When most people refer to Bordeaux, they often mean the famous wine region in Southwest France where legendary chateaux like Petrus, Margaux, and Lafite are from. People forget, or perhaps are ignorant of the fact, that Bordeaux is also the key city of the Aquitaine region, a sprawling urban center with architecture, culture, and a well-preserved historic quarter that's worth more than just a passing glance along the way to the wine estates in the surrounding countryside. If Bordeaux has been overlooked in the past, that's because up until the last decade, the city center was in the throes of a slow and consistent process of urban decay. Traffic jams were common, streets were dimly lit and unsafe at night, and most buildings were covered in graffiti and grime.
Tourist arrivals were so negligible, there wasn't even a single luxury hotel in town. But after an ambitious urban regeneration program was implemented in 2006, main avenues were pedestrianized, architectural landmarks were scrubbed and spruced up, while tram lines and bike lanes discouraged the use of cars to free up space for the public. The city today is enjoying a renaissance of sorts. The 18th century neo-classical architecture that put Bordeaux on the UNESCO World Heritage list can now be enjoyed leisurely on foot or from the vantage point of any one of the squares that have been liberated by the scourge of cars. As I write this, the once abandoned dockyards along the Garonne River is being gentrified with chic apartment blocks, hip cafes, and an organic market rising close to the gleaming glass and steel La Cite du Vin, a brand new museum dedicated to wine. Here's an itinerary of the city and the surrounding vineyards if ever you find yourself with a free weekend while in Paris or traveling elsewhere in France.
Noon. Book a room at the Grand Hotel and a table for lunch
The recently refurbished neo-classical building on the square across the elegant Grande Theater is, to the surprise of many, the only true luxury hotel in the city for now like so much of the 18th century landmarks of Bordeaux, the historic hotel fell into disrepair and was eventually shuttered. The property recently reopened under the management of the InterContinental Hotels Group with 130 luxurious rooms and suites, two Gordon Ramsay restaurants, and a spa. If money's no matter, book the Royal Suite with its tastefully decorated antique furnishings, authentic belle époque charm, and spectacular roof deck with panoramic views of the 18th century roofs cape of Bordeaux and landmarks like the column of the Girondins, Saint-Andre Cathedral, and the Grande Theater across. For lunch, book a table at the hotel's elegant brasserie fronting the square.
Le Bordeaux Gordon Ramsay is one of two restaurants in the property run by the celebrity chef; the other, Le Pressoir d ‘Argent on the upper floor is a fine-dining establishment with two Michelin stars — the only one in the city so far. The casual brasserie offers a classic French menu but ask for the dishes featuring seasonal ingredients from the rich agricultural region of Aquitaine — and some local wine from Bordeaux, of course.
2 p.m. Wine classes at La Cite du Vin
In Bordeaux, naturally, the topic and study of wine is inescapable. But before the city's first wine museum opened in 2016, there was no other way for visitors to get any in-depth information on the area's wine culture other than directly from the estates themselves. The new La Cite du Vin along the riverfront covers every aspect of wine you can imagine: with interactive, and often imaginative, exhibits on the varied histories, terroir, cultures, and ways of appreciating wine within Bordeaux and around the world.
Two floors will be of particular interest to advanced wine lovers. The ground floor with its cavernous cellar features bottles from over 70 wine-producing countries—most of them obscure. On the eighth floor, museum pass holders can enjoy a wine-tasting session on a terrace overlooking the Garonne River and the city skyline beyond.
5 p.m. Vintage shopping along rue Notre Dame
For shopping, most visitors gravitate towards the big-brand shops and department stores on rue Sainte-Catherine, the longest pedestrian shopping street in France. But if you're into something less commercial, the shops along rue Notre Dame in the Chartrons district offer an amazing array of antiques, vintage furniture, and local fashion labels. The prices aren't cheap, but many of the paintings, sculpture, and oriental carpets sold in the stores are priceless heirloom pieces unloaded by wine estates in the process of renovating their chateaux or cash-strapped aristocratic families from the region.
8 p.m. Wine and dine in the city's only two Michelin-starred restaurant
Most of the best restaurants in Bordeaux are found close to the vineyards or in the premises of chateaux in the countryside. Which explains the long waiting list for a table at Le Pressoir d'Argent Gordon Ramsay, the only two Michelin-starred restaurant in the city center. Chef Gilad Peled, a former soldier in the Israeli Army, was handpicked by Ramsay himself after working in the celebrity chef's acclaimed London restaurant in Royal Hospital Road. Gilad's background in the army has been put to good use with military-like organization and precision in the kitchen that helped Le Pressoir achieve two Michelin stars in just over a single year of operation. And with the Atlantic coast and the Dordogne valley on the border of Bordeaux, Chef Gilad is spoiled for choice, with prized ingredients like oysters from Arcachon and foie gras from Perigord always in abundance.
8 a.m. Take a morning walk along the Garonne
An early morning stroll along the riverfront introduces the weekend traveler to the city's most important landmarks. Begin at the Miroir d'eau where the identical image of the grand buildings and fountains on the Place de la Bourse can be seen in all its perfect symmetry on the reflecting pool. If there's one photo of the city you must take, it's this. Carry on closer to the historic Pont de Pierre, the city's iconic stone bridge connecting the left and right banks of Bordeaux, before crossing over to Porte Cailhou, the massive medieval gate that was once the main entry point to the city. From hereon, follow your instincts and lose yourself in the warren of streets and squares of the historic quarter where 362 national heritage sites are clustered, a collection of historic monuments that ranks second only to Paris.
10 a.m. Join a wine tour in the Medoc
The tourist office in the city offers plenty of day tours to the vineyards and wineries in the Bordeaux countryside, but most are to less prestigious estates that have turned to tourism for extra income. Instead, try to get yourself invited to a top-tier property like Chateau Margaux in nearby Medoc on the left bank of the river. The chateau and tree-lined vineyards are as elegant as its legendary wines, and if you're lucky, you can arrange for wine-tasting in their new tasting room after you're done touring the cellars. Visits are by invitation only, and if Margaux can't accommodate you, another memorable experience awaits at Chateau Siran up the road. Though smaller in size, the proprietors of Siran more than make up for this with an intimate tour of their well-curated museum of wine-related artifacts and a tasting session on their terrace overlooking quaint views of vineyards and the village church.
1 p.m. Onwards to Saint-Emilion for lunch with a view
In Bordeaux, the taste of wine varies from plot to plot, appellation to appellation, and most significantly, from left bank to right bank. After tasting the wines of the Medoc, head across the Garonne towards the right bank of the Dordogne River. The picturesque rolling hills of the Libourne where the appellations of Pomerol and Saint-Emilion are provide a stark contrast to the flat landscape of the left bank.Thus, it's the perfect location for an outdoor lunch. La Terrasse Rouge on the property of Chateau La Dominique is a popular choice for its modern architectural design, award-winning cuisine, outstanding wine list (including the estate's own), and spectacular terrace views of the vineyards of Petrus and Cheval-Blanc, the world's most expensive wines.
4p.m. Explore the streets of the medieval village of Saint-Emilion
Many come to Saint-Emilion to visit the Premier Grand Cru Classe estates of Angelus, Ausone, Figeac, and Cheval-Blanc. However, a tour of the medieval village of Saint-Emilion, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, should be on the agenda as well. Above the steep cobbled streets and squares of town, one catches a breathtaking panorama of medieval terracotta-tiled houses, and sweeping views of the 13th century King's Tower, Saint-Emilion Cathedral, and the green fields of the Dordogne Valley in the distance. While in town, might as well try the original French macaron at the Patisserie Fermigier where a recipe developed by nuns in the 1600s continues to be safeguarded and used. Then wrap up your walking tour with a visit to any one of the many wine shops to stock up on bottles of rare Angelus and Figeac vintages before making one last drive through the scenic vineyards of the Libournais and en route to Gare de Bordeaux-Saint-Jean in time for the night train back to Paris.
Photographs by David Celdran
This story first appeared in Vault Magazine Issue No. 24 2018.