'The capital of wine is an architectural gem'

City Slicker - Bordeaux: It's harvest time. What better moment for a trip to Bordeaux? Harriet O'Brien offers some ideas for new and returning visitors
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The Independent Travel

Why visit?

Bordeaux, capital of Aquitaine – capital, indeed, of the world's most celebrated wine-producing area – is an architectural gem. Wrought-iron balconies grace the façade of its elegant limestone buildings, while above them the skyline is punctuated by spires and the conical tops of medieval gatehouses.

Yet, until relatively recently, Bordeaux's attractions were concealed by grime. It is only since the millennium that the city has been revived and reinvigorated, the transformation so successful that old Bordeaux became a World Heritage Site in 2007.

For all its fine 18th-century looks, Bordeaux is very much a 21st-century destination, complete with hi-tech trams, some of France's most applauded restaurants, and a lively student population.

Right now the city is buzzing with autumn activities. The new season at the dynamic opera house (bordeaux-opera.com) is under way, its line-up including a vibrant show of contemporary dance.

Meanwhile, there's an energetic knock-on effect from the wine harvest at the vineyards just out of town – the white-grape picking is now over and intensive harvesting of reds is taking place. The local tourist board offers a host of vineyard tours, including half-day wine blending workshops at several of the great chateaux.

Don't miss...

Place de la Bourse. Bordeaux's most dramatic sight is a grand square flanked by two great crescent-shaped buildings. It was built between 1730 and 1755 by Ange-Jacques Gabriel, architect to Louis XV. On the north side is the old Stock Exchange, on the south the Musée des Douanes, presenting a lively look at the history of Bordeaux's port (musee-douanes.fr).

Miroir d'Eau. Opposite the square, beside the Garonne river, this is a stunning water feature by landscape architect Michel Corajoud, one of the most striking new additions to the city. A pool of water on black granite, it has been cleverly devised to alternate as a series of mist fountains and a mirror reflecting the great 18th-century buildings behind it. And for the Bordelais, it's a water playground – a great place to make a splash.

Grosse Cloche bell tower and gate. A short walk south along the quayside, this structure dates from the 13th century and looks as if it has escaped from the pages of fairy-tale picture-book.

Cathédrale St André. Offering more Gothic glory, the north façade is especially fine, its portal fabulously decorated with sculpture. Climb the winding stairs of the adjacent, 15th- century belfry, the Tour Pey-Berland, for eye-popping views over the city (monuments-nationaux.fr).

Musée des Beaux Arts. Bordeaux's wonderful museum is in an elegant neoclassical mansion, with works by Brueghel, Chardin, Delacroix and more (bordeaux.fr).

Musée du Vin et du Négoce. Set in an 18th-century merchant's house in the newly cool Chartrons area, this is where to explore the Bordeaux wine story. Entry is by guided tour, which ends with a short wine-tasting (mvnb.fr).

What's new

Quartier St Michel

Just south of the old town, this is the latest neighbourhood to be given a radical revamp. Traditionally, Quartier St Michel has been a boho haunt of students and immigrants, and with its buildings newly spruced up this year, it's becoming ever more hip. Place St Michel, stretching around the great church of that name, is where you'll find the funkiest hangouts – Passage St Michel, for example, is a one-time banana warehouse turned antiques store and belle époque brasserie.

La Maison Eco-Citoyenne

La Maison Eco-Citoyenne is a bold new exhibition and meeting space that opened with a four-day fete at the start of this month. Overlooking the Garonne on Quai Richelieu, this state-of-the-art eco-friendly building was designed by Bordeaux architect Olivier Lehmans and was developed on the site of an old dockworkers' recruitment centre.

Details: bordeaux.fr

L'Avant Scène

In the Chartrons district, L'Avant Scène, at 36 rue Borie, is the latest of Bordeaux's boutique hotels. Set in a former wine merchant's house, it offers 12 contemporary-chic rooms. Doubles cost from €99 (£86).

Details: lavantscene.fr

Max Bordeaux Wine Gallery

In the heart of town, there's a radical new wine outlet. Max Bordeaux Wine Gallery, at 14 cours de l'Intendance, is a sleek, serious tasting centre where, as yet uniquely, you can sample grands crus by the glass.

Details: maxbordeaux.com

Pont Ba-Ba

In January, work started on a hi-tech bridge about 2km north of the centre that will span the Garonne. The Baclan-Bastide bridge, nicknamed Pont Ba-Ba, will be a deceptively simple looking steel structure with a central section that lifts to allow tall ships through. It's due to be completed in 2012.

Insider's Secret

Michel Portos, Michelin-starred chef of Le Saint James

"Go to Marché du Colbert on Quay Chartrons on a Sunday morning. You find a really good assortment of local produce. And it's great to walk along the riverside there, with views across the old port."

Compact Facts

How to get there

From the UK, Bordeaux's Mérignac Airport is served year-round from Gatwick by easyJet (0871 244 2366; easyjet.com) and British Airways (0844 493 0787; ba.com).

Further information

The Bordeaux Tourist Office (bordeaux-tourisme.com)