While there are still plenty of sights which evoke Bordeaux’s grand past, there is also a fresh, young spirit which permeates this city.
It is safe to say that for most people the mere mention of Bordeaux brings to mind wine, and for a good reason. For centuries now the city of Bordeaux and its surrounding region have been producing some of the world’s most revered grapes, and while in the meantime many different areas of the globe became highly specialized in winemaking, there is still something grand and reassuringly old fashioned about a ‘bottle of Bordeaux’. Of course, if you are a lover of wine and would like to immerse yourself in the enchanting world of vineyards and fairytale chateaus, this is certainly the place to do it. Even if you’re not particularly into the wine culture, this stunning and diverse corner of France still has plenty to offer.
First, there’s the city itself. From this writer, who has been living in the area for the past two years, I can tell you that Bordeaux continues to seduce, each and every time I visit. Fairly small in scale, it is nonetheless abundant in art, culture, and an interesting and friendly community of people. If you fly into the city and make it your base from which to explore the surrounding areas, you will be spoilt for choice when it comes to affordable accommodation, delicious food, and a varied range of entertainment and cultural happenings to fill your days, and nights. While there are still plenty of sights which evoke Bordeaux’s grand past, there is also a fresh, young spirit which permeates this city.
New and exciting galleries and innovative eateries keep popping up all over. If, like me, you favor plant-based food over the more traditionally rich French cuisine, Bordeaux will still surprise you with its wide range of choices. My personal favorite is Munchies (31 Rue des Augustines. Tel: +33-0-55521-8261). Its cozy and inviting vibe is complimented by excellent food, which is made using the best locally grown ingredients, with an often-changing menu. The place also hosts special events, including tastings and DJ evenings, and you are guaranteed to meet new and interesting people, both expats and locals, queer and straight (check their Instagram page for up-to-date details on menu and events: @munchiesbordeaux).
If you truly want to experience the Bordeaux of the future, head to the district of Bassins à Flot, where the city’s rich history meets the inspired vision of tomorrow. This melting pot of cultures and influences encompasses an exciting array of museums, clubs, and a great many places to stop for a drink or a meal. Strolling through the area you will feel Bordeaux’s close link with its river, and its maritime past. It is also here that you will find the famous Cité du Vin (134 Quai de Bacalan. Tel: +33-0-55616-2020, laciteduvin.com), perhaps the world’s most spectacular wine museum, as well as the Bassin de Lumieres (Impasse Brown de Colstoun, Tel: +33-0-53500-0090. bassinslumieres.com), a breathtakingly vast art venue situated within a former submarine base.
For an even more young and vibrant vibe, there is no place like Darwin (darwin.camp). Located in the Bastide district on the city’s right bank, Darwin is a socio-cultural experiment which utilizes former military barracks to create a unique blend of street art, skateboarding, eco-conscious retail, and laid-back, communal dining. It is also so much more. It’s an entire philosophy, a lifestyle contained within one dynamic place. You would be forgiven for thinking you’re in Berlin, or Brooklyn, but there is also something uniquely French about this place. You’ll find yourself lost in the second-hand heaven of Bric à Brac Emmaus, and when you’ve worked up an appetite, you can make your way to the Magasin General, impressively the largest dining hall in Europe.
While the city of Bordeaux itself is more than enough to keep you busy for a short stay, I highly recommend the exploration of the surrounding region. The area provides stunning sun-caressed vistas and charming villages, which will make you truly feel like you’re lost in the France of an Instagramer’s dream.
If you are a wine connoisseur, or simply would like to see how wine is produced here, there are numerous opportunities to visit the region’s legendary chateaus and wineries. To truly immerse yourself in the culture of the wine country, you may choose one of the many luxurious accommodation options available, all within an hour or less drive from Bordeaux city center.
For instance, the breathtaking, five-star Hotel de Pavie (hoteldepavie.com Tel: +33-0-55755-0755) in the picturesque village of St Emilion includes a 2 Michelin star restaurant and offers inspiring views over the town and the surrounding vineyards. For an even more immersive experience, I recommend staying at the Chateau Lafaurie Peyraguey (chateaulafauriepeyraguey.com) in Bommes. Here, you will sample exquisite cuisine and learn about wine from the experts. This magnificent seventeenth century castle is nestled among the rolling hills of vines and is famous for beautiful sunsets and mysterious morning mists.
Naturally, accommodation options are numerous here, and although generally you will have to pay handsomely, there are also more low-key places, which can still provide you with plenty of charm. For instance, La Gomerie Chambres d’Hotes (chambreshotessaintemilion.com Tel: +33-0-55724-6885) is a stunning B&B situated just ten minutes drive from the village of St Emilion. It is far more affordable than most of the chateaus, but still offers a taste of luxury with its classic décor, beautiful surroundings, and delicious food.
As I mentioned earlier, the beautiful region surrounding Bordeaux is about so much more than just the wine country. The Atlantic coast lies less than an hour’s drive from the city, and with Europe’s largest sand dunes, endless beaches, and an array of coastal towns and activities, you will not want to miss the chance to make the trip. Why not take a leaf out of the locals’ book and head for the trendy resort area of Arcachon. This gorgeous town offers some of the best seafood in France and its specialty is oysters. The areas along the ocean and by the Bay of Arcachon still have a wonderful bygone feel about them, and you will be enchanted by the adorably photogenic oyster huts, even if you choose not to indulge in the catch itself.
One of the most stunning villages around is Village Ostréicole d’Herbe on the way to Cap Ferret, just across the bay from Arcachon. You can access it by the many boat services operating here, or you can take the scenic drive around the bay.
Arcachon also has an array of interesting shops, from high-end to local and quaint, and there is also an abundance of fantastic restaurants and bars. For one of the most popular, fully vegan spots in this part of the country, head to the centrally located La Fourchette Bio (222 Bd de la Plage. Tel: +33-0-5565406960. lafourchettebio.fr). The place started as a tiny, family-run café on the outskirts of town, but the delicious food and friendly atmosphere made it so popular that just before the pandemic the owners were able to move the business to this prime location, where it continues to thrive.
If you want to sample a more traditional local menu, there are numerous options to choose from, both in the town center and in the neighboring villages. Le Bouchon du Marche (Pl des Marquises. Tel: +33-0-55654 -8511), located in the heart of Arcachon’s grand market offers plenty of room and excellent, unpretentious food. If you’re on the lookout for a real treat and a fine dining experience, head to chef Thierry Renou’s famed restaurant, Le Patio (10 Bd de la Plage. epatio-thierryrenou.com. Tel: +33-0-55683-02 2). Located near the Port of Arcachon, this gem of a restaurant offers carefully crafted, inventive cuisine, made from best local ingredients, and a stylish, relaxed setting. While a dinner here can set you back quite a bit, it will certainly be a memorable culinary experience.
During your visit to Arcachon you must visit Dune du Pilat, the most spectacular sand dune you’re ever likely to see, and climb. Rising as high as 330 feet, this is the tallest sand dune in Europe, and there is no better way to admire the region’s scenery than from the top of this giant. Once up here, you will truly be able to appreciate the beauty of the area, including the ocean, the beaches, the vast pine forests, and picturesque lakes dotted around, as far as the eye can see. From late spring till October, the campsites along this stretch of the coast fill up with tourists, and there is no better way to enjoy this part of France on a budget. Many of the campsites will also offer discounts on a variety of outdoor activities, including windsurfing, which is particularly popular here.
If Arcachon proves too busy for your liking, particularly in high season and around school holidays, you can continue driving south along the coast. There are miles of wild beaches stretching all the way to the Spanish border, with countless towns along the way, each offering a different vibe. The closest from Arcachon is the resort town of Biscarrosse, famous for surfing and a laid-back atmosphere. You will find the prices considerably lower than in Arcachon, and while the choices for dining and accommodation are more limited, there is still enough variety to keep most visitors happy, especially during the summer season.
Should you grow tired of the wild waves of the Atlantic, seek refuge inland, where a whole different scene awaits. Just outside of Biscarrosse you will find the beautifully scenic Lac de Biscarrosse et de Parentis. With its sandy beaches hiding under the shadows of pine trees, this is an idyllic setting for a picnic, or an afternoon of hiking. Watersports are also thriving here, with plenty of opportunities to hire a sailboat, a canoe, or a pedal boat.
The entire area is also incredibly bike-friendly, with the famed La Vélodyssée (cyclinglavelodysee.com), the French part of the international Atlantic Coast Route, running right through it, down towards Spain. It was while cycling the Vélodyssée that I first came across this corner of France, and while renting a car is no doubt the fastest and easiest way to get around, I remain partial to cycling. There is no better way to truly witness the beauty of the area’s natural riches, and to get the feel for the local pace of life. Thankfully, you don’t have to travel the length of the Vélodyssée to experience this as most towns have a bike rental service, including electric bikes, and there are plenty of excellent cycling routes around Bordeaux and along the coast. Even if you only dedicate one day to exploring part of this vast area on bike, I guarantee you will have an unforgettable experience.
If after all the exploring you head back to Bordeaux, I would urge you to end your day at the Iboat (iboat.eu, Bassin à Flot n°, 1 Cr Henri Brunet.). Permanently docked in the Bassins à Flot, Iboat is an ambitious, floating cultural project. On any given night you will find a rich blend of music, fusion food, art exhibits, and DJ sets, which turn into full-fledged club nights. Check the website for details of upcoming events, as the program on offer is diverse and ever-changing.