As one of France’s most important Atlantic seaports and the capital of the Charente-Maritime department, La Rochelle’s maritime history takes center stage at the city’s museums. But there are plenty of other museums of interest too.
La Rochelle’s Maritime Museum is comprised of eight remarkably restored vessels docked at the south end of the Port des Minimes. Visitors can step on board and explore three of them – an old tugboat, called the Saint-Gilles; a fishing trawler, the Angoumois; and a 1960’s meteorological ship, the France I. On board, the fascinating exhibits include maps, charts and artifacts from La Rochelle’s seafaring history. You can also peek into the living quarters, engine room and helm or enjoy cocktails and tapas at the on-board bar on the France 1. The other ships – including the ketch in which Bernard Moitessier sailed around the world and a 1906 dredger – can be admired from the waterfront.
Back in the 18th century, La Rochelle was one of the main ports of emigration to America, serving as the gateway to the ‘New World’ for many Europeans. The New World Museum (Musee du Nouveau-Monde) offers a fascinating look at this period in history with exhibitions devoted to the discovery and exploration of the Americas, the French participation in the Gold Rush, the slave ships, and the relationship between the New World settlers and the American Indians. The vast collection includes thought-provoking paintings, antique furnishings, ancient maritime maps, letters, and personal effects.
La Rochelle’s Aquarium is renowned as one of the most impressive in Europe, but wildlife enthusiasts should also pay a visit to the city’s Natural History Museum. Housed in a striking 19th-century building, the museum’s star attraction is its huge taxidermy collection, which contains a veritable zoo of exotic animals, among them tigers, zebra, gorillas, bison, anteaters, and giraffes. Other highlights include the anthropology exhibitions, which also has a section on primitive religions, shamanism, and sacred rituals, as well as an eclectic collection of ancient weapons, tribal clothing, and even a shrunken head. The beautiful Botanical Gardens (Jardin des Plantes) that adjoin the museum are also worth a visit.
Right in the heart of the city center, the La Rochelle War Bunker is an old war bunker built by the Germans in 1941 and has since been transformed into a museum. Visitors can venture underground to explore the WWII bunker, which is now filled with war memorabilia, military clothing, weapons, and personal effects, telling the story of La Rochelle during its Nazi occupation. Get a sense of daily life in the bunker and learn about the Allied siege of La Rochelle, as well how the city was used as an important naval base for the German forces.
La Rochelle’s Automata Museum is devoted to the city’s long tradition of puppetry and model miniatures, and the sizeable museum is brimming with curiosities. Elaborate scale models, automated model scenes, and elaborate motorised train sets offer an interactive experience, while the collection of life-size puppets include some impressive antiques as well as some slightly creepy clowns!
The Fine Arts Museum (Musée des Beaux-Arts) is La Rochelle’s principal art museum. It is housed in the Hôtel de Crussol d’Uzès, a striking neo-classical palace at the heart of the city’s historic center. The small collection focuses on 15th to 20th century art, with notable paintings by local artists Eugène Fromentin and William Bouguereau, as well as some stunning paintings of La Rochelle’s port by Albert Marquet and Paul Signac. Be aware that signage and descriptions are only available in French.