Bordeaux, the regional capital of Aquitaine, 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.
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.
Explore 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 18th-century stone houses 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 artist Francisco Goya lived and died; it is now a Spanish cultural center that offers language classes and other activities.
At the southeast corner of the Golden Triangle stands the Grand Theatre. The magnificent neo-classical building, built between 1773 and 1780, 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 Fête de la Musique (music festival) in June. Otherwise, you can take a 45-minute tour on Wednesday and Saturday afternoons. During the high season (July and August), tours are offered daily.
A short stroll east of Allées de Tourny brings you to one of Europe's largest public squares, frequently used for summer fairs, concerts, and other events in Bordeaux. It's notable for statues of local heroes such as French writers Michel de Montaigne and Charles Montesquieu, as well as the extraordinary Monument aux Girondins. The monument—which features gushing fountains and statues of triumphal chariots and allegorical figures—was put up between 1894 and 1902 to honor the Girondins, who were guillotined in 1792 on the orders of Maximilien Robespierre during the French Revolution.
As early as 15 years ago, the banks of the Garonne river were—for the most part—a 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 cafés, making this one of Bordeaux’s most vibrant quarters.
Meander over to Saint-Pierre, the historic part of the city. 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, a section of the riverfront is cordoned off and transformed for the annual Bordeaux Wine Festival. If you're visiting in June, this is an essential event to attend.
The Palais de la Bourse, the city's 18th-century stock exchange, encircles a wonderful square that opens onto the river. The symmetrical stone buildings make the perfect backdrop for the shimmering miroir d’eau, a mirror of water that reflects the glorious palace just behind it. Located in the heart of Bordeaux's Saint-Pierre district, and part of the Garonne riverside, it takes on a magical, almost surreal quality at night.
Climb to the Top of the Cathedral Tower
The Cathédrale St-Andre is a vast structure that was built between the 11th and 15th centuries. The Tour Pey-Berland, the Cathedral's tower, stands apart from it and is an impressive site. Climbing the 231 steps to the top will afford you spectacular views over the city and the River Garonne.
Just behind the cathedral, the former bishop’s palace is a 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.
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 interactive exhibits, 3D dioramas, digital displays, and videos. Learn how wine came to conquer human history, with a particular focus on how Bordeaux became a center for wine beginning in the Middle Ages.
Meanwhile, clever olfactory "stations" allow you to engage your senses of smell and taste as you identify typical notes in wines, from citrus and deep berry to leather and chocolate. Your visit can conclude with a glass of wine upstairs, in the tasting room featuring a variety of wines from France and around 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.
Get Cultured at the 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, and glassware.
If you want to gain a historical understanding 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. It's the sort of well-arranged 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 about 1894, the Contemporary Arts Museum's re-imagined interior can house very large works and installations that rarely find the right gallery space. It 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. Their ouevre from the 1960s and 1970s is particularly strong: Look out for Keith Haring, Sol le Witt, and Richard Long.
Spend a Leisurely Few Hours in the St-Michel and Ste-Croix Quayside District
One area that many tourists never see is the lovely St-Michel and Ste-Croix district. Take a walk beside the quays of the river Garonne on the left bank—past the splendid Pont de Pierre bridge—to reach it.
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 374 feet, 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. In the summer, sitting on an open terrace at one of the square's surrounding bars is an ideal way to people-watch and enjoy the balmy nights.
If you want to get off the beaten tourist track in Bordeaux, head to the other side of the Garonne and explore the Darwin Ecosysteme, a genuinely odd and fascinating urban arts complex.
Boasting bars, a brewery, artists' studios, a small organic market, galleries, 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, 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.
If you don't have the time or desire to head out to the Bordeaux countryside to embark on a wine-tasting adventure, 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. 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.
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.
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 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 café-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.
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 exterior.
The ridged cake is widely found throughout Bordeaux, but a few purveyors are exceptional. Try Baillardran for a traditional and excellent example, preferably accompanied by an espresso or café noisette (similar to a macchiato).
For an innovative twist on the traditional Bordelais specialty, make your way to Patisserie San Nicolas, helmed by chef Cyril San Nicolas and his wife Audrey. This family-owned business makes both traditional canelés and a more decadent version that the creators have named the "Cream'lé." This take on 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. Located in the former house of an Irish merchant, this museum 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 and is worth a separate visit.
Armed with plenty of knowledge about Bordeaux’s wines, 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.