What to Do, See, and Eat in Bordeaux
Okay, there’s never been a bad time to go to Bordeaux. But now is an especially great moment to plan a trip to one of the wine capitals of the world.
The French city, which has a population of about 250,000 people, has spent the last few years sprucing itself up for tourists: A new high-speed rail between Bordeaux and Paris that makes the 342-mile journey in just two hours opened in 2017, plus a stunning new museum dedicated to wine opened in 2016. Across the street from that museum? A fun new food hall, which makes it easy for visitors to sample many styles of French food at once.
Those fresh attractions aside, the mid-sized city is a surprisingly wonderful treat for those who might feel overwhelmed by Paris (or who want to see two cities on a trip to France). Here are a few things to do, see, and eat while there.
WHEN TO GO:
The French seasons are similar to North America’s, so winters are cold (30º to 50º) and summers are hot (60º to 80º), making May through October a pleasant time to go. If you’re a oenophile, you might consider what time you’d like to see the vineyards, though some are very busy and don’t allow visitors around harvest in mid to late September.
WHAT TO DO:
TOUR THE VINEYARDS:
But of course! The region’s greatest attraction can also be the most overwhelming, as the area is vast and scheduling trips between vineyards can be complicated (unless someone in your group offers to forego their tastings, or spit, and handle the drive). Your hotel might be able to help you book a driver for the day, or you can join a tour, such as Bordeaux Wine Trails or Bordovino. The Bordeaux tourism office can help find the right package for you, or lead you on one of their own.
CHECK OUT THE MUSEUM OF WINE:
The newest jewel in the city’s crown is La Cité du Vin, a stunning structure which can be glimpsed from over a mile down the river. It’s a multilevel mecca to the grape stuff, with interactive and technologically marvelous stations teaching you about regions, varietals, aromas, bubbles, and the history of different civilizations’ relationships to wine. No matter your level of interest or understanding, you’ll learn something new or just have fun hanging out here (plus your ticket comes with a free glass of vino in the gorgeous panoramic rooftop bar.
OR ONE OF THE CITY’S MANY OTHER FASCINATING MUSEUMS:
While the wine one may be the flashiest, the city is also the home to a surprising number of interesting museums on cool subjects. In addition to several excellent art museums—of fine arts, contemporary art, and decorative arts and design—there is also the Musée d’Aquitaine, which provides the history of the city and region; the Musée Nationale des Douanes, which shares the uniforms, maps, and models of the customs departments that oversaw what was once Europe’s largest port; and the Musee Mer Marine, an explainer of maritime adventures that’s packed with boats, boats, and more boats.
WALK ALONG THE WATERFRONT:
Orient yourself to the city with a stroll along the Garonne, where many of the city’s most important and beautiful monuments are clumped. Some special spots include the massive Quinconces plaza, which is anchored by a glorious fountain and is, at 31 acres, one of the largest squares in Europe; the elegant Bourse plaza, infamous now on Instagram for the way the reflecting pool in front creates a stunning mirrored photo opp; and Napoleon’s stone bridge, the city’s first ever bridge across the Garonne, which has 17 dramatic arches for the 17 letters in his full name.
STEP THROUGH DRAMATIC DOORWAYS
It’s almost more fun to stumble upon the soaring entry ways hiding around the city, which harken to Roman emperors or Disney castles, depending which one you’re looking at. The Porte Dijeaux represents the entrance to the city created by the Romans, though it was constructed in the 18th century, as were the Porte d’Aquitaine and Porte de la Monnaie. The Grosse Cloche, or big bell tower, with its pronounced cones on top, is perhaps the most likely to delight; climb inside for a great view and a bit of history, as it used to be a jail.
TAKE A BOAT RIDE
Bordeaux is a port city, after all, and a cruise along the chocolate milky Garonne river (which flows onward to Toulouse and then the Spanish border) is a marvelous way to get acquainted with the area. There are many boat options, from the larger options like the Croisières Burdigala, which has daily departures around the city or into the nearby valley, or smaller like the lovely yacht Le Luna, and the journeys are often under €20. If you’d like to really make an adventure of it, book an evening dinner cruise on the Simcambre.
EAT A CANELÉ:
France is the birthplace to so many beloved desserts and pastries, from crêpes to macarons to crème brûlée, but Bordeaux lays claim to its own perfect little bite: the canelé. A little cylinder that almost resembles a crown or chef’s hat, these treats have a soft, eggy center and a tougher caramelized exterior. You’ll see rows of them throughout the city, so try a few throughout your visit: the intensity of the vanilla or rum flavors varies by the pâtissier, and they only cost about €1 each.
WHERE TO EAT
Les Halles de Bacalan
The struggle with any trip to France is trying to narrow down your restaurant choices for those precious meal times. It’s a little easier with this snazzy new food hall, which lets you sample little bites or dishes in so many styles from so many proprietors. One person might get a half dozen fresh oysters and a glass of cold white wine, while their travel partner is busy with the foie gras specialist, before they tuck into a cheese platter or truffle pasta.
As the name suggests, here you’ll find the absolute best restaurant for understanding precisely the cuisine of the region—which is to say the really hearty stuff, including lamb shoulder, pork belly, and beef cheek. If you’re not knocked unconscious by the food, take in the ambiance, which feels like the platonic ideal of a French restaurant, from the red leather seats and warm wood tables to the soaring stone ceiling and walls lined in wine bottles.
If you came to the city because you’re serious about wine, check out this deeply unpretentious but deeply sourced wine bar-restaurant. The wine list is enormous and fairly priced, the staff is friendly and knowledgeable (and English-speaking), and the menu full of delicious French classics like snails and bone marrow.
It’s tough to imagine one getting sick of French food in France, but if you need a break from all the butter, pop into the mega scene happening at this dim sum spot. Between bites of duck ravioli with hoisin sauce or octopus croquettes, try spicy Thai punch cocktails and just take in the scene of the beautiful Bordelais.
WHERE TO STAY
Tucked away on a quiet street behind the walls of a former 19th century mansion is this playfully chic five-star hotel with just twelve rooms. The lobby sets the tone, where intricate crown molding and ceiling rosettes dissolve from cream to deep purple in a dramatic ombre, and oversized velvet chairs in the shape of whale tails resemble art installations (but are also a nice spot to enjoy a cafe au lait before a day at the vineyards). Come for the design, stay for the serene luxury.
Every city has its grand dame hotel presiding over a main square, and in Bordeaux it’s the stately, 135-room InterContinental, which overlooks the opera house and the Place de la Comédie. Inside guests will find over-the-top sumptuous decor, from swagged taffeta curtains to red damask wallpaper, as well as a recently revamped, black-tiled Guerlain spa and a two Michelin-starred restaurant by Gordon Ramsey, Le Pressoir D’Argent.
Another 19th century mansion converted to a five-star hotel, this time behind a scrolling wrought-iron gate and manicured shrubs, this Relais & Chateaux property has just six rooms upholstered in sumptuous florals. Legendary chef Pierre Gagnaire runs the restaurant, which earned two Michelin stars in its first year and maintains them today. The hotel’s location, a bit outside the city center, ups the romance and retreat while making it easier to dip off to the vineyards.
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