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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 street 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 ne plus ultra of French 18th-century architecture, the two wings of the plaza open onto the Garonne River like a giant bird. On warm days, Bordelaises (particularly the youngest ones) come here to splash through the 3,500 sq. m (37,000 sq. ft.) 1-in. deep water, known as the Miroir d’Eau (Water Mirror) that lies between the square and the river.

Those suffering from elegance overload will be relieved 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 no doubt cross rue Sainte-Catherine, which is hyped as the longest pedestrian street in Europe, but you’ll find better shopping on rue du Pas-Saint-Georges and Saint James. Further on are the spires of the imposing Cathédrale 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.

The Quays

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 Garonne 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 are spiffy cafes, restaurants, and bars with terraces overlooking the water, as well as plenty of benches to plunk yourself down on. Just beyond the bridge is the new Cité du Vin museum.

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, lined with cafes, clothes shops, and interior design 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 the open-air food, clothes and bric-a-brac market, known as the Marché Royale, takes place on Saturdays (7am–4pm). The market also invades the nearby quai des Salinières. A drink at one of the cafes on the edge of the square is a post-shopping must. The whole area has been fully renovated in recent years.

Organized Tours & Boat Rides

The Bordeaux Tourist Office organizes a variety of guided tours in both French and English. The most popular is the 2-hr. bilingual walking tour of the city center, which leaves the tourist office at 10am, Thursday to Tuesday (12€ adults, 8€ ages 13–17, 2€ ages 5–12 and free children 4 and under). For an extra 3€, they’ll throw in a wine tasting at the extremely well-stocked Bar à Vins. 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 1.5-hr. 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-hr. Bordeaux cruise with a winemaker and onboard tasting for 21€. Both also offer much more elaborate tours of Bordeaux and the wine country. The Bat3 (known as the BatCub; use your public transit Tickarte tickets) is a boat-bus that ferries locals and tourists from one side of the Garonne to the other, between La Bastide, Jean-Jaurès, les Hangars, and Lormont. These run Monday to Friday from 7am to 7:30pm and Saturday and Sunday from 8:45am to 8pm (although times may vary depending on how busy things are, www.infotbm.com should have up-to-date times).

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.