Bordeaux is a wonderful city. It has broad boulevards lined with trees, charming eighteenth century architecture, a wealth of tasty restaurants and wine bars, and cute parks and squares to lose oneself to one’s thoughts. I love it here. And yet, there is so much to do just outside the city boundaries, as well, and a couple day trips can truly take your experience in Bordeaux from wonderful to magical. From the rivers Garonne and Dordogne to the Atlantic Ocean to some of the best wine sub-regions in France, Bordeaux offers some remarkable side trips to experience the full breadth of the Aquitaine region.
Even in a month, I didn’t have time to do all of the trips I’d want, and as I’d never recommend something to you that I haven’t experienced myself – that seems both creatively and intellectually dishonest – here are two day trips that I took from my base here in Bordeaux that are both easy and enjoyable.
While Bordeaux sits straddling the Garonne River, it is only a short train ride from the ocean. However, that short journey feels like a world away. A less than €20 round trip ticket from Bordeaux’s St. Jean station takes you to the coastal town of Arcachon in about an hour. Arcachon sits on the Basin of Arcachon – shockingly – a tidal bay full of blue water and bright yellow sand bars.
Arcachon is a cute town with some awesome houses!
From the station in Arcachon, it is an easy walk to the beach, and to any number of tourist-trap restaurants along the way. There are also some legitimately great seafood shacks, or so TripAdvisor tells me, selling Arcachon’s famous oysters and other delights from the bay. (Arcachon is supposedly home to the world’s best oysters, and even in Bordeaux one can find a plate of six of the little guys and a glass of white wine for €8 or so at either the Marché des Capucins or the Sunday farmer’s market along the river.)
Not a bad haul for €8!
I would love to tell you all my secret of where to go for these delicacies in Arcachon, but at least in winter, restaurants seem to be closed between 2pm and dinner (other than overpriced pizza for tourists). Learn from my mistakes, and plan your day accordingly.
I spent the lunch hour at the other famous attraction of the region: the Dune de Pilat, Europe’s largest sand dune. From the Arcachon station, about 45 minutes on Bus One will take you to the base of this 300+ foot tall, mile and a half long sand mountain. It can get very crowded on a pretty weekend, and seats on the bus are limited, and so unless you are ok standing you might want to push your way through like the locals do. (Europeans are not known for their ability to form orderly lines for such things.) The bus does not run very often (roughly hourly in the winter), but it is only €1 each way.
The climb up is short and steep, but it is a wonderful place to spend a couple hours with a book and a view of the ocean – and a picnic lunch garnered from one of the restaurants while it is still open!
The view from the top of the dune.
If oysters and sand dunes don’t sound like your idea of a good day, another sub-€20 ticket will take you less than an hour to the small village of Saint-Emilion. This adorable town is famous for one reason: wine. The appellation of Saint Emilion (and its finer varieties Saint Emilion Grand Cru and Grand Cru Classé) is one of the finest in the region, and priced accordingly. (In France, unlike in the United States, wines are classified by geographic region rather than grape variety. The Saint Emilion family are blends of mostly Merlot with some Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc.)
The vineyards of Saint-Emilion.
The Saint-Emilion station is about half a mile from the village, so you’ll need to be prepared to walk. Alternatively, you can book a half- or full-day tour from Bordeaux. The walk will take you past vineyards and chateaux, all advertising their specific brands. In winter, few of the wineries outside of town are open, but most of the top ones also maintain tasting rooms (and even cellars) inside the town itself. All will charge you for tastings unless you express that you truly intend to buy a bottle or two, in which case the good ones will allow you to taste wines in your price range free of charge. You can also tour the cellars, carved into the stone hillside beneath the town.
The town itself is also beautiful!
Touring the cellars is fun as well.
Saint-Emilion, unsurprisingly for such a famous wine village, is also well known for its fine dining scene, and you may want to enjoy a good meal or two while in town. I had this incredible Vietnamese duck dish for lunch, served with steamed rice, at Cafe Saigon, but there are so many good looking options in the village.
If you find yourself in Bordeaux with a day or two to spare, either of these trips makes for a delightful change of pace from the city. I find side trips like these to truly make my experience in a place complete, and I hope you enjoy them!
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