Visit Bordeaux – a list of great things to see and do
As we travelled around the south west of France in our motorhome, we were keen to stay in the smaller towns and villages. The exception was always going to be Bordeaux. As lovers of French wine, we’ve visited many of the French winery regions like Champagne, Burgundy and the Loire (to name a few). We hadn’t however made it to the Bordeaux region and to the city of the same name. This time we were keen to visit Bordeaux.
There’s always so much to do in the bigger cities, and unless you’ve lived there for a long period of time, or just spent ages in them, it’s hard to see and do everything. Exploring large cities takes time to visit new places and then systematically retrace your steps time and time again. Each time, there’s always something different, you see it with a different set of eyes.
We were only in Bordeaux for a few days, but we were ever so pleased that we got to visit, even though I think the city turned on some of its worst weather of the season for us.
We were on the go the whole time but here’s a rundown of what we were able to see in Bordeaux in 48 hours.
Get a City Pass
The Bordeaux City Pass is very good value for money in a city the size of Bordeaux that has so much to see and do. Available as 24, 48 or 72-hour passes, they are the perfect accompaniment for a few days in Bordeaux. Not only do they include your public transport for this period, they also include entry to a raft of different city sights, museums, and a great list of what to do in Bordeaux.
As not-so-keen museum attendees, I will also go on record as saying they encouraged us to go to places that we would never otherwise have bothered with. Perhaps there is hope after all!
The City Pass covers free entry to the La Cité du Vin, a museum and exhibition centre that focuses on all things wine. It also covers access to eight museums and exhibitions and seven important monuments in the city area.
A guided tour is also included and this is available as a bus, tourist train or walking tour. As mentioned earlier, free access is also provided for the tram, bus and river ferry for the duration of your pass.
Bordeaux City Passes may be purchased online.
Get a different perspective
Terracotta rooftops meet our gaze from our position at the top of the tower of the Basilica of St Michel. As far as our eyes can see, the ancient stone roofs form a patchwork against the pale stone of the buildings they protect. Getting up high always allows a spatially challenged person like me to get some perspective. It helps me immensely when I’m walking around a new city.
Today, we are also rewarded with the brightly coloured shades of the vendors below, selling their fresh produce at the weekly Farmer’s Markets. It’s a rainy day when we are here, but that doesn’t stop the locals coming out to buy their fresh fruit and vegetables.
The Gothic-inspired basilica, with the second highest tower in France, sits in the centre of Place St Michel. It’s a thriving area with a strong mix of North African, Middle Eastern and Eastern European people coming together to form an eclectic mix of up and coming food areas. Many visitors to Bordeaux don’t venture down this far which is unfortunate as it’s a really great area.
We climbed the steps of the tower, a reasonably easy walk albeit with a tight, spiral staircase. There’s no up and down lanes, so if you meet someone on the steps, which you invariably will, you’ll just need to suck in your breath and try and become one with the stone wall. The 15th-century bell tower is 114 metres and its bells continue to ring out every day.
Like many of the churches and towers built so long ago (this one was built between 1472 and 1492), they’ve ensured their fair share of damage. Lightning and storms have ravaged this one over the years, but today at least, it is UNESCO protected to try and preserve it for the future.
*Entry using the Bordeaux City Pass
Visit the local food markets
A short walk along the main street leading away from the tower is Marché des Capucins, the largest market in Bordeaux, and a place that was firmly on our must-visit list. Passing numerous cafes selling African and Middles Eastern food, as well as a market selling cheap imitation Nikes and other fashion items, we started to see the evidence of the market.
Lettuce leaves, peeled off their round bodies were strewn in the gutters and fruit and vegetable boxes, once full of produce were now all piled up on the side of the streets. With each step, the sounds of the market became more obvious, as the vendors spruiked their wares and encouraged us to come and try.
Like so many of these wonderful French markets, people come here to eat as well as to buy. Friends stood around wooden barrels, shucking their own oysters and washing them down with a glass of rosé.
A modern looking cafe pumped out tapas at a rate that would make most people’s head spin. If you want a seat here, my tip would be to arrive early, such is the popularity of this market on a weekend. By the time we got there, it was standing room only at most of the bars and cafes. That’s all part of the fun though, and I was happy to squeeze my way in beside a man at a bar to drink my chocolate chaud and devour my flaky croissant.
We also couldn’t go past one of our favourite things to eat in a French market. Rotisserie cooked chicken, that sees the chicken fat constantly basted over the bird and potatoes cooked on the bottom in all the juices might not be the healthiest option around but it’s a beautiful treat.
On Sundays, along the promenade the Marché des Quais is another good market. Much smaller than the main market, it does however get quite busy on the days that the huge cruise ships are in port.
Historical places to visit in Bordeaux
Bordeaux is home to some incredible architectural gates, built as entrance ways to the city. Porte Cailhau is the second of the two entrances built in the Middle Ages, and still an important part of today’s city landscape.
Porte Cailhau, once part of the city’s defensive walls, is 35 metres tall and is open to the public. Built between 1493 and 1496, it is actually like a small castle, with three levels, various rooms and hidden stairwells to allow for a quick and discreet exit if necessary.
It is now used as a mini museum and a great place for a view of the Pont de Pierre.
*Entry using the Bordeaux City Pass
La Grosse Cloche
La Grosse Cloche is the second of the two city entrances in Bordeaux. This one, complete with conical towers houses the Great Bell of the city and has done so since the 14th century. Like the Porte Cailhau, this gate was also part of the city’s defence lines and also became a prison. The Great Bell now rings six times a year for important French days like Bastille Day and also on the first Sunday of every month.
*Entry using the Bordeaux City Pass
Place de la Victoire
On the edge of the city proper, lies the Place de la Victoire, another huge stone cobbled square at the end of several of the main city streets. A stone arch has been built here, like one of the entrances to the city. The Porte d’Aquitaine is a 17th-century gate that marks the city centre’s meeting of surrounding south-eastern suburbs. There’s not much to really do here though and the square feels quite drab.
The square is also home to a 16-metre high bronze and marble column and bronze turtles that celebrate the region’s wine culture.
Pont de Pierre
Spanning the Garonne River and easily accessible from the promenade is the Pont de Pierre, a stone vaulted bridge, it was built by Napolean.
Porte de Bourgogne
This archway was buiilt in 1757 and marks the entrance to the city from the Pont de Pierre.
Place de la Comedie
Culminating at the end of Rue St Catherine, the Place de la Comedie is yet another square anchoring the inner city. Here you will find the Grand Théâtre de Bordeaux,
A number of special buildings can be found in Place Pey-Berland, west of Rue St Catherine. The Hotel de Ville (Town Hall) which are usually spectacular buildings didn’t disappoint here. If you come here on a Saturday, there’s usually a procession line of weddings taking place which is quite interesting to watch.
The Cathedral Saint-Andre (St Andre), more commonly known as the Bordeaux Cathedral sits opposite the Hotel de Ville. It was opened up in 1096 and remains a very popular and well-attended church today. Whilst we were there we were privy to an induction of new priests.
The Tour Pey-Berland is a stand-alone bell tower adjacent to the cathedral.it was built in the 15th century. It was built separately so as to not compromise the structure of the cathedral.
*Entry using the Bordeaux City Pass
Place du Parlement
This is a great place to stop for a rest after pounding the streets. This square is one of the most important in Bordeaux. Sip on a quiet beer or have something to eat at one of the many places that line the square and take in the beauty of the surrounding 18th-century buildings that are built in local limestone.
Along the promenade
The Miroir d’eau or water mirror was one of my favourite things here. It’s simplistic enough. Located on the promenade that runs along the Garonne River, the water mirror is a feature that uses water to create a stunning mirror effect. Watch it for long enough and you’ll also see the mist rising from beneath the pool.
When it isn’t misting, the water sits at about two centimetres deep, reflecting off the granite base. It’s fun and a perfect way to cool down on a hot day.
The most photographed place in Bordeaux sits immediately in front of the Place de la Bourse, an area comprised of some of the most beautiful buildings in the city. The architecture in this square shows off the beauty of the French architecture and celebrates its prosperity.
Shopping for fashion and other stuff (food excluded) is usually not high on our list of preferred things to do when we travel, but here in Bordeaux, we made an exception. Rue St Catherine is the longest pedestrian shopping street in all of Europe!
We walked the entire length of the 1.2-kilometre trail, from Place de la Victoire through to Place de la Comedie. Even better, we strategically walked it on a Sunday, when most of the stores were closed, save for a few takeaway places.
There are several gardens in Bordeaux however they are on the outsides of the city. The promenade has some beautiful gardens, especially during the warmer months.
The main gardens are Jardin Public, a space built for the community in 1746. Like any garden in a big, concrete city, the gardens are where the locals and visitors flock to for some calm in amongst the hustle of everyday life.
On the waterfront, there is a garden although it’s probably my least favourite part of Bordeaux. In a city that is so historic, so beautiful, with wonderful buildings, bridges and general architecture, the garish permanent carnival/flavour is strange and out of place. The shot below doesn’t show just how ordinary this area is.
Where to stay in Bordeaux
There are so many options to choose from if you are planning on staying in the heart of Bordeaux.
For location, there’s probably no better spot than the Intercontinental Bordeaux Le Grand Hotel on the Place de la Comedie.
You can read the reviews on Tripadvisor
For something outside a chain, try the Le Boutique Hotel.
A more compact hotel but with great reviews on Trip Advisor.
Located right near the Pont de Pierre Bridge, the Appartements Bordeaux Saint Michel allow for self-catering and more of a mid-range price.
The Mercure Bordeaux Centre Hotel offers good proximity to all the major areas of Bordeaux’s centre whilst not being too heavy on your wallet. It’s a standard Mercure offering, without any frills.
You can see the reviews and photos on Trip Advisor.
Check out Trip Advisor for reviews, pricing and availability of more Bordeaux accommodation. Trip Advisor acts as a search engine so you can use your favourite booking sites.
As we were travelling in a motorhome, we found it much easier to stay out of Bordeaux, and instead stayed at a local vineyard and winery, Vignobles Cauget, in an outer village of Cambes. As part of the France Passion network in France, this privately owned property opens its doors to travellers, allowing them to stay for a night.
We loved Bruno and Marie, our hosts, so much that we returned to them for another night. Perhaps it was their exceptional claret that drew us back, but whatever the case, their hospitality, location and wine made for a perfect place to stay.
We used our City Pass to catch a bus into the main train station (La Gare St Jean) and then caught the local trams to where we needed to get to in the city. There are many “park and ride”locations on the outskirts of the city, making catching public transport very easy.
Motorhome parking in Bordeaux
On our last day in Bordeaux, we drove the motorhome into the city. We hadn’t dared on our first day as it is usually very difficult to park in big cities. We did, however, find somewhere to park legally, but it’s a bit tricky.
There is one (and only one) area where a vehicle of this size may be parked. It is in the public car park adjacent to the fairground, between Allées de Chartres and Allées de Bristol. Opening hours are 8 am – 8 pm and overnight parking here is not permitted. Payment can be made at automatic machines on your return to the vehicle.
Enter via the boom gates located along Allées de Chartres.
Bordeaux is a city you would never get tired of. Being built around a river adds a level of vibrancy to it, and with a larger population, the city is busy and alive. Packed full of cultural activities, history, architecture and of course wonderful food and wine locations, it is a city that is perfect for all visitors.