Seeing as it contains La Rochelle and the top-tier theme park Futuroscope, it’s no shock that Poitou-Charentes is among France’s most popular tourist regions.
Historic La Rochelle is the destination that everyone knows and loves thanks in no small part to its old port, kept safe for centuries by those iconic towers.
But there’s so much more to the region if you’re ready to travel: Historic UNESCO sites, France’s answer to Venice, innovative family attractions and some of the prettiest towns you’ll ever encounter.
True brandy connoisseurs can brush up their knowledge about Cognac on the designated trail, visiting the world’s most prestigious distilleries and quaffing this delectable drink as they go.
Let’s explore the best things to do in Poitou-Charentes:
1. La Rochelle
This coastal city is rightfully one of France’s favorite summer destinations, with a glorious old harbor defended by the Tour de la Chaîne and Tour Saint-Nicolas.
Idle over a long, leisurely meal at a quayside restaurant and wander the city’s historic arcaded streets.
Family attractions here are all about the ocean, so you can find out about the history of French seafaring at the Maritime Museum or see the huge aquarium, with tanks totaling three million liters.
For beach-time cross the bridge Île de Ré, which has a host shallow golden beaches, as well as a UNESCO-listed port, Saint-Martin, fortified by Vauban in the 17th-century.
2. Marais Poitevin
If you want to be outdoors you couldn’t ask for a more idyllic location than the second-largest wetlands in France.
Whenever you read about the eastern, inland part of Marais Poitevin you can’t avoid seeing nickname, “The Green Venice”, and it’s a pretty accurate description, as the waters are covered in bright green duckweed.
There’s a system of canals with green banks, wooden footbridges, lush foliage and cute little cottages.
You can make for one of the tourist piers to take a cruise in one of the area’s famous flat-bottomed boats, or grab a paddle and go where you please in a kayak.
The banks are made for cycling too, with inexhaustible choice trails for two-wheeled adventures.
3. Futuroscope, Poitiers
This is an audiovisual theme park with a host of 3D shows and rides, most set in cavernous movie theatres.
The most exhilarating of these shows of these is “4D”, combining movement and other sensory effects with the films.
What’s handy for parents with younger children is that hardly any of the attractions have height restrictions.
Right now the most popular presentations are “Dancing with Robots”, “Arthur, the Adventure” and “Ice Age”. Recently the park has also teamed up with Cirque du Soleil to produce a nightly stage show laden with special effects.
4. Cognac Country
Charente and Charente-Maritime are where this sophisticated and prized brandy originated.
To earn the prestigious name of Cognac it needs to be produced in this part of France, distilled twice in copper stills and then aged in oak barrels for a minimum of two years.
Around Cognac, you can take a tour of some of the most famous names in the business, including Hennessy and Remy Martin, or follow the designated Cognac Trail to happen upon some of the lesser-known but no less accomplished producers.
The countryside in the Charente Valley is a wonder of its own, with regimented vineyards, old water mills and quaint riverside villages.
5. Atlantic Coast
Down from La Rochelle the coastline, with its sweeping ocean beaches, is known as the Côte de Beauté and has enough opportunities for tourism to appeal to all kinds of tourism.
For heritage there’s Rochefort, near the mouth of the Charente River and chosen by Louis XIV has his royal dockyard.
The Corderie Royale (Rope Factory), and a reproduction of the 18th-century French frigate Hermione are vivid reminders of this historic role.
The Île-d’Aix is a delight too, and completely carless.
Catch the ferry out and then see the island from the comfort of a horse-drawn carriage.
6. Poitiers City
The pedestrianized center of this historic city is heart-achingly beautiful, with so many churches and palaces that it can be hard to know where to look! One of the more modest-looking, the Baptistère Saint-Jean, is claimed to be the oldest Christian building in all of France, and perhaps even Western Europe.
It dates to the 4th century and has awesome frescoes from the 1100s.
You can’t leave without seeing the cathedral either, which was built under the orders of Eleanor of Aquitaine and King Henry II, with 13th-century wooden choir stalls that might also be the oldest in France.
In the evening, you also have to stop by the Church of Notre Dame, when the gothic friezes on the facade are illuminated in a multicolored display.
7. Monolithic Church of Aubeterre-sur-Dronne
Photos can’t capture the size of this underground church that has been hewn from the cliff-face in a glorious setting next to the Dronne River.
The church was first carved in the 500s but then expanded by Benedictine monks in the 1100s.
The nave is about 15 meters high, and your eye will be drawn to the reliquary at one end, standing six meters and designed in the romanesque style.
As you study the columns and raised galleries it’s almost impossible to imagine that this was all completed by hand.
8. La Palmyre Zoo
One way this zoo will differ from most you’ll have visited is that it offers visitors the chance to feed many of the animals: You can hand out the straw to the elephants and popcorn to the giraffes, which is a photo opportunity that you won’t find in many other places!
The zoo was opened in the 60s, which means some of the enclosures can be on the small side, but it also ensures that you’ have no trouble spotting all the animals, which include giant tortoises, rhinos, lemurs, and orangutans.
It also has a stellar record for conservation, recording up to 300 births a year.
9. Abbaye de Saint-Savin-sur-Gartempe
The medieval murals in this church at this abbey are so impressive that they have earned it the epithet of “Romanesque Sistine Chapel”, and listing as a UNESCO site.
These paintings are from the 1000s and 1100s, and there’s nothing that bears comparison in Europe.
The artists used a relatively small palette, with just black, white, green, red ochre and yellow ochre, but in many cases, the images are as vibrant as the day they were completed.
If you need the full story you can get a guided tour lasting 90 minutes and will come away completely informed.
The church architecture also demands close attention: The leaf-like motifs on the capitals supporting the barrel-arched ceiling are of the highest standard.
10. Tumulus of Bougon
There’s the heritage of a prehistoric variety in the Deux-Sèvres department at the center of the region.
When these five Neolithic barrows were discovered in 1840 it caused an international scientific sensation.
The oldest burial monuments at the site are getting on for 6,800 years old, and you’ll be blown away by their state of preservation.
That’s because they were hidden below the soil for thousands of years, only appearing as faint mounds.
There’s one-kilometer curling around the site, and though the signs are all in French you can get multi-lingual audio-guides at the entrance.
Start your visit to the museum for some background and then head off on the trail to enter these remarkable megaliths.
11. La Vallée des Singes, Romagne
It’s not often that a zoo can be a one-off experience, but it’s the case at La Vallée des Singes thanks to the design of this unforgettable zoo.
The park is devoted to primates of all species and is landscaped in the shady forest.
When it opened in the 70s it was the first free-roaming primate park in the world.
At many of the enclosures, it will feel like there’s just a small moat between you and creatures like mountain gorillas.
Other, smaller species will be climbing or resting in the trees around you as you walk.
There are 32 species in all, but the bonobos are prized, as the park has the largest number of this endangered species in the world.
12. Le Château des Énigmes, Pons
If the little guys in your family are prone to impatience when you visit France’s beautiful but not exactly child-friendly châteaux, this innovative attraction is a breath of fresh air.
Parents can revel in the design of this Italian renaissance stately home, listed as a French national monument.
But the enthusiastic staff, in period costume, also organize a variety of activities that children can also get enthused about.
There’s a pirate-themed treasure hunt around the grounds, with interactive games and climbing frames to complete to retrieve the clues.
There’s a small farm in the grounds too, with ducks and goats for kids to meet.
13. Musée d’Angoulême
This top-notch museum next to Angoulême Cathedral has the distinguished French appellation “Musée de France”, the gold standard for cultural attractions in the country.
The Musée d’Angoulême wins acclaim for its art, ethnological and archaeological exhibitions.
But what really sets the pulse racing are the finds from the Charente River basin, among them the Agris Helmet.
This is an iron and bronze helmet covered with intricately adorned gold leaf of exceptional purity.
It dates to 350BC and is held as a masterpiece of Celtic Art.
14. Chauvigny, Vienne
On the Vienne River is a fabulous little town that is crowned with the towers of five châteaux, all along one rocky ridge.
This turns the high part of Chauvigny into a sort of open museum, with castles in differing states of repair all on the same street.
One, the Donjon de Gouzon has a viewing platform, with panoramas of the river and the countryside.
There’s also a museum in this building, retracing the history of industry in Chauvigny, telling you about the town’s famous stone quarries, which sourced the building material for the Louvre and Palais Garnier in Paris.
The Church of Saint-Pierre is a handsome romanesque building, and like many of the churches in Poitou-Charente has the most delicately carved capitals in the choir, cherished as masterpieces of high medieval art.
15. Saintes, Charente-Maritime
This timeless city has been inhabited as far back as Celtic times, and each new civilization has contributed to Saintes’ absorbing heritage.
The Roman era left behind a 1st-century amphitheater and the Arch of Germanicus, in good nick for its great age and standing on the right bank of the Charente.
This river was Saintes gateway to rest of the world, with salt, timber and, of course, cognac packed to far-flung destinations from the riverside.
In the medieval center-Ville the Cathedral of Saint-Pierre is in the flamboyant gothic style and has a curious past, having been sacked by the Huguenots in the 16th-century Wars of Religion before it was even completed.