If you have been looking to plan – or just dreamed about – a trip that includes hops around Europe or France, make sure to add Bordeaux to your bucket list. Wine is only a starting point. Whether or not you are an oenophile (wine lover), Bordeaux has a lot to offer visitors. A cosmopolitan French city, Bordeaux lacks the complexity and harried pace of Paris and can be much less intimidating for a foreigner. Its city center is easily walkable, and it is a bit more affordable relative to Paris.
My visit took place during the winter, and I have to say that I enjoyed being in the minority as a tourist. While I would recommend Bordeaux in the late spring time, visiting at a low point in the tourist season will give you much more of a local feel, like a welcomed guest.
Bordeaux and the surrounding towns and chateaux of Aquitaine are absolutely worth a long stay, but if you would like to sample Bordeaux with more of a local feel, I’ll offer a few must-trys to make your planning a bit easier.
As in much of western Europe, be cognizant that shops and restaurants often are closed on Sundays. Additionally, any day of the week, make sure to follow proper lunch and dinner times; miss lunch, and between about 2:30 and 7 pm (1430-1900), you will be out of luck for meals and wine and may find mostly tea shops open. Some of the larger, more generic sidewalk cafes remain open during those times between lunch and dinner, but keep in mind that service is often limited. On Sundays, many restaurants do offer brunch, particularly brunch buffets – but make sure to arrive before 1400 (2 pm.), or you may be out of luck! As far as sights, wander around the city and marvel at its mostly 18th century architecture, though its heritage is much older. Bordeaux is an UNESCO world heritage site. The river Garonne is a great place for a scenic stroll and is beautifully lit and particularly romantic at night; it also is a great place for a jog or run, if you do not mind dodging pedestrians milling about.
Where to stay:
Bordeaux boasts many hotels. If you have a very limited budget, the Quality Hotel has clean, no-frills rooms for under US $100. It is centrally located just off Rue Saint Catherine, the main pedestrian shopping area. Don’t expect much, however. My recommendation is Le Boutique Hotel in on Rue Lafaurie Monbadon, just north of the Place de Bourse and Rue Saint Catherine (rooms are about $200 during low season, higher during the spring and summer). While I wouldn’t call it a luxury hotel (if you want true luxury – and to pay for it! – stay at Grand Hotel Bordeaux), it was chic, trendy, and a great place to stay. Its staff are extremely accommodating and most speak English very well. Wonderful service, modern rooms pay homage to classic pop culture, often with black-and-white portraits of Marilyn Monroe, for example. Each room is named after a wine-producing French chateau, and you’ll find oversized wine bottles of that chateau in your room (drained of wine, of course, so you’re protected from that temptation!). They do offer a breakfast buffet, for about 16 Euros in addition to the room rate; while it looked decent, I would skip it and eat elsewhere, unless it is a Sunday and you are pressed for time. The hotel is just off the beaten path, and its rooms surround an adorable, peaceful central courtyard that provides additional seating for the wine bar (which doubles as the breakfast room). Their wine tastings are worth the 35 Euro per person price.
Where to drink:
Bordeaux wines, as well as those from other French appellations, are found nearly everywhere. Not once did I have a “bad” glass of wine, though some I prefer more than others. Whether you visit a dedicated wine bar, such as the one at Le Boutique Hotel, or simply enjoy wine at a cafe, brasserie, dinner at a bistro, or bar, you will have plenty of places to sip. If you prefer cocktails, Bordeaux has several bars to suit your preference. If you’d like a dive-y spot for beer with the locals, Cafe Brun is your place; be forewarned, my American friends and I experienced stereotypically brusque (one might say rude) French service there. Want slightly more upscale? Maria Randall is a hipster (I say hipster, you say bohemian) bar with more trendy (though very sweet) cocktails. I recommend the Alfonso cocktail made with sparkling wine and berry puree. As the night progresses, a DJ plays, and part of the bar can become a makeshift dance floor. My friends and I experienced some slow service at first, but as we made an effort to socialize with the locals, we were rewarded with quite a bit of cameraderie and fun! Want to be a bit more adult? The bar at the bottom of Gabriel is quiet and has a wonderful selection of cocktails that are not unreasonably priced for a bar of that caliber. My “top shelf” recommendation, however, is Le Bar inside the Grand Hotel Bordeaux near the Place de Bourse. Its ambiance is as grand, and its service princely – you will pay handsomely for that, however (17 to 23 Euros for most cocktails and wines by the glass). Still, I had a lovely experience there and felt the experience was worth the price. I recommend their signature Kir Royale champagne cocktails, made with Moet and pearls d’saveur (flavor pearls). Another luxurious, by not quite so expensive, option is the bar at Gabriel. Gabriel houses a bar, brasserie, and high-end restaurant all in one multi-level building.
Where to shop:
Rue Saint Catherine is a long pedestrian street in central Bordeaux, lined with shops and mainstream cafes. If you’re looking for French boutiques or high-end shopping, this is not your street; global names like Zara and Mango, and teeny-bopper Euro chain Pim-kie mingle with American brands, including McDonalds, the latter of which sells macarons, cannelle, and other French pastries in its McCafe. If you’ve never visited a one of the Galleries Lafayette scattered throughout Europe, browse the one located near the northern end of Rue Saint Catherine; it is a multi-level department store with pricy designer brands, not unlike Harrod’s in London. If you’re looking for high-end brands like Cartier and Mont Blanc, Cours Georges Clemenceau, another boulevard north of Rue Saint Catherine, contains many high-end shops. Walk further north along the Garonne past the Place des Quinconces and you’ll come to a series of riverside shops and cafes known as The Docks. Local boutiques are just as at home there as a Le Creuset store.
Where to eat:
By far, I find this aspect to be the most difficult decision in Bordeaux. With over 1700 restaurants in a city populated by less than 300,000 people (2 million in its metropolitan area), your choices are endless. Unlike in Paris, however, it is possible to find a terribly mediocre restaurant here as much as it is to find haute cuisine. My time in Bordeaux was insufficient to ferret out all the ‘good’ places, so I’ll make recommendations only based on my limited direct observation and those that came highly recommended by multiple websites and critics. Most places offer both a multi-course, prix fixe menu and a la carte. My favorite place was Bistrot Glouton, which you’ll see profiled in my next post. It was a small restaurant frequented by locals, with an inventive chef and menus that won’t break the bank. For a taste of the good life, but acccessibly so, Comptoir Cuisine, located in the Grand Hotel Bordeaux is not terribly expensive relative to its sister restaurant at the hotel. La Tupina was highly recommended as a flagship brasserie in Bordeaux; its owner operates several other bistro and cafe options on the same street, at various price points and with influences of Italy and Greece woven throughout. Finally, the Marche du Capucins, a large market of food vendors – from fresh produce to prepared foods – open daily until 1 pm (weekdays) or 2:30 pm (weekends) is an excellent location for regional French food adventures. Sample fresh produce, cheeses, crepes, and local dishes from a variety of vendors. It is worth the somewhat lengthy walk from the northern part of the city center.
This post is meant to inspire and guide you on your trip to Bordeaux. It is by no means a comprehensive list, as my time there was barely enough to glimpse Bordeaux. However short, I found Bordeaux to be a vibrant city, full of wonderful sights, flavors, and textures – and, of course – amazing wine (more on that in a later post). If you have visited Bordeaux yourself, please submit your own travel tips. Thank you for stopping by!