Last Updated on 5th June 2023 by Sophie Nadeau
A windswept island just off the French Atlantic Coast, Île de Ré is one of the most charming spots to visit in France, and not just because of the stunning scenery! Boasting one of the biggest salt producing areas in France, as well as kilometre upon kilometre of untamed wilderness, the island is the perfect escape from the hustle and bustle of modern day life.
Île de Ré is situated around a half hour drive from La Rochelle and is home to several pretty as a postcard villages (so picturesque that they have been deemed to be among the most beautiful villages in France) and is commonly referred to simply as Ré island in English.
Many people opt to go camping on the island to get in touch with nature and get away from it all. With this being said, most of the island’s main attractions can easily be seen over the course of a day if that’s all the time you have to explore. Here’s your guide to the best things to do in Île de Ré.
- Where is Île de Ré?
- What is Île de Ré known for?
- When is the best time to visit?
- Getting around Île de Ré
- Things to do in Île de Ré
- Suggested itinerary for one day in Île de Ré
- Watch the Ile de Re travel video
Where is Île de Ré?
Île de Ré is located just off of mainland France in the Atlantic Sea and is just 19 miles long (but plenty is packed into this thin strip of land). The island is commonly referred to as being in southwest France, though geographically speaking its more of central western France.
The island is nestled within the Bay of Biscay in the Charente-Maritime département and has been inhabited since at least Roman times. Many people now refer to the island as the French version of the Hamptons due to its popularity among Parisians.
What is Île de Ré known for?
The island is particularly famed for its oysters, and all around the island there are oyster shacks selling freshly farmed seafood to any willing buyers. The island is also known for its salt production, and there are a number of salt flats in the western portion of the island.
When is the best time to visit?
Like many destinations in France, the best time to visit Île de Ré is in the summer when the temperatures are higher, the days are longer, and there’s little chance of rain. Many businesses on the island are seasonal, and so if you visit in the winter you’ll find many shops shut.
However, as you can imagine with a place popular among Parisians, visiting in the summer comes with elevated prices, not to mention that the best accommodation and camping grounds fill up fast- so be sure to reserve everything you need for your trip well in advance.
Getting around Île de Ré
Once on the island, you’ll soon discover the most popular way of getting around the place: by bicycle. Bike rental locations are all over the island, though every big town and village also has one.
Wherever you go, you’ll find dozens upon dozens of bikes parked up, and if you’re driving around the island, you’ll soon realise who gets the real priority on the roads (it’s the bicycles!) Since we were only on the island for a day, we opted to get around by car, but I would love to return for a longer time and get around by bicycle.
If you’re visiting Île de Ré by car, then one of the more unique architectural marvels you’ll come across on the island is the Pont de l’île de Ré, which was completed in 1988. You have to pay a toll of €8 to cross the bridge (depending on your vehicle) but you can pay by card.
Things to do in Île de Ré
Phare des Baleines
The lighthouse (literally translated to ‘whale lighthouse’ in English) lies at the furthest extremity of the island to the mainland and I recommend making it your first port of call if you’re only on Île de Ré for a day since then you can work your way back to the mainland.
The structure you see today was constructed in 1854 to replace a former Vauban building on the site from the 17th-century. Now, for a fee, you can climb the 250+ steps to reach the top of the lighthouse and enjoy a bird’s eye view of the island. There’s also an accompanying museum.
Nearby, there are a number of coastal walks where you can enjoy uninterrupted views of the Atlantic Ocean. There are also a number of tourist shops close to the lighthouse (between the parking of the lighthouse and the lighthouse itself) selling all sorts of typical beachwares.
As well as stores selling your usual coverups and beach dresses, there’s a shop selling beach bags with typical French names (Sophie, Charlotte, Marie) embroidered on the side. This is also a great spot to enjoy an ice cream.
We personally went to La Martinière and you can get strange flavours like local oyster! If you prefer something more traditional, then you need to look no further than the salted caramel, which contains locally farmed salt. Another island speciality worth sampling is the frozen macaron- it was truly delicious!
Saint Martin de Re
The capital of the island is an impressive walled town which was fortified in the 17th-century by Vauban. Home to a population of just over 2000 residents, the real draw of this seaside town is the chance to stroll along the 1681 to 1691 built fortifications.
There are also several other architectural treasures to be enjoyed in town. This includes ascneding the 100+ steps of the bell tower of Eglise Saint Martin and visiting the Ernest Cognacq Museum.
There are actually two “plus beau villages de France” on the island, with Ars-en-Re being one of them. Truth be told, there’s not a huge amount of activities in the village and the main point of interest is to wander around, snapping photos of the pretty houses and little streets.
The main point of interest in Ars-en-Re is its centrally located parish church. Though the interior is quite plain when it comes to Roman Catholic churches, the steeple is particularly interesting in that it has been painted black and white so as to help ships with navigation.
The other village which has been awarded the esteemed “most beautiful villages in France” is La Flotte, a picturesque village which is home to just under 3000 permanent residents.
One of the highlights of a visit to the village comes in the form of a market, which takes place daily in Market Square in July and August.
Abbaye des Chateliers
Situated just a stone’s throw away from La Flotte (one of the most beautiful villages in France), the crumbling ruins of the Abbey of Chateliers are free to visit and are open 24/7.
There is parking just off the main road, though visitors should note that there’s not a great deal of space to park and the car park fills up fast, especially during peak season. I therefore recommend going first thing in the morning so as to see the ecclesiastical building with fewer people around and actually secure a spot!
The Abbey itself was founded during the Middle Ages, when Cistercian monks left the mainland to set up a wine and salt trade on the island. The Brothers eventually left the island as they were tired of constant pillaging and attacks.
Now, the 12th-century complex remains the oldest building on the island. Visitors can visit the former abbey and accompanying cloisters. In the late spring, poppies bloom in the field surrounding the abbey, adding to the overall ambiance.
Beaches on Ile de Re
Of course, there’s no way you would want to visit an island in western France without heading to the beach at some point or another. Ile de Re boasts several sandy stretches, though the most popular include:
- Plage de Gros Jonc: this beach is used by surfers but also by sunbathers owing to its nice sand.
- Plage de Trousse Chemise: this is a wild beach near Les-Portes-en-Ré which is known for its wind (making it popular among kitesurfers)
- Plage du Petit Sergent: this is a pebble beach not far from Le Bois Plage. Several hiking routes can be found close by.
- Plage du Peu Ragot: this is one of the most popular beaches on the island for families owing to the number of nearby facilities. There are toilets and lifeguards on site (though check that the lifeguard is actually on duty on the day you visit).
- Plage de la Cible: this beach is one of the closest to Saint-Martin-de-Ré.
Marais Salants (Salt Marshes)
As I mentioned previously, Île de Ré is quite famous for its salt production, which has taken place on the island since the Middle Ages (even the monks dabbled in salt selling at this time!)
Though at one point in the past few centuries salt farming (a salt farmer is called ‘saunier’ in French) became a bit of a lost art, the job has enjoyed somewhat of a resurgence in the past few decades and so you can still see the traditional salt farming on the salt flats today.
There’s even a small museum, Ecomuseum Marais Salant, where you can learn more about the history of salt farming on the island. The museum is set among the salt flats, meaning that you can drive or cycle there and see plenty of salt production en route.
The other key food industry that takes place on the island is oyster farming. Oyster beds are scattered across the island and many of these oyster farmers have small shacks close to their farms where you can sit and enjoy local seafood paired with a local wine and fantastic sea views.
We personally went to Les Copains Babord, where one of my friends enjoyed the house speciality: a plate of oysters served up with a fresh slice of lemon. Another of our friends had their fruit salad, while I had just had a massive ice cream so just enjoyed their local glass of rosé, which is produced on the island.
Suggested itinerary for one day in Île de Ré
In order to enjoy this itinerary, you’ll need access to your own vehicle, which you can rent on the mainland. Check car rental comparison prices here in advance.
Phare des Baleienes: start your day off at the furthest point from the mainland. Go up the lighthouse, enjoy views of the island, and if you enjoy sweets in the morning, sample a frozen macaron at La Martinière.
Ars-en-Ré: wander around one of the most beautiful villages in France. Snap photos of the pastel hued houses and adorable shutters and doors and stroll inside the historic church in the village centre.
Marais Salants: you can’t visit Île de Ré without at least looking at some of the salt flats. Those who are extra curious can even opt to visit the eco-museum in the heart of the salt flatlands.
Grab lunch: I personally recommend going to an oyster shack and sampling some of the local seafood while overlooking the sea. They are scattered all over the island so look on Google maps and head to the one which looks best for you! Many also offer non-seafood options.
Saint Martin de Ré: be impressed by some well-preserved Vuaban fortifications. If you’re not too tired, climb the Eglise Saint Martin bell tower to enjoy views of the town, port, and beyond.
Abbey of Chateliers: Enjoy well-preserved abbey ruins in a moment of calm. You don’t need a huge amount of time to visit the former ecclesiastical complex and so I recommend setting aside just half an hour or so.
La Flotte: Finish your time in Île de Ré with one of the most beautiful villages in France. The village is particularly famed for its pretty port, where you can grab a drink or ice cream as the sun goes down.
Watch the Ile de Re travel video
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Sophie Nadeau loves dogs, books, travel, pizza, and history. A fan of all things France related, she runs solosophie.com when she’s not chasing after the next sunset shot or consuming something sweet. She currently splits her time between Paris and London. Subscribe to Sophie’s YouTube Channel.