The city of Bordeaux cuts a fine figure, towering above the west bank of the River Garonne, a blend of Neoclassical grandeur and modern innovation. The Romans set up a lively trading centre here, and the city still functions as the transport hub for Aquitaine. First-rate museums, excellent shopping, fine restaurants and lively nightlife make Bordeaux an absorbing place to spend a long weekend.
At the heart of the old town centre is place de la Bourse. Smart streets radiate out from here: the city’s main shopping streets, rue Ste-Catherine and the cours de l’Intendance to the south and west, and the sandy, tree-lined allées de Tourny to the northwest. The narrow streets around place du Parlement and place St-Pierre – lined with ancient townhouses doubling up as bistros, boutiques and vintage shops – make for a pleasant stroll.
Crossing the river just south of the fifteenth-century Porte Cailhau is the impressive Pont de Pierre – “Stone Bridge”. It was built on Napoleon’s orders during the Spanish campaigns, with seventeen arches in honour of his victories. The views of the river and quays from here are stunning, especially at dusk.
Bordeaux’s best museums are scattered in the streets around the cathedral. Directly behind the classical hôtel de ville is the Musée des Beaux-Arts. It has a small star-studded European art collection, featuring Titian and Rubens, and good temporary exhibitions.
To the northwest of the city centre is the beautiful formal park, the Jardin Public, containing the city’s botanical gardens. To the east of the Jardin Public, close to the river, is the Musée d’Art Contemporain on rue Ferrère, occupying a converted nineteenth-century warehouse. The vast, arcaded hall is magnificent in its own right, and provides an ideal setting for the post-1960 sculpture and installations by artists like Richard Long and Sol LeWitt. Following the curve of the river north from the Musée d’Art Contemporain, you reach the down-at-heel but historic Chartrons, once the wine district. It’s becoming increasingly cool, sprouting artists’ studios, vintage shops and restaurants, as well as a Sunday farmers’ market.
It’s better to lodge in the centre of Bordeaux rather than venture out to rue Charles-Domercq and cours de la Marne, which are rife with grimy one- and two-star hotels. Book well ahead if visiting during the Vinexpo trade fair (in odd-numbered years) or the Fête du Vin (in even-numbered years) in June.
Bordeaux is packed with good restaurants to suit any budget and the streets around rue du Parlement St-Pierre and rue St-Remi are full of eateries, while upmarket options crowd around place du Parlement and towards Chartrons. The student population ensures a collection of young, lively bars, especially around place de la Victoire, and the city has a strong gay scene.