It's a shame that more ships don't call on La Rochelle, because it can easily keep history buffs, museum mavens, shopaholics and foodies busy for a full day. What's more, it's the gateway to shore excursions that take you oyster-tasting, cognac-sipping or paddling down the otherworldly canals of the Marais Poitevin park, known as France's "Green Venice."
A major Atlantic port since the 13th century, La Rochelle first traded in wine and salt, then was part of the triangular trade with the New World. Evidence of merchant wealth is everywhere in the ancient center -- from medieval slate-roofed half-timber houses, to the fine stone carvings on 16th-century facades, to the arcaded streets where wares were once displayed. However, most of the town's fortifications were destroyed when the staunchly Protestant town was besieged for 13-months by royal Catholic troops in 1627-28.
The Old Port is guarded by three remaining 14th to 15th-century stone towers (clear that photo card!), which stalwarts can climb for great views. You'll also find historic graffiti carved into the walls, including detailed sailing ships, etched by prisoners of war who were once jailed in the towers.