What’s the best weekend getaway in France? Obviously, it’s not Paris, which takes far longer than a weekend to explore. You might be thinking it’s Bordeaux, Deauville, Nice – but you’re wrong, wrong, wrong. Everyone knows about those places, it’s time to try somewhere a little off the well-trodden tourist paths.
And that somewhere for the best weekend getaway is officially La Rochelle, according to The Earful Tower. This charming coastal town is just three hours train ride from Paris, or just one month away on a little red scooter.
This port city, which dates back to the tenth century, has a historic vibe mixed with a youthful twist thanks to the large student population.
And I’ve just spent a weekend there, so here are my ten tips for you if you want to do the same thing. In no particular order…
1. Stroll the port
The Old Harbour (“Vieux Port”) of La Rochelle is really the pear of the city, nicely preserved from the days of yesteryear when it was a major port for France. Nowadays, the harbour is full of seafood restaurants and perfect walking opportunities, with some epic towers looming over the water that’ll make you feel like you’re in Game of Thrones. You can even climb the biggest one.
2. Visit the aquarium
You might think that when you’ve seen one aquarium you’ve seen them all – but not this time. The locals are proud of La Rochelle’s version and rightly so, it’s one of the biggest in Europe and it’s honestly quite impressive. Enormous enclosures, fishtanks with built-in waves (which I’d never seen before), and a shark enclosure so massive and so perfectly lit that you may just take the best snap of the whole holiday. And don’t miss the jellyfish.
3. Explore the bars
La Rochelle is a student city with apparently around 10,000 studying there each year, and it’s thanks to them that there’s a busy nightlife scene. If you fancy mingling with the youngsters, check out one of the student bars in the old town, or just walk past and enjoy the energy from afar.
4. Take in the markets
In the centre of town, right by the harbour, there’s a daily market where the locals hawk their wares for anyone who’ll wander by. Mostly antiques and bric a brac, be sure to take a look and you might just snag yourself a souvenir.
5. Try the local drink
It’s called pineau and it’s a fortified wine that’s a regional specialty. It comes in white, red, and rosé flavours and it’s rather delicious. In fact, I’m drinking a nice white variety of it as I type these words.
6. Wander the old town
There’s a great entrance into the old town under a magnificent clock. Enter through it and imagine that you’re stepping into the walled city as it must have been centuries ago. Keep your eyes peeled for the tiled walls on some of the old homes, they may look like the half-timbered houses you’ll find elsewhere in France – but they’re a different variant (that I’m yet to see elsewhere).
7. Head to island of Ile-de-Ré
Ah, this is the real pearl of France’s Atlantic coast and is now very easily reachable since they built a bridge to it 20 years ago. Spend at the very least a full day over on the island, if not try and spend a night if you’re lucky enough to find some accommodation. We spend a night in the town of Saint-Martin-de-Ré which is a great base for exploring. The rest of the tips in this list are all about this island.
8. Sample the unusual ice cream flavours
There’s an ice-cream stand on the harbour of Saint Martin with some of the most unusual flavours I’ve ever encountered. One was oyster and caviar! I stuck with salted caramel flavour, a local specialty, and can recommend it. If anyone dares try the oyster flavour, let me know your thoughts.
9. Hire a bike and explore the salt fields
You’d be mad not to explore the rest of the island and the best way to do it is on a bicycle. I personally prefer a tandem, but the local shop only has two so don’t get your hopes up of getting one for yourself. Anyway, cycle out on the tiny bike paths that zig zag among the salt fields and stop off for a taste of the local salt or to buy a salt bag as a souvenir. I headed to the village of Loix, which was perfectly pleasant for a photo op and a poke around.
10. Take in the monastery view over Saint Martin
As long as you’re not afraid of heights or narrow, rickety wooden stairwells, then the view from the top of the monastery in Saint-Martin-de-Ré is well worth your time. They recommend that you head up for sunset, but it’s perfectly enjoyable in the late afternoon. And it only cost two euros!
Anyway, they’re my tips. La Rochelle left a good impression on me, and I’m sure it would on you too.
If you fancy hearing more about the town and the island, why not check out this week’s podcast episode from the honeymoon trip. We discuss La Rochelle a fair bit, but also the tale of our first scooter break down and a look at a French queen that some compare to the Oprah of the 1200s.