La Rochelle's waterfront is dominated by four gigantic defensive towers that once helped to protect the town. Enchanting Rue sur les Murs was built along the ramparts between 1352 and 1387 to link two of the towers. Buy individual tickets or visit all of them on a single joint ticket.
Islands & Beaches
Several islands are scattered around La Rochelle, including nearby Île de Ré and a trio further south. Accessible only by boat, tiny crescent-shaped Île d'Aix (eel dex), 16km due south of La Rochelle, has some blissful beaches and lovely windswept walking. Neighbouring Île d'Oléron is larger and is linked to the mainland by a free bridge.
From the Vieux Port in La Rochelle, it is an invigorating 3km bike ride or walk along the coast to sandy Plage des Minimes; by the beach pick up the path to Cap Horn to admire the enchanting Phare du Bout du Monde, a replica of the 16-sided wooden lighthouse that glowed with the light of seven oil lamps from 1894 until 1902.
Don't Miss: Fort Bayard
The stuff of cinema, Fort Boyard is a 20m-high iceberg of a fortress island lording over the ocean midway between Île d'Aix and Île d'Oléron. It was dreamt up in the 1700s to defend the Bay of Rochefort against the English, but construction of the extraordinary 'stone ship' only began a century later. It then took 19th-century builders 62 years to complete: the first building materials were hauled out to sea in 1802 and the fort was finally completed under Napoléon III (1851–70).
At the end of the Second Empire, Fort Boyard became a prison for Prussian soldiers. Since 1990 the dramatic construction has been the TV studio and film location of the French TV game show Fort Boyard. Closed to visitors today, the unique fort is best admired on a boat trip or, in summer, close-up aboard a sea kayak with Antioche Kayak, kayak and stand-up paddle guides based 30km south of La Rochelle in Fouras.
Meandering the streets of La Rochelle, the keen-eyed will quickly notice the ephemeral, often-peeling B&W art works – stencils and collage figures in action – of Noar Noarnito (b 1973; www.noarnito.fr). The French street artist grew up in Paris and, like so many Parisians, spent many a summer hanging out by the sea in La Rochelle.
For a one-stop shop of urban art, including several of Noarnito's eye-catching, energy-infused figures in action, drop by Hôtel François 1er. The backstreet hotel welcomes artists in residence and is a private street-art 'museum' of sorts, tended with care by serial collectors and hoteliers, Guirec from Paris and his Chilli-born, Brittany-raised wife Ida. A cat sculpture by Monsieur Chat (alias French-Swiss street artist Thoma Vuille; www.monsieurchat.fr), best known for his paintings of smiling Cheshire cats, greets guests upon arrival, while the lobby is casually strung with a veritable feast of framed guitars with dedications by the likes of Patti Smith and Lou Reed.
It is worth checking into room No 220 for the night, purely to ogle at the hundreds of miniature, nail-sized 3D faces cast in plaster by another Parisian street artist, the wildly expressive Gregos (b 1972; www.gregosart.com), and clustered together to form one huge portrait of John Lennon. Each face wears a different expression and each is a self-portrait of the artist. In room No 115, guests can fling open their bedroom window to privately admire an equally monumental portrait of Jim Morrison, installed by Gregos among rooftops well hidden from the public eye.
Throughout the hotel, there are numerous acrobatic figures stencilled in white by Jerôme Mesnager (http://jeromemesnager.com) and shiny 'diamonds' by Le Diamantaire (www.lediamantaire-paris.fr) to spot. Breakfast is served in the company of David Bowie, exquisite portraits composed of feathers by Île de Ré artist Marie-Ange Daudé and a framed, Rolling Stones–signed t-shirt. Even the hotel car park is a work of art: the superb serpent is by Normandy street artist Oré (www.facebook.com/Ore.StreetArt).