The Garonne River curves through the city of Bordeaux. Credit: Shutterstock

Top Things to do in Bordeaux

Design hotels, creative bistro dining, thought-provoking museums and an extraordinary wine culture make the city of Bordeaux one of France’s tastiest destinations
Published 05/08/2022 by Nicola Williams

It really is no surprise that Bordeaux, France, bagged the accolade of European Capital of Smart Tourism for 2022. From the 12th century, when the French city fell under British rule, to the sumptuous 1700s when wealthy wine merchants built palatial hôtels particuliers (mansions) adorned with decorative stone mascarons (sculpted faces), this handsome city in southwest France has retained its attractiveness. 

The world’s largest urban UNESCO World Heritage Site encompasses seven sq miles in downtown Bordeaux. And meandering along medieval lanes, elegant tree-lined avenues and sunlit banks by the café au lait-hued River Garonne is a timeless pleasure. World-class art and wine museums, a dazzling grassroots gastronomy and unmatched oenological heritage lorded over by a new generation of green-thinking winemakers all add to the city’s allure as top tourist-smart destination. 

Eat

In a city framed by some of the world’s most prestigious vineyards, dining well has always been of the utmost importance. Is there anything finer than local suckling lamb from Pauillac paired with an Haut-Médoc red? 

New-wave Bordelais bistros such as Le Bouchon Bordelais and Mots Mots contributed enormously to the French neo-bistro revolution a few years back, and creative chefs in France’s sixth-largest city continue to experiment, invariably with local produce. 

Symbiose, located in a chai (cellar) in the historic Bordeaux wine-merchant quartier of Chartrons, was among the first in the city to pair garden-to-table fusion with craft cocktails, and the river-facing speakeasy remains wildly popular. Félix Clerc’s signature profusion of herbs, flowers and aromatics—notably lacing both dishes and cocktails, all exquisitely presented—are plucked fresh from the chef’s kitchen garden on the city outskirts. 

In the restaurant-rammed historic center, bistrot à vins Soif crafts equally gourmet pairings with expertly curated natural and organic wines. On Place de la Bourse, Le Bistrot du Gabriel is the casual outpost of gastronomic L’Observatoire du Gabriel (owned by the Boüard family of Château Angélus in St-Émilion, a nearby medieval town). 

Gabriel landed a Michelin star just months after opening and his inventive spin on black truffles, Arcachon oysters, razor clams and classic Bordeaux dishes such as lamprey à la Bordelaise (local eel, leek and red wine stew) is sublime. Craft cocktails by mixologist Andrei Postolache likewise mirror the season and regional produce.

No guessing what the hottest new opening La Ganache is about: lavish, chocolate-infused desserts star on the exotic menu at this unique restaurant-chocolaterie hybrid. 

Come here for tapas, modern bistro fare and artisan chocolate amid an urban jungle of flamboyant greenery and life-sized dodo and gorilla frescoes by Bordelais street artist A-OM.

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UNESCO-approved medieval Bordeaux, aka the historical districts of St-Pierre and St-Paul, is the obvious starting point. Before diving into the car-free warren of stone-paved lanes and cobbled alleys, admire the architecturally glorious ensemble in the company of 12th-century gargoyles atop the cathedral’s bell tower, the Tour Pey Berland. 

It is also worth taking in Bordeaux’s backstory at the superb history museum Musée d’Aquitaine. Afterwards grab a locally roasted coffee at Café Piha or weave your way through skinny boutique-charged lanes to Café Utopia, longstanding HQ of bohemian Bordeaux. Or go straight to le vin with a tasting flight at the iconic wine bar inside the Maison du Vin de Bordeaux or on the rooftop of luxury Le Grand Hôtel. 

Bordeaux’s rich wine-trading history comes to life in Chartrons, another old-world part of town well-endowed with artist studios, independent art galleries, eclectic cafés and bars. Limber up at the Musée du Vin et du Négoce with an intimate peek into the wine cellar of an Irish wine merchant in the early 18th century home before hitting La Cité du Vin—the city’s big, bold, blockbuster wine museum a short walk north along the river.

Trendsetting Bordeaux plays peekaboo between waterfront hangars, abandoned grain silos and a tangle of cranes in Bassins à Flot. These wet docks cut off from the Garonne by a lock are enjoying a renaissance as the new cool kids on the block. Seafaring and marine-themed exhibitions at the Musée de la Mer et de la Marine and digital art shows projected inside a WWI submarine base at Les Bassins des Lumières epitomise the dynamism and daredevil spirit of contemporary Bordeaux.

Stay 

Hôtel La Zoologie

Most recent openings reflect the inherent wit and sassiness of new-gen Bordeaux. Case in hand is La Zoologie near the main train station, a contemporary cabinet of curiosities inside the university’s brick-stone-and-metal zoology faculty built in 1903. Parisian hoteliers Hélène and François Touber collaborated with French eco-design house Ibride to conceive bold interiors inspired by the natural sciences: their mashup of belle époque architecture-meets-eclectic Garden of Eden is simply stunning.

Rooms across three wings mix vintage botanical prints with bestial sculptures, bamboo forest floors and a menagerie of nature-motif fabrics and wallpapers emblazoned with wild creatures, flowers and all manner of zany things. The Geography wing overlooks the hotel’s peaceful tropical garden and the rooftop deck is chill zone central. The hotel offers a  restaurant and bar and spa services as well. 

Renaissance Hôtel 

Within a heel click of some of the city’s most fashionable bars and cultural sights, the latest outpost from Marriott sits in the achingly cool Bassin à Flots. Contemporary interiors by Paris-based Michael Malapert fuse the building’s industrial heritage with snappy palettes, bespoke art works and natural light aplenty. 

Italian restaurant Gina serves food all day, and the ninth-floor terrace bar is already a reference for cocktail hobnobbing over insane river and wet dock views. Beware of the rooftop pool: you might never want to leave.