Described by the French novelist Stendhal as “the most beautiful town in France”, Bordeaux is renowned for its neoclassical architecture and wide avenues, giving it an air of Parisian-style grandeur and sophistication. Little wonder therefore that half of the city is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, making it the world’s largest urban World Heritage Site, with more than 350 structures officially classed as classified buildings and Historic Monuments. Of course, many see Bordeaux as a gateway to the vineyards and indeed whilst the picturesque wine regions of Saint-Émilion, Margaux, Pauillac and the Medoc offer excellent excursion and tasting potential, the city itself makes for a perfect short break opportunity and definitely worth taking the time to explore.
Founded by the Romans in the 3rd century BC, Bordeaux enjoyed its first golden age during the 13th and 14th centuries, witnessing an expansion at such a rate that new walls were built to encompass and secure the city. A second golden age followed in the 1700s, brought about by the rapid development of trade with Africa and the Caribbean. This newfound prosperity led to a building boom with medieval walls replaced by grand, tree-lined boulevards and arcs du triomphe.
Today, the city centre lies between the Place Gambetta and the Garonne River and retains much of its 18th-century architectural splendour. Together with the Place de la Comedie and the Place de Tourny, the Place Gambetta makes up the third corner of the Golden Triangle, an area of smart shops and residential streets, at the centre of which stands the Place des Grands-Hommes with its impressive ironwork market hall.
Shopping opportunities are plentiful along the smart Cours de l’Intendance, as well as the smaller, narrower streets such as the Rue Porte Dijeaux and the Rue Vital Carles which criss-cross the area between the Golden Triangle and the impressive Cathérale Saint-André, where Louis VII married Eleanor of Aquitaine in 1137. Surrounding the cathedral lie the crème de la crème of Bordeaux’s museums, including the Musée des Beaux Arts offering a small but impressive collection of paintings dating as far back as the 15th century, including paintings by Rubens and Matisse, amongst many others. Other museums of note include the Musée des Arts Décoratifs and the Musée d’Aquitaine, charting the history of Bordeaux and the region from prehistoric times to the present day.
Moving towards the Garonne River, you’ll find yourself in the Quartier Saint-Pierre, the heart of the old town, where the narrow streets, lined with traditional Bordelais houses, bear witness to the artisan crafts that once thrived here. Take time to visit the lovely Place du Parlement, the Place de la Bourse and the Place Saint-Pierre. Heading north towards the Esplanade des Quinconces, look out for the magnificent bronze fountains of the Monument aux Girondins, paying homage to the National Assembly deputies who were executed in 1793 for alleged counter-revolutionary activities.
As one might expect of a city so close to the Atlantic Ocean, seafood is a prominent feature on the menus of Bordeaux’s restaurants yet thanks to the city’s student population, there is also a tempting array of inexpensive bars and cafés. A wide variety of eateries to suit all tastes and budgets can be found in and around the Golden Triangle and the Old Town with opportunity aplenty to sample the best-known labels and finest vintages of the area for which it is so renowned.