Exquisite architecture, fresh seafood, a vibrant city with a historic core, and some of the best wine in the world—in a nutshell, this is Bordeaux, France. Even better, the whole city is highly walkable, with pedestrian-only areas and welcoming squares. In less than an hour, you can also visit the beach or make your way to castle-like chateaux producing superb wine in fairy tale settings.
Bordeaux is a fabulous city situated on the Garonne River. The river snakes and curves its way through the city creating a crescent like area called the Port de la Lune, a marvellous place for strolling, jogging, or cycling.
A city of graceful streets made for wandering, elegant in the most French of styles, a place where you can eat well and drink better, lively, dynamic and full of good grace – Bordeaux is a very special city indeed.
Bordeaux isn’t just a city with the same name as the famous French wine. With 350 historical buildings and monuments, dozens of museums and art galleries, and some of the best food in all of France, its no wonder even the Parisians are leaving Paris for Bordeaux.
The old part of Bordeaux is a UNESCO World Heritage site thanks to its fabulous 18th century architecture. Here you will find winding cobbled streets, beautiful buildings, arches and clock towers that were once part of a wall that circled the city, several interesting churches and even the remains of an ancient Roman Coliseum.
There are so many things to do in Bordeaux that it would be easy to spend a few weeks exploring. But, if your time is limited to a long weekend, it’s still possible to hit the highlights of this lovely region and see some of the best that Bordeaux has to offer.
Feel regal at Port Cailhau
Port Cailhau has been impressing visitors to Bordeaux for over 500 years. Once the city’s main gate, it has been almost unaltered from the time it was built and became part of Bordeaux’s fortifications in 1494.
Now one of the most photographed places to visit in Bordeaux, Port Cailhau was both celebratory and defensive when it was built. It was an arc of triumph dedicated to King Charles VIII commemorating his victory at Fornovo, Italy. You can see a statue of the king—alongside St. John and the Archbishop of Bordeaux—on the river side of the gate.
Inside the gate is a small museum that tells the story of the construction of Bordeaux’s medieval and Renaissance buildings from the limestone quarries. The exhibits are informative for anyone with an interest in architecture, and we loved the view of the city and the river from 115 feet up.
Admire the Monument Aux Girondins
Settled comfortably in the vast square that is the Esplanade des Quinconces, stands the Monument Aux the Girondins, completed in 1902. It honours the Girondists that were victims of the Reign of Terror during the French Revolution. Its pedestal and fountain are decorated with large bronze horses and troops. The tall center column is topped with a statue representing the spirit of liberty breaking free from her chains.
At eye level the horses in the bronze fountain leap to freedom, while classical Greek figures stand amidst the spraying water. Look upwards to see the end of the tall column, its white marble contrasting with the azure sky, on top of which a statue representing liberté breaks free from her chains.
See the Miroir d’Eau
The Miroir d’Eau is one of the most popular Bordeaux attractions. Locals and tourists splash in its pool and relax on the banks of the river, picnicking, listening to music, and otherwise enjoying the ambiance. Even if you only have one day in Bordeaux, it should be at the top of your list.
The largest reflecting pool in the world, the Miroir d’Eau is only 2 cm deep, but that’s enough water to create the mesmerizing mirroring effect that reflects the Place de la Bourse just across the street. The 18th-century buildings and Fountain of the Three Graces that make up Place de la Bourse are some of the most recognizable sites in the city.
When the Miroir d’Eau opened in 2006, the French were horrified that anyone would even consider walking on the 3,450 square metre artwork. That quickly went out the window and the Miroir d’Eau became the coolest place to be, especially on a hot summer day. In fact, it was even included as part of the UNESCO World Heritage Site designation for Bordeaux.
Marvel at the Place De La Bourse
Royal architect Jacques Gabriel knocked down medieval walls and razed ancient buildings to design a magnificent structure in the best French classical style. The Place de la Bourse has become the symbol of Bordeaux with its aristocratic and refined edifices on the edge of the river Garonne, welcoming sailors and tourists since the middle of the eighteenth century.
The centre of the square holds a beautiful fountain depicting the Three Graces: Euphrosyne, Thalia, and Aglaia. Eternally young and lovely, they represent charm, beauty, and human creativity. The original statue of Louis XV on horseback was destroyed during the French Revolution. According to UNESCO World Heritage, the Place de la Bourse is “an outstanding urban and architectural ensemble” of the 18th century.
Duck your head at the Grosse Cloche
Dating back to the 15th century, it is one of the oldest bell towers in all of France. It has been used variously as a defensive gate, a prison, a city clock, and part of the route for the pilgrims to duck their heads through on their way to Spain. Insolent youngsters and those who ignored evening curfews were interred inside the dark cells; these dungeons can be visited in the tower today.
See the Basilique Saint-Michel
The Basilique Saint-Michel is impossible to miss because you can see its famous bell tower piercing the sky from just about anywhere in the city. The Basilica itself was built from the late 14th century through the 16th century. The interior of the Gothic church is worth a visit for its pulpit that shows St. Michael slaying the dragon and its 17 side chapels, but it’s the view from the bell tower that’s the real draw.
See Cathedral Saint-Andre
For nearly 1000 years, a church has stood on the spot of Cathedral Saint-Andre in the heart of Bordeaux. A witness to a vast amount of Bordeaux’s illustrious history, most of the current structure was built between the 12th and 14th centuries.
Cathedral Saint-Andre is the seat of the Archbishop of Bordeaux and is renowned as the place where 15-year-old Eleanor of Aquitaine married Louis VII in 1137, shortly before she became Queen of France. As with other grand French cathedrals, Saint-Andre has magnificent vaulted ceilings and stunning stained glass.
If the cathedral isn’t open, visit its freestanding bell tower. Tour Pey-Berland next to the cathedral is a Bordeaux must see. Built in 1440, heading up its 229 steps offers another spectacular view over the city.
Shop on Rue Sainte-Catherine
If shopping is your thing, Rue Sainte-Catherine is the place to go. At 1.2 kilometres long, it’s the longest pedestrian shopping street in Europe. And if you stand at the top at Place de la Comedie, you can marvel at how the street dips down before slightly ascending upward again when it reaches its end at Place de la Victoire.
Here you’ll find major French retail chains interspersed with tiny boutiques, restaurants and gourmet food and wine shops. You could spend an entire day just browsing all Rue Saint Catherine has to offer. Even if you’re not shopping, it’s a nice place to relax in a café and do some people watching. Just don’t go on Saturday when it’s most crowded.
Discover the history and wine of Saint-Emilion
The Bordeaux region is home to more than 7000 wine chateaux producing some 700 million bottles each year. In other words, there’s no shortage of wines to try or vineyards to visit. Of course, not every wine château accepts visitors and many just can’t be reached without a car. Saint-Émilion, a gorgeous medieval village, is an excellent choice for a vineyard excursion.
The sloping, cobbled lanes of Saint-Emilion have welcomed visitors for centuries. Just a 30-minute train ride or 45-minute drive, this ancient village is an ideal location for a day trip from Bordeaux.
Saint-Emilion is renowned primarily for two things—its Monolithic Church and the rich red wines produced in the surrounding area. The hulking underground church was dug out of limestone in the early 12th century in honor of the hermit monk Emilion who lived in a cave on the site 400 years earlier.
Discover Arcachon and Dune de Pilat
About an hour from Bordeaux on the Atlantic Ocean is the paradise of Arcachon. This beach city with golden sand and clear water is made for swimming, shopping, relaxing, and oyster eating.
And close to other attractions in the area and with easy parking, is the Notre Dame Basilica; it is worth stopping for a few minutes here. This neo-gothic gem has the most inspiring paintings from 1873. It is a joy to find a church in such good condition. Do not miss the stained glass and the humble little statue.
Nearby, you’ll find the Dune de Pilat, the highest sand dune in Europe. From the 350-foot-high summit you get panoramic views of the bay, the point of Cap Ferret, and the sprawling pine forest.
The Dune du Pilat is the largest sand dune in Europe. Its steep sand goes straight down to the Atlantic Ocean and if you’re brave enough to run down it, you can find stretches of empty beach. Just remember that you have to climb back up it!