Bordeaux as a whole, rather than any particular points within it, is what ou'll want to visit in order to understand why Victor Hugo described it as Versailles plus Antwerp, and why, when he was exiled from his native Spain, the painter Francisco de Goya chose it as his last home (he died here in 1828). The capital of southwest France and the region's largest city, Bordeaux remains synonymous with the wine trade: wine shippers have long maintained their headquarters along the banks of the Garonne, while buyers from around the world arrive for the huge biennial Vinexpo show (held in odd-number years). Today, much in the city is spanking new, courtesy of France's former prime minister, Alain Juppé, who became mayor of the city several years ago. As the gateway to marvelous Margaux and superlative Sauternes, Bordeaux—best entered from the south by the river—is 580 km (360 miles) southwest of Paris, 240 km (150 miles) northwest of Toulouse, and 190 km (118 miles) north of Biarritz. Bordeaux is a less exuberant city than many others in France but lively and stylish elements are making a dent in the city's conservative veneer. The cleaned-up riverfront is said by some, after a bottle or two, to exude an elegance redolent of St. Petersburg and that stylish aura of 18th-century élan also permeates the historic downtown sector—"le vieux Bordeaux"—where fine shops invite exploration. To the south of the city center are old docklands undergoing gradual renewal—one train station has now been transformed into a big multiplex movie theater—but the area is still a bit shady. A nice time to stroll around the city center is the first Sunday of the month, when it's pedestrian-only and vehicles are banned.
Situated on a grande place in the Vielle Ville, with cathedral views and a traditional menu of solid sustenance, this venerable bistro attracts those looking for an all day mixture of café and restaurant. It's the quintessential spot to people-watch over a coffee or meal. Try for a table on the terrace.
This straight-up organic restaurant and coffee bar is a good option for a light meal. With its kind and spunky service, chic outside terrace, and interesting location in the bourgeois-bohemian Quartier de la Grosse Cloche (Big Clock neighborhood), it's a welcome find in the city. Try the duck confit parmentier, curry and leek quiche, or a fresh baked dessert. Don't miss the organic, artisanal cola or 100% pure cocoa hot chocolate.
Between the cathedral and the Grand Théâtre are numerous pedestrian streets (Rue Ste. Catherine being the biggest) where stylish shops and clothing boutiques abound—Bordeaux may favor understatement, but there's no lack of elegance in and around its Golden Triangle shopping district.
Bear in mind that the soldes (sales) start in France at the height of summer, especially just before Bastille (July 14) weekend.
Jean d'Alos Fromager-Affineur
For an exceptional selection of cheeses, go to Jean d'Alos Fromager-Affineur.
Inside the École du Vin, Vinothèque sells top-ranked Bordeaux wines.
With five stores in Bordeaux alone, Baillardran is going to be hard to walk by without at least looking in its windows at those indigenous sweet delights, Bordelais cannelés! Much like a Doric column in miniature, the small indented, caramelized cakes, made with vanilla and a dash of rum, are a delicious regional specialty.
École du Vin de Bordeaux
On tree-lined Cours du XXX-Juillet, not far from the banks of the Garonne and the main artery of the Esplanade des Quinconces, you'll find the École du Vin. Run by the CIVB (Conseil Interprofessionnel des Vins de Bordeaux, which oversees the Bordeaux wine trade), this school organizes wine initiation and tasting classes. The on-site Le Bar à Vin is a good place to sample reds (like Pauillac or St-Émilion), dry whites (like an Entre-Deux-Mers, Graves, or Côtes de Blaye), and sweet whites (like Sauternes or Loupiac). This can be particularly useful when trying to decide which of the 57 wine appellations to focus on during your trip. You can also make purchases at the school's Vinothèque.
This may not be one of France's finer Gothic cathedrals, but the intricate 14th-century chancel makes an interesting contrast with the earlier nave. Excellent stone carvings adorn the facade of this hefty edifice. You can climb the 15th-century, 160-foot Tour Pey-Berland for a stunning view of the city; it's open Tuesday–Sunday, 10–noon and 2–5.
One of the region's most famous wine-producing châteaux is actually within the city limits: follow N250 southwest from central Bordeaux for 3 km (2 miles) to the district of Pessac, home to Haut-Brion, producer of the only non-Médoc wine to be ranked a premier cru (the most elite wine classification). It's claimed the very buildings surrounding the vineyards create their own microclimate, protecting the precious grapes and allowing them to ripen earlier. The white château looks out over the celebrated pebbly soil. The wines produced at La Mission–Haut Brion (Domaine Clarence Dillon), across the road, are almost as sought-after.
Musée d'Art Contemporain
Just north of the Esplanade des Quinconces (a sprawling square), this two-story museum is imaginatively housed in a converted 19th-century spice warehouse—the Entrepôt Lainé. Many expositions here showcase cutting-edge artists who invariably festoon the huge expanse of the square with hanging ropes, ladders, and large video screens.
One block south of the École du Vin is the city's leading 18th-century monument: the Grand Théâtre, designed by Victor Louis and built between 1773 and 1780. It's the pride of the city, with an elegant exterior ringed by graceful Corinthian columns and a dazzling foyer with a two-winged staircase and a cupola. The theater hall has a frescoed ceiling with a shimmering chandelier composed of 14,000 Bohemian crystals.
Musée des Beaux-Arts
Bordeaux was one of 15 French cities chosen by Napoléon to showcase his war-acquired works (most notably from Italy) along with bits of existing royal art, so this museum has a fetching collection. Expanded to include pieces from the 15th century to the present, it now displays important paintings by Paolo Veronese (St. Dorothy), Camille Corot (Bath of Diana), and Odilon Redon (Apollo's Chariot), plus sculptures by Auguste Rodin. Located near the Cathédrale St-André and ornate Hôtel de Ville, the Museé des Beaux-Arts is flanked by tidy gardens.
Two blocks south of the Cathédrale St-André, this excellent museum takes you on a trip through Bordeaux's history, with emphasis on Roman, medieval, Renaissance, colonial, and 20th-century daily life. The detailed prehistoric section almost saves you a trip to Lascaux II, which is reproduced here in part.
Pont de Pierre
For a view of the picturesque quayside, stroll across the Garonne on this bridge, built on the orders of Napoléon between 1810 and 1821, and until 1965 the only bridge across the river.