel +33 (0)5 46 27 37 13
Please leave a comment below if you need specific advice for your trip to La Rochelle, or if you have any recommendations to help us improve this guide. Happy holidays!
About the author
Self-confessed foodie and outdoor sports aficionado, Aimée Whistler has been scoping out hidden gems across France for over five years. From shredding backcountry powder to savouring the finest backyard cuisine, get first-hand suggestions from Active Azur's most committed Francophile.