48 hours in: Bordeaux
Exceptional wine, dramatic architecture and cultural treasures await you in this sublime riverside city, writes Harriet O’Brien
At any time of year, there is a magical quality to this city of elegant limestone buildings, wrought-iron balconies and wonderful mascarons (carved stone faces above windows and doors). But, bathed in spring sunshine, the capital of Aquitaine is currently looking its very best.
You can enjoy Bordeaux's ongoing spirit of enterprise, too. Over the past decade the city has been wonderfully revived -- so much so that it won Unesco World Heritage status in 2007.
The renewal projects continue, particularly in the St-Michel district just south of the centre, while new ventures are also being undertaken. In November, work started on a hi-tech bridge that will span the Garonne river 2km north of the centre, and a major wine museum is in the pipeline.
Bordeaux's Mérignac Airport is 10km west of the city centre and is linked to Dublin by Aer Lingus (0818 365 000; aerlingus.com) and Cork by Ryanair (0818 303 030; ryanair.com). City bus 1 (0033 557 578 888; infotbc.com) runs from outside Terminal B to Place des Quinconces (2) in the centre, linking with the city's tram system.
The journey takes about 45 minutes, with departures every 45 minutes from the airport from 7.45am-10.45pm. As with all the city's trams and buses, a ticket, valid for an hour, costs €1.40.
The city's St-Jean railway station (3) is about 1km south of the centre and is served by tram C. This is also the destination for the Jet'Bus service from the airport, which also runs every 45 minutes, but has a one-way fare of €7.
Get your bearings
The Romans first established Bordeaux, developing a settlement on the left bank of the river Garonne, which curves here in the shape of a crescent moon. This sweep of water later gave the city's harbour its name, Port de la Lune.
In the 18th century, Bordeaux was radically redeveloped -- and it became an architectural gem. But by the late 20th century, its glorious streets and buildings had become grimy and downtrodden. These have since been revived, along with the old quayside.
The city centre is set in the Roman and medieval heart of Bordeaux, between Place des Quinconces (2) and the remnants of the ancient walls at the Grosse Cloche bell tower (4).
To the south is the up-and-coming St-Michel district, an appealingly bohemian area with a lively student vibe. To the north is the newly restored, newly cool Chartrons area, traditionally the haunt of merchants and wine traders.
The largely car-free city centre is very walkable and also served by three ultra-modern tram lines, whose wires are buried underground. The main tourist office (5) is at 12 Cours du XXX Juillet (0033 556 006 600; bordeaux-tourisme.com) and is open 9am-6.30pm Monday to Saturday and 9.45am-4.30pm Sundays.
A second is at St-Jean railway station (3) (9.30am-12pm and 2pm-5.30pm Monday to Friday; Saturdays and Sundays in summer); and a third tourist office (6) is at 28 rue des Argentiers (10am-1pm and 2pm-6pm daily, but not Sunday mornings).
The iconic Regent Grand Hotel Bordeaux (7) opposite the Opera House (1) at Place de la Comédie (0033 557 304 444; theregent bordeaux.com) has recently been given a sparkling refit, reaffirming its status as the smartest place to stay in town. Doubles from €290 without breakfast.
In the Chartrons district, L'Avant Scène (8) at 36 rue de Borie (0033 557 292 539; lavantscene.fr) is a boutique chambre d'hôtes offering nine individually treated rooms in a former merchant's house. Doubles from €95 without breakfast.
The two-star Hotel Continental (9), centrally located at 10 rue Montesquieu (0033 556 526 600; hotel-le-continental.com), has 47 comfortable rooms from €89 for a double, with breakfast.
Take a view
Get a magnificent view of Bordeaux by climbing the 231 steps to the top of the cathedral's bell tower, Tour Pey-Berland (10) (0033 556 812 625; monuments-nationaux.fr; open 10am-12.30pm and 2pm-5.30pm daily, except Monday; €5).
It was built in the mid-15th century, separated from the Cathedral of St-Andre (11) so the vibrations of the bells would not disturb the ecclesiastical building.
Afterwards, visit the cathedral opposite (10am-noon and 2pm-6pm daily, except Mondays when it opens 2pm-7pm; free), which effectively comprises two glorious Gothic buildings in one, with the nave built in the 12th and 13th centuries and the choir and transepts constructed in the 14th century.
Take a hike
Opposite the west end of the cathedral is the gracious Palais Rohan (12), built in 1774 for the bishop of Bordeaux and now the city hall. Guided tours are conducted every Wednesday at 2.30pm; €3.
Head south between the city hall and the cathedral (11) and turn right into rue des Frères-Bonie and Bordeaux's judicial district. The complex at number 30 is Richard Rogers' striking Law Courts (13), a creation of glass and thatch with the courts themselves housed in huge cones modelled on wine vats.
Turn right into cours d'Albert. On the left, at number 20, is the wonderful Musée des Beaux Arts (14) (0033 556 102 056; bordeaux.fr; daily except Tuesday 11am-6pm; free to the permanent collection, which includes works by Titian and Rubens).
Turn right again into rue Montbazon, whose name changes to rue des Trois-Conils. Carry straight on into the heart of old Bordeaux. At place St-Projet (15) turn right down rue Sainte-Catherine, a Roman road from the third century. Cross Cours d'Alsace et Lorraine and turn left along rue des Ayres, passing the Baroque St-Paul des Dominicains (16) (10am-noon and 2.30pm-7pm except during church services; free).
Continue to Place Fernand Lafargue (17). Turn sharp right into rue St-James, marked with scallop shells that show it is part of the pilgrimage trail to Santiago de Compostela. At the end of this cobbled street stands the 13th century Grosse Cloche (4) bell tower and gate.
Just before the gateway, turn left into an area of 18th-century houses, winding along rue Teulere and then turning left into rue Neuve.
Turn right down Cours d'Alsace et Lorraine to reach the waterfront. Then stroll left, passing the 15th-century gate of Porte Cailhau (18) before reaching Bordeaux's grandest sight: Place de la Bourse (19), built by architect Jacques Gabriel in the 1730s.
Lunch on the run
Once the seat of Bordeaux's medieval government, Place du Parlement (20), behind Place de la Bourse (19), was turned into an elegant market square in 1754. Today it is fringed with cafés. Karl at number 6 (0033 556 810 100; karlbordeaux.fr) is a stylishly laid-back outfit serving salads from €8.50.
To explore Bordeaux's newest museum, head to the Chartrons district. Set in an 18th-century merchant's house, Musée du Vin et du Négoce (21) at 41 rue Borie (0033 556 901 913; karlbordeaux.fr) tells the story of the city's wine and its traders. The ground floor and basement traditionally served as a warehouse and it is here that you take in displays about how wine was aged and mixed, how bottles were developed and more, while the floors above are still neatly occupied by a vintner.
Open 10am-6pm daily; Thursdays to 10pm. The €7 entrance charge includes a choice of two wines for you to sample.
Make that a taste of the finest of Bordeaux wine. Max Bordeaux Wine Gallery (22) at 14 Cours de l'Intendance (0033 557 292 381; 11am-8pm daily, except Sundays) opened last October with the aim of both promoting the vineyards of the area and changing the elitist image that they have acquired.
This is a sleek and serious tasting centre where, as yet uniquely, you can sample grands crus by the glass. Invest in a tasting card (from €25 and valid for a year), then select the wines you would like to taste, with prices starting at €2 for a 25ml measure.
Dining with the locals
Since it opened last spring, pretty Brasserie Bordelaise (23) at 50 rue St Remi (0033 557 871 191; brasseriebordelaise.fr; closed Sundays) has become a firm favourite in the city centre.
Mains include magret de canard at €17 and grenier médocain -- a local type of pork charcuterie -- at €14, with an extensive choice of wine.
Sunday morning: go to church
The huge church of St-Michel (24) is a fine example of Flamboyant Gothic architecture -- albeit with striking, modern stained-glass windows replacing historic glass destroyed in 1940. The windows were replaced in the 60s by poignant and jewel-like works by Jean-Henri Couturat and Pierre Gaudin. Sunday mass is at 11.30am. To fully explore the church, return in the afternoon -- it opens 2pm-6pm daily, admission free.
Every Sunday from about 7.30am until roughly 2pm, an antiques and flea market spreads around the church of St-Michel (24) and its tall bell tower.
Out to brunch
Adjacent to St-Michel church (24), Passage St-Michel (25) at 14 Place Canteloup is an Aladdin's cave of antique and bric-a-brac stores housed in a 19th-century banana warehouse (open daily, noon-6pm or later).
On its ground floor is Le Passage St-Michel Brasserie (0033 556 912 030), furnished à la Belle Epoque. It opens noon-2.30pm and 7.30pm-11pm, try the baked salmon medallions at €12.80.
Take a ride
North of Place Bir Hakeim (26), catch an A tram heading east in the direction of Floirac Dravemont. This will take you over the Garonne on the elegant Pont de Pierre (27), offering a great panorama of the city. The Garonne's width and strong currents defied bridge building until this stone crossing with 17 arches was finished in 1822.
A walk in the park
Leave the tram at the stop called Jardin Botanique (28), the second stop beyond the bridge, in La Bastide, a developing district of Bordeaux. The eponymous Botanic Garden (29) (0033 556 521 877; bordeaux.fr) is just to the north west. Completed in 2003, it is a long, thin strip of land echoing the shape of the apartment blocks around it.
Careful planting shows 11 different eco-systems in Aquitaine, along with aquatic and vertical gardens. An impressive greenhouse contains aloes, palms, carnivorous plants and more, with binocular stands offering close-up inspection. Open 8am-6pm daily (until 8pm in summer), admission free. There's an older botanic garden (30) on the left bank of the Garonne south-west of the Chartrons district (open 7am- 9pm in summer, free).
The icing on the cake
The Musée d'Art Contemporain (31) at 7 rue Ferrère (0033 556 008 150; bordeaux.fr) is housed in a 19th-century warehouse once storing sugar and spice. It's now a stunning gallery of modern art and dynamic exhibitions on painters, sculptors and architects who have made a significant contribution to the art world within the past 30 years. Open 11am-6pm daily except Mondays, Wednesdays until 8pm; €5.