Bordeaux, one of France's largest and most compelling cities, is bursting with history and architecture. Since being awarded World Heritage Site status in 2007 for its superb classical and neo-classical architectural sites, the Bordelais have been busy renovating and restoring the old city. The result? It's become a leading destination in France over the past few years, attracting visitors as much for its modern charm and vibrant cultural life as it does for its wine and traditional architecture.
Bordeaux is the regional capital of Aquitaine and one of the most important ports in Europe, exporting, among other things, those glorious rich Bordeaux wines and spirits to a grateful world.
Add more than a handful of fantastic museums, wonderful cafés and restaurants, and a remarkably lively nightlife scene, and you have a city that's more than worth spending a few days exploring. Read on for the top 15 sites and attractions in Bordeaux-- and then consider extending your trip with a whirl through its surrounding wine country.
The "Golden Triangle"
As you might expect from the name, the neoclassical historic center known as Bordeaux's "Golden Triangle" is incredibly picturesque. Formed by three boulevards-- Cours Clemenceau, Cours de L’Intendance and Allées de Tourny-- it’s the place where warm-colored 18th-century stone houses shaded by trees fill the grand streets.
Luckily, though, the area isn't treated like a museum installation. It may be the heart of old Bordeaux, but it's also vibrant and contemporary, filled with shops, bars, and excellent restaurants.
The Cours de L’Intendance is the main shopping street, and is lined with international brands and retailers all vying for you to enter. No 57 is the house where the artist Goya lived and died (1828), now a Spanish cultural center that offers language classes and other activities.
At the southeast corner of the Golden Triangle, the Grand Theatre stands on the edge of the Place de la Comédie. The magnificent neo-classical building, built between 1773 and 1780 on the site of a Gallo-Roman temple, is equally impressive inside. You'll find columns, a dome, and a staircase which was the inspiration for Garnier’s Paris Opera House. It’s worth attending a concert here, particularly during the Fete de la Musique (Music Festival) in June. Otherwise, take a tour lasting 45 minutes on Wednesday and Saturday afternoons. In the high season (July and August) tours are offered daily.
A short stroll east of the Golden Triangle's Allées de Tourny brings you to this enormous, graveled square surrounded by tall, shade-giving trees. It's notable for statues of local heroes such as the French writers Michel de Montaigne (1533-1592) and Charles Montesquieu (1689-1755), and the extraordinary Monument aux Girondins.
The over-the-top gushing fountains and statues of triumphal chariots and allegorical figures topped by the figure of Liberty Breaking Her Chains were put up between 1894 and 1902 to honor the Girondins, originally vociferous supporters of the French Revolution, but guillotined in 1792 on the orders of Robespierre in the Byzantine politics of the Revolutionary Assembly.
This is one of Europe's largest public squares, and is frequently used for summer fairs, concerts and other events in Bordeaux.
As early as 15 years ago, the banks of the Garonne river formed-- at least in most places-- wasteland of empty warehouses and abandoned quays. Today this is a fabulous area, brought to life again with open spaces and gardens. The warehouses along the old quays are full of shops, restaurants, bars, and cafes making this one of Bordeaux’s most vibrant quarters.
Once the heart of the city, the district is known as Saint-Pierre. Walk onto the Pont-de-Pierre bridge for a great view back at the old quays that sweep along the banks of the river.
In the summer, the part of the riverfront closest to the neighborhood known as Les Chartrons is cordoned off and transformed for the annual Bordeaux Wine Festival. If you're visiting in June, this is an essential event to attend.
You can visit this page at the Bordeaux Tourist Board website for details on the best riverside walks on the left bank of the Garonne, and what to see along the way.
The Place de la Bourse opens onto the river, with the Palais de la Bourse, the city's 18th-century stock exchange, encircling this wonderful square that smacks of the confident trade of the past.
The symmetrical stone buildings make the perfect backdrop for the shimmering miroir d’eau, a mirror of water shallow enough to walk through that reflects the glorious palace just behind it. Located in the heart of Bordeaux's Saint-Pierre district, and part of the Garonne riverside area we mention just above, it’s floodlit at night when it takes on a magical, almost surreal quality.
The Cathedral Tower and Palais Rohan
The Cathédrale St-Andre is a vast structure built between the 11th and 15th centuries. The Tour Pey-Berland, built between 1440 and 1446, stands apart from it and is an impressive site. Climbing its 231 steps up a narrow spiral staircase to the top will afford you spectacular views over the city and the River Garonne.
Meanwhile, the main part of the Cathedral is also worth seeing. Ornate sculptures adorn the Porte Royale, the entrance to the right of the north doorway, depicting the Twelve Apostles and the Last Judgement. Try to catch a free organ concert in July and August on Tuesdays at 6 pm.
Just behind the cathedral, the former bishop’s palace is an equally grand affair. The Palais Rohan was built in the 18th century for the Archbishop, Ferdinand Maximilian de Meriadek, Prince of Rohan, and was the first in the new Neo-classical architectural style in France.
Now serving as Bordeaux's City Hall, it's well worth a visit for its impressive State staircase, rooms covered with 18th-century wood paneling and grand banquet hall. It gives you an idea of the importance of both the church and the city of Bordeaux in French history.
This relative newcomer to the city has won over locals and visitors alike for its engaging permanent exhibit on the history of wine-- and for its spectacular panoramic tasting room at the top of the cylindrical building.
For a basic admission ticket, you can explore thousands of years of wine history through fascinating interactive exhibits. 3-D dioramas, digital displays, and videos explain how wine came to conquer human history, with a particular focus on how Bordeaux became a center for wine beginning in the middle ages-- and thanks in large part to English demand.
Meanwhile, clever olfactory "stations" allow you to engage your sense of smell and taste in identifying typical notes in wines-- from citrus to leather, deep berry to chocolate. Your visit can conclude with a glass of wine upstairs, in the panoramic tasting room featuring a variety of wines from France and the world. Enjoy views of the city from the enormous, glass-paned windows, and try to pick out the aromas and notes you'll have just learned about in the permanent exhibit.
Musée des Beaux Arts and Musée des Arts Decoratifs
Such a grand city should, and does, boast excellent fine arts and decorative arts museums. Clustered in the streets around the Cathedral, the Fine Arts Museum (Musée des Beaux Arts) houses an impressive collection of European art with masterpieces from the likes of Titian, Rubens, and Brueghel, as well as a significant selection of key 20th century works. In addition to the permanent exhibit, temporary shows here are of a very high quality.
Meanwhile, the Decorative Arts Museum is housed in an 18th-century mansion. Its permanent collection highlights objects from daily life in centuries past, including porcelain and period furniture, statues, glassware and more.
If you want to gain a historical understand of the western region of France in which Bordeaux lies, visit the Museum of Aquitaine. It takes you on a fascinating journey back in time, from prehistory to the present day, through a wide and fascinating mixture of objects. Highlights include artwork from 20,000 BC; the Treasure from Tayac in the Garonne; a reconstruction of an early 20th-century grocer's shop; Montaigne's tomb, and gold artifacts from the 2nd century BC.
The Gallo-Roman section offers insight into daily life in the provincial capital through numerous objects: notably glassware, sculpture, mosaics, glassware, and a marble altar. The exhibit continues with an exploration of Aquitaine during the Middle Ages, before introducing the golden age of Bordeaux-- its ambitious town planning and its 18th-century arts and buildings. It's the sort of well- arranged and laid-out museum that invites you to wander through the past, taking far longer than you anticipate.
All of France's major cities boast good contemporary art collections, and Bordeaux is no exception. Housed in a former warehouse built in around 1894, the Contemporary Arts Museum shows some of the collections of the Centre d’Arts Plastiques Contemporains de Bordeaux, in addition to works on permanent loan from the Pompidou Center in Paris.
The warehouse has been imaginatively remodeled, producing a huge interior that can house very large works and installations that rarely find the right gallery space. Its collection of artworks from the 1960s and 1970s is particularly strong: look out for Keith Haring, Sol le Witt and Richard Long. In addition, the temporary exhibitions at this museum are generally excellent.
St-Michel and Ste-Croix Quayside District
One area that many tourists never see-- but should-- is the lovely St-Michel and Ste-Croix district. Take a walk beside the quais of the river Garonne on the left bank, past the splendid Pont de Pierre bridge, to reach the area.
The traditionally working-class district was once populated by the craftsmen of Bordeaux: rope-makers, cobblers, potters, blacksmiths, and barrel-makers. Follow a good area map to reach the Gothic Basilica church of St Michel. The free-standing spire dominates the area; it’s the tallest in the city (and at 114 meters, the second tallest spire in France after Strasbourg) and offers outstanding views from the top. If you’re here on a Sunday morning you can rummage in the central square's regular flea market for bargains.Meanwhile, in the summer, sitting out on an open terraces at one of the bars surrounding the square is an ideal way to people-watch and enjoy the balmy nights.
A little further south you’ll come to the Romanesque Benedictine Abbey church of Ste. Croix. Built in the 12th and 13th-centuries, it was restored in the 19th century. It’s worth visiting on a Wednesday at 6 pm to enjoy a free organ recital.
If you want to get off the beaten tourist track in Bordeaux, head to the other side of the Garonne from the main sights and explore the Darwin Ecosysteme, a genuinely odd and fascinating urban arts complex.
Boasting a brewery, bars, artists' studios, a small organic market, galleries, and old warehouse areas and crumbling building foundations decorated with some of the city's most interesting street art, the Darwin center is truly an "ecosystem" in its own right.
This is where the city's young artists and creative types of all ilk gather for a beer on a summer night, gallery openings, or free film screenings that spill out into the street. You can make this part of your riverside exploration of the city, and it's also accessible by tram, bus and/or ferry.
Especially if you don't have the time or desire to head out to the Bordeaux countryside to embark on a wine-tasting adventure (see #15), a before-dinner drink at this superb bar is something we highly recommend.
Operated by the Bordeaux Wine Council, the CIVB Bar à Vins is on a mission to promote excellent wines from local vineyards and appellations. Choose from a short, well-curated menu of 30 featured wines, from reds to rosés and sparkling whites.
The bar is easy to access: it's located around the corner from the Bordeaux Tourist Office, in the heart of the UNESCO city center.
When you order a glass, you can learn about its composition and aromas from an information sheet provided by your server. The staff (expert sommeliers) are friendly and always willing to answer additional questions you may have, or recommend a bottle to purchase.
Right across the way from the Darwin Ecosysteme is one of the city's most-beloved guinguettes, or musical riverside bars. The Guinguette Chez Alriq is a sprawling, leafy outdoor bar with some indoor areas, where soft lights are strung in the trees and locals occupy every inch of available space to enjoy live music in the summer months.
You have to pay a small fee to enter the cafe-bar, but if you have a drink and some nibbles before the live-music portion of the evening begins, you'll get the fee refunded. We do recommend staying for the music, though. It's one of the best ways to experience the city in a locally authentic and spirited way-- and maybe even meet some Bordelais natives at the next table.
Taste a Canelé, an Iconic Bordeaux Pastry
Bordeaux isn't just a gourmet destination for its wine. One iconic treat from the area to try is the canelé, a chewy pastry made with egg yolks, rum, vanilla and flour. It has a characteristic gumdrop form and caramelized, crunchy, deeply golden-brown exterior.
The history behind the canelé is reputedly linked to winemaking itself. Legend has it that they were created from leftover egg yolks that were byproducts of the vinification process, with the whites used to help process raw grapes and juice.
Today, the ridged, cylindrical cake or pastry is widely found throughout Bordeaux, but a few purveyors are exceptional. Try Baillardran (10 cours du 30 juillet) for a traditional and excellent example, preferably accompanied by an espresso or café noisette (similar to a macchiato).
Another bakery we recommend for an innovative twist on the traditional Bordelais specialty is the Patisserie San Nicolas (11 Rue Duffour Dubergier), helmed by chef Cyril San Nicolas and his wife Audrey. This family-owned business makes both traditional canelés that are exceptionally delicious, and a more decadent, filling version that the creators have named the "Cream'lé". The canelé has been hollowed out and filled with chocolate ganache, salted butter caramel, lime, and vanilla-tinged mascarpone cream, then topped with the rest of the canelé shell.
Take a Day Trip to Bordeaux’s Wine Country
Even if you're a newcomer to the world of wine, you shouldn't miss the surrounding countryside where Bordeaux’s world-famous vintages are produced. We recommend starting in Bordeaux itself, at the Musée du Vin et du Négoce (4 rue Borie). Located in the house of an Irish merchant, Francis Burke, and built in 1720, it covers wine and trades associated with the production. At the end, you get the added bonus of tasting two local wines. It predates the more contemporary Cité du Vin (see above for more on the latter) and is worth a separate visit.
Armed with plenty of knowledge about Bordeaux’s wines and main appellations (winemaking areas), it's time to go discover what lies beyond the city. Explore the wineries and gorgeous, rolling vineyards of Entre-Deux-Mers, St-Emilion, Margaux, Sauternes, Médoc, and other famous names. You can either go it alone or take one of the trips organized by the Tourist Office (recommended).
And don't be shy. This is an area of the country where newbies are both welcomed and given ample opportunity to learn the art of tasting, and appreciating, fine wines.