Bordeaux is best known for being the wine capital of France – and rightly so. But it is much more than just a place to get good wine. It is a historical center, a bastion of creativity, and a place to just live a good and happy life! In a month spent living in this mid-sized city on France’s western edge, I have learned a number of useful things for travelers eager to visit, and I’m glad to share them here with you.
Don’t miss all of our other content on Bordeaux and the surrounding area by clicking on the links throughout this guide.
Scenes like this, squares with awesome architecture, are my favorite memories of Bordeaux.
For most people, arriving in Bordeaux is either by plane at Mérignac Airport (there are direct flights from most major European hubs) or by train at St. Jean station. From the airport, there is an express bus to St. Jean. However, if you prefer to save some money at the expense of 45 minutes or so, for €1.80 you can take the 1 bus all the way, or transfer to one of the tram lines at a couple points on the way. Once at St. Jean, buses and a tram line (from which you can transfer for free to others) run regularly into the center of the city.
It is important to note that there is no public airport transportation between roughly midnight (or a bit later) and when bus service begins, after 4am. So if you arrive late, or leave early, you are likely going to have to take a €30-40 Uber.
If arriving by train and meeting people, note that St. Jean has multiple halls, and depending where you exit your train’s platform, you may not end up in the same area as your party. It is better to arrange a specific meeting spot, like the ever-present McDonald’s.
Nearly everything you’ll want to see in Bordeaux will be within a reasonable walking distance. From Saint-Michel in the south to La Cité du Vin in the north is about a 45-60 minute walk, and that’s about as far as you’ll be going (add about 20 minutes if you are going past Saint-Michel to St. Jean station). However, buses and trams are easy and frequent. A ride on any of them costs €1.80 and can be purchased at any tram stop machine (or €2 on board the bus). All include a free transfer within an hour.
You’ll most often use Bordeaux’s three tram lines which, while very efficient – they run every 10 minutes or less – are a bit confusing, since they cross each other at points. Each stop has a map, and a list of upcoming stops traveling in that direction, so use those.
When taking a tram, you will either tap or insert (in the case of a single use ticket) your card against a machine, which will light up green. While few occasions will have your tickets checked, the fines are steep if you are found to be traveling without a validated ticket. I don’t think it’s worth the risk.
(The trams stop at all stops, but for the bus, you will have to find one of the stop request buttons – there is one by each door – and press it. Or just ask the bus driver. Most are wonderful.)
La Grosse Cloche is one of the old gates to the city.
Where to Stay
While clusters of hotels can be found near the airport and train station, stay in the historic center of Bordeaux. Yes, it’s a bit pricier, but being central to sights and restaurants is worth something. Think of old Bordeaux as being surrounded by the three tram lines (it will look like that on Google maps), and that will give you a basic idea. (A few blocks outside of that is fine.)
As far as American chains, there is the expensive Intercontinental Grand Hotel across from the Opera, a couple of Best Westerns, and little beyond those. There are, however, some lovely boutique properties and a myriad of AirBnb options.
Place de la Bourse is at the heart of where you’ll want to stay in the old city.
What to Do
I’ll assume you came to Bordeaux for the wine first and foremost. The top thing on your to-do list HAS to be La Cité du Vin. It is the world’s largest wine museum, and it is in depth. You could easily spend several hours here to experience everything, not including signing up for one of the extra – read: not included in admission prices – programs or tastings.
La Cité du Vin
The old city is full of awesome things to look at. The Grosse Cloche, Porte Cailhau, Saint-Michel, Pey Berland, and Place de la Bourse are all pretty and nice to take photos. More than these, though, enjoy the eighteenth century architecture of the buildings. There are some truly awesome ones you’ll find just by walking around.
If you want to shop, Rue St. Catherine is the longest pedestrian shopping street in France. If you want to shop for wine, look for any wine store (cave in French).
Cross the river to visit Darwin, the hipster co-working space. I know it doesn’t sound awesome, but it is. And the street art there is fantastic! Plus it’s a really nice walk.
Street art at Darwin
Other than La Cité du Vin, the museums here in Bordeaux are not especially impressive, though better than in Marseille. However, I don’t think any of them is a must-see.
What to Eat
Bordeaux is known for wine, in case you missed that. There are wine bars everywhere. Many of them offer tapas or charcuterie plates for the after-work crowd. Visit one. Heck, visit five. Pretty much all are good, or they wouldn’t stay in business here.
Wine is ever-present in Bordeaux.
The traditional dessert of Bordeaux is called a canelé. It is a cross between a bundt cake and a liquor-infused custard. You may or may not like it, but try one. Canelés Baillardran is the chain you’ll see everywhere, but I prefer La Toque Cuivrée.
Coffee and a canelé.
Oysters. The nearby Arcachon Basin is know for producing some of the best in the world, and they make their way here. For the best and freshest, visit the Marché Capucins (the covered market) where a plate of six and a glass of wine will run about €8. The Sunday market along the river also offers them at a similar price point.
Other Useful Information
I know I say this all the time, but get out of town a bit. There are some great places only an hour or two from Bordeaux that make excellent day trips!
Bordeaux is pretty much entirely flat, so if you enjoy biking, this is a perfect place to rent one. There are bike/jogging paths along many streets, and along the river.
Bordeaux’s weather is famously mild, but fog is really a thing here, and it can completely block visibility. It will normally clear up by mid-day.
Most of Bordeaux is safe, but the gilets jaunes (yellow jacket protestors) are particularly rowdy here as of this writing. Don’t be surprised to see businesses with broken windows along their main routes, and avoid their weekly Saturday marches.
Bordeaux is an amazing quality of life sort of city, with a solid mixture of sights to see, things to experience, and fun areas to explore. And of course, wonderful wines to drink.
If you enjoyed this guide, please check out all of our Ultimate Guides here.
Note: Thank you to Bordeaux Tourism for providing me with a Bordeaux pass, allowing me to visit many of the sights free of charge.
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