Click here for 48 Hours In... La Rochelle map
Why go now?
The return of French holidaymakers, en masse, to the cities is under way, leaving more room for you in one of the most attractive ports along France's Atlantic coast. Catch the last of the summer's heat now, or aim to be there around 13 September for the annual free outdoor spectacle Voiles de Nuit – a night-time nautical "ballet" and firework display in the old port.
Ryanair (0871 246 0000; www.ryanair.com) flies from Stansted. EasyJet (0905 821 0905; www.easyjet.com) flies from Gatwick and Bristol. FlyBe (0845 084 8915; www.flybe.com) flies from Southampton, Birmingham, Manchester and Glasgow; and Jet2 (0871 226 17337; jet2.com) from Leeds Bradford and Edinburgh. The airport is 5km from the city centre. Airport buses run daily, except Sunday, to Place de Verdun (1) in the city centre; the 10-minute journey costs €1.20 (£1) each way. Taxis cost €10-€15 (£8-£12.50).
By rail, Eurostar (0870 518 6186; www.eurostar.com) can get you there in six to eight hours from London St Pancras via Paris, for £99 return if you book in advance and travel off-peak.
Get your bearings
Life revolves around the Vieux Port, at the entrance to which stands La Rochelle's distinctive stone towers. The quaysides form a square around the harbour, and it's a bustling place full of bars, restaurants, and even a tiny park with a carousel. Here, the Gothic gateway of the 14th-century Porte de la Grosse Horloge (2) leads into the old town, with its pleasing combination of arcaded streets and striking architecture that ranges from the medieval to the belle époque.
The main tourist office (3) is at 2 quai Georges Simenon, in Le Gabut on the southern side of the harbour (00 33 5 46 41 14 68; www.holidays-la-rochelle.co.uk). It opens Monday-Saturday 9am-8pm, and Sundays 10am-5.30pm. There you can buy a Pass' Rochelais, which saves on admission to 12 attractions and gives free city transport (www.passpartout17.org); a two-day pass is €5.90 (£4.90).
A 16th-century former convent, Résidence de France (4), at 43 rue du Minage, near Place de Verdun (00 33 5 46 28 06 00; www.hotel-larochelle.com), is the town's only four-star hotel. Modern, spacious rooms set around pretty gardens cost from €110 (£92) for a double to €400 (£333) for a suite in high season, with breakfast available for €12.50 (£10.40) per person.
The refined Masqhotel (5), at 17 rue de l'Ouvrage à Cornes (00 33 5 46 41 83 83; www.masqhotel.com) stands near the wonderfully elaborate train station. The interiors of this new design hotel are hi-tech and funky, yet comfort hasn't been sacrificed for style. Doubles from €108 (£90), breakfast €12 (£10) per person.
Right on the quayside, in the old port, at 23 quai Valin, is Le Yachtman (6) (00 33 5 46 41 20 68; www.logis-de-france.fr), a friendly three-star Logis de France that has its own pool – a rarity in La Rochelle. Doubles from €93-€110 (£77-£92). Breakfast costs €12 (£10) per person.
Take a view
Choose between three massive stone towers in the old port for sweeping views of the city and beyond. The 14th-century Tour St-Nicolas (7) and the Tour de la Chaîne (8) stand guard at the entry to the harbour, with the 15th-century Tour de la Lanterne (9) a few metres away along the old city walls. Tickets cover visits to either two, €7.50 (£5), or all three towers for €10.50 (£8.30).
Take a hike
Start at the taller of the two towers, Tour St-Nicolas (7), on the eastern side of the harbour, and walk up the quay through the Porte de la Grosse Horloge (2) into the warren of pedestrianised streets. Turn left into rue St-Sauveur, where you can admire the half-timbered 14th-century buildings before you make a right into rue de l'Hôtel de Ville. Soon you reach the flamboyant 17th-century town hall (10), with its Gothic walls enclosing the courtyard, with its magnificent balustraded staircase.
Carry on towards the Place du Marché (11), La Rochelle's covered market. It takes place every morning until noon. On Saturdays and Wednesdays, the market takes over the square completely. Turn left into the rue Gargoulleau towards Place de Verdun (1) and the Café de la Paix, a fine example of 19th-century opulence. Continue down the arcaded rue du Palais until you're back at the port.
Lunch on the run
The relaxed ambience of Le Gabut helps to make it the perfect place to settle by the water's edge with a pot of steaming mussels. The Pizzeria di Venezia (12), at number 27 (00 33 5 46 42 64 98) on the quayside, does great moules- frites for €10.90 (£9.10), as well as the usual pizzas.
Keep cool under the stone arcades of rue du Palais and rue des Merciers, where there's a very good range of shops selling clothing and kitchen goods as well as those specialising in all products to do with the sea – namely the pungent sea salt of the region. And as you're in cognac country, visit Paul Bossuet (13) at 21 rue Gargoulleau (00 33 5 46 41 31 92), which stocks an excellent selection of brandies as well as pineau, the local grape-based liqueur.
La Rochelle's Aquarium (14), on Quai Louis Prunier (00 33 5 46 34 00 00; www.aquarium-larochelle.com), is one of Europe's biggest. More than 12,000 marine animals live in 65 tanks representing the world's aquatic regions. It's open 9am-11pm daily in July and August, 10am-8pm from October-March, admission €13 (£11).
A stroll along Quai Duperré turns up a bewildering choice of bars. If there's room, try the attractive Quai 22 (15) at No 22 (00 33 5 46 50 66 08; www.quai22.com), which is cheaper than the others: a happy-hour pint from 6-8pm costs €2.70 (£2.10).
Dining with the locals
The pedestrianised rue St-Jean du Pérot in the old port has at least a dozen restaurants, and one of the most enjoyable is L'Aunis (16) at number 14 (00 33 5 46 41 03 00). Carnivores and fish-eaters are catered for imaginatively, with starters (from €8.80/£7) including a salad of scallops and quail. Mains (from €15.50/£13) range from duck confit to grilled prawns or John Dory.
Sunday morning: go to church
La Rochelle has a bloody history as a Protestant stronghold, but that ended in 1628 after a lengthy siege led by Cardinal Richelieu himself. It took another century before the Catholic diocese was able to realise its plans for a grand cathedral, the Cathédrale St-Louis (17), whose austere exterior looms over Place de Verdun. The interior is awe-inspiring, with high vaulted ceilings. Open every day, Sunday Mass is at 11am.
A walk in the park
Parc Charruyer (18) is a relaxing haven on a hot day. Its 350 hectares provide cooling forests, streams, scented gardens, a skating park and even a little animal park that offers pony rides. At its southernmost tip is the Plage de la Concurrence, the closest beach to the old port.
Out to brunch
Sample some of the region's excellent seafood at Le Bateau Ivre (19) at 42 Cours des Dames (00 33 5 46 41 50 70), named, of course, after the poem by Rimbaud. This is one of the best of the restaurants facing the water in the old port, and opens at 11am on Sundays. The two-course lunch menu for €17.90 (£14) is great value considering the quality and freshness of the seafood and meat dishes.
Take a ride
You can cover much more ground in La Rochelle if you take advantage of the free bike hire offered by the city. The first two hours are free; then it's only €1 (80p) per hour. Look out for the rows of distinctive yellow bikes at Quai Valin (6) and on Place de Verdun (1). All you need is a form of ID such as a driver's licence.
To test your sea legs, hop aboard one of the boats that explore the islands beyond the port, including Ile d'Aix and the imposing Fort Boyard (20), where Napoleon was exiled after Waterloo. Boats (00 33 825 135 500; www.inter-iles.com) generally run twice a day from the Cours des Dames in the old port, and cost €17-€26 (£14-£21).
Icing on the cake
One of France's best-loved islands is just across the bridge from La Rochelle's airport. The Ile de Ré is a delight: 30km long and 5km wide, with beautiful beaches, great seafood and charming ports. Hire a bike at one of the rental shops near the bridge and cross for free (the toll is €16.50/£13 for cars, payable only on the way in) and explore the island as the Rétais know it. Or catch a bus from La Rochelle's railway station (21) for €13.20 (£11) return. They depart every 45 minutes or so (www.aunis-saintonge.fr/rebus).