Beyond the wine: An urban guide to Bordeaux

If you think that Bordeaux is just about wine, then you’re in for a shock; this is a stylish, cultured city that is constantly reinventing itself…

Mary Novakavich
01 February 2024

France’s wine capital becomes more irresistible every year. Between its culture, history and food, Bordeaux balances all the ingredients that make a city appealing. Its surrounding vineyards produce some of the world’s top wines, while gastronomic inspiration comes not only from the nearby coast but also from high-quality beef and south-west France’s delicious duck and goose dishes. But it is how the city brings these elements together that is so exciting.

You can see the restaurants’ ingredients on display just south of the city centre in Bordeaux’s biggest food market, Marché des Capucins. Then head north to see how Bordeaux transformed its old maritime district, Bassins à Flot, into a gleaming, cosmopolitan neighbourhood that holds several of the city’s most fascinating sights. Obviously, the Cité du Vin, the city’s impressive homage to wine, is one of them, but also pop into the Halles de Bacalan for gourmet treats and local produce. At the Vivres de l’Art, you can even discover how an 18th-century navy warehouse found a new lease of life as an arts venue, exhibition hall and artists’ residence.

Bordeaux’s Cathédrale St-André is a magnificent sight (Alamy)

Before you leave the Bassins à Flot district, make time for a visit to the largest digital arts centre in the world. Step into the Bassins des Lumières and you will lose yourself in immersive digital art exhibitions – it’s almost like walking into a work of art. The current shows take you into the vivid worlds of Salvador Dalí and Antonio Gaudí (both until 7 January 2024). The setting is just as compelling: the exhibition spaces take up a former submarine base built by the Germans during the Second World War.

It’s just the latest of many cultural transformations Bordeaux has undergone since the mid-1990s. Since then, some 5,000 grand but greying 18th-century buildings have been spruced up and now form part of a 150-hectare UNESCO World Heritage site. Start in the Place de la Comédie and marvel at the colonnaded façade of the Grand Théâtre before wandering past Cours du Chapeau Rouge’s stately townhouses and towards the Place de la Bourse. The shimmering water of the Miroir d’Eau that reflects the square’s 18th-century stock exchange has become one of Bordeaux’s most beguiling sights. Carry on along the River Garonne to Porte Cailhau, a monumental 15th-century gate that was once an entrance to the city. To put all of Bordeaux’s rich history into context, visit the Musée d’Aquitaine to see how the city grew from its Gallo-Roman beginnings, and to discover the tragic role that slavery played in its fortunes.

The world of wine

The Cité du Vin caused a bit of a stir when it opened in 2016. It’s not surprising when you take into account the sight of its shiny, metallic exterior, shaped like a gigantic wine glass. Inside this audacious structure, visitors enter an immersive, sensory world that celebrates wine from all over the globe, not just Bordeaux. Even if you think you know a lot about viticulture, you’ll be pleasantly and enjoyably enlightened by the interactive exhibits that reveal just how many wine-growing regions and varieties of grape there really are in the world.

Try out the hands-on exhibits that delve into the myriad aromas of wine and you’ll get an idea (if you don’t know already) of what people mean when they say they can discern unlikely scents in an ordinary glass of wine. You’ll also get a digital audio guide that offers translations in eight languages.

Every Thursday, the museum holds wine-tasting workshops, paired with food from the region, naturally. But regardless of the day or time you visit, your ticket includes entry to the eighth-floor Belvédère bar, where you can get a glass of wine to drink while taking in panoramic views of Bordeaux. The interior is quite something – from its ceiling are suspended thousands of empty wine bottles.

The Galerie Bordelaise is one of the most elegant covered shopping passageways in France (Alamy)

The 19th-century Three Graces fountain stands at the heart (Alamy)

Chartrons district

Back in the 17th century, wine merchants turned the Chartrons district, just north of the historic centre, into the hub of the Bordeaux wine trade. Boats used the Quai des Chartrons to load and offload their barrels from riverside warehouses. Nowadays this lively district is the epitome of French ‘bobo’ (bourgeois bohemian), with countless cafés, restaurants, delis and vintage boutiques scattered among the wine cellars that remain. A stroll along Rue Notre-Dame, past the imposing 19th-century St Louis des Chartrons church, will take you past at least ten antiques shops and plenty of places to eat.

The old indoor market, Halle des Chartrons, is now a cultural centre, but it also lies within a sea of café terraces. For one of the best market experiences in Bordeaux, head to the Quai des Chartrons on a Sunday morning and sample oysters sourced from the Bassin d’Arcachon, meet local producers and dine at the food stalls.

Tucked away in the midst of Chartrons is the Musée du Vin et du Négoce de Bordeaux, whose atmospheric vaulted cellars take you back through the centuries of Bordeaux’s wine trade. Once you’ve toured the museum, your ticket includes the chance to taste two wines.

Porte Cailhau dates from 1494 and was built to celebrate French king Charles VIII’s victory in Italy (Alamy)

Did you know?

The Bordeaux area is not just famous for its wine. While many people associate caviar with eastern Europe, France is the world’s third-largest producer, after China and Italy. The bulk of its farmed sturgeon eggs come from the Nouvelle-Aquitaine region, specifically around the Gironde estuary and the Garonne and Dordogne rivers. The country’s leading producer, Sturia, even has its HQ here.

Darwin regenerated

The transformation of a series of scruffy, old military barracks into one of Bordeaux’s trendiest districts is typical of a city that has a long history of reinventing itself. Darwin emerged from the graffiti-covered remnants of barracks that had been abandoned in 2005. It has now been turned into its own ‘eco-système’ on the right bank of the Garonne in the Bastide district.

Everything seems to come together naturally in this buzzing place. The old graffiti has been replaced with vivid and witty street art that adorns the open spaces, especially around the skatepark where people bomb along on skateboards and BMX bikes. The gaps between the various barracks double as an open-air cinema and concert venue. In keeping with the sustainable principles behind Darwin, there’s the huge Magasin Général – part restaurant, part shop, all organic – which aims for zero waste and sends its biowaste to be composted by a local company. There’s even an organic farm cultivating vegetables, herbs and flowers, and a henhouse with organic chickens.

Industrial chic and rustic chic mingle in the large, open dining hall that sits between two barracks and is covered by scaffolding; lights twinkle in the evening over its wilfully mismatched furniture. What was an old shipbuilding hangar is now Les Chantiers de la Garonne, an ideal spot to enjoy Darwin beers along with Bordeaux wines.

Local businesses and workers have taken over co-working spaces here – Wednesday evenings are the time to drop by for weekly after-work events – and bargain-hunters can rummage through the enormous Bric-à-Brac Emmaüs charity shop in search of vintage second-hand clothing, books, homeware, toys and furniture.

Where to stay in Bordeaux

A bedroom inside InterContinental Bordeaux (IGH Hotels & Resorts)

InterContinental Bordeaux – Le Grand Hotel

Bordeaux’s most historic hotel occupies a regal position opposite the Grand Théâtre and offers sumptuous luxury in a 19th-century grande dame building. From its two-Michelin-starred Le Pressoir d’Argent Gordon Ramsay eatery to the rooftop bar (the chicest in the city) and Guerlain spa, it’s the place for pampering.

The dazzling exterior of Hotel de Sèze (Hotel de Sèze)

Hotel de Sèze

You would be hard-pressed to find a more central location than Hotel de Sèze, a handsome, four-star stay near the Grand Théâtre. Its 54 stylish rooms (including four suites) combine colourful 18th-century motifs with modern furnishings, and there’s a lovely little spa as well as a noted restaurant and private golf course.

Top four events in Bordeaux

Bordeaux Wine Festival
Every June, the Bordeaux wine industry takes over the banks of the Garonne for a four-day festival of tastings, gigs, entertainment and food. Tall ships line the quayside – and are usually open to visitors – and you can buy a tasting card to sample the region’s different wines in the many pavilions.

Metropolitan Summer in Bordeaux
Bordeaux brings its arts and culture outdoors during July and August, when more than 100 cultural events take place around the city. Look out for dance and theatre performances, concerts, readings and gastronomic events put on by the Bordeaux Food Club.

Dansons sur les Quais
For much of July, life on the Garonne quayside steps up a gear during a boisterous outdoor festival of dance. Watch local dance companies perform when you’re not joining one of the regular dance parties taking place.

Climax Resist Festival
Mid-September is the time to join the party at Darwin, as the three-day Climax Festival arrives in town. Catch live gigs in the centre of a former military barracks and hear about global issues from speakers from around the world.

One of many trendy escapes within Darwin (Alamy)

Getting there: British Airways has daily nonstop flights from London Heathrow and Gatwick to Bordeaux; easyJet has flights from Gatwick, Luton, Belfast, Bristol, Glasgow and Manchester; and Ryanair flies from Stansted. Return flights take around 1 hour and 40 minutes.

By train: Eurostar has daily trains from London St Pancras to Bordeaux, changing in Paris. One-way trips take just under six hours.

Online resources: Visit the Bordeaux Tourism, Gironde Tourism and Nouvelle Aquitaine Tourism sites for more detail

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