Bordeaux travel guide: Enjoy the city like a local

When it comes to France, the buzz is all about the grande dame, Paris. But there’s another city worthy of your time. Welcome to Bordeaux.

Aerial view of Bordeaux. Image credit: saiko3p/iStock
Aerial view of Bordeaux. Image credit: saiko3p/iStock

Bordeaux is no twin sister to Paris. For starters, in this city to the southwest of France,  you won’t have to wind your way through the massive crowds. The pace is far from sleepy in France’s eighth-largest city with a population of more than 240,000, but it’s not hectic either. It strikes the right balance, a bit of bustle from the college students who contribute to the vibe with their energy and edge, mixed with relaxed bliss.

It also generally doesn’t come with the hefty Parisian price tags, from dining to accommodations. The cost of doing business is lower than in Paris and the savings are passed on to shoppers. As in many towns with a student population, there are restaurants and bars that cater to them at prices they can afford, which benefits everyone.

Indulge your shopping fetish

To get amongst the action, venture down Rue Sainte-Catherine, which is more than a kilometer in length and is believed to be the longest pedestrian street in Europe. The designer stores combined with the stunning architecture packs enough pizazz to make it worthy of an afternoon. You’ll marvel at the art as much as the jewelry, clothes, handbags and other goods.

Rue Sainte-Catherine in Bordeaux. Image credit: MarioGuti/iStock
Rue Sainte-Catherine in Bordeaux. Image credit: MarioGuti/iStock

Sprinkled in the mix you’ll find eateries and independent retailers.  While the scene is high-end retail, it being Bordeaux, there’s a healthy mix of street musicians and performers thrown in. You’ll love the show that can be Sainte-Catherine. Self-expression is the order of the day in Bordeaux, which is perhaps not surprising in a place where wine flows like water.

Toast with world-renowned wines

Speaking of vino, the Bordeaux region is world-renowned for its wines. As you dine at restaurants and bars, you’ll understand why and likely agree the wines are indeed something special. You’re in for an experience at the many wineries. For example, in the south of the city at Chateau Smith-Haut-Lafitte there is an art and wine tour, showcasing the estate’s sculptures.

Bordeaux is a must for wine lovers.  Whether you’re an oenophile or not, you will be impressed by La Cité du Vin, a museum that celebrates wine. Even the building is spectacular, which shaped like a wine glass when you swirl it. 

La Cite du Vin. Image credit: Mamie Boude / Cité du vin / XTU architects
The unique structure of La Cité du Vin. Image credit: Mamie Boude / Cité du vin / XTU architects

The museum, which opened three years ago, bills itself as an immersive journey that will show you wine like never before, through the history and culture from around the world. You can spend hours there, getting swept up in 3D films, engrossing kiosks where you control the narrative or watching videos of winemakers share their techniques and stories. When you’ve had enough history, stay for a tasting at the enormous store within the building, which houses wines from around the globe. Truthfully, if you took a trip to Bordeaux solely to visit the La Cité du Vin you wouldn’t feel cheated.

Go for the gastronomy

Bordeaux’s culinary scene is equally as vibrant. In the last few years, Celebrity chef Gordon Ramsay opened two restaurants in Bordeaux – the 2-Michelin-starred Le Pressoir d’Argent Gordon Ramsay and Le Bordeaux Gordon Ramsay, both of which are housed within Hotel Continental Bordeaux opposite the Grand Théâtre de Bordeaux.

Recent additions to the dining scene also include Cent33, headed by noted chef Fabien Beaufour, which opened earlier this year and has fast become a hit. The kitchen often cooks using a “Robotayaki”, a firewood hearth that has its origins in Japan, which has diners raving about the technique. But don’t think the focus is on Japanese cuisine. Think mackerel, creamy corn with verbena and lemon, or pork belly with coffee, roasted quince, and mustard. 

Other noteworthy dining establishments include La Belle Saison, which sits on a picturesque spot over the Garonne River, eco-designed Casa Gaia in the charming Chartrons district, and gourmet bistro Arcada near the Pont de Pierre bridge, all of which are making their mark in Bordeaux.

 As if that weren’t enough to satiate the most discerning foodies, late last year upscale food court La Boca opened. Fill up on Japanese, seafood, Italian, Tapas, Mexican street food, fish, wines, cheeses and more.

La Bocha foodhall. Image credit:
La Bocha food hall is a bustling experience. Image credit: Supplied

Then there’s Les Halles de Bacalan, an upmarket indoor market with local producers, which sits in front of La Cité du Vin. Quite frankly, there’s little you can’t buy across the stalls to tickle your palate. Open daily, choose from the finest cheese, oysters, poultry, fish and whatever else you fancy.

Hip and historic

Part of Bordeaux’s appeal is that it is a city of contrasts. While Bordeaux continues to emerge as a hipster, funky city where you have to watch out for the skateboarders and bikers as much as the pickpockets, this UNESCO World Heritage city is also awash in history with landmarks, some that date back to the 15th-century.

Make sure to put on your must-see list the bridge Pont de Pierre, with its panoramic views of Bordeaux. The bridge, considered the oldest in the city, has 17 arches and stretches more than 1500 feet across the Garonne River. You can take in the great views of the quay and port area with a stroll across the bridge. The 17 arches stand for each letter in Napoleon Bonaparte’s name.

The Pont de Pierre bridge in Bordeaux. Image credit: anouchka/iStock
The Pont de Pierre bridge in Bordeaux. Image credit: anouchka/iStock

Another must-do is Tour Pey-Berland, a bell tower that was built in the 15th-century. You climb the tower for perfect views of the statute of Notre-Dame d’Aquitaine and the adjacent Saint-André Cathedral.

Another popular site is Esplanade des Quinconces, which is the city’s largest square and among the largest in Europe. It overlooks the Garonne River and is beloved for its monuments and fountains.

Bordeaux is also a city of museums. Check out the CAPC Museum of Contemporary Art of Bordeaux, the Museum of Fine Arts, and the Museum of Decorative Arts & Design for starters. The Museum of the Sea and Navy, which opened earlier this year, is also worth a visit. It aims to bridge the gap between museum and art by showcasing the history of ocean navigation and oceanography with interactive and highly-visual elements.

Rooms with a view

As for where to stay, the InterContinental Bordeaux – Le Grand Hotel, is as luxurious as it sounds and with its sophisticated, elegant 19th-century décor, you’ll feel like you’re in old-world France.

There are also many other elegant options for accommodations dotted throughout the city. Radisson Blu is worth a mention with its rooftop bar that shows off views of the Bassins à Flot and the nearby La Cité du Vin, while Le Palais Gallien, a luxury hotel with an outdoor pool and inner courtyard, is a stylish newcomer that can’t be missed.

Simply put, there’s a lot going on in Bordeaux.  Get there before the masses discover the city’s renaissance.


Sheryl Nance-Nash

Sheryl Nance-Nash is a freelance writer based in New York, specializing in travel and personal finance, Her work has appeared in, Money, The New York Times, Newsday, Orbitz, ShermansTravel and, among others. When she's not encouraging people to spend their money wisely, she travels the globe to satisfy her wanderlust and to inspire others to do the same.