The Historic Center
At first sight, the 18th-century grandeur of Bordeaux is almost overwhelming. At the very center is the supremely sophisticated “Golden Triangle,” defined by three boulevards: Cours Georges Clemenceau, Cours de l’Intendance, perhaps the grandest street in the city, and Allées de Tourny. This last leads down the Place de la Comédie, the unofficial heart of the city, a large square that is dominated by the Grand Théâtre, a colonnaded masterpiece by 18th-century architect Victor Louis, who also designed the Comédie Française.
A quick walk east towards the river brings you to the splendid Place de la Bourse, a creation of Ange-Jacques Gabriel, King Louis XV’s architect. Considered the nec plus ultra of French 18th-century architecture, the two wings of the plaza open onto the Garrone River like a giant bird. On warm days, Bordelais (particularly the youngest ones) come here to splash through the huge 1-inch deep fountain, known as the Miroir d’Eau (Water Mirror) that lies between the square and the river.
Those suffering from elegance overload will be relived to find a younger, more accessible version of Bordeaux hiding just behind the grandiose plaza. A warren of small streets and pretty squares extends from Place du Parlement south-ish to Place Saint Pierre, Place du Palais, and Place Camille-Jullien. The farther you get from Place du Parlement, the less touristy it is, and the better the restaurants get. That amazingly turreted gateway at Place du Palais is the Porte Caihau, left over from the days when the city was surrounded by ramparts.
Heading back westward, you will doubtless cross rue Saint Catherine, which is hyped as the longest pedestrian street in Europe. Further on are the spires of the imposing Cathedral Saint André and its separated bell tower, the Tour Pey-Berland. Just behind the cathedral are two of the city’s best-known museums: the Musée des Beaux Arts and the Musée des Arts Decoratifs. A little farther to the south lies the Musée d’Aquitaine, a regional history museum.
In the 18th century, the banks of the Garonne were just as elegant as the rest of the city, and wealthy wine merchants lived in limestone mansions on the edge of the river. However, time was not kind to the quays, which became known as a messy array of warehouses, gritty bars, and traffic jams. Fortunately, the city came to the rescue, and after a multi-year overhaul, the banks of the Garrone River have been given a superb makeover. Today, a stroll along the quays is Bordeaux’s favorite weekend activity. You can start your walk at the vast Esplanade des Quinconces, just north of the Place de la Bourse. Laid out in the early 1800s, this gargantuan esplanade covers 12 hectares (30 acres). Be sure to admire the huge Monument to the Girondins. During the French Revolution, this relatively moderate local faction tried to put the brakes on a revolution that was getting out of hand. They butted heads with the radical Montagnards, who came out on top, resulting in the mass execution of the Girondins and the beginning of the Reign of Terror.
Now stroll northwards along the river, and enjoy the new gardens, skateboard park, and playgrounds that line the quai Louis XVIII and the quai des Chartrons. At the quai de Bacalan, just before the new space-age Pont Jacques-Chaban-Delmas bridge, a few old warehouses were left intact and transformed into a giant outlet center, but one where you can both shop and relax. Among the bargains, there are spiffy cafes, restaurants and bars with terraces overlooking the water, as well as plenty of benches to plunk yourself down on.
The Chartrons Quarter
Once the beating heart of the Bordeaux wine trade, where every wine broker worth a cork set up shop, today Chartrons is the hot spot for young and enterprising creative types, especially those with some money to throw around. The neighborhood’s hub is the refurbished Halle des Chartrons, an erstwhile covered market that is now a cultural center. A block east is rue Notre Dame, which is lined with antiques stores and high-end boutiques. The neighborhood is also home to two good museums: on the southern end, the enormous CAPC Musée d’Art Contemporain; and up near the skateboard park, the small, but fascinating Musée du Vin et du Négoce.
Saint Michel Quarter
This neighborhood revolves around its church, the Basilica of Saint Michel. This lively, working-class quarter is home to Arab, Portuguese, and African immigrants, as well as a good sprinkling of the city’s artists and bobos (bourgeois bohemians). The main draw here is the wide plaza (Place Duburg) surrounding the church where there is an open-air food market on Mondays and Saturdays (7am–2pm). The market also invades the nearby quai des Salinières. On Sunday it’s a flea market (7am–4pm). A drink at one of the cafes on the edge of the square is a post-shopping must. At press time, the plaza was undergoing a major renovation, which should be finished by the summer of 2014.
Marché des Capucins
Out in a working-class quarter just east of the Place de la Victoire lies Bordeaux’s best and largest covered market. Food fans will go nuts when they see the vast selection of goodies before them: fresh vegetables, fruits, meats, fish, cheese, bread, charcuterie—not to mention all the delicious prepared foods waiting for you to pounce. You can buy dried sausage, pastries, olives, and salads to take away, or you can treat yourself to one of the dozen or so food stands that serve from their bars or seating areas. On Saturdays, there are tapas everywhere: everyone seems to be selling them, from the charcutier to the cheese guy. Other stands serve their treats on a daily basis. Crepes, couscous, and steamed mussels are all on hand, but there are two standouts. La Maison de Pata Negra (www.maisondupatanegra.com; [tel] 05-56-88-59-92) specializes in the famous Spanish ham but also terrific tapas (1.50€–4€, technically, pintxos, served on slices of bread) made with various smoked meat combos as well as grilled bonito, or even sautéed foie gras. The other favorite is Chez Jean-Mi (www.facebook.com/chez.jean.mi; [tel] 06-81-20-24-49) where if you stand too close to the bar, you’ll suddenly find yourself savoring a plate of six sparkling fresh oysters with a cold glass of white wine (7€).Place des Capucins. Tues–Fri 6am–1pm; Sat–Sun 5:30am–1:30pm. Tram B: Place de la Victoire; Tram C: Sainte Croix.
Organized Tours & Boat Rides
The Bordeaux Tourist Office (see above) organizes a variety of guided tours in both French and English. The most popular is the 2-hour bilingual walking tour of the city center, which leaves the tourist office at 10am, Thurs to Tues (9€ adults, 6€ ages 13–17, free ages 12 and under). For an extra 3€, they’ll throw in a wine tasting at the classy Bar à Vins (see box “Buying Bordeaux in Bordeaux,” below). They also offer several day trips to nearby wineries. For a complete list of tours, visit the website.
You can also get a riverside view of Bordeaux on a boat cruise on the Garonne. You can taste wine, eat, or just gaze at the view, depending on the cruise and your budget. The two best cruise companies are Crosières Burdigala (quai Richelieu, www.evolutiongaronne.fr, [tel] 05-56-49-36-88) which offers a 1[bf[1/2]-hour cruise of Bordeaux for 15€, and Bordeaux River Cruise (quai des Chartrons, www.croisiere-bordeaux.com, [tel] 05-56-39-27-66) which has a 2-hour Bordeaux cruise with a winemaker and onboard tasting for 18€. Both also offer much more elaborate tours of Bordeaux and the wine country.
The largest and most ostentatious church in Bordeaux is the Cathédrale St-André, place Pey-Berland (tel. 05-56-52-68-10), near the southern perimeter of the old town. The sculptures on the 13th-century Porte Royale (Royal Door) are admirable; see also the 14th-century sculptures on the North Door. Separate from the rest of the church is the 47m (154-ft.) Tour Pey-Berland (tel. 05-56-81-26-25), a belfry begun in the 15th century. Foundations date from 900 years ago. The church is open July to September daily 10 to 11:30am and 2 to 6:30pm. Off season, hours are daily 8:30 to 11:30am, Monday to Saturday 2 to 5:30pm. The tower is open Tuesday to Sunday June to September 10am to 1:15pm and 2 to 6pm, October to May Tuesday to Sunday 10am to noon and 2 to 5:30pm. Tower admission is 5€ for adults and 3.50€ for those 25 and under. Organ recitals are sometimes held in July and August, usually on Thursday at 5pm. Admission is free.
Bordeaux, always a magnet for power, money, and ecclesiastical zeal, has four other important churches. For information about the churches described below, you can call the Presbytère de l'Eglise St-Michel (tel. 05-56-94-30-50), but most of the people who answer speak only French. The churches' hours vary slightly but are usually Monday to Saturday 2 to 5pm.
Foremost among the "secondary" churches is the Basilique St-Michel, place St-Michel (part of place Canteloup; no phone). The church itself, constructed in stages from the 14th to the 16th century, is incredibly charming. More impressive is the Fleche St-Michel across the street. This tower, erected in 1472, is the second-tallest stone tower in France (after the cathedral at Strasbourg), rising 112m (367 ft.). The tower is open for visits June to September, daily 2 to 7pm, for 3€. You climb 228 steps to the top, where you have sweeping views over the port and the Garonne. The rest of the year, unless you receive special permission from the tourist office, you'll have to appreciate the architecture of the tower from the ground. During July and August, every Friday from 5 to 7pm the bells in the tower are rung as part of a free carillon concert that can be heard throughout the neighborhood.
Another historic church is Basilique St-Seurin, place des Martyrs de la Résistance (tel. 05-56-93-89-28). Its most ancient sections, such as its crypt, date from the 5th century. See the porch left over from an earlier church; it has some capitals from the Romanesque era. In summer, hours are Tuesday to Sunday 9:30 to 6:30pm; off-season hours are Tuesday to Sunday 8:30am to 7:30pm. On Sunday the basilica may shut down at 1pm.
Abbatiale Ste-Croix, place Pierre-Renaudel (tel. 05-56-94-30-50), gained attention in musical circles when its organ, a marvel built by a monk, Dom Bedos, was restored to its original working order in 1996. The church, a severe Romanesque structure from the 11th and 12th centuries, is revered for its stately dignity. In July and August, free organ concerts are presented Wednesday at 6:30pm; otherwise, the church is open only Thursday 10am to noon.
Musée des Beaux-Arts, 20 cours d'Albret, Jardin du Palais-Rohan (tel. 05-56-10-20-56), has an outstanding collection from the 15th to the 20th centuries. Works by Perugina, Titian, Rubens, Veronese, Delacroix, and Marquet are on display. The museum is open Wednesday to Monday 11am to 6pm. Admission is 5€ adults, 2.50€ students, and free for ages 17 and under.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.