The city is connected to the Île de Ré by a 2.9-kilometre bridge completed on 19 May 1988. Its harbour opens into a protected strait, the Pertuis d'Antioche.
The area of La Rochelle was occupied in antiquity by the Gallic tribe of the Santones, who gave their name to the nearby region of Saintonge and the city of Saintes.
The Romans subsequently occupied the area, where they developed salt production along the coast as well as wine production, which was then re-exported throughout the Empire. Roman villas have been found at Saint-Éloi and at Les Minimes, as well as salt evaporation ponds dating from the same period.
La Rochelle was founded during the 10th century and became an important harbour in the 12th century. The establishment of La Rochelle as a harbour was a consequence of the victory of Duke Guillaume X of Aquitaine over Isambert de Châtelaillon in 1130 and the subsequent destruction of his harbour of Châtelaillon. In 1137, Guillaume X to all intents and purposes made La Rochelle a free port and gave it the right to establish itself as a commune. Fifty years later Eleanor of Aquitaine upheld the communal charter promulgated by her father, and for the first time in France, a city mayor was appointed for La Rochelle, Guillaume de Montmirail. Guillaume was assisted in his responsibilities by 24 municipal magistrates, and 75 notables who had jurisdiction over the inhabitants. Under the communal charter, the city obtained many privileges, such as the right to mint its own coins, and to operate some businesses free of royal taxes, factors which would favour the development of the entrepreneurial middle-class (bourgeoisie).
Eleanor married Henry Plantagenet in 1152, who became king of England as Henry II in 1154, thus putting La Rochelle under Plantagenet rule, until Louis VIII captured it in the 1224 Siege of La Rochelle. During the Plantagenet control of the city in 1185, Henry II had the Vauclair castle built, remains of which are still visible in the Place de Verdun.
The main activities of the city were in the areas of maritime commerce and trade, especially with England, the Netherlands and Spain. In 1196, a wealthy bourgeois named Alexandre Auffredi sent a fleet of seven ships to Africa to tap the riches of the continent. He went bankrupt and went into poverty as he waited for the return of his ships, but they finally returned seven years later filled with riches.
The Knights Templar had a strong presence in La Rochelle since before the time of Eleanor of Aquitaine, who exempted them from duties and gave them mills in her 1139 Charter. La Rochelle was for the Templars their largest base on the Atlantic Ocean, and where they stationed their main fleet. From La Rochelle, they were able to act as intermediaries in trade between England and the Mediterranean. A popular thread of conspiracy theory originating with Holy Blood, Holy Grail has it that the Templars used a fleet of 18 ships which had brought Jacques de Molay from Cyprus to La Rochelle to escape arrest in France. The fleet allegedly left laden with knights and treasures just before the issue of the warrant for the arrest of the Order in October 1307.
During the Hundred Years' War in 1360, following the Treaty of Bretigny La Rochelle again came under the rule of the English monarch. La Rochelle however expelled the English in June 1372, following the naval Battle of La Rochelle, between Castilian-French and English fleets. The French and Spanish decisively defeated the English, securing French control of the Channel for the first time since the Battle of Sluys in 1340. The naval battle of La Rochelle was one of the first cases of the use of handguns on warships, which were deployed by the French and Spanish against the English. Having recovered freedom, La Rochelle refused entry to Du Guesclin, until Charles V recognized the privileges of the city in November 1372.
In 1402, the French adventurer Jean de Béthencourt left La Rochelle and sailed along the coast of Morocco to conquer the Canary islands.
Until the 15th century, La Rochelle was to be the largest French harbour on the Atlantic coast, dealing mainly in wine, salt and cheese.
During the Renaissance, La Rochelle adopted Protestant ideas. Calvinism started to be propagated in the region of La Rochelle, resulting in its suppression through the establishment of Cours présidiaux tribunals by Henry II. An early result of this was the burning at the stake of two "heretics" in La Rochelle in 1552. Conversions to Calvinism however continued, due to a change of religious beliefs, but also to a desire for political independence on the part of the local elite, and a popular opposition to royal expenses and requisitions in the building projects to fortify the coast against England.
On the initiative of Gaspard de Coligny, the Calvinists attempted to colonize the New World to find a new home for their religion, with the likes of Pierre Richier and Jean de Léry. After the short-lived attempt of France Antarctique, they failed to establish a colony in Brazil, and finally resolved to make a stand in La Rochelle itself. Pierre Richier became "Ministre de l'église de la Rochelle" ("Minister of the Church of La Rochelle") when he returned from Brazil in 1558, and was able to considerably increase the Huguenot presence in La Rochelle, from a small base of about 50 souls who had been secretly educated in the Lutheran faith by Charles de Clermont the previous year. He has been described, by Lancelot Voisin de La Popelinière, as "le père de l'église de La Rochelle" ("The Father of the Church of La Rochelle").
La Rochelle was the first French city, with Rouen, to experience iconoclastic riots in 1560, at the time of the suppression of the Amboise conspiracy, before the riots spread to many other cities. Further cases of Reformation iconoclasm were recorded in La Rochelle from 30 May 1562, following the Massacre of Vassy. Protestants pillaged churches, destroyed images and statues, and also assassinated 13 Catholic priests in the Tower of the Lantern.
From 1568, La Rochelle became a centre for the Huguenots, and the city declared itself an independent Reformed Republic on the model of Geneva. During the subsequent period, La Rochelle became an entity that has been described as a "state within a state". This led to numerous conflicts with the Catholic central government. The city supported the Protestant movement of William of Orange in the Netherlands, and from La Rochelle the Dutch under Louis of Nassau and the Sea Beggars were able to raid Spanish shipping.
In 1571 the city of La Rochelle suffered a naval blockade by the French Navy under the command of Filippo di Piero Strozzi and Antoine Escalin des Aimars, a former protagonist of the Franco-Ottoman alliance. The city was finally besieged during the Siege of La Rochelle (1572-1573) during the French Wars of Religion, following the St. Bartholomew's Day massacre in August 1572, and occurred at the same time as other sieges of Protestant cities such as the Siege of Sancerre. The conflict ended with the 1573 Peace of La Rochelle, which restricted the Protestant worship to the three cities of Montauban, Nîmes and La Rochelle. Pierre Richier died in La Rochelle in 1580.
Under Henry IV, and under the regency of his son Louis XIII, the city enjoyed a certain freedom and prosperity. However, La Rochelle entered into conflict with the authority of the adult Louis, beginning with a 1622 revolt. A fleet from La Rochelle fought a royal fleet of 35 ships under Charles, Duke of Guise, in front of Saint-Martin-de-Ré, but was defeated on 27 October 1622, leading to the signing of the Peace of Montpellier.
In 1625, a new Huguenot revolt led by Duke Henri de Rohan and his brother Soubise led to the Capture of Ré island by the forces of Louis XIII. Soubise conquered large parts of the Atlantic coast, but the supporting fleet of La Rochelle was finally defeated by Montmorency, as was Soubise with 3,000 when he led a counter-attack against the royal troops who had landed on the island of Ré.
Following these events, Louis XIII and his Chief Minister Cardinal Richelieu declared the suppression of the Huguenot revolt the first priority of the kingdom. The English came to the support of La Rochelle, starting an Anglo-French War, by sending a major expedition under the Duke of Buckingham. The expedition however ended in a fiasco for England with the Siege of Saint-Martin-de-Ré. Meanwhile, cannon shots were exchanged on 10 September 1627 between La Rochelle and Royal troops. This resulted in the Siege of La Rochelle in which Cardinal Richelieu blockaded the city for 14 months, until the city surrendered and lost its mayor and its privileges.
The remaining Protestants of La Rochelle suffered new persecutions, when 300 families were again expelled in November 1661, the year Louis XIV came to power. The reason for the expulsions was that Catholics deeply resented a degree of revival of Protestant ownership of property within the city.
The growing persecution of the Huguenots culminated with the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes by Louis XIV in 1685. Many Huguenots emigrated, founding such cities as New Rochelle in the vicinity of today's New York in 1689. La Rochelle, and the siege of 1627 form much of the backdrop to the later chapters of Alexandre Dumas, père's classic novel, The Three Musketeers.
Because of its western location, which saved days of sailing time, La Rochelle enjoyed successful fishing in the western Atlantic and trading with the New World, which served to counterbalance the disadvantage of not being at the mouth of a river (useful for shipping goods to and from the interior). Its Protestant ship-owning and merchant class prospered in the 16th century until the Wars of Religion devastated the city.
The period following the wars was a prosperous one, marked by intense exchanges with the New World (Nouvelle France in Canada, and the Antilles). La Rochelle became very active in triangular trade with the New World, dealing in the slave trade with Africa, sugar trade with plantations of the West Indies, and fur trade with Canada. This was a period of high artistic, cultural and architectural achievements for the city.
Robert de La Salle departed from La Rochelle, France, on 24 July 1684, with the aim of setting up a colony at the mouth of the Mississippi, eventually establishing Fort Saint Louis in Texas.
The city eventually lost its trade and prominence during the decades spanning the Seven Years' War, the French revolution and the Napoleonic Wars. During that period France lost many of the territorial possessions which it had had in the new World, and also saw a strong decrease in its sea power in the continuing conflicts with Britain, ultimately diminishing the role of such harbours as La Rochelle. After abolitionist movements led by such people as Samuel de Missy, the slave trade of La Rochelle ended with the onset of the French Revolution and the war with England in the 1790s, the last La Rochelle slave ship, the Saint-Jacques being captured in 1793 in the Gulf of Guinea. In February 1794, the National Assembly legislated the Universal Emancipation decree, which effectively freed all colonial slaves.
In 1809, the Battle of the Basque Roads took place near La Rochelle, in which a British fleet defeated the French Atlantic Fleet.
La Rochelle became one of the French centres for faience in the end of the 18th century. Bernard Palissy was born in the region and had some bearing in this development. During the 18th century, its style was greatly influenced by Chinese themes and Japanese Kakiemon-type designs. Many of these ceramics can be viewed at the Musée d'Orbigny-Bernon.
In 1864, the harbour of La Rochelle (area of the "Bassin à flot" behind the water locks), was the site for the maiden dive experiments of the first mechanically-powered submarine in the World, Plongeur, commanded by Marie-Joseph-Camille Doré, a native of La Rochelle.
During the Second World War, Germany established a submarine naval base at La Pallice (the main port of La Rochelle).
A German stronghold, La Rochelle was the last French city to be liberated at the end of the war. The Allied siege of La Rochelle took place between 12 September 1944 and 7 May 1945. The stronghold, including the islands of Ré and Oléron, was held by 20,000 German troops under a German vice-admiral Ernst Schirlitz. Following negotiations by the French Navy frigate captain Meyer, the general German capitulation occurred on 7 May and French troops entered La Rochelle on 8 May.
The submarine base became the setting for parts of the movie Das Boot. The U-boat scenes in Raiders of the Lost Ark were also shot in La Rochelle. The base is featured in the computer game Commandos 2: Men of Courage.
The bedrock of La Rochelle and surrounding areas is composed of layers of limestone dating back to the Sequanian stage (upper Oxfordian stage) of the Jurassic period (circa 160 million years ago), when a large part of France was submerged. Many of these layers are visible in the white cliffs that border the sea, which contain many small marine fossils. Layers of thick white rock, formed during period of relatively warm seas, alternate with highly fragile layers containing sand and remains of mud, formed during colder periods, and with layers containing various corals, that were formed during warmer, tropical times. The limestone thus formed is traditionally used as the main building material throughout the region.
The area of La Pointe du Chay about 5 km (3 mi) from La Rochelle is a popular cliff area for leisurely geological surveys.
Under Köppen’s climate classification, La Rochelle features an Oceanic climate. Although at the same latitude as Montreal in Canada or the Kuril islands in Russia, the area is quite mild throughout the year due to the influence of the Gulf Stream waters, and insolation is remarkably high, in fact, the highest in Western France including sea resorts much further in the south such as Biarritz. La Rochelle seldom experiences very cold or very warm weather. These specific conditions – summer dry and sunny, winter mild and wet – have led to the establishment of a Mediterranean-type vegetation cohabiting with more continental and oceanic types of vegetation.
The city has beautifully maintained its past architecture, making it one of the most picturesque and historically rich cities on the Atlantic coast. This helped develop a strong tourism industry.
La Rochelle possesses a commercial deep water harbour, named La Pallice. The large submarine pens built during World War II still stand there, although they are not in use. La Pallice is equipped with oil unloading equipment, and mainly handles tropical wood. It is also the location of the fishing fleet, which was moved from the old harbour in the centre of the city during the 1980s.
La Rochelle also maintains strong links with the sea by harbouring the largest marina for pleasure boats in Europe at Les Minimes, and a rather rich boat-building industry which includes Amel Yachts.
La Rochelle has a very big aquarium, and a small botanical garden (the Jardin des plantes de La Rochelle).
The Calypso, the ship used by Jacques-Yves Cousteau as a mobile laboratory for oceanography, and which was sunk after a collision in the port of Singapore (1996) is now on display (sadly rotting) at the Maritime Museum of La Rochelle.
One of the biggest music festivals in France, "FrancoFolies", takes place each summer in La Rochelle, where Francophone musicians come together for a week of concerts and celebration. 2004 marked the 20th anniversary of this event. The French Socialist Party has held its annual summer convention (Université d'été) in La Rochelle since 1983.
La Rochelle is the setting for the best-selling series of French language textbooks in the UK, titled Tricolore. The central character, Martine Dhome, lives with her family at the fictional address of 12, rue de la République.
La Rochelle's main feature is the "Vieux Port" ("Old Harbour"), which is at the heart of the city, picturesque and lined with seafood restaurants. The city walls are open to an evening promenade. The old town has been well preserved. From the harbour, boating trips can be taken to the Île d'Aix and Fort Boyard (home to the internationally famous TV show of the same name). Nearby Île de Ré is a short drive to the North. The countryside of the surrounding Charente-Maritime is very rural and full of history (Saintes). To the North is Venise Verte, a marshy area of country, criss-crossed with tiny canals and a popular resort for inland boating. Inland is the country of Cognac and Pineau. The attractive Île de Ré is accessible via a bridge from La Rochelle.
La Rochelle and its region are served by the international La Rochelle - Île de Ré Airport, which has progressively developed over the last 5 years. Currently, it is the largest airport in the Nouvelle-Aquitaine region. The train station Gare de La Rochelle offers connections to Bordeaux, Nantes, Poitiers, Paris and several regional destinations.
OFP La Rochelle is a freight railway serving the port.
La Rochelle launched one of the first successful bicycle sharing systems in 1974.
The city has more than 10,000 students each year. The University of La Rochelle was established in 1993. Together with the École supérieure de commerce de la rochelle (La Rochelle Business School), they are the famous institutions of higher education of La Rochelle (7,000 and 3,500 students respectively).
Stade Rochelais are a professional rugby union team in the Top 14 league. They play their home matches at Stade Marcel-Deflandre.
Since 1991 the city has annually hosted the Marathon de La Rochelle, the second most popular marathon of France and an international-level race which featured 10,000 participants in 2010.