Things to Do & Must-See Attractions in Bordeaux
The Place de la Bourse (or Place Royale) faces onto the river Garonne. It was laid out in the 1700s by Louis XV's architect, Gabriel, to act as a dramatic frame for an equestrian statue of the monarch.
The Place de la Bourse is framed on one side by the Stock Exchange (the 'Bourse' that gives the square its name) and on the other side by a museum. In the center of the square is its chief beauty and attraction, the fountain of the Three Graces, built by Visconti in 1869. When it's lit at night it is highly photogenic.
What is perhaps one of the most iconic bridges in all of France is definitely a must-see for visitors to Bordeaux. Connecting the left and right bank of the city since 1819 but ordered by Napoleon I during the First French Empire, Pont de Pierre–the stone bridge– was the first bridge to cross the mighty Garonne River. Indeed, its construction was a challenging one, as the current is extremely strong at this point in the river; more than 4,000 workers were needed to build it, using an English diving bell to stabilize the pillars. Consequently, Pont de Pierre was actually the only bridge to connect the two banks for nearly 150 years!
The red-stone bridge consists of seventeen spans–the exact number of letters in the name Napoléon Bonaparte–lined with elegant iron light posts; each of the bridge’s pillars is capped by a medallion to honor both the emperor and Bordeaux’s coat of arms.
Despite only opening its doors in May 2016, the spectacular La Cité du Vin is already on its way to becoming one of Bordeaux's star attractions. Both an architectural landmark and a fascinating tribute to the city's wine-making heritage, the futuristic building looms over the banks of the Garonne and offers a unique 360-degree view from its 115-foot-high (35-meter-high) belvedere.
Described by some as part museum, part theme park, La Cité du Vin whisks visitors on a self-guided, fully interactive tour of French wine history and heritage, with multi-sensory exhibitions and multimedia displays spread over 10 floors. Travelers are also offered the opportunity to sample wines from around the world (or grape juices for younger visitors), plus a choice of restaurants, wine bars and boutiques. Plans are underfoot to also host temporary art exhibitions.
The most remarkable religious building in Bordeaux, according to locals, Cathédrale St-André is famous for having a separate and independent bell tower. The cathedral was first built in the 13th century and is now a UNESCO World Heritage site, while having once played a significant role in the religious and cultural development of Bordeaux; it is indeed where the prosperous Eleanor of Aquitaine got married to the future King of France, Louis VII. Her considerable wealth benefited the entire city and even the cathedral itself, which was subsequently enlarged and lavishly decorated. One of its most remarkable features is undoubtedly the wrought ironwork by local craftsman Blaise Charlut, which is located in the middle of the transept. The cathedral’s 14th-century tympanum depicts the Last Judgment in the most dramatic way in prominent Gothic architecture.
Bordeaux in southwest France was once a vibrant port city. The port itself was known as the Port of the Moon because it sat on a semi-circular part of the Garonne River. Historically the left bank of the port has been the center of commerce and culture. Throughout the past 2,000 years, the port has played an important role in shaping the city's history and its place as a world city of wine.
When the automobile became more prominent, the historical buildings in this area began to degrade and turn black. The roads were not meant for cars, and traffic jams clogged up the port area. The port's importance declined, and it was eventually moved downstream to the northern suburbs. In the 1990s great efforts were made to clean up the area, including the buildings, and the waterfront is now lined with pedestrian walkways, bicycle paths, shops, and museums. In 2007 the Port of the Moon waterfront was named a UNESCO World Heritage site.
The Quinconces Square (known locally as the Esplanade de Quinconces) certainly impresses with its size - at 12 hectares (30 acres) it's one of Europe's largest squares. And it's impressively situated on the banks of the Garonne, laid out in a semi-circle with trees planted in geometric patterns based on the number five (it's these patterns that give the Esplanade its name).
Laid out in the early 1800s, the square is adorned by some massive public statuary. There are rostral columns, statues of Montaigne and Montesquieu, and an immense monument to the Girondists, who were executed during the Revolution. The monument is a riot of bronze horses and warriors. During WWII it was dismantled by the Germans and the bronze melted, but it has since been restored.
Built in 1495, this dramatic Gothic Revival 35-meters tall city gate was built to commemorate King Charles VIII's victory at Fornovo in Italy during the Italian War of 1494. At the time, it was the main entry point to Bordeaux from the port. It faces Place du Palais and features several ornamental sculptures and towers, something that is very typical of architecture built under the reign of Charles VIII; indeed, the monarch wanted this gate to showcase his power and affluence. The gate, which was once part of the Bordeaux city wall, was later on used as a defensive tower (the multitude of portcullis, murder holes, and machicolation features are there to prove this), and as a salt scale and storehouse. Nowadays, it houses an informative exhibition dedicated to the tools and materials with which the tower was built as well as the urban development of Bordeaux. There is a wonderful view of the old town center, the Garonne River, and the Pont de Pierre Bridge from the top floor.
The Basilique Saint-Michel is a Gothic gem built between the 14th and 16th centuries. Its charms include an altarpiece depicting the triumph of Michael, its patron saint, over the dragon and some fine stained glass (although a lot of its stained glass was destroyed in WWII). It's also a stop on the Santiago de Compostello pilgrimage.
But the church itself is overshadowed by its freestanding belfry, which at 114 meters (374 feet) somewhat grabs the attention. From June to September, it's possible to go inside the tower and climb to the top. It's worth it for the views over the river.
Bordeaux's Grand Theatre was built in the late 1700s during the reign of Louis XVI by architect Victor Louis. It is one of the most beautiful 18th-century concert halls in the world, with a facade adorned with 12 Corinthian columns, each topped with a statue. Nine statues represent the art muses, and the other three represent the Roman goddesses Juno, Venus and Minerva. Over the past few years, the theater has gone through restoration to repair damages from oil lamps and revive the 18th-century decor.
On three separate occasions the theater was the seat of the French parliament. In effect this made Bordeaux the capital of France in 1870, 1914, and 1941. Today the Grand Theatre is home to the Orchestre National Bordeaux Aquitaine, the Opera Ballet of Bordeaux, and the Chorus of the Opéra National de Bordeaux.
More Things to Do in Bordeaux
Located in the very center of Place des Quinconces in Bordeaux, this striking column was elevated in the late 1800s to commemorate the Girondists, a fervent republican political faction consisting of militants originally part of France’s Legislative Assembly, and one of the first group to openly denounce Louis XVI’s reign and the monarchy in general. Their 1793 mass execution, which was caused by their resistance against the rapidly increasing momentum of the revolution, is often considered to be the starting point of the Reign of Terror.
At 54 meters high, the Monument aux Girondins overlooks one of the city’s busiest squares and is adorned with an intricate bronze statue representing Lady Liberty breaking free of her shackles and gracing Bordeaux with her palm of victory. At the base of the column stands a colossal fountain and two basins, with dramatic bronze sculptures of charging horses, each signifying a different aspect of modern French society.
Otherwise known as Palais Rohan, Bordeaux City Hall was built in 1771 in the elegant Louis XIV neoclassical style. It was where celebrated painter Eugène Delacroix discovered his calling in the 1780s, fascinated by the Pompei-style trompe l’oeil fresco in the dining room. What was simply an archiepiscopal residence at the time would later on be used as a revolutionary tribunal under the Reign of Terror in the 1790s, before it welcomed Napoleon I in 1808 and became an imperial residence in the process.
It wasn't until 1836 that Palais Rohan officially became Bordeaux City Hall. Today, the building is surrounded by lovely English gardens and houses the Bordeaux Fine Arts Museum, one of the largest art galleries in France outside of Paris. It specializes in French and Dutch paintings (including Renoir, Delacroix and Picasso), a number of which were thankfully recovered after being looted during the French revolution.
Saint-Émilion is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, famous for the catacombs under the town, built on a beautiful spot overlooking the Dordogne valley. The steep cobblestone streets are lined with charming houses, fascinating Romanqesue ruins, and underground Monolithic church carved into the limestone.
One of the principal red wine regions, located 35km northeast of Bordeaux, the town is named after a traveling monk, Émilion whose followers began producing commercial wine here in the 8th Century. The Romans planted vineyards here in the 2nd Century, and the main grape varieties now are Merlot and Cabernet Franc, with a sprinkling of Cabernet Sauvignon. The region's fine wines are made with time honored traditions at the Chateau Haut-Sarpe (Grand Cru Classe), Chateau Figeac and Chateau Beau Séjour Becot, just to name a few.
The name Bordeaux most commonly passes our lips when we are talking about French wine, but the city of Bordeaux has more to offer than just its famous grapevines. It’s a UNESCO World Heritage Site, known as Port of the Moon, filled with stunning historic architecture largely unchanged for over two centuries.
There are over 350 buildings and monuments listed as Historic in the city and in the past decades a major project has been undertaken to clean the facades and put in a tram-service with no overhead wires to mar the beauty of the city.
Greeting arriving ships to the port is a one kilometer stretch of gracious historic palaces which line the quay built in the 17th and 18th century - even back then Bordeaux was keen to make a good first impression on visitors and it continues to do so today.
The language spoken is French but Bordeaux has many visitors so English is spoken in many shops and restaurants, although the French may be reluctant to use it.
The Dune of Pyla (Dune du Pilat) is the tallest sand dune in Europe. Nestled between the Atlantic Ocean, the Arcachon Bay and the luxuriant Landes forest, it stands 360 feet (110 meters) above sea level, and is over 1.68 miles (2.7 km) long and 546 yards (500 meters) wide. With more than 1 million visitors every year, the Dune of Pyla is consistently known as one of the most popular attractions in the region.
With such a unique and jaw-dropping setting, it’s no surprise that the dune is so popular, especially among those who take part in airborne recreational activities such as paragliding and extreme kiting. There are also several free on-site activities as well, including the sunset discovery tour in the summer months.
Visitors who prefer leisurely ascends should opt for the sturdy 160-step staircase, which is in place from April to November, while those in need of a good workout should definitely try and get to the top by trudging directly through the sand.
Everywhere you turn in Bordeaux, exceptional wines are the principal attraction, and one of the most famous areas for wine is the northern region of Medoc. Renowned for its fine red wines and home to some of the most prestigious wineries in France, the region encompasses classified growing areas like Pauillac, Margaux, St Julien and St Estephe. Wines here are typically produced from Cabernet Sauvignon grapes and, being a grape best aged, the area’s acclaimed vintage wines can carry unbelievably steep price tags.
Visitors to Bordeaux will find exploring the Medoc vineyards an easy day trip, although make sure you call ahead if you’re not booked on a tour as most vineyards here are not open to the public. It’s not just the world-class wine tasting that’s a draw, either.
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