One of the most historically important seaports on the European Atlantic coast, La Rochelle has become one of France's best-kept secrets. Despite its architectural heritage, its diversity of museums, its warm and sunny weather and its unique atmosphere, La Rochelle is a hugely under-rated resort that largely escapes the tourist hordes. The city became a major power thanks to French maritime trade with the New World. Built on a rocky ledge on the marshy Atlantic coastline, at its peak La Rochelle was easily the busiest and most important French port. Even today, La Rochelle is principally a port city, rather than a tourist town, with a fishing port, a commercial port, a sailing marina and a ferry port.
The older parts of La Rochelle are a real pleasure to explore on foot, either by strolling through the Old Harbour, which is lined with seafood restaurants, or by wandering into the historical centre to see the unique architecture, including medieval buildings, Renaissance houses and 18th century residences. Throughout the older parts of La Rochelle you can see evidence of the wealth that trade with the New World brought to the city - it is hard to miss the noble town mansions which belonged to ship owners.
Among La Rochelle's top attractions is the Renaissance Town Hall, which is one of the true symbols of the city's history and is protected by a huge Gothic wall. Another of the most recognisable landmarks are the three defensive towers that guard the Old Harbour. The medieval towers were built during the turbulent period when the French and English were fighting for control of La Rochelle and the region. It is possible to climb the towers - there are quite a few steps but it is well-worth the exertion.
One of the most popular activities for visitors to La Rochelle is a boat trip around the small islands just off shore, where you will see the famous Fort Boyard. You could also visit La Rochelle's aquarium, which is one of the largest in Europe, with over 10,000 sea creatures from the Atlantic, the Mediterranean and the Tropics.
At the New World Museum you can see art and history exhibits from the French colonies in the New World, while the Maritime Museum offers an interesting insight into the fishing and shipping industries.