The capital of the world’s wine industry, Bordeaux is an intoxicating mix of 18th-century grandeur, first-rate museums, ancient churches and vibrant neighborhoods. A recent makeover has made the city known as The Pearl of Aquitaine even more appealing. The city’s historic center has been renovated to its original glory and the banks of the Garonne River are now lined with gardens, parks and open-air cafés. With its flat geography, walking and cycling have always been a favorite mode of transportation in Bordeaux, but a new tramway system has made the city even easier to navigate.
The city in the southwest of France makes a great base for excursions into wine country, and there are plenty of sights and attractions in Bordeaux too, including restaurants and bars where visitors can sample wines from the region’s 57 appellations. From nights at the opera to days spent exploring the luxury shops around the elegant Place Gambetta, there are always exciting things to do in Bordeaux.
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The oldest bridge in Bordeaux, the Pont de Pierre was built during the early 1800s under the orders of Napoleon Bonaparte. The bridge’s 17 arches were intended to represent the 17 letters of the emperor’s name. Each of the spans is marked with a white medallion in honor of Napoleon as well. The strong currents of the Garonne River make bridge building in Bordeaux challenging, and the Pont de Pierre served as the city’s only bridge until 1965. The stone bridge offers wonderful views of Bordeaux’s newly revamped quayside.
The second of Bordeaux’s remaining medieval gates, the Porte de la Grosse Cloche was named after the “big bell” installed in its central tower in 1775. Built over the remains of an earlier 13th-century portal, the belfry itself was added in the 15th century. Flanked by two circular towers, the belfry is one of the city’s best-loved landmarks. Named Armande-Louise, the giant bell rings six times each year to commemorate events like the Storming of the Bastille and VE Day. The gateway once served as a prison, and tours lead visitors into the dungeons known as the “Hotel du Lion d’Or,” a reference to the lion-shaped weather vane on the gateway’s central dome.
Art lovers are sure to be impressed by Bordeaux’s beautiful Museum of Fine Arts. Established in 1801, the permanent collection of the recently renovated museum is spread out over two wings and features masterpieces from the 15th to 20th century. Enriched by art seized during the Napoleonic Wars, the exhibits include works by Europe’s greatest artists, from Titian and Veronese to Renoir and Rubens. French and Dutch art from the 19th century is particularly well represented. For visitors short on time, the themed exhibitions in nearby Galerie of Beaux-Arts offer in-depth looks at the museum’s wide-ranging collection.
The soaring 15th-century bell tower known as The Arrow is the main attraction at the charming Basilique Saint Michel. The soil around Bordeaux may be perfect for growing grapes, but the subsoil is too weak to support heavy structures, so the slender 37-story high tower was built next to the cathedral rather than atop it. Visitors can climb the 230 steps to the top to enjoy panoramic views of the city. Inside the Gothic church, a depiction of Saint Michael slaying the dragon adorns the pulpit. The recently restored organ is also a standout feature.
Located at the Place du Palais on the banks of the Garonne River, the Porte Cailhau once served as the main entrance to the city. Designed as a monument to Charles VIII, the medieval gateway looks much the same as it did when it was constructed in 1495. Standing 10 stories high at its turreted apex, it was once incorporated into the city walls. The gate is of architectural interest because it contains both Gothic and Renaissance features. An exhibit displays the types of tools and materials used for its construction.
One of the longest pedestrian streets in Europe, the rue Sainte-Catherine has been closed off to traffic since 1984. It was completely renovated in the early 2000s. Lined with major French chains and retailers, the northern part of the street is a prime shopping destination. The entrance to the historic Galerie Bordelaise shopping center is located near the street’s northernmost point. With its many restaurants, cafés and boutiques, the southern section is popular with the city’s more than 60,000 students. At the street’s center point is the Place Saint-Project, a pretty square where visitors can relax and contemplate their next destination.
One of the best places to explore French history outside of Paris, the Museum of Aquitaine charts the timeline of the region from prehistoric to modern times. Opened in 1987, the museum is also the burial place of statesman, philosopher and author Michel Eyquem de Montaigne, who is considered the most famous Bordelais in history. Eleanor of Aquitaine’s life is well represented here too, as is Edward of Woodstock, the son of King Edward III known in France as the Black Prince. There’s a detailed reproduction of some of the prehistoric cave paintings from Lascaux on display as well.
Best known as the place where a 13-year-old Eleanor of Aquitaine married Louis VII, the Cathédrale Saint-André de Bordeaux is located in the southern section of the city’s historic district. While only one wall of the original 11th-century nave remains, the cathedral’s soaring arches, intricately sculpted wood organ, stone-carved façade and separate bell tower are well worth a visit. As of 2015, the cathedral is also home to a collection of religious artifacts bequeathed to the state by the late Canon Marcadé. It includes 42 illuminated manuscripts made between the 14th and 16th century.
Designed by renowned architect Victor Louis, the 18th-century Grand Théâtre is Bordeaux’s star cultural attraction. Its neoclassical exterior with its parade of Corinthian columns lets visitors know they are about to enter a temple dedicated to the performing arts. Inside is a grand foyer adorned with marble statues that leads to stunning blue and gold hall decorated with frescoes and a massive crystal chandelier. Opened in 1780 and restored in 1991, the theater is home to the Opéra National de Bordeaux. The theatre where Marius Petipa once staged ballets in the 1840s also plays host to the Ballet National de Bordeaux.
No visit to Bordeaux is complete without a visit to the city’s most famous square. The Place de la Bourse has been a symbol of Bordeaux since its creation in the early 1700s. Conceived by Jacques Gabriel, architect to King Louis XV, the open design of the plaza represented the end of the walled cities of the Medieval Era. Rimmed with elegant 18th-century buildings on three sides, the square was originally separated from the Garonne River by railings. Today, a shallow water feature known as the Miroir d’Eau marks the boundary between square and stream.