The experience was like walking into a street party that you didn’t know was happening. By the banks of the River Garonne, dozens of young people were sitting on blankets, eating saucisson and drinking wine, enjoying the balmy evening air as lights twinkled from the Pont de Pierre bridge. The curving facade of the 18th-century Palais de la Bourse shimmered in the Miroir d’Eau, a giant reflecting pool that turns into an impromptu paddling pool when the weather warms up.
Go back to the late 1990s and it was a very different scene in Bordeaux. France’s wine capital was looking decidedly past its best: years of unchecked car pollution had left its dignified 18th-century architecture covered in grime and dilapidated waterfront warehouses blighted much of the river.
But when current Presidential hopeful Alain Juppé became Mayor in 1995, he put into motion several crucial actions that were to change the city profoundly. A new tram network in 2003 meant fewer cars and cleaner air, and blackened buildings were sandblasted clean to reveal creamy limestone façades. The riverside was transformed into the city’s playground, its wide quayside filled with joggers, strollers, cafés and shops. The Miroir d’Eau came along in 2006, becoming an instant hit.
Pont de pierre (Dreamstime)
Bordeaux’s students used to flee south to Toulouse to study but now they stay put. The city has a buzz to more than rival its near neighbour, while the heart of its old town still boasts UNESCO status among the cluster of streets dubbed the ‘Golden Triangle’, where Place du Parlement, Place St-Pierre and Place Camille Jullian meet.
Everywhere, wedged into narrow cobbled streets, tucked into small squares, you’ll find terraces, bars and restaurants, with any available outdoor space taken up by café tables. The atmosphere is convivial, lively, civilised, just shy of raucous. The Bordeaux wine that’s fuelled the city since Roman times also goes down pretty nicely with the fresh seafood that is shipped in from the Atlantic coast just an hour away.
This same wine was once key to Bordeaux’s prosperity. In the Middle Ages, when the English ruled the Aquitaine region of western France, they developed a taste for the area’s rich red wines and exported them back home. The effect on the city was noticeable. By the 18th century, grand boulevards spread through the centre, lined with neo-classical townhouses that elegantly showed off the wealth of their wine-merchant owners.
Now there’s the fantastically futuristic La Cité du Vin wine museum, which opened in 2016. Its audacious shape, styled like a giant swirling wine glass, reflects Bordeaux’s rejuvenated trailblazing spirit.
After years of being bypassed by travellers on their way to the Atlantic coast or the nearby vineyards, Bordeaux is back in the spotlight as a place to linger and savour.
Place de la Bourse at night (Dreamstime)
Day 1: Discover The Heart
Place de la Comédie (Dreamstime)
Most of Bordeaux’s main sights are on the left bank of the Garonne. Start amid the 18th-century façades of the Place de la Comédie, then turn into Rue Sainte-Catherine, touted as the longest pedestrianised shopping street in Europe. From here, veer east into the mazy streets around Place du Parlement.
Here you’ll find two leaders of the city’s so-called ‘bistro brat pack’, Miles and Le Chien de Pavlov. Both have helped shake up the city’s old stuffy image.
Head south to Rue St-James, which forms part of the Santiago de Compostela pilgrims’ trail, and is tailed by the gothic Grosse Cloche belfry. The is street full of oddities, with Le Vintage Bar worth revisiting for happy hour.
For a good-value lunch, grab a garden table in nearby Rue Buhan’s Potato Head.
Plunge back into the web of streets and re-emerge via the 15th-century Porte Cailhau at the quayside, where you can stroll the promenade and its long line of 18th-century townhouses. You’ll soon reach the stunning Palais de la Bourse and its Miroir d’Eau.
Day 2: Soak Up The Culture
Ruins of Le Palais Gallien (Dreamstime)
Hop on a tram northwards to the renovated Bassins à Flot riverside district, where the swirl of La Cité du Vin soon hoves into view. Its entry fee (€20/£17) includes wine-tasting in a rather eye-catching bar and 360º views.
Cross the Garonne to discover one of the city’s regeneration success stories. Darwin used to be a grim military barracks. It now houses a bistro, skate park, organic supermarket, outdoor cinema, music venues and even an urban farm. The warehouse-like Magasin Général is a genial spot for lunch and craft beers.
Back in the old town, trawl local history at the Musée d’Aquitaine. Exhibits here range from prehistoric cave paintings (found at nearby Lascaux) to harrowing relics of the 18th-century slave trade; another source of Bordeaux’s wealth.
For a relaxed introduction to the city’s wines, drop by Aux Quatre Coins du Vin. It’s a brilliantly simple concept: put a preloaded card into the dispensers and choose from a bewildering number of wines in either small or large measures. Knowledgeable staff are always on hand for advice, too.
Day 3: Explore the wine country
St-Émilion vineyards (Dreamstime)
Sauternes, Pomerol, St-Émilion, Margaux, Pauillac, Médoc... Some of the world’s most highly prized wines are produced in the vineyards surrounding Bordeaux.
The Médoc vineyards are found north of the city in a chunk of land between the Gironde estuary and the Atlantic coast. You can join a ‘chateau route’ tour of the Médoc area, with tastings at wine estates in Margaux, Pauillac and St-Julien, among others.
Bordeaux’s tourist office offers half- and full-day tours (from €38/£32) that include transport and tastings.
Alternatively, hire a bicycle from Pierre Qui Roule from €10 (£8.50) a day and explore the vineyards of the Entre-Deux-Mers region along the 58km Roger Lapébie Cycle Path, an old railway line that runs along the eastern banks of the Garonne River. The medieval town of St-Émilion is exquisite and only a 30-minute train ride away.
Begin at Maison du Vin, which has an enormous selection of local wines. Wander narrow streets and stone houses, saving energy for the 196-step climb to the medieval bell tower. This forms part of the vast underground Église Monolithe, which can only be visited via a tour.
When to go: Year round. Spring and autumn are the most pleasant periods. Summer can be scorching, and many restaurants close for several weeks during late July and August. Some regional flights also only run from March to October.
Getting there: EasyJet flies from Gatwick, Luton, Belfast, Bristol, Glasgow and Liverpool to Bordeaux from £45 return; flight time is between 90 minutes and two hours. Ryanair flies from Stansted and Edinburgh; British Airways from Gatwick; and Flybe from Birmingham and Southampton.
Getting around: It’s easy to walk around the centre, and there’s also a bike hire scheme. Buses, trams and boats all use the same tickets, which you can buy for €1.50 (£1.30) each; a day pass costs €4.60 (£4).
Where to stay: Mama Shelter is in a central location and has a rooftop eatery; doubles from €79 (£67). For modern rooms in an 18th-century city-centre townhouse, try Hotel Continental; doubles from €68 (£58). Central boutique hotel La Maison Bord’eaux has stylish rooms with doubles from €125 (£107).
Where to eat: Laid-back Belle Campagne has seasonal food, while Glouton features a ‘bistronomic’ menu with a seafood focus.
Further details: See bordeaux-tourisme.co.uk for more information.
Main image: Place de la Bourse (Dreamstime)