You’re not long in Bordeaux before discovering that all the centre – and half the entire city – is a Unesco World Heritage site. The accolade is in recognition of the unity of its classical and neo-classical architecture and urban development. It’s what you go to Bordeaux to experience – then use as a setting for civilised eating and drinking. The star attraction is the Cité du Vin, an innovative and engrossing overview of the entire subject of wine, not merely of Bordeaux, but of the entire planet. Of course, the place has some other very decent galleries and museums but, once you have done the Cité du Vin, the real appeal is the city itself. Take it at an elegant pace.
Sample the best of French gastronomy in one morning
Sylvie Berteaux and her (English-speaking) colleagues lead Miam Bordeaux, which offers terrific gastro-tours of Bordeaux's medieval innards. Present conditions have played merry hell with Miam’s programming, but the essential tours remain, taking in the city's second oldest bakery, fruit and veg, spice and cheese emporia – with a chat and tastings in all – and a charcuterie store, where nibbles of smoked magret stuffed with foie gras come accompanied by glasses of Sauternes. It’s an outstanding way to spend a morning, and an excellent way to explore the city.
Insider’s Tip: Beyond the general tour, Miam also organises guided visits to Bordeaux's main market, apéritif sessions or tours that include a cooking course and lunch.
Explore Bordeaux’s Golden Triangle
The Triangle d’Or, Bordeaux’s monumental heart, really is a triangle, bounded by three fine boulevards (Cours Clemenceau, Cours de l’Intendance, Allées de Tourny). Take a stroll amid the harmony of honey-coloured stone, architectural sobriety and flanking trees, past top-end shops, bars and restaurants. The focal point (though it’s actually on the edge) is the Place de la Comédie, overseen by the Grand Theatre with its magnificent neo-classical façade. The Corinthian columns announce a blue and gold auditorium as sumptuous as the inside of a courtesan’s jewel box. The best way to experience the place is, obviously, at a concert, but there are also 50-minute guided visits for €10 (£8.50). Check the website for details online.
Insider’s Tip: Make sure to visit the nearby Esplanade des Quinconces. As the biggest (almost 30 acres), emptiest square in France, it’s difficult to overlook. Note the statues of philopsophers Montaigne and Montesquieu and take a look at the most delirious, symbol-filled fountain you’re ever likely to see – Le Monument aux Girondins.
Stroll along the scenic riverfront
Nowhere is Bordeaux’s renewal more evident than than along the banks of the broad, idle Garonne River. Less than two decades ago, the detritus of dead port activity – derelict warehouses, no-go zones, lost souls – littered the quays, driving a wedge between river and town. Subsequent transformation has been profound. What was once abandoned is now tailored open space, gardens and greensward. Old warehouses on the Quai de Bacalan have become shops, jaunty bars and cafés and the dirt has been blasted from the merchants’ premises. There’s no finer city riverscape in Europe.
Insider’s Tip: The best lookout is from the Pont de Pierre stone bridge. The long line-up of magnificently regular buildings – all arches, slate roofs and thin chimney stacks – shows how Bordeaux managed trading wealth with style and substance.
Take in the city’s most magnificent façade
The finest bit of the riverfront is the Place de la Bourse, open to the river but enfolded on three sides by the Palais de la Bourse – the most sumptuous expression of Bordeaux’s confidence. This was the business exchange in the days when traders had wigs and standards. It has the harmonious grandeur of Versailles, but shorn of the effeteness, and makes for a great photo pit stop.
Insider’s Tip: The miroir d’eau – a great expanse of shallow water out front – reflects the palace, as if opening up a different dimension. The effect at night, when floodlit, is mesmerising.
Browse local artworks from the Renaissance and beyond
Next up, spend an afternoon inside the Musée des Beaux Arts. Its northern wing is full of decent works from the Renaissance – as you'd expect, there's much yearning and beseeching and many Virgins. The southern wing houses a collection of art from the 19th and 20th centuries.
Insider’s Tip: Look out for animal paintings by Bordeaux-born Rosa Bonheur, notably the hugely powerful horses of her Treading Wheat in the Camargue. Bonheur met Queen Victoria, was a friend of Buffalo Bill and, during her life, sold paintings for a fortune. Post mortem, she fell from favour. Now she is esteemed once more, and about time, too.
Sample the city's wine bars
Not long ago, wine, like straight lines, was old hat for French groovers. Now it's branché, and wine bars abound in Bordeaux. For proof, pick up the Urban Wine Trail leaflet, or download the app from the Tourist Office, and stroll round the city's selection of wine bars, populated by sharp young folk snapped into sharper clothes. The city is now fruity, cultivated and mature, with floral and mineral notes and a lingering sensation of elegance. For immediate uncorking.
Contact: 00 33 556 00 66 00
Entertain yourself with quirky modern art
Artistic endeavour finds its loudest expression at CAPC Museum of Contemporary Art, a warehouse-turned-museum containing a bracing mix of works from the great – via the intriguing – to the absurd. Key works from 40 artists – covering 1960s to the present day – constitute the permanent collection on the former warehouse’s second floor. If names like Raphaël Zarka, Toni Grand or Daniel Dezeuze mean anything to you, then this is your place.
Insider’s Tip: The Café du Musée inside the museum presently servers drinks only, and only to museum visitors, but that’s due to change in spring 2022 when food and Sunday brunch should be back on the menu for all-comers.
Enrich your bottle knowledge at a museum dedicated to wines
France has long struggled to come up with a worthwhile wine museum: the country had lots, but they were tedious. So, the £63 million Cité du Vin was given a warm welcome when it flung open its doors. The grand, shiny swirl of a building rises by the Garonne river, taking wine into new realms of entertainment, rendering it fun even for those who can't tell a cabernet sauvignon from a dandelion and burdock. The six-storey building is a hi-tech romp of panache, insight and enormous inventiveness – grabbing you by all senses for an interactive waltz through wine and its attendant subjects: art, culture, agriculture, civilisation and sensuality. There are wine tastings, plus a panoramic restaurant up top.
Insider’s Tip: Particularly memorable parts of the exhibition include a banqueting chamber alive with holograms and a floor show tackling wine, food and festivity through the ages. Look out for a terrific moving boat show, too.
Visit the world’s biggest digital art show
No doubt about it, the old wet docks, or bassins-à-flot, is one of the key happening districts of Bordeaux. Like ex-docks everywhere, the huge site is going urban chic – apartment blocks, hotels with spas and “signature cocktails”, warehouse restaurants and bars – but without effacing memories of tough work and far horizons. Across the wet docks from the Cité du Vin glower the thousands of tons of reinforced concrete which housed the German U-boat pens in the Second World War. In recent times, and brilliantly, their vast interior has been transformed into a pharaonic canvas for the Bassins-des-Lumières, the world’s biggest digital art show. An opening exhibition projected some 500 works by Monet, Renoir and Chagall onto the former sub base walls, the massively reproduced works moving, segueing into one another, reflecting in the water and enveloping you in the artists’ worlds. Accompanying music billowed round the cavernous space. In February 2022, this show cedes to a celebration of Venice, La Sérénissime. It should be equally unmissable.
Do some shopping in the city’s artistic quarter
When the English, Irish and Dutch arrived to dominate the Bordeaux wine trade, local worthies wouldn’t have them in the city centre. So they set up beyond the town boundary – in the Chartrons. Long ago enfolded into the city, the district retains its mixed identity of fine-wine houses and narrow workers’ streets. They are now complemented with a mildly bohemian mix of antique shops – notably on Rue Notre Dame – as well as bars.
Insider’s Tip: After your shopping spree, refuel at the Cambridge Arms pub at 27 Rue Rode for beer, burgers, pie and chips – and a ceiling entirely covered in Commonwealth flags.
Dive into maritime history
Maybe France’s best maritime museum – certainly the best private maritime museum – Musée Mer Marine covers navigation matters, from dugouts to the QEII, via immigration, the slave trade – once a big earner for Bordeaux – the history and fragility of the sea itself and much else besides.
Insider’s tip: Right on the docks, the Halles du Bacalan serves as market and food court in the modern idiom. Stalls run from empanadas through pizza to south-west France specialities, and without breaking the bank at lunchtime.
Explore Bordeaux’s liveliest neighbourhood
After the broad acres of the Triangle d’Or and, indeed, the Garonne riverfront, the St Pierre district is where Bordeaux gets in touch with its medieval side. The message from fine old churches dissipates progressively amid a throbbing warren of narrow streets and comely little squares. The ancient urban tangle has more bars and restaurants than you could get round in a year of excess. It grows progressively funkier as you near the Place de la Victoire. Running long and arrow-straight through the middle, the Rue Sainte-Cathérine provides leg-sapping shopping for those not up to the ambitious price-tags in the Triangle d’Or. This, in short, is Bordeaux’s liveliest sector.
Insider’s Tip: The ill-lit but utterly unmenacing Place de la Victoire is evening-tide HQ for the city's youth (and those who consider themselves as such). Try eating on the bustling terrace at La Plana – for brasserie and southwestern specialities – before a drink or two at any of many nearby bars. Le Grizzly is one of the more popular choices.
Immerse yourself in Bordeaux’s fascinating history
As you would expect from the name, the Musée d’Aquitaine covers the history of the region from prehistoric times onwards – and does so in spritely fashion. Sections on the Romans and, much later, Atlantic commerce and the slave trade, are particularly interesting.
Insider’s Tip: Entry to the musuem is free on the first Sunday of the month – except for the months of July and August.
Admire Bordeaux’s landmark churches
Here, just to the south of the centre in the Ste Croix and St Michel districts, round two splendid churches, is where artisans and port-associated tradesmen once clustered. The quieter, tightly-packed streets still bear the dignity of honest hard work – even though elements from the middle-class professional ranks infiltrated the zone long ago. Start in front of the lovely 12th-century façade of the Sainte-Croix Abbey. Then simply stroll back towards the centre, and envision the sailors, deckhands and drunks, the barrel-makers, blacksmiths and butchers who once enlivened these quartiers. Stop at the flamboyant Gothic Basilica of St. Michael, whose free-standing spire is the tallest and most elegant building in Bordeaux.
Insider’s Tip: The programme for the famous organ recitals at Sainte-Croix is to be had at renaissance-orgue.fr. St Michel church, meanwhile, offers outstanding views from the top. The views at the bottom are pretty interesting, too – notably during the Sunday-morning flea market, which fills the surrounding square.
Contact: 00 335 5694 3050
If you’re in Bordeaux on a short break and fancy a wine trip out of town, consider going on one of the Tourist Office’s jaunts. This saves the hassle of hiring a car or otherwise making your own arrangements. It also gets you a vineyard ride in a coach and two good wine château visits. In short, it provides a decent taster (though will probably be of less interest to the wine fanatic or expert).
The trips were reduced in recent times, due to Covid, but should have returned to normal from spring 2022, daily from April 1-November 15; on Wednesdays, Saturdays and Sundays for the rest of the year. They will cover different appellations (or wine districts) each day. They start from the Office de Tourisme (12 Cours du 30 Juillet) and cost €45 (£38) per person.
Of private wine tour providers, A La Française - Bordovino (00 33 557 300427) cover the ground well with youthful enthusiasm and a distinct lack of stuffiness. They offer a good range of vineyard visits – mainly in minibuses – but also cycling tours, tasting classes and more. Half-day tours start at €72/£61.
Small outfit Wine Cab (00 33 6 63 09 17 17) can take up to three adults in (former) London taxis with driver-guides for château visits and tastings. You can also get stuck into wine blending (assemble your own Margaux), the matching of wine to posh food like caviar and other activities too. The outings are expensive – from €450 (£400) for two people – but, if you have the cash, you're unlikely to account it wasted.
This beautiful old wine town, a 40-minute drive west from Bordeaux, is built like an amphitheatre and has some pretty decent wines to sample. If you visit only one wine area, this is the one to consider.
Alternatively, potter out up the Gironde estuary to where the really famous Bordeaux wine châteaux (Latour, Margaux, Mouton-Rothschild) rise amid the featureless flatlands like ancien régime seigneurs. One of the most rewarding to visit is the Château Pichon-Longueville-Comtesse-de-Lalande at Pauillac – a manicured spot if ever there was one.
Thirdly, and notably if you’re not bewitched by wine, take the hour-long trip out to the coast. Arcachon is an endearing seaside spot with that permanent sense of impermanence that tells you you’re on holiday, however briefly. Excellent oysters from the lagoon, too – eaten round here with little flat crépinette sausages.