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Top Things to Do in Bordeaux, France: A First Timer’s Guide

Exquisite architecture, fresh seafood, a vibrant city with an historic core, and some of the best wine in the world—in a nutshell, this is Bordeaux, France. Even better, the whole city is highly walkable, with pedestrian-only areas and welcoming squares. In less than an hour, you can also visit the beach or make your way to castle-like chateaux producing superb wine in fairy tale settings.

There are so many things to do in Bordeaux that it would be easy to spend a few weeks exploring. But, if your time is limited to a long weekend, it’s still possible to hit the highlights of this lovely region and see some of the best that Bordeaux has to offer. Here’s a look at what we loved most on our first visit to the area.

Visiting Bordeaux, France

Fountain and curved building at Place de la Bourse in Bordeaux.
Place de la Bourse

Bordeaux is both a wine-growing region and a city in southwestern France. First settled in 567 BC, some of the oldest ruins in the city that date from the 4th century can still be visited in the crypt below Saint-Seurin Basilica.

Bordeaux flourished over the centuries thanks to the wine trade. The construction during its golden age in the 18th century is responsible for thousands of buildings that still stand today. Bordeaux’s preserved architecture–which is second in France only to Paris–and its deep history are the basis for its designation as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Though most wine drinkers have heard of Bordeaux wine, interestingly, no wine is produced within the city limits. Bordeaux’s wine region encompasses 65 appellations—such as Haut-Medoc, St-Emilion, and Sauternes—and more than 7000 chateaux. The wineries of the Bordeaux region are generally within a one-hour drive of the city of Bordeaux, making them easy to visit on day trips in a rental car. (See our tips for driving in France.)

Things to do in Bordeaux

Feel regal at Port Cailhau

The castle-like Port Cailhau, a medieval stone city gate.
The imposing Port Cailhau

One of our favorite sites in the city, Port Cailhau has been impressing visitors to Bordeaux for over 500 years. It has been almost unaltered from the time it was built in 1494.

Now one of the most photographed places to visit in Bordeaux, Port Cailhau was both celebratory and defensive. It was an arc of triumph dedicated to King Charles VIII commemorating his victory at Fornovo, Italy. You can see a statue of the king—alongside St. John and the Archbishop of Bordeaux—on the river side of the gate.

Inside the gate is a small museum that tells the story of the construction of Bordeaux’s medieval and Renaissance buildings from the limestone quarries. The exhibits are informative for anyone with an interest in architecture, and we loved the view of the city and the river from 115 feet up.

Admire Place des Quinconces

Lines of uniformly-planted trees in a city square.
Tree-filled Place des Quinconces

At 31 acres, Place des Quinconces is the largest city square in France and one of the largest in Europe. It’s often the home of outdoor concerts, festivals, and fairs, as we found during our visit when the twice-annual antique and flea market Brocante des Quinconces was on.

Laid out in 1820 on the site of Chateau Trompette, a castle-fortress that once stood here, Place des Quinconces had a decidedly less lighthearted purpose when it was conceptualized. It was intended as a defense to prevent rebellion among the citizens, and the guns were pointed toward the city center, as opposed to enemies that might approach from outside.

The Girondins Monument composed of a fountain and tower topped by a statue.
Girondins Monument
Close up of a female statue of a fountain.
The beautiful fountain

Now, it’s full of trees, fountains, and places to grab a bite to eat and relax, in addition to being a major transportation hub. One site not to miss in the square is the Girondins Monument, which honors the Girondists that were victims of the Reign of Terror during the French Revolution. Its pedestal and fountain are decorated with large bronze horses and troops. The tall center column is topped with a statue representing the spirit of liberty breaking free from her chains.

Grab a bite at Les Halles de Bacalan

People enjoying happy hour outside a food hall with a gin for "Les Halles de Bacalan."
The market happy hour crowd

We’ve become huge fans of food halls and markets in places like Copenhagen and Ghent, so our hopes were high during our Bordeaux trip. Les Halles de Bacalan lived up to our expectations in every way.

This modern food hall on Quai de Bacalan houses over 20 different merchants including butchers, seafood sellers, cheesemongers, a wine specialist, and more. There are lots of items to take on a picnic or consume on the spot. And, better yet, most things are local—85% of the products come from southwestern France.

Sausages and jars on a glass counter in a food hall.
Some of the delicious options

We visited twice—once for lunch and once during happy hour. It’s clear that people enjoy food and drink here like they do all over France—it’s not just about eating and drinking, it’s a social occasion. Throughout the kiosks and bars, family, friends, and colleagues cracked open champagne, sipped rose, and savored oysters, tapas, and the other delicious foods for sale throughout Les Halles de Bacalan.

In addition to the food stalls and merchants, there are special events and collaborations all year long. You can experience special tastings, cooking classes, and more, making it one of the fun things to do in Bordeaux for foodies.

See the Miroir d’Eau

Large building reflected in the water on pavement.
The Miroir d’Eau at night

The Miroir d’Eau is one of the most popular Bordeaux attractions. Locals and tourists splash in its pool and relax on the banks of the river, picnicking, listening to music, and otherwise enjoying the ambiance. Even if you only have one day in Bordeaux, it should be at the top of your list.

The Miroir d’Eau first opened in 2006 as a public art installation and has since become a mainstay of the city and an iconic landmark in the country. It was even included as part of the UNESCO World Heritage Site designation for Bordeaux.

The largest reflecting pool in the world, the Miroir d’Eau is only 2 cm deep, but that’s enough water to create the mesmerizing mirroring effect that reflects Place de la Bourse just across the street. The water moves in cycles of fog, mirror, and pool, creating different visuals over 26 minutes. Because of the length of the cycle and people enjoying the site, it can be a challenge to get a good photo without lots of people, so leave yourself a little bit of time, if that’s important to you.

Visit Moon Harbour Distillery

Cylindrical concrete room, filled with whiskey barrels.
The former submarine bunker

Not far from Les Halles de Bacalan, Moon Harbour Distillery offers tours and tastings at its unique facility, a former German World War II submarine bunker. Too massive to destroy after the war, the unused bunker has been an eyesore for over 70 years in a newly developing part of the city. The distillery has changed all that, and a visit here is a must do in Bordeaux for whiskey lovers.

Moon Harbour—the first whiskey distillery in Bordeaux—makes its products just a few feet from the bunker. Its blended whiskies and single malt come to life in the distillery and then move into barrels to age in the bunker. In used wine barrels from the area’s best-known wineries, the products take up residence in the concrete vault for anywhere from three months to three years and one day.

Seeing the barrel room is a cool enough reason to go to Moon Harbour (not that we needed a push to visit a craft distillery) when you visit Bordeaux, but a tour also includes a look at the stills and a product tasting of their whiskies, gin, and other spirits. The grain and the stills themselves are local to Bordeaux, and as with the other French distillery we’ve visited, Maison Manguin in Avignon, you can see each step of the production.

See the Basilica of Saint Michael

Ornate exterior of a cathedral and its bell tower.
500-year-old Basilica of Saint Michael

The Basilica of Saint Michael is impossible to miss because you can see its famous bell tower piercing the sky from just about anywhere in the city. The Basilica itself was built from the late 14th century through the 16th century. The interior of the Gothic church is worth a visit for its pulpit that shows St. Michael slaying the dragon and its 17 side chapels, but it’s the view from the bell tower that’s the real draw.

The freestanding 15th-century bell tower in front of the church soars 375 feet in the air. Known as La Flèche to the locals, it’s the second tallest bell tower in France after Strasbourg Cathedral’s. Climb up the tower for a great view of the city, one of the best things to see in Bordeaux.

Shop on Rue Sainte-Catherine

People walking down a street lined with shops and cafes.
Shoppers on Rue Sainte-Catherine

If shopping is your thing, Rue Sainte-Catherine is the place to go. At 3/4 of a mile long, it’s the longest pedestrian shopping street in Europe.

Rue Sainte-Catherine has over 250 stores—including high-end options, French brands, and bargain stores—along with cafés and restaurants. Even if you’re not shopping, it’s a nice place to relax in a café and do some people watching.

Visit La Cité du Vin

Golden, boot-shaped building.
The unique La Cité du Vin

La Cité du Vin (“The City of Wine,” in English) is Bordeaux’s love letter to wine. It’s fitting that one of the best wine regions in the world is home to one of the best museums in the world—not just wine museums, but museums, period.

La Cité du Vin is completely interactive. You simply wave your audio guide in front of a panel, and you’re transported into the middle of the exhibit. That may mean sipping wine with vintners from the Middle Ages or identifying the aromas commonly found in fruity white varietals. There’s plenty to scratch, sniff, and see. In one room, you nearly lie down as the vineyards of the world surround you.

Visitors smelling wine aromas at a museum.
Visitors learning about aromas
Visitors at a wine bar where glass bottles hang from the ceiling.
Wine tasting in the museum

The museum goes well beyond Bordeaux wines. It covers the history and the process of wine making from its origins millennia ago, and it highlights what makes different wines around the world special. All the education gets put to good use by the end of the visit when you can sample several wines of your choosing from the bar with gorgeous views over Bordeaux. During our visit, they offered a couple of local selections, but there were also wines from Cyprus, the Czech Republic, and other unexpected wine regions.

In addition to the museum, La Cité du Vin hosts classes and special events. There are wine tasting workshops—often with cheese, chocolate, or other delicious bites—happy hours, and even performances.

La Cité du Vin is one of the busiest Bordeaux tourist attractions. We went early on a weekend morning in the spring, and it was packed, so plan your time accordingly if the museum is on your Bordeaux sightseeing list.

Discover Arcachon and Pyla Dune

Ferris wheel and pier on the beach.
Arcachon beach

Without fail, every time we told a local we were planning to visit Arcachon, they let out a happy sigh followed by a big smile and, “you’ll love Arcachon…and you must visit the dune!” They were right.

About an hour from Bordeaux on the Atlantic Ocean is the paradise of Arcachon. This beach city with golden sand and clear water is made for swimming, shopping, relaxing, and oyster eating.

The 350 oyster farms in Arachon Bay are small producers selling almost entirely to locals and nearby restaurants. Without middle men or exporting, the oysters are some of the freshest you’ll ever taste. Finding a seaside spot to enjoy a platter along with a white Bordeaux or bubbly is one of the main activities here.

Oysters on the half shell on an ice platter
Arcachon oyster
People climbing a giant sand dune.
Climbing the Pilat dune

Nearby, you’ll find the Pilat dune, the highest sand dune in Europe. From the 350-foot-high summit you get panoramic views of the bay, the point of Cap Ferret, and the sprawling pine forest. The weather wasn’t on our side the day we made the trip (Lance braved it in the rain), so it’s high on our list for next time.

Visit a local market

Flea market vendors outside a church.
Marché Royal

We love visiting markets when we travel because they give us a chance to interact with locals and because of the ambiance—people are almost always happy when they’re shopping and eating good things. In Bordeaux, you can have this experience almost every day of the year. Markets around the city feature food, flowers, clothing, crafts, and books year-round.

Marché des Capucins is the city’s largest market, and visiting it is one of the top things to do in Bordeaux. With all the things you’d hope for from a French food market like pungent goat cheese, herbs, and fresh produce, it’s a great place to pick up Bordelaise specialties and reminded us why we once planned a whole trip devoted to visiting the colorful markets of the South of France.

Another good option is the Quays Market that happens every Sunday morning on the banks of the Garrone. More than 60 food stands supply locals with their week’s shopping, and there are plenty of places to sample the wares. If you aren’t able to visit Arcachon, a local market like this is an ideal place to try oysters affordably.

We enjoyed the outdoor market Marché Royal at Saint Michel. Every Saturday, food stalls, food trucks, crafts, and flea market vendors put on this huge market with over 150 sellers. The quality is high, and the smells are enticing.

See Cathedral Saint-Andre

Cathedral with two towers and stained glass.
Cathedral Saint-Andre at night

For nearly 1000 years, a church has stood on the spot of Cathedral Saint-Andre in the heart of Bordeaux. A witness to a vast amount of Bordeaux’s illustrious history, most of the current structure was built between the 12th and 14th centuries.

Cathedral Saint-Andre is the seat of the Archbishop of Bordeaux and is renowned as the place where 15-year-old Eleanor of Aquitaine married Louis VII in 1137, shortly before she became Queen of France. As with other grand French cathedrals, Saint-Andre has magnificent vaulted ceilings and stunning stained glass.

If the cathedral isn’t open, visit its freestanding bell tower. Tour Pey-Berland next to the cathedral is a Bordeaux must see. Built in 1440, heading up its 229 steps offers another spectacular view over the city.

Find a café with a view

People sitting at an outdoor cafe by a river.
Sunset at a riverside cafe

The main purpose of Bord’eau Village is shopping. On Sundays, it’s the home of the Quays Market mentioned above, but it’s also a mall with 34 boutiques, furniture shops, and cooking stores. We loved it best for the view and the promenade, though.

At Bord’eau Village, there are more than 10 cafés where you can grab a waterfront table and just relax with coffee or one of Bordeaux’s finest wines in-hand while enjoying the river. Happy hour and weekends are the busiest times with friends and families meeting up to enjoy the nice weather, hang out, and bike and roller blade along the water.

Discover the history and wine of Saint-Emilion

Stone exterior and bell tower of a church.
The historic Monolithic Church

The sloping, cobbled lanes of Saint-Emilion have welcomed visitors for centuries. Just a 30-minute train ride or 45-minute drive, this ancient village is an ideal location for a day trip from Bordeaux.

Saint-Emilion is renowned primarily for two things—its Monolithic Church and the rich red wines produced in the surrounding area. The hulking underground church was dug out of limestone in the early 12th century in honor of the hermit monk Emilion who lived in a cave on the site 400 years earlier. The tourism office runs tours of the church, the catacombs, and related sites, which is the only way to get an inside look at this part of the village’s history.

Ruined wall next to a vineyard.

In addition to the tour, the village of Saint-Emilion itself is lovely. Wander the steep alleys, visit the shops, and take in the views. L’Envers du Décor was our pick for lunch, and you can stop by the historic Les Cordeliers cloisters to enjoy the grounds and taste their range of Crémant de Bordeaux sparkling wines.

There are nearly 1000 chateaux to choose from in Saint-Emilion, and the tourism office can suggest a few that are open the day of your visit, if you’re not able to make plans in advance. The first weekend of May—as we found by happy accident—is Saint-Emilion Portes Ouvertes (“open doors,” in English), a time when many chateaux open for tours, tastings, and special events without the need for reservations. It’s an ideal time to visit if you want to taste lots of Saint-Emilion wines.

Go wine tasting at a chateau

Road sign for the Route des Vins near castle ruins and a vineyard.
Graves and Sauternes vineyards

As with many famous wine regions in Europe (there are exceptions such as Alsace), Bordeaux wines are classified by location rather than by grape. That means that instead of a Merlot or a Sauvignon Blanc, you’ll find a Saint-Emilion Grand Cru, which is a blend of Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Malbec. That can make wine tasting a little confusing if you’re not a wine expert, but, luckily, the experts are very happy to help.

Most chateaux in Bordeaux require reservations to visit, and the appointments are generally individual. Visits are often about an hour, though they can run up to 90 minutes, so it’s helpful to leave some extra time if you’re visiting several in a row. Some chateaux also have on-site restaurants featuring wine pairings, which is an unforgettable experience, if you have the time in your schedule.

Close up of grape leaves at a vineyard in Bordeaux France/
Grapevines in spring

There are thousands of wineries to choose from across the Bordeaux wine region. They vary in age, size, facilities, and the wines they produce. Our goal on our Bordeaux trip was to try a variety of reds and whites of different appellations. If you’re short on time, you may taste more by focusing on visiting a few chateaux in one region.

These are the chateaux we particularly enjoyed.

Chateau Pichon Longueville Baron

Castle-like building and reflecting pool.
The castle-like Chateau Pichon Longueville Baron

Commonly referred to as Pichon Baron, this castle-like chateau in the Pauillac appellation is one of the finest estates in Bordeaux. Founded in 1694, the property has been in its current state since the 1850s when the grand chateau was built and the land was divided among siblings.

With 73 hectares of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, and Petit Verdot along the Gironde estuary, Chateau Pichon Longueville Baron produces renowned wines made for aging. A tour includes a walk through the vineyards, a visit to the barrel room, and a look at the history of the estate. We loved tasting their full-bodied, rich, tannic wines that are otherwise beyond many people’s price point, including ours (bottles begin around $100 and extend beyond $3000).

Chateau d’Agassac

Wine glass held up in front of the exterior of a castle-like building, Chateau d'Agassac.
Outside Chateau d’Agassac

Visiting Chateau d’Agassac, a Haut-Medoc estate, is a dream. Just 20 minutes from the city of Bordeaux, the chateau evokes a fairy tale feel, complete with a moat surrounding the property.

Chateau d’Agassac was built in the 13th century and the winery was established in 1792, making it one of the oldest chateaux in the Medoc. Today, they grow 43 hectares of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Cabernet Franc that go into their five wines, some of which have been named among the best in the world.

Wine barrel room with a close up of a glass jar filled with fruit

The tour includes a look at the grounds and the winery’s efforts to keep both the estate and the wine as natural as possible. You can even book a picnic on the grounds, if you wish.

Chateau de Portets

Stone tower in a vineyard.
In the vineyard of Chateau de Portets

Located in the Graves region, Chateau de Portets produces both red and white wines from the grapes grown on the property. The site is full of history—the chateau itself is built on the site of an ancient fortress and for 200 years was the home of the Baron of Portets. With an important river port on the property, the Chateau played a role in local commerce for centuries and welcomed prominent people like Napoleon and Jean-Jacques Rousseau.

The tour of Chateau de Portets includes interactive components showing how they plant, monitor, and harvest their vineyards, as well as their aging process. A family-run winery since 1956, the enthusiasm for their business and sharing their love of wine is evident in every step. After visiting the barrel room and tasting three wines, we wandered the beautiful grounds along the river and saw the 14th-century tower.

Chateau Filhot

Bottles of different wines displayed in a box.
Sauternes of different ages

Chateau Filhot, an estate in the Sauternes region, dates from the mid-1600s. It has been run by the same family since before the French Revolution, a rarity in Bordeaux. About 20% of the estate’s 350 hectares are dedicated to growing Semillon, Sauvignon Blanc, and Muscadelle. The remainder is forests, parkland, and lakes, which makes it a beautiful place to visit and a great location for the concerts and other events the Chateau hosts throughout the year.

Sauternes is a unique sweet wine that results when the sugars in the grapes are concentrated by botrytis cinereal, also known as nobel rot. Chateau Filot makes several different wines, including its signature, oak-aged Chateau Filot, its second wine Chateau Pineau du Rey, and a lighter third wine called Zest that is often drunk as an aperitif. We bought several bottles to drink now and to age for a few years.

Chateau Pipeau

Wine bottle and glass.

The newest winery we visited on our Bordeaux trip, Chateau Pipeau, is in the hands of fourth-generation wine makers, which tells you a lot about the deep history of wine production in the region. Founded in 1929, Chateau Pipeau produces Saint-Emilion Grand Cru at their 25-hectare, Right Bank winery.

As with the other chateaux, a visit to Pipeau included a look at their production facilities, vineyards, and barrel room. The estate itself is modest compared to some of the regal sites we visited, but the wine is some of the best in the appellation. In addition to the Grand Cru, we tasted an Entre-Deux-Mers AOC Bordeaux from Chateau Joinin, another winery run by the same family. Less than 2 miles from the old town of Saint-Emilion, Chateau Pipeau is a perfect spot for wine tasting on a day trip to the region.

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Monday 29th of April 2024

Excellent article! I’m headed to Bordeaux for 3 weeks to study French. Look forward to seeing it all and tasting it all!

Rana Baker

Saturday 30th of December 2023

Thanks for your blog. We are very interested in visiting. Can we just rely on public transportation for all these activities? How can we visit the wineries without renting a car? Thanks.

Laura Longwell

Monday 8th of January 2024

Everything in town is easily accessible, and you can take the train to Arcachon and Saint-Emilion. Chateau de Portets and Chateau d’Agassac seem like they may be possible to visit via public transportation, but you'd have to walk about 1km. I would suggest checking out their websites or contacting them directly to see if they can provide more information (every winery we contacted before visiting was very responsive).

Alternatively, I would suggest a tour--you'll have less control but will be assured of easy arrival/departure at the wineries. Some suggestions... Two chateaux: Three chateaux: Arcachon/dune:

Tony Powell

Tuesday 4th of February 2020

Hi Laura, We are returning to Paris then Bordeaux at end of February / early March. We love both cities, we are spending 10 nights in Bordeaux on this trip. There have been a few changes in Bordeaux since our last trip, La Cité du Vin for one. We are also visiting the fantastic people at Chateau de Portets this trip. We are also visiting many of the other vineyards and chateaux in this world famous wine region. Your article is very interesting and informative about what this city and region has to offer. We will be definately visiting Arcachon the seafood capital of the region, white wine and oysters, fantastic.


Monday 28th of August 2023

@Tony Powell, interesting read. thank you. We'll be in Bordeaux for 6 days this September. I loved your idea of going to a vineyard And having lunch there. Any suggestions? Also, any suggetions for places to eat in Bordeaux city/

Chris Backe

Thursday 9th of May 2019

OK, so the Quai de Bacalan food hall looked good...

But you had me at whisky distillery...

How pretentious does the city feel? Serious question - you hear it more about Paris...

Laura Longwell

Friday 10th of May 2019

Not a bit. There's tons of history, but there have been so many renovation and revitalization projects recently (and ongoing), that there's a very energetic, fun vibe.

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