Long called La Belle Endormie (“Sleeping Beauty”), over the last decade Bordeaux has at last woken up and is currently stretching its legs and fluffing its finery. First the historic city center was cleaned up, revealing the splendors of its harmonious 18th-century architecture. Then a nifty tramway (streetcar) system was installed, and cars were banished from most of the historic center. Finally, the quays of the Garonne River were given an extensive overhaul and are now lined with public gardens, fountains, and playgrounds. The city has reconnected with the river, as best symbolized by the stunning 18th-century Place de la Bourse, which opens directly on the banks and is now scrubbed down and bedecked with a “water mirror,” a long, shallow fountain that you can walk and splash around in on sunny days.
As you move away from the center, elegant streets give way to narrow cobbled streets, ancient churches, and a more youthful, funky Bordeaux. Home to 70,000 students, one-third of the population is under 25, fueling a lively nightlife scene. The recent urban overhaul has bled into working-class neighborhoods like Chartrons, where you can find galleries, bars and restaurants.
Bordeaux, of course, is also a wine capital. Not only does it makes a great base for exploring a few of the thousands of nearby wine estates, but you can also taste not a few of the region’s wares right here, particularly if you stop in at the Maison du Vin (see Shopping).