La Rochelle is a stunning town on the Charente Maritime coast, stylishly combining historic buildings with striking modernity; a great place for a day’s mooching, but does it come up to the mark for children?
As we drove into the town and made our way into one of the well signposted car parks, the site of a two-storey carousel showed us that La Rochelle was about more than boutique shops and snazzy cafés.
We parked (just 4.80€ for the day) and walked into the town, following the signs to the tourist information to get our bearings, but catching glimpses of eye-catching houses which lined narrow streets, and impressive churches and turrets that towered over the skyline.
Our first stop (with still no sign of the tourist office) was a café looking out to the typically beautiful Hotel du Ville, whose good looks shone through despite the attentions of scaffold and netting in place for renovation works.
After a formule du jour of salmon starter and a mixed grill brochette (11.50€ each) we continued on in search of the tourist office, which suddenly loomed into view as we exited the narrow street scenes and hit the seafront quays area that had been stylishly redeveloped to feature an ultra-modern aquarium and a collection of prettily coloured wooden buildings that were home to more shops, bars and restaurants and (at last!) the tourist information office.
One of the most striking sights in the quays area was a giant ferries wheel which provides magnificent views of the town below.
Fishy business: La Rochelle Aquarium
After a quick search of tourist information on the town, we headed over to the aquarium and paid for our tickets (15€ for adults and 11€ for children aged 3 to 12).
Entry to the aquarium itself is through a lift designed as an ancient submersible which immediately sets the tone for the rest of our adventure – superbly designed, captivating for the kids and great fun.
When the doors opened at our drop off point, we were immediately greeted by the sight of huge, brightly lit tanks with magnified glass which meant we could see the fishy inhabitants in wonderful detail.
Every tank was an aquatic world for all sorts of weird and wonderful fish, with children – noses pressed against the glass and following the fish backwards and forwards – captivated by the goings on.
Throughout the aquarium there were lots of nice touches for kids – with hidey holes little ones could crawl into for an exclusive view of tanks, small amphitheatres where they could watch some of the biggest tanks in a cinematic experience, wave scenes projected onto the floors so we could walk over them, and even turtles allowed to crawl freely across walk ways.
Our aquarium tour lasted about 90 minutes, but could easily have been longer if our little one was older.
Tower power: La Rochelle’s three tours
The towers provide the most iconic images of La Rochelle and played a key part in many of its most important periods of history – including a siege led by Cardinal Richelieu (yes, he of The Three Musketeers fame) acting under orders from the King of France.
Each of the towers can be toured (6.50€ for one tower, 8.50€ for entry to all three), however this activity will probably suit only the most adventurous, or history-minded of teens.
The tower interiors are made up of winding corridors, steep steps and roof walks that are open to the elements, so they’re not practical – or of much interest – to smaller children.
However if you do get the chance to visit inside (I toured St Nicholas tower while my wife and daughter explored the quays) then the history is fascinating and the interiors are superbly maintained. Visitors are given a large folder with information about each of the rooms they pass through, which makes it easy to close your eyes and imagine life in the tower as it was almost 500 years ago.
Our final stop of the day was at one of the booths serving delicious ice creams (2.50€ for a single scoop), before we weaved our way through busy streets and back to our car.
Inspired to visit for yourself? See our gites in Charente Maritime.