A three-hour train ride from Paris will transport you to the best coastal city in France you’ve never heard of… This is La Rochelle.
Steeped in medieval history, soaked in sunshine, and famous for its seafood.
I heard great things about the area—an expat friend relocated here from Paris—so I decided to see for myself if the hype was deserved.
La Rochelle is the capital of the Charente-Maritime department on France’s west coast, bordered to the west by the Bay of Biscay, part of the Atlantic Ocean shared with Spain.
Its port, La Pallice, is the only deep-water port on the French Atlantic coast, protected by Île de Ré to the north and Île d’Oléron to the south.
This “doorway to the ocean” is the reason for the city’s longstanding commercial seafaring tradition, and it’s still ranked the sixth most important port in France today.
The old port (Vieux-Port) is the heart of contemporary La Rochelle, and it owes its architecture to this period of affluence.
To come into the small protected harbor by sea, you pass two 14th-century towers, the larger, Saint-Nicolas Tower, acted as a fortress, and the smaller, Chain Tower, allowed a massive chain to be drawn up between the two to keep out unwanted visitors.
The third tower that dominates the skyline from the water is Lantern Tower, the former lighthouse.
Sunshine, Seafood, And Laidback Living
Today, you can enjoy a meal or cocktail on top of Chain Tower, with breathtaking views of the waterfront in all directions. Indeed, the options in La Rochelle for eating out or cooking in are fantastic…
The market is the main source of shopping for people living in the center of town, so fresh produce, dairy, eggs, seafood, and meat is available by the truckload.
Open every day from 6 a.m. to 1:30 p.m., the market is busier on Wednesdays and Saturdays. The square doubles in size as vendors set up shop on the surrounding streets.
Once the initial flood of folks in the market abates (around lunchtime), the market square is a great place to stop for a few quick, casual oysters and a sip of crisp wine before the last of the vendors close up shop.
It doesn’t get any fresher than this, but it’s not a fancy snack—you eat them standing up and your wine comes in a paper cup.
The seafood is fresh, delicious, and ubiquitous. You’ll enjoy regular seafood—and much of it raw. Many menus are all from the sea, but even those that offer alternatives don’t have many from land.
I lived in France for years, and I’m used to the “paysan” (peasant) dishes that are still popular throughout the country…
La Rochelle takes rustic food to another level. The most common non-fishy foods here consist of organs and odds and ends: brain, liver, cheek, kidney, jaw, etc.
While you’ll find a burger or steak, I found the options much more limited than in other parts of the country.
I’m speaking here about French cuisine, but that’s far from the only type available. You’ll find great Italian, Japanese, Thai, and international fare, as well as several Irish/British pubs.
Transportation In La Rochelle
When it comes to getting around, most of La Rochelle is accessible by foot or bike, and much of the historic center is pedestrianized.
Buses can take you all around town and to neighboring areas, including to the nearby islands.
Ferries, water taxis, and boat tours or charters are another fun option for getting to the islands and nearby beaches.
Boat owner’s enjoy all the lovely ports that you can visit by boat in the region. Saint Denis d’Oléron, Boyardville, Saint-Martin de Ré, and La Flotte are some of the most popular stops for pleasure boaters.
Back on dry land, the area is well networked by bus lines. But not all routes are created equal, and the schedules can be hard to find.
On the bright side, the bus drivers I encountered were friendly and helpful. You can buy tickets from the driver or ahead of time.
A single ticket costs 1.50 euros, and as of this year if you buy tickets in advance (on the app or at a sales point), it’s reduced to 1.30 euros.
Alternatively, you can make like a local and get about on two wheels. La Rochelle is famous for its biking mentality. With over 280 kms of bike lanes, more than half of which are not shared with cars, it’s not surprising that more than 10% of all travel done in La Rochelle is by bike.
A bike pass to use the city’s public bikes is 20 euros for the year or you could rent a bike that you keep at your home for 10 euros a month.
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The climate here is oceanic with mild year-round weather due to the influence of the Gulf Stream.
La Rochelle summers are fairly warm, but the area rarely gets extreme temperatures in either direction.
Thanks to the temperate climate, Mediterranean-type vegetation thrives alongside more continental and oceanic types of foliage, making the area and its islands remarkably green no matter the time of year.
While I had wonderful luck with weather during my visit (constant sunshine and mid-70s every day), it can get nippy here, and the area does get a winter. I was told that it can often be windy—not surprising for a seaside town—and that when the wind chill sets in, it’s not nearly as comfortable to be outside.
When it comes to visiting, there’s really no bad time of year. The warmest months are July and August, but I’d actually recommend against coming then, as it’s the height of the tourist season.
Spring and autumn would be my top picks for a visit, as the area will be far less populated with tourists. There’s a noticeable lull during autumn and winter, which locals relish. The beaches are empty, the perfect venues for long walks, and the streets and bike lanes are much less crowded.
During winter, it won’t be freezing cold, but dress appropriately—that means layers and waterproofs. While La Rochelle only gets about 30 inches of rain per year, this is a waterfront area, so expect a sea mist and damp ground.
What Living In La Rochelle Is Like
You’ll need to learn French to live here and integrate well. The city has been welcoming British, Irish, and Dutch tourists for so long, many in the service industry speak English.
English was the lingua franca I heard used between locals and tourists of all nationality.
In this part of France, locals tend to be loyal to their region rather than to their country as a whole… they don’t like Parisians or “northern French” here, and call them foreigners as much as they do anyone else.
In fact, I was told by one contact that locals are often more welcoming to English-speaking foreigners than to “French foreigners” and that all the Anglo expats he knows had a wonderful experience integrating locally (he and his family included).
So, you won’t be the only foreigner to have settled in or around La Rochelle, but you won’t find any big expat groups.
You might run into English speakers at any of the Irish or British pubs here (there are several), but otherwise, all meet ups tend to begin online.
Search expat forums, Facebook, or other social media groups, and put yourself out there to find expats in the area. If general search terms don’t yield results, try searching specifically for British expats or take part in British forums.
The Nouvelle-Aquitaine geo-caching chapter called Terra Aventura is popular locally, with many expat members.
In terms of safety, there’s pretty much no concern at all here. The overall rates of crime are very low, and violent crime is practically nonexistent.
During my visit to one boutique, the owner and I talked about local safety, and she leapt to tell me how grateful she was to live in such a safe town. She is single and often walks around the city alone at night and has never had an inkling of danger.
Things To Do In La Rochelle
There’s plenty to do outdoors and around the sea at La Rochelle…
Between the beaches, boating, fishing, and whatever else you like to do by the water, the only limit is your imagination. You can even surf here, which surprised me.
The beaches are a main draw for tourists and residents. From the Vieux-Port, Plage de la Concurrence is mere minutes’ walk, Plage de Minimes about 30 minutes, and countless others are within biking or driving distance.
Three of the beaches are supervised. Also, some are labeled for “Accessibilité PMR” or as “espace aménagé,” indicating their handicap access. This could mean that the space itself has been made accessible or there are various types of all-terrain personal vehicles available.
No matter the time of year, the beaches are always in use. They’re packed end to end at the height of tourist season (July and August) but, otherwise, it’s just locals enjoying the surf. If it’s too cold for a dip, the coast is the perfect spot for a stroll.
Golf isn’t a common pastime in France, yet there are several courses in the area. An 18-hole course is just 20 minutes from town, and there are several 9-hole
courses, driving ranges, and academies within an hour.
Green spaces are never too far in La Rochelle, with many small parks throughout the city and the nearly 100-acre Parc Charruyer running through the middle of town.
The local cultural center, Carré Amelot, offers a full calendar of events including dance, music, art exhibitions, educational programs, and more throughout the year.
Art expos and installations can be found throughout the city, both in traditional galleries but also in experimental spaces like old churches or within the ruins of the city walls.
The surrounding countryside is full of history, vineyards, and towns worth a visit, including Cognac and Pineau, famous for their namesake wines.
Venise Verte, a marshy area to the north, is famous for its tiny canals and a resort for inland boating. Bordeaux is only a two-hour drive.
La Rochelle is home to several hospitals and health centers, the primary being Le Centre Hospitalier Saint-Louis De La Rochelle, a large hospital complex that’s among the 50 best hospitals in France for several specialties. While you’d go there for major issues, clinics and individual doctors would be your primary port of call for health care, and there are plenty of both.
A general practitioner here charges 25 euros per consultation, and that’s what you’d pay for a clinic visit, too. Specialist visits are about 50 euros.
Why So Many Choose To Move To La Rochelle
The top reason folks visit or move to La Rochelle is for its beaches—to live in a city that’s minutes from the beach is a dream for many.
Another big draw is for boaters. This has to be one of the most active boating cultures in France.
I grew up in Annapolis, Maryland, with a dad who lived on a 28-foot sailboat, and La Rochelle reminded me very much of that East Coast boating culture.
The fact that the seasons here are mild, allow you to take advantage of the beaches and the sea for most of the year is just a cherry on top…
La Rochelle offers a wealth of history, an active arts scene, and fabulous shopping prospects (I came home with almost too much to carry). And, it’s not an expensive place to live.
Rent for a one-bedroom or two-bedroom apartment in the center of town will run you about 1,500 euros a month.
Want to live on a budget and you’re happy with a small studio? Certainly, you can find a place for as little as 500 euros a month.
For basic monthly groceries, budget around 300 to 500 euros. Electricity will be 90 euros, cell phone around 15 euros, Wi-Fi, 35 euros—all monthly.
Living In A French Coastal City
The most charming thing about life in La Rochelle is the quaint veneer painted over an entirely modern city. I wouldn’t go so far as to call it cosmopolitan. La Rochelle is a real city with plenty to see and do, but it’s got the feel of a small town.
In short, it can be the kind of place that could make you happy. So, visit La Rochelle for yourself… I can’t wait to return with my family in tow.
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