36 Hours in Bordeaux
Having long shed its reputation as a backwater, Bordeaux is still often overlooked by travelers intent on the Paris-Provence circuit. Nestled in verdant wine country and on the edge of leading oyster-producing areas, this elegant city on the Garonne River melds a history as a wealthy shipping center with a more recent resurgence in arts and infrastructure to make for a captivating — and mouthwatering — destination that’s easy to navigate on a system of modern trams. And with the high-speed rail service introduced in 2017, it’s just two hours southwest of the French capital.
36 Hours in Bordeaux
1) 7 p.m. Rollin’ on the river
Shake off the travel dust and learn the lay of the land during an aperitif boat ride along the Garonne as it flows through Bordeaux before emptying into the Atlantic. The 90-minute cruise on the 74-passenger, steel-hull Sardane provides expansive views of the grand 18th-century architecture around the Place de la Bourse and its bronze and marble fountain of the Three Graces; the renovated former warehouses of the Quai de Bacalan; the soaring Cité du Vin (City of Wine) museum; and the engineering marvel that is the Jacques Chaban-Delmas vertical-lift bridge, all while you taste two or three local wines and nibble on cheese and charcuterie. Adults 28 euros, or about $31.
2) 8:30 p.m. Rockin’ across the river
Catch an A tram at the Pont de Pierre and cross to the right bank where you’ll find the Rocher de Palmer, a suburban arts and concert venue with eclectic offerings like jazz, rap, classical and world music. Prices generally range from about 17 to 27 euros. Then head back to Rue Notre Dame and a (pre-booked) table at Chez Dupont, on a narrow back street in the trendy Chartrons district, for a late dinner of classic French mains like steak frites, duck confit or lemon-butter sole. Dinner for two with wine is about 100 euros.
3) 9 a.m. Power to the pedal
Dive into the city with the ease of an electric bike on a private guided tour (two hours, 50 euros). Start early to avoid the height of vehicle and foot traffic, don the provided helmet, ride past the monumental Cathedral of St. Andrew and turn north through the Place des Quinconces. Let the engine help you up the slope of the Chaban-Delmas bridge and across to the less-developed right bank. Pause at Darwin, an urban renovation project, billed as a green-economy hub in former military barracks that now house a skate park, pop-up shops, beer gardens and an urban farm. Cross back over on the Pont de Pierre to the Water Mirror installation, an inch-deep pool that reflects the scene and the sky before erasing them in a cloud of mist.
4) 11 a.m. Cake break
Replenish your energy by sampling canelé, the tiny, often rum-flavored, caramelized cakes that are a specialty of the Bordeaux region. Available in many patisseries, these chewy treats break out of the traditional mold at Auguste K., a canelé “boutique” that reaches beyond vanilla to flavors like lemon, orange, black cherry, chocolate and even gluten-free options. Grab a couple (typical price for the smallest: about 1 euro each) and enjoy with some French roast at a cafe in the nearby Place du Parlement.
5) Noon. Window shopping
Feed the eyes, if not the wallet, with a shopping stroll along the Rue Notre Dame where the fashionistas head to Lily Blake or Zazie Rousseau for women’s ready-to-wear; Shoes Art for designer footwear and sumptuous scarves; and Coutume for an updated take on a hardware store.
6) 1 p.m. Hone your skills
Learn French slicing and dicing techniques with a quick course (17 euros) at the Atelier des Chefs. Classes are held in a kitchen workspace at the rear of a culinary supplies shop and the results are devoured in an adjacent dining area with optional glasses of wine. Instruction schedule varies, so check in advance. A lunchtime “pause” class recently taught French and American participants how to make a chestnut risotto in a saffron-infused broth. Copies of the recipes are sent by email afterward.
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7) 2 p.m. La vie en vineyards
For an up-close look at Bordeaux’s vaunted wines, splurge on a Wine Cab pickup near the opera house for an afternoon trip to the countryside in a London black taxi with a bilingual chauffeur/guide. Stop at centuries-old grand cru vineyards large or small (like the sleekly modernized Château La Gaffelière or the more rustic, but charming, Château Coutet), visit the musty caves or chat with vintners among the vines. Tastings are plentiful and you don’t have to worry about being a designated driver. A roughly four-hour trip for two, including a stop in the medieval village of St.-Émilion, is 450 euros.
8) 7 p.m. Starry, starry menu
Invest in a white-tablecloth-and-chandelier experience at La Grande Maison’s two Michelin star restaurant inside a neoclassical mansion. A recent seasonal meal in the stately library began with glazed wild sea bass with razor clams and a cauliflower mayonnaise, and progressed to a scallop in a fine mousse with red endive and fresh walnuts, followed with a casserole of tender Iberico pork roasted with fragrant herbs. The meal ended with five samplings of designer desserts from the chefs Pierre Gagnaire and Jean-Denis Le Bras. The artistry of the food and the attentive service come at a price: A four-course tasting menu for one person is 145 euros. Want wines to match? Add another 95 euros.
9) 10 p.m. Vending machine for wine?
Stop for a nightcap at Le Vertige in the bustling St. Pierre neighborhood. This is a modern and bright wine bar with a welcoming atmosphere and a clever order-by-card system that lets you choose small, medium or large tasting portions from a row of wines in an upscale vending machine and pay accordingly. It’s a fun way to sample a pricey grand cru or two without buying an entire bottle.
10) 10 a.m. Flea bags
The city’s neighborhood markets and “brocantes” are great for finding upcycled souvenirs. Head to Place St. Michel where vendors set up tables or spread out carpets topped with what they hope you’ll see as second-hand treasures, which recently included vintage vinyl, ceramics galore and a silver-plated Servan comb and hairbrush set in its original satin-lined leather box next to an enamel-on-metal painting of someone’s favorite German shepherd. For 5 euros, climb 230 steps inside the bell tower of St. Michael’s Basilica for a drone’s-eye view of the action.
11) 12 p.m. City of, yes, wine
With so much to take in at La Cité du Vin, this impressive museum, which opened in 2016, offers an array of self-guided, hourlong highlights tours to intrigue adults and children alike, helped by handy graphics and English translations. “The Essentials” tour, for example, includes a look at the history of winemaking and how Bordeaux — where winemaking dates to the ancient Romans — fits into that, and videos in which male and female winemakers from different countries talk about their terroir. The “Juniors” route for ages 7 to 12 includes a cartoon video of Romans shipping wine across the sea and a “buffet of the five senses” where sniff tests identify aromas and flavors found in wine. A 20-euro ticket also allows elevator access to the eighth-floor Belvedere observatory, including a taste of wine.
12) 2 p.m. To the market
Across the tram tracks from the wine museum is the Halles de Bacalan, an indoor-outdoor food court where two dozen vendors offer the region’s gourmet goods. Grab a platter of freshly shucked oysters and a glass of minerally white wine, or tastings of truffle and foie gras with a bold red. End with a cheese plate or a cup of intense chocolate mousse. (Expect to pay about 20 euros for a dozen oysters with wine.)
Bordeaux has an abundance of rentals through companies like Airbnb and Homeaway. (Airbnb recently listed a one-bedroom apartment near the opera house for about $150 a night.) One independent option is a guesthouse called Chartrons Ecolodge (23 rue Raze; doubles from 125 euros). The building features lots of stone steps, ceiling fans, pine floors and antiques. Solar panels and energy-saving lighting add to the eco-credentials. An abundant breakfast featuring organic items is served in the covered courtyard.
With a prime view of Place du Parlement, Villa Reale (9 Parliament Square; doubles from 300 euros) blends the comforts of a design-driven home with the convenience of being in the center of pedestrian-friendly action on a pretty square close to main tram lines. The 18th-century structure offers well-stocked kitchens in three air-conditioned suites. (Check the price list before popping those Champagne corks).
La Course townhouse (69 rue de La Course; doubles start at 185 euros) is on a quiet street just steps from the green Jardin Public and the C tram that goes south to the Gare St. Jean. It’s a fine base for exploring boutiques and bars. There are bicycles, a small gym and steam room, and a wine cellar where tastings can be arranged. Some rooms have double sinks, large tubs or walk-in showers: one offers a skylight and a private rooftop pool.
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Susanne Fowler was an editor in the London and Paris offices of The New York Times.
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