Think of Bordeaux and it’s likely your head fills with mirages of sun-drenched vineyards and bountiful bottles of crimson French heavenliness. But for Francophiles and bon vivants with a taste for la joie de vivre, the riverside city of Bordeaux offers even more in the way of food, vin and culture.
It’s one of those French cities where the clock ticks more slowly, where days revolve around the sun, where flâneurs drift from square to square and bar to bar on rickety old bikes that look like they belong in fields of lavender.
It’s one of those cities that makes you wish you’d been born French yourself, that you could sit like the locals do with a cigar in one hand and a glass of Perrier in the other, and say, “Oui, oui – je suis Bordelais.”
The truth is that you don’t really need a guide to Bordeaux. Simply amble the streets and follow the crowds and you’ll quickly find yourself engulfed by its charm.
But here are a few tips anyway… After all, mastering the “art de vivre” – the art of living – is a worthy pursuit, and one we could use a little advice on.
From the colossal Cité du Vin – which is more of a shrine than a museum – to the UNESCO listed Vieux Bordeaux (Old Bordeaux), here are the most essential things to do, see, eat and drink in the magnifique French metropolis that is Bordeaux.
Stretching out along the Garonne River in the south-west of France, Bordeaux is the gateway and commercial heart of the word-renowned Bordeaux wine region – which is, let’s be honest, the main reason you want to visit.
As you may well imagine, much of this culturally-rich and gastronomically-centric city’s history and current way of life revolves around the arts and the pursuit of good living.
There’s also a thriving student population, which balances out its old world charm and adds a sense of life and vitality.
Bordeaux Better than Paris?
Bordeaux is one of those cities that exudes self confidence, a city well aware of its charm and savoir faire.
Well, I mean I do, because Paris is Paris and it always will be, but still, there is just so much to explore that is every bit as beautiful and delicious as the capital, but without the cost and madness.
What I do know for sure is that, if you’ve already ticked Paris off your list, I’d definitely recommend going to somewhere like Bordeaux instead of making a return trip to the capital.
Interesting fact: Bordeaux was under British rule for some three hundred years! I guess that explains our obsession with French wine.
Best Things to Do in Bordeaux + Tips on Where to Eat & Drink
1. Orientate Yourself in Vieux Bordeaux (Old Bordeaux)
Spread out over 150 hectares, Vieux Bordeaux is the world’s largest urban World Heritage Site, covering some 18 sq km of architectural treasures. 5,000 buildings here date back to the 18th century, with 350 being listed and protected by UNESCO.
In other words, Bordeaux’s Old Town is a visual feast of grand boulevards and narrow alleyways, of thronging neo-classical squares and ancient architectural triumphs.
At the heart of the area is the Triangle d’Or (or ‘Golden Triangle’), which is formed by the three main boulevards of Cours Georges Clemenceau, Cours de l’Intendance and Allées de Tourny.
This was the area built atop the warren of medieval streets once formed the historic city heart in the 18th century, and this was where the city’s rich and royal chose to build their palatial homes.
Essential top tip: Definitely be sure to stop for a break and a few glasses of the good stuff at Le Bar à Vin (3 Cours du 30 Juillet). This is one of Bordeaux’s many wine-focussed institutions, but I was astonished by how affordable and unpretentious it was. Le Verre ô Vin is another good option.
You have arrived.
2. Make a Grand Entrance at Bordeaux’s Fairytale Port Cailhau
One of the images most cemented in my mind’s eye is of the spire-crowned Port Cailhau gateway. Dating back to the 15th century (yes, the FIFTEENTH century!), it was built to celebrate Charles VIII’s succession to the throne and acts as a truly grand entrance to the city.
Surely the inspiration for countless Disney films, its facade is festooned with gothic gargoyles and spiky spires that you half expect to find Rapunzel’s golden locks tumbling out of.
Tip: For a small fee you are allowed to climb to the top of the gate and enjoy epic vistas across Bordeaux.
3. Explore Bordeaux’s Regal Place de la Bourse
Nestled just outside the walls of Vieux Bordeaux (but still technically part of it), Place de la Bourse overlooks the river and is Bordeaux’s most recognisable landmark.
This imposing landmark was designed by famous royal architect Jacques Gabriel. Sadly, however, Gabriel didn’t finish the designs until 1739 and approval for building to commence didn’t come through until 1742, two weeks after his death.
It’s quite a sight to behold and I found myself returning here over and over again to watch people whizzing past the “Three Graces” fountain on their rattly old bikes.
From here it’s literally just a couple of steps to Bordeaux’s famous Miroir d’eau (Mirror of Water). Speaking of which…
4. Cool Off at Bordeaux’s Iconic Miroir d’eau (Mirror of Water)
I’ll be honest, it doesn’t sound all that exciting on paper. Hell, when someone told me I had to “visit the awesome Mirror of Water”, I smiled and nodded along appeasingly. But in reality this gorgeous water feature is actually really beautiful and completely engrossed me.
Situated between the river and Place de la Bourse, the sky-piercing spire of Flèche Saint-Michel in the distance, you can’t help but be awed by it all.
It’s more of a hazy mist than a fountain, a thin veneer of water that glistens in the sun, creating a mirror effect.
Tourists and locals alike gather here to splash around and hang out together.
I really loved it actually.
5. Ramble the River Garonne
The Miroir d’eau is located right on Bordeaux’s main riverfront area, a hub of life where locals meet to talk and relax in the sun, or have a drink at one of the many riverside bars.
As with many historically important port cities, Bordeaux owes much of its success to its prime location on the River Garonne, so you can tick it off you itinerary as a cultural experience while sipping a cold bière.
Tip: There are loads of trendy overpriced bars along the river, but I quite liked Le Castan.
You’ll see huge cruise liners moored here and smaller boats trundling up and down. The occasional twat on a jet ski.
Take a stroll, rent a bike or hop on a boat and cruise the river in style (this particular river tour also includes lunch!).
6. Worship the God’s of Wine at the Grand L’Eglise Notre Dame
Whether you’re one of faith or not, the 17th century L’Eglise Notre Dame church is well worth a gander.
A Baroque beauty with all the trimmings.
Tip: If you’d rather worship the wine gods in a more hands-on manner,
7. Praised Be – at the Colossal Cathédrale Saint-André
After Place de la Bourse, Bordeaux’s most iconic landmark is the Saint-André medieval Roman Catholic cathedral.
Consecrated as far back as 1096, Saint-André is exactly the sort of building that gives you the warm and fuzzies when travelling in France or elsewhere in Europe.
As Bordeaux’s largest and most imposing religious building, it was recognised by UNESCO as a Monument Historique in 1998.
8. Shop Like the Bordelais on Rue Saint-Catherine
Shopping isn’t exactly my thing, but even I could be tempted by the beautiful boutiques and ateliers that line Rue Saint-Catherine, which is often cited as the longest pedestrian shopping street Europe.
Even if you aren’t looking for anything, it’s an interesting place to people watch and see how the locals like to spend their free time.
9. Indulge in plenty of Canelé de Bordeaux
Canelé (kan-le) are little crispy/chewy custard cakes and have become edible emblems of Bordeaux.
They go down lovely with coffee – especially the caramelised ones filled with rum and vanilla at La Toque Cuivrée!
Tip: If you’ve got a bit of a sweet tooth then I’d recommend taking this ‘sweet & savoury’ food and wine tour, which includes visits to some of the more essential gastro spots in the city.
10. Catch a Show at the Grand Théâtre in Place de la Comedie
Located in the bustling Place de la Comedie, the Grand Théâtre boasts a neo-classical facade and suitably regal portico of 12 Corinthian-style columns, each sporting a statue representing the nine Muses and the goddesses Juno, Venus and Minerva.
Tip: If you have time then definitely go here to watch Bordeaux’s opera or national ballet.
11. Eat & Drink Like a Local in Place du Parlement
Bordeaux may be ancient and somewhat classical, but its thriving student population gives it an edge and sense of vitality.
The result is a vast array of cool cafes and affordable restaurants, all of which are nuzzled up against more traditional bistros and restaurants.
You don’t have to go far to find a trendy bar or cafe terrace, but you’d be wise to start your quest in and around Place du Parlement, which is a hive of activity from dusk till dawn.
Top foodie tip: If like me you’re all about food, wine and culture, I’d highly recommend joining a local food tour like this one to discover the “art de vivre”, which pairs Bordeaux’s history and architecture with its gorgeous wine and food.
12. Feed Your Mind at Bordeaux’s Many Museums
Bordeaux Wine and Trade Museum (with wine tasting): If you’re going to Bordeaux, you’re going to want to learn about the wine, and this is a fine old place to do it. From the origins of the city’s now famous wine trade in the Middle Ages to the current day trends and variations, this historic wine museum is the ideal place to discover the grands vins de Bordeaux. And, yes, there’s also a wine tasting at the end – for research purposes of course!
Musee des Douanes: Located in the Place de Bourse, the Musee des Douanes reveals the story of Bordeaux’s important roots as a shipping or port city. Enjoy the models of ships and very nautical-themed paraphernalia.
Musée des Beaux-Arts de Bordeaux and Galerie des Beaux-Arts: There’s really nowhere better to go for that full fat visual feast of fine French art from the 15th to 20th century. Gaze at masterpieces by Matisse and revel at collections from the Renaissance.
13. Visit Le Cité du Vin to Immerse Yourself in Bordeaux’s Wine World
La Cité du Vin is a gorgeous wine museum/enological shrine. If you have any interest in how and where the world’s best wines are made, this is a must.
Top Tip for Wine Lovers in Bordeaux
Saint-Emilion Half-Day Wine Tasting Vineyard Tour from Bordeaux
This would be my personal pick!
Spend an afternoon exploring the renowned Saint-Emilion wine region and tour the village on the right bank of the Dordogne River. Transfers included. 5.5 hours.
Cadillac and Saint-Emilion Full-Day Wine Tasting Vineyard Tour from Bordeaux
Médoc Full-Day Wine Tasting Vineyard Tour from Bordeaux
14. Picnic in Bordeaux’s Beautiful Jardin Public
Nothing’s better after a French feast (and too much vin) than plonking yourself down on a bench in a pretty park and watching the world go by.
And boy oh boy is Bordeaux’s “Public Garden” an impressive one to do it in. With some 10 hectares of lush grass and leafy trees to stretch out among, it really is a must.
Tip: This huge public garden is also home to a waterfall and the city’s natural history museum, though I’d advise visiting primarily to picnic on cheese, baguettes and wine.
Bonus top tip: If cheese and wine is your thing – and so it should be – definitely check out this cheese & wine tasting session in a suitably stinky cellar in the old town.
15. Don’t Miss France’s Largest Place (Square)
Not far from the Jardin Public is Place des Quinconces, the largest square in France.
This beautiful open space is also home to the suitably ostentatious Monument aux Girondins.
Don’t miss it.
Ah, of course, the part we’ve all be waiting for!
Nothing in life is as civilised as an apéritif in France. Marking the ephemeral shift from day to night, it is your chance to relax and unwind and start working up an appetite for dinner.
On a late summer afternoon in Bordeaux, every café, bar, or bistro is full of people of all ages enjoying the end of the workday with friends. Joining them by partaking in an apéritif.
17. Take a Sunset River Stroll to the Jacques Chaban Delmas Bridge
The space-aged Jacques Chaban Delmas drawbridge is an ultra modern architectural masterpiece that adds a little yin to Bordeaux’s old town yang.
This is the perfect destination to end your romantic riverside stroll and there are plenty of bars nearby where you can wait an age for an overpriced drink to enjoy at sunset.
Make it Happen
Best time to go to Bordeaux: The best time of year to visit Bordeaux is between May and November if you want to explore the nearby vineyards. The grape harvest normally takes place throughout September, though it can start in late August and end in October. Do just keep in mind that this is when every man and his dog wants to be in Bordeaux, so prices will be a little higher and availability lower. Also keep in mind that summers in Bordeaux are pretty stifling, so avoid the peak months of summer if you struggle with high temps (like me).
Where to stay in Bordeaux: I stayed at the 4* Seeko’o Hôtel Design Bordeaux and was really impressed. It’s clean, bright and modern and the location right on the river makes it convenient for exploring the city on foot. The breakfast was excellent and the prices reasonable too. You’ll find some excellent budget hotels in Bordeaux here too – and plenty of Airbnbs, so check that out if you’d prefer your own apartment.
How to get to Bordeaux: I was in Bordeaux as part of a pretty epic road trip that included stops all over the country (I particularly loved Etretat). You can also reach Bordeaux easily by train or plane from pretty much anywhere in Europe. Flights from outside of Europe will most likely stop in Paris along the way.
How long to stay in Bordeaux: I’d say you’d need at least two full days to do Bordeaux justice, or three/four if you want to visit the nearby vineyards (which you definitely should).
How to get around Bordeaux: Bordeaux is most certainly a walking city. I did ride the tram a couple of times but worked out it was easier (and just as quick) to walk.
When are you going to Bordeaux – or have you already been?
Camera / Photography Stuff
I shot all of these photos with my beloved Fujifilm X-T3 and the excellent 18-55mm f2.8-4 R LM OIS lens. I highly recommended this setup for travel photographers of all abilities – buy it here: https://amzn.to/2ZmtpXL