Bordeaux is among France’s most exciting, vibrant and dynamic cities.
In the last decade and a half, it’s shed its languid, Belle au Bois Dormant (Sleeping Beauty) image thanks to the vision of city mayor Alain Juppé who’s pedestrianised boulevards, restored neoclassical architecture, created a high-tech public transport system and reclaimed Bordeaux’s former industrial wet docks. Half the city is Unesco-listed, making it the largest urban World Heritage site.
Bolstered by its high-spirited university-student population and 5.5 million visitors annually, Bordeaux scarcely sleeps: think barista-run coffee shops, super-food food trucks, an exceptional dining scene and more fine wine than you can shake a stick at.
THE Golden Triangle
Bordeaux’s monumental heart really is a triangle, bounded by three fine boulevards (Cours Clemenceau, Cours de l’Intendance, Allées de Tourny). It’s focal point is the Place de la Comédie, overseen by the Grand Theatre with its magnificent neo-classical façade.
Nowhere is Bordeaux’s renewal more evident than along the banks of the Garonne river. What was once abandoned is now tailored open space and gardens. Old warehouses on the Quai de Bacalan have become shops, jaunty bars and cafés.
Palais de la Bourse
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. Out front, the miroir d’eau – a great expanse of shallow water – reflects the palace and the effect at night, when floodlit, is mesmerising.
St Pierre district
This district is where Bordeaux gets in touch with its medieval side with a warren of narrow streets and little squares with plenty of bars and restaurants. It grows progressively funkier as you near the Place de la Victoire, a night-time HQ for students, and is Bordeaux’s livliest district.
The Musée d’Aquitaine covers the history of the region from pre-history onwards. Sections on the Romans and, much later, Atlantic commerce and the slave trade, are particularly rewarding. If you are to visit only one museum in Bordeaux, this is it.
Musée des Beaux Arts
If you are to visit two museums, head slightly further from the St Pierre district to the Musée des Beaux Arts. There are decent works from the Renaissance onwards.
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 – bars, and crafts.
If you’re in Bordeaux on a short break and fancy a wine trip out of town, then consider going on one of the Tourist Office’s jaunts. This saves the hassle of hiring a car and making your own arrangements. It also gets you a vineyard ride in a coach and two good wine château visits.
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, head to 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.
If you’re looking for a break from wine, take the hour-long trip out to the coast. Arcachon is an endearing seaside spot with excellent oysters from the lagoon, served up with little flat crépinette sausages.