Just the name of this glorious city is eponymous with viticulture, and if you’re an aficionado you’re almost duty-bound to come to the home of wine. You don’t need to be told that there’s a world of prestigious châteaux and smaller wineries to locate and visit.
But you might not be aware of the brand new Cité du Vin, a 21st-century architectural demonstration of what wine means to the city and the rest of the world. The UNESCO-listed old city, on a crescent-shaped meander in the Garonne, demands your attention too, with its extraordinary 18th-century quays and squares, and fabulous civic buildings made from a beguiling honey-coloured stone.
Lets explore the best things to do in Bordeaux:
1. Place de la Bourse
Bordeaux broke free of its old town walls when this majestic square on the left bank of the Garonne was built in the 1720s.
Louis XV’s favourite architect, Jacques Gabriel, designed it, and the square didn’t take long to become a symbol for the city.
Go up for a closer look to see the mascarons (sculpted faces) beneath the arches of the buildings.
And naturally, you’ll want to cross the road to the Water Mirror, created by the landscape artist Michel Corajoud.
It’s a large pool with little more than a shallow film of water, sometimes veiled by mist, reflecting Place de la Bourse.
You can take a fine photo here, and in summer little ones go crazy for the water.
2. Quais de Bordeaux
The left bank of the Garonne is hands-down one of the world’s most splendid waterfronts.
It’s also part of that 18th-century World Heritage ensemble, where the majestic facades of grand neo-classical buildings line a riverside promenade 80 metres wide.
Set next to the broad Garonne, crossed by the many arches of Pont de Pierre, there’s a sweeping openness about the spaces here that will imbue your walk or bike ride with some extra finesse.
There are benches, flower beds and lawns below plane trees where you can take it all in.
3. La Cité du Vin
This ultra-modern cultural centre is a celebration of all things wine, and is one of those ambitious and futuristic projects that is hard to sum up in a few sentences.
For a casual visitor it’s a high-tech museum teaching you about the history of wine, and where and how it’s made around the world.
There’s ten hours worth of audiovisual material to get through, so if you’re an oenophile you could easily kill a day here indulging your curiosity.
The architecture of this 3,000-square-metre building, with its 55-metre tower, is dazzling, and the tour climaxes with a visit to the belvedere bar where you can pair a glass of wine with equally delicious vistas of Bordeaux and the Garonne.
4. Bordeaux Wine
Something else you can do at La Cité du Vin is pick up helpful information on where to continue your wine adventure, because the choice can be dizzying: You’re in the world’s wine capital, and the second-largest wine growing region on the planet.
Typically a guided tour involves hopping into a transport and joining a group as you make your way around Saint-Émilion, The Médoc, Canon Fronsac, Sauternes and Graves.
You’ll be shown around the vat rooms and cellars, learn about how wine is made and stored, and then get the chance to try some for yourself.
In the summer, tasting sessions are often held outside in the various châteaux’s beautiful grounds, and it could hardly be more blissful.
The town of Saint-Émilion shines for its old stone streets, ruins and romanesque churches.
5. La Grosse Cloche
Built in the 15th century, La Grosse Cloche, with its twin conical roofs, is the old belfry for Bordeaux’ town hall.
It is one of only a handful of fragments remaining from the city’s medieval period and is built on the remnants of the 13th-century Porte Saint-Éloy, a former gate in the old ramparts.
This gate once had a small prison for juvenile offenders, and they were kept behind a door ten centimetres thick.
You can get a good look at the bell from the below; this dates to 1775 and weighs a hefty 7,750 tons.
Grosse Cloche is silent for most of the year, except for the big public celebrations like Bastille Day.
6. Porte Cailhau
The other fragment of the old walls, Porte Cailhau is just as magnificent.
With a transitional design between the gothic and renaissance, it dates to 1495, and was constructed to celebrate King Charles VIII’s win against the League of Venice at the Battle of Fornovo.
So it had the dual purpose of being a triumphal arch as well as a city defence.
There’s a white statue of the king in one of the niches, as well as a notice telling you to beware of the lintel, as Charles VIII died at 27 after walking into one in Amboise by accident.
For a small fee you can enter the building and go up for the photogenic view of the Garonne.
7. Esplanade des Quinconces
In a city of large and open public spaces, the Esplanade des Quinconces takes the cake at a very spacious 12 hectares.
Its large dimensions makes it the venue of choice for a wide variety of events throughout the year.
If there’s a big concert or fair it will set up here, and during Euro 2016 it was a “fanzone”, with bars and a giant screen.
The rest of the time you’ll come to see the much-photographed Monument aux Girondins, with a column topped with a statue of liberty and fountains with rampaging bronze horses at the foot.
It was designed to recognise the role of the Gironde political group in the French Revolution.
8. Bordeaux Cathedral
As with many religious buildings around France, Bordeaux’ cathedral had a tough time in the Revolution, when it was stripped of its decor, so nearly all of the embellishments you see now are from other buildings.
This takes nothing away from the grandeur of the medieval gothic architecture, or the historical significance of the site, where in 1137 Eleanor of Aquitaine and the future Louis VII wed, at just 13 and 17 respectively.
Spend a few minutes below the north portal, which was built as a royal entrance in the 13th century and has a tympanum with images from scenes like the last supper.
The neighbouring Tour Pey Berland bell-tower is another great way to see the city, if you can handle the 282 steps to the top!
9. Grand Théâtre de Bordeaux
The architect Victor Louis built the Grand Théâtre in 1780, and it’s regarded as his masterpiece.
Even if you have no reason to go inside come to Place de la Comédie after dark and marvel at the sight of the portico and the 12 statues of muses and goddesses in lights.
Inside it is decorated extravagantly in blue and gold, the colours of the French monarchy, which were removed after the revolution.
Clearly, the best way to experience this building is to see a performance by the Bordeaux National Opera.
It’s no small operation, with a permanent ensemble of 110 orchestra musicians, 37 choral artists, 38 dancers, and guest soloists and conductors every season.
10. Jardin Public
It’s now been engulfed by the city, but when it was inaugurated in 1746 this park was on the edge of Bordeaux in land formerly taken up by unproductive vines . In line with the ideas of 18th-century humanists, the aim was to promote the good health of the Bordelaises by granting them a green space.
The Jardin Public is in the English style and has lawns, historic trees, statues, fountains, balustrades and wrought iron bridges crossing its serpentine pond.
There’s a restaurant in the old orangery, and the park is bordered on all sides by 18th-century townhouses.
So it’s a sophisticated location for a picnic or to read a book on the grass.
11. Musée d’Aquitaine
This attraction does the difficult job of crystallising the many centuries of history in the Aquitaine region, and is one of the largest museums of its kind outside of Paris.
The galleries are huge, and if you only have time for a flying visit there are a few pieces that you can’t leave without seeing.
One that will set you reeling is the Laussal Venus, a lifelike stone carving of a woman that is 27,000 years old! There’s also a Gallic treasure unearthed in Tayac, with a solid gold torc and hundreds of gold coins and ingots, the most recent of which is from the first century BC. Clearly we’re at the tip of the iceberg, and history buffs will be keen to dive in for hours to see what they can find.
12. Rue Sainte-Catherine
As straight as an arrow from Grand Théâtre in the north down to Place de la Victoire, Rue Sainte-Catherine is the longest pedestrianised shopping street in Europe.
If you’re looking for peace and quiet, this won’t be for you: The street thrums with activity at all hours, and if you’re here for a mammoth shopping trip you can rest those legs at a cafe and watch the multitudes in amazement.
In February and July things are kicked up another notch by the sales, when temporary stalls are also put up on the street.
The upper part of the street has all the usual international brands, while the further down you go the younger and more bohemian the street becomes.
13. Place de la Victoire
At the centre of this square is a peculiar piece of modern public art designed by the France-based Czech sculptor Ivan Theimer.
The work is made with marble blocks from Languedoc, forming a column 16 metres tall.
It was installed in 2005 and, despite the city’s long winemaking heritage, was the first monument built to recognise viticulture in Bordeaux.
There are also two tortoises designed by Theimer at the foot of the pillar, popular with children.
Around the square are two-storey 18th-century townhouses and the triumphal arch, also built in the 1700s, stands where a former city gate used to be.
14. Pont Jacques Chaban-Delmas
Visible if you look downriver from the quays on the left bank of the Garonne is this vertical lift bridge, inaugurated in 2013. Spanning almost 600 metres and reaching 77 metres in height, it’s the tallest vertical lift bridge in Europe and has quickly become a treasured landmark for the city.
Despite being brand new it manages to complement the historic cityscape, becoming both a technical and visual accomplishment.
The city runs ferries as part of its public transport network, and it’s exciting to see the bridge from the water.
Or come to the quayside at night when there are captivating light displays on the bridge’s four sky-scraping columns.
Bordelaise cuisine is rich and sophisticated, with its own identity within France.
Just to give you a taster, you could go for a steak with Bordelaise sauce, appropriately made with red wine, shallots fried in butter and demi-glace.
But if there’s one delicacy that springs to mind when people think of Bordeaux it’s Canelés, small pastries baked in a scalloped mould with vanilla, rum and cane sugar.
They go just as well with tea as champagne, and are best as a dessert after a meal.
Canelés are also handy as gifts as they come boxed and travel well.