This fine city in south-west France now celebrates its riverside location, and offers an intoxicating mix of culture, cuisine and claret, writes Cathy Packe

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Why go now?

In the past decade Bordeaux has undergone a massive redevelopment programme, which will finally be completed next month with the opening of the gardens and sporting facilities along the southern end of the quays beside the Garonne. This once-staid city, full of elegant 18th-century architecture, it is now a thriving 21st-century destination. On 20 and 21 June the Bordeaux River Festival, Fête le Fleuve, takes place. The programme includes music, dancing, a giant screen showing adventure films of a suitably aquatic nature (expect Titanic to be part of the line-up), and a river swimming competition.

Touch down

Rail Europe (08705 848848; ) will get you from London St Pancras via Lille or Paris to Bordeaux's Saint-Jean station (1) in under seven hours from £90 return. By air, Merignac airport (00 33 5 56 34 50 00; ) is 10km west of the city centre, and is served by Bmibaby (09111 545454; ) from Manchester and, from 2 June, Liverpool; British Airways (0844 493 0787; from Gatwick; easyJet (0905 821 0905; from Bristol and Luton; and Flybe (0871 700 2000; ) from Southampton. The Jet Bus (00 33 5 56 34 50 50) runs every 45 minutes from outside exit 7 of the terminal building, stopping several times in the city centre on the way to Saint-Jean station (1) where it arrives 40 minutes later. The fare of €7 can be paid on the bus. A taxi will cost around €20.

Get your bearings

The city centre and most of the main sights are on the left bank of the Garonne river, which curves along the side of the city like a crescent moon. The historic heart of Bordeaux is in a block that stretches roughly from the Esplanade de Quinconces to the Place Gambetta (2) in the west, and south as far as the cathedral (3). But increasingly the focus is moving to the newly renovated Chartrons district, formerly the site of many wine warehouses.

The main tourist office (4) is at 12 Cours du XXX Juillet (00 33 5 56 00 66 00;; 9am-6.30pm daily (except Sundays, 9.30am-6.30pm on Sundays, and until 7.30pm in July and August), with shorter opening between November and April. Bordeaux now has three tram lines (00 33 5 57 57 88 88; ), which intersect with each other at various points in the city centre. Tickets valid on trams, plus the buses and on the electric navette which shuttles around the city centre, cost €1.40 for an hour or €4.10 for a day.


The Seeko (5), in the Chartrons district at 54 quai de Bacalan (00 33 5 56 39 0707; ) is a contemporary, four-star hotel in a striking white building; the name is an Inuit word meaning "iceberg". Double rooms are available from €162, and breakfast is an extra €16 per person. For a more central location, an excellent choice is Une Chambre en Ville (6) at 35 rue Bouffard (00 33 5 56 81 34 53; ). This comfortable and welcoming B&B has rooms from €90, with an extra €9 for breakfast. The Acanthe Hotel (7) is a pleasant two-star establishment at 12-14 rue Saint-Remi (00 33 5 56 81 66 58; ). Doubles from €67.50; breakfast is €6 per person.

Take a hike

Explore Bordeaux's elegant 18th-century architecture, starting at the Esplanade des Quinconces, a leafy space laid out in the early 19th century; at one end is a monument to the Girondins (8), who were executed during the French revolution. Walk along the river bank as far as the Miroir d'Eau (9), a rectangle of shallow water that is a popular part of the recent renovations; at night it reflects the buildings of the Place de la Bourse. Turn inland past the Porte Cailhau (10), part of the city's medieval fortifications, and into the Place Saint-Pierre (11), one of several attractive city-centre squares. Before you leave, pop into the Gothic church of Saint-Pierre, and then continue into the lively Place Jullian (12), with its lively bars and cafés. Continue north up the pedestrianised Rue Sainte-Catherine, taking a detour into the Place du Parlement (13). This square has some lovely classical architecture and a fountain in the middle but, despite its name, was never the site of a parliament. Finish your hike in the Place de la Comedie (14), in front of Bordeaux's impressive Grand Theatre (00 33 5 56 00 85 95; ).

Lunch on the run

Choose one of the cafés in the Place de la Comedie (14), or head back to the Place Jullian (12) and get a quick bite at the Utopia (00 33 5 56 52 00 03). Originally a church, as some of its architectural features suggest, it became a factory, then a garage, and is now a cinema with bar and cafe attached. Grab some soup for €4.50, or stay for something more substantial.

Window shopping

The main shopping district is the triangle formed by the Allees de Tourny, Cours de L'Intendance and Cours Clemenceau, but the quayside area, known as Les Hangars, now houses an attractive selection of small shops, many of which are also open on Sunday. Serious wine buyers should head to L'Intendant (15) at 2 Allees de Tourny (00 33 5 56 48 01 29). Crammed into a small store are 15,000 bottles of wine, ranging in price from €4 to €5,000; they can be shipped anywhere in Europe.

Cultural afternoon

CAPC (16), Bordeaux's contemporary art museum, is a fascinating combination of modern art and installations displayed in the attractive surroundings of a 19th century warehouse that was once the customs house, the Entrepot Laine, at 7 rue Ferrere (00 33 5 56 00 81 50; ). The exhibitions change regularly, but regardless of what is on show, CAPC is worth a visit for its architecture. It opens 10am-6pm daily except Monday, until 8pm on Wednesdays; admission €6.

An aperitif

There is only one thing to drink in Bordeaux and the Bar à Vin (17) at 3 Cours du XXX Juillet (00 33 5 56 00 43 47; ) has an excellent selection of wines. A shifting selection of 30 is available; all are locally produced, served by well-informed sommeliers, and priced between €3 and €8 a glass. You are given a card detailing the origins of your wine and where to buy it.

Dining with the locals

Le Petit Commerce (18) at 22 rue du Parlement Saint-Pierre (00 33 5 56 79 76 58) is a lively and popular place, whose menu consists mainly of fish, much of it simply cooked to enhance the flavour. Main courses start at €16. There is also an extensive list of wines from the region to complement the food.

Sunday morning: go to church

Bordeaux's cathedral (3) (00 33 5 56 52 68 10) is a magnificent Gothic building, with some beautiful architectural features such as the vaulting in the main body of the church and the tracery around the windows and arches. The remains of some medieval frescoes were recently discovered in one of the side chapels. Hours vary, but it is open by 10am each day except Monday when it opens at 2pm, and it remains open until 6pm or later.

Take a view

The Tour Pey-Berland (00 33 5 56 81 26 25; ), the cathedral's 15th century bell tower, was built separately from the cathedral itself so that the vibration of the bells wouldn't damage its structure. Clamber up the winding staircase to the top for a spectacular view of Bordeaux, with the cathedral immediately below and the orange-tiled roofs of the city all around. The tower opens 10am-12.30pm and 2-5.30pm daily except Monday from October to May; 10am-1.15pm and 2-6pm daily from June to September. Admission costs €5.

Out to brunch

If brunch means the full works, book a table at the Cafe du Musée (00 33 5 56 44 71 61) in the CAPC museum (16). Every Sunday from 11am-4pm you can pay €25 to eat as much as you want from a choice of pastries, antipasti, cheeses, fruit, eggs, smoked salmon and sausages, accompanied by a glass of wine and coffee. An attractive lunch alternative is L'Estaquade (19) (00 33 5 57 54 02 50; ), a glass box built on stilts in the style of a fisherman's cabin and sticking out over the water on the right bank of the Garonne at Quai de Queyries. The menu of the day costs €17 and the views of the city are unbeatable. Or go to the food market (20), open on the quayside from 8am-2.30pm, and sit at one of the makeshift tables with a plate of oysters and a glass of wine.

Take a ride

On the first Sunday of each month, as well as Tuesdays, Thursdays and Sundays throughout July and August, river cruises (00 33 5 56 49 36 88; ) operate from a quay (21) in the Bastide district, leaving at 3.30pm and returning at 5pm. The boats go beyond the Pont de Pierre (22), then turn back and go up as far as the Pont d'Aquitaine, giving passengers a good view of the city skyscape and the changes that have been made along the quays.

A walk in the park

Stay in the Bastide district and explore Bordeaux's modern botanical garden. This attractive space on Esplanade Linne (00 33 5 56 52 18 77; ) is long and narrow, designed to reflect the style of the buildings on the other side of the river. The areas of planting represent different types of the region's landscape: sand dunes, pine forest, and the chalky terrain where many of the vineyards are located. The gardens open daily from 8am until 8pm (6pm in winter); the greenhouses – very contemporary in design – open from 11am-6pm daily except Monday. Admission is free.

The icing on the cake

Find out more about Bordeaux's wine heritage with a visit to the Wine and Trade Museum (23), housed in a former wine trader's house at 41 Rue Borie (00 33 5 56 90 19 13; ). The family would have lived upstairs; on the ground and basement floors the wine was bottled and stored. The museum contains an interesting display about the wine-making process and its history in the Bordeaux region, and ends with a tasting. It opens 10am-6pm daily from April-October, 10am-6pm Monday-Saturday and 2-6pm on Sundays the rest of the year. The €7 admission includes the tasting of two wines.