Bordeaux has always had a great reputation as a premier region for wine – perhaps even the world’s best – but it hasn’t always had such a great reputation when it comes to being a must-visit destination for travel. For most of the twentieth century, Bordeaux was seen as an aging city, stuck in its ways, with stuffy restaurants, closed off châteaux, and access for only those with the deepest of pocketbooks and the connections to make one-on-one appointments with their favorite winemakers.
Luckily, that all has changed. Thanks to a revitalization the city began experiencing in the early aughts, Bordeaux is more vibrant, engaging and interesting than it has ever been. It’s a must visit destination for anyone who loves good food and drink, and it’s well worth a stop on your next visit to France. So here’s your official guide on where to stay, eat, and of course, taste wine.
Bordeaux is a great destination in any season, but the prime times to visit are in the spring and summer. That’s when winemakers aren’t consumed yet with the fall harvest, and the city takes on a celebratory atmosphere. June is especially festive, thanks in large part to Fête Le Vin, the Bordeaux wine festival that takes over the city for the last weekend in June. There are grand tastings, outdoor markets and yes, wine flows everywhere.
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While a flight directly into the Bordeaux airport is possible – and convenient if you simply plan to spend your entire vacation in the city and the surrounding region – if you have the time we recommend starting your visit to Bordeaux with a day or two stop in Paris, since you’ll most likely have to fly through there anyway. From Paris, you can take a beautiful three hour train ride from the city of light to the heart of one of the world’s greatest wine destinations.
As you step off the train, you’ll encounter Bordeaux’s light rail system, which connects you to the entire city via 27 miles of track that weaves throughout the city’s neighborhoods, going as far out as the airport – but not going far enough to make it to any of the wineries. Opened in 2003, the rail system was the beginning of the city’s revitalization that has resulted in Bordeaux becoming one of the hippest cities in France for young people, and making it a major destination for France’s tech and start-up scene. You’ll quickly find out that wine is not the only draw.
The first thing you’ll want to do when you arrive is check in to your hotel, and then head out to explore the city. While none of the famed châteaux are located inside the city itself – you’ll need a car or guided tour for that – there is plenty to explore and taste before you start zipping around the wine region.
If you’re looking for a hip and trendy vibe, and also happen to be on a budget, you’ll do no better than Mama Shelter. Located in the center of Bordeaux, the hotel is a place to see and be seen, with a great bar, a fun restaurant and even ping pong tables. And at an average price of 100 Euros a night, this hotel is an absolute steal.
If you’re instead looking for something more posh, grab a room at the Hotel Normandie, a classic hotel located in the center of the city and directly next door to a fantastic wine bar where you can also take wine classes run by the CIVB – the official trade organization that represents all Bordeaux châteaux – so you know they know their stuff.
After getting checked in, head out and explore the city. There are several wonderful attractions in Bordeaux and all are accessible by foot, or the light rail if you aren’t feeling up for walking. If you arrive after June 2016 make sure to check out the new Cité du Vin on the Quai de Bacalan, which is just a twenty minute light rail ride from the city center. The Museum is a monument to all things wine — the building is even shaped like a decanter. It’s a magnificent sight and worth spending some time truly getting to know the region via the museum’s fantastic exhibits.
After checking out the Cité Du Vin, head to the Cathedral of St André and the Musée des Beaux-Arts inside the magnificent public gardens. You may even want to do a little shopping on Rue St. Catherine. And if you happen to be in Bordeaux when The National Opera of Bordeaux is performing, the opportunity to take in a performance at the historic Grand Theater should not be missed.
But while all these sights are well and good, let’s be honest, you’ve come to Bordeaux for the food and wine. Lucky for you, the culinary scene is highly regarded in Bordeaux and you can find great food across the spectrum, from very cheap – such a FuFu, an outstanding Ramen restaurant – to outlandishly expensive. To start your vacation consider an afternoon glass of white Bordeaux with a dozen oysters at the famed Le Petit Commerce while you sit outside and watch the locals go by. Then when it’s finally time for dinner, head to Brasserie Bordelaise for an expansive overview of the cuisine of the region, plus its celebrated wines.
While you won’t find many wines made outside of Bordeaux during your visit, if you’re in need of a break from all the Cabernet and Merlot, head to L’Univerre. It’s where the local wine industry heavyweights head when they want to drink something besides Bordeaux. You also don’t want to miss Racines, a delicious restaurant that offers inventive French fare in a relaxed setting. Finally, if you want to drop some serious coin and impress your traveling companion, make a reservation at La Grande Maison and dine at Joël Robuchon Restaurant, which was just awarded two Michelin stars.
Once you’ve had your fill of the city, it’s time to do what you really came for — to drink wine. While most of the classified growth châteaux are still notoriously closed off and hard to visit without making arrangements well in advance, a few of the châteaux have become more open in recent years including one of the most famous, Château Pichon Longueville Baron, which in addition to being a Pauillac second growth château, is also the most photographed château in all of Bordeaux. It’s well worth a visit. Afterwards, grab lunch next door at Cafe Lavinal in the Hamlet of Bages.
Another winery that allows visitors to simply stop by is Château Smith Haut Lafitte in Pessac-Léognan. The winery wasn’t part of the famous 1855 classification, but with over 7,000 wineries in the entire Bordeaux region, most weren’t, and they still make wonderful wine.
Other wineries of note, such as the lauded Château Lynch Bages, Château Carbonnieux – a favorite of Thomas Jefferson’s – and Château Brane Cantenac are also easy to visit, you simply have to make an appointment via their websites. Much of the region stills revolves around protocol and tradition and making a reservation prior to your visit is simply the proper thing to do.
If you don’t feel comfortable renting a car and driving around the region yourself, book a Bordeaux River Cruise and spend the day sailing up and down the Gironde Estuary as you visit châteaux and dine on the ship. It’s an experience you won’t soon forget.
Header image via YingHui Liu / Shutterstock.com