In Fall 2016, I spent 4 months in Bordeaux as a study abroad student—during that time, I got to know the city quite well. Since then, I’ve revisited the city twice, so I’ve also learned to appreciate Bordeaux as your average tourist.
With a population of 250,000, Bordeaux isn’t a huge city, but it’s not a small one either. Two or three days in Bordeaux is the perfect amount of time to get in all the major attractions without feeling rushed. The city is arguably best-known for its eponymous wine and castle-like architecture, but there are plenty of things to do beyond that. This guide will include the most iconic landmarks, prettiest photo spots, coolest restaurants, plus tidbits on the history and culture of Bordeaux.
So, here are the best things to do in Bordeaux, France, as told by a former (short-term) local.
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Map of the Best Things to Do in Bordeaux in 3 Days
Here’s a map of all the spots I mention in the itinerary. It’s organized in layers by day, and you can hide or show the different layers by clicking on the top left icon. If you want a map organized instead by types of things to do (major landmarks, viewpoints, photo spots, restaurants), see this map instead.
Day 1: Porte Cailhau, Miroir d’eau, Cité du Vin
Porte Cailhau (pronounced “port kai-oh”) is one of the most impressive pieces of architecture in the city. Built between 1493-1496, this castle-like structure was originally the main gate to the city. You can admire the gate from afar, pass through it underneath, or you can even visit the interior for 5€. I’ve never actually been inside Porte Cailhau, but the visit inside is supposed to tell you more about the history behind the gate, and give you a view of the Garonne river. To be completely honest, I think Porte Cailhau looks better from the outside than the inside haha, but if you’re a history buff, definitely consider taking a peek inside!
Pont de Pierre
If you walk beneath Porte Cailhau towards the river, you’ll soon see Pont de Pierre, a bridge leading to the other side of the river. It’s the oldest bridge in Bordeaux, and was the only bridge to cross the Garonne until 1965. Designed under Napoleon Bonaparte, Pont de Pierre has 17 arches—one for each letter in Napoleon’s full name.
Pont de Pierre is especially beautiful at sunset, and you can get some stunning instagram photos of the bridge’s silhouette against the colorful evening sky. You’ll pass by the bridge anyways during the day, but definitely make another stop here at sunset.
Photo by Steven Lek, CC BY-SA 4.0
Place de la Bourse/Miroir d’eau
Place de la Bourse is an iconic square in Bordeaux and a UNESCO World Heritage Site built in the 18th century. Originally a palace, the buildings in the square now house government organizations.
Just across the street from Place de la Bourse, you’ll find the Miroir d’eau (mirror of water). In the warmer months, there’s mist coming from the ground, which leaves a thin layer of water that reflects Place de la Bourse perfectly. If you want to catch the reflection though, try to come earlier in the day or late at night, once the crowds of kids playing in the water have cleared out.
The Miroir d’eau and Place de la Bourse are still worth visiting during the day, however, especially since there are some grassy areas great for a picnic, people-watching, or a nap under the sun. You can also cool off by running through the mist yourself.
On Sunday mornings, there’s even an open-air market next to the Miroir d’eau called Marché des Chartrons. At the market, you can buy fresh produce, cheese, bread, desserts, seafood, and some prepared food. It’s one of the pricier markets in Bordeaux, but it’s always a fun experience to browse the different stands.
Photo by Pline on Wikimedia Commons with permission to reuse and modify. Edited by me.
The Jardin public (public garden) is kind of like the Central Park of Bordeaux, but not super central haha. Still, the park isn’t too far from the main tourist hub in Bordeaux, and you can walk there in 15 minutes from Place de la Bourse.
In the Jardin public, you’ll find lots of greenery, a small carousel, children’s playground, and some quaint old architecture. This spot is even more ideal for a picnic or nap than the Miroir d’eau, and is perfect for a walk or photoshoot.
Cité du Vin
If you’re a big fan of wine and wine history, the Cité du Vin museum is definitely your spot. Here, you can learn all about how wine is made, the different wine regions in France, and the history behind wine—all through artifacts and multimedia displays. Tickets cost 9€ for kids, 16€ for students and senior citizens, or 20€ full price. With your ticket, you not only get access to the exhibits, but also a glass of wine (if you’re of legal drinking age, of course).
The Cité du Vin is definitely the furthest away from the city center, but you can easily take the tram there (line C), or take a long walk along the river. Along the way, you’ll pass through the Quai des Chartons, which is an upscale shopping and dining area. You’ll find brands like Lindt, Princesse Tam Tam, Kusmi Tea, BOSS, and more.
Photo by Jennifer of Sidewalk Safari, used with permission. Check out her guide to visiting Médoc and Saint-Émilion, two popular wine regions near Bordeaux.
Day 2: Bordeaux Cathedral, Pey Berland Tower, Iconic Photo Spots
Cathédrale Saint-André (Bordeaux Cathedral)
While I’m not a huge fan of visiting cathedrals (there are just SO many in Europe), the Bordeaux Saint-André Cathedral is really quite impressive, especially the Gothic architecture of the exterior. This cathedral is actually where Eleanor of Aquitaine married the future Louis II in 1137. You can visit the inside for free, or you can also pay to climb up its Pey Berland Tower (more about that later).
Gambetta Tram Stop
If you want the very best shot of the full Bordeaux Cathedral, I recommend walking a few blocks to the Gambetta tram stop on Line B. From there, you can get a photo of the entire cathedral framed by the buildings on both sides of the street.
Pey Berland Tower
Take a little stroll back to the Cathédrale Saint-André, and climb up Pey Berland Tower for a birds-eye view of the city (and the cathedral). Tickets cost 6€. Just be prepared for lots of winding and narrow stairs, and avoid bringing extra bags with you.
Photo by Orikrin1998, CC-BY-3.0
Rue du Loup – viewpoint and thrift stores
This is another photo spot, but this time for the Pey Berland Tower. On the Rue du Loup, you can get a great shot of the steeple, again framed by the buildings on both sides of the street. A little further down, this street is also home to a couple great thrift stores: Trafic for more modern pieces, and Freep’Show for vintage.
Rue du Loup by Ardfern on Wikimedia Commons with permission to reuse and modify. Edited by me.
Rue des Palanques – photo spot
If you’re looking for another photoshoot spot, I loved taking outfit photos on the Rue des Palanques. It’s a quiet pedestrian road leading to a small Protestant church at the end of the street. The blue door of the church and the white stone buildings make for a quaint backdrop.
Day 3: Grosse Cloche, Grand Théâtre, Saint-Michel Flea Market
Grosse cloche (Big bell)
This is another castle-like structure that serves as a gate. The Grosse Cloche was cast in 1775 and weighs 7,750 kilos (17,086 pounds!!). The bell is rung only 6 times a year, for major events like Bastille Day, VE Day (end of WWII), and Remembrance Day (end of WWI).
You can also visit the interior of the Grosse Cloche, but only in small groups and during limited hours.
Photo by my friend Aurélie
Brocante Saint-Michel (Saint-Michel Flea Market)
Just a short walk from the Grosse Cloche, you’ll find Place Saint-Michel, a small square centered around a bell tower (which you can climb up for 5€ to get another birds-eye view of the city). In the square, however, you’ll find a daily flea market (except on Mondays). Vendors sell all kinds of knickknacks, from secondhand clothing to used books to antique furniture. It can be fun to walk around and browse the different stands.
If flea markets aren’t your thing and you want to do some shopping, Rue Sainte-Catherine is the place to do that. Rue Saint-Catherine is the longest pedestrian street in the city, and is lined with tons of shops, from fashion to housewares.
InterContinental Bordeaux le Grand Hôtel
At the end of Rue Saint-Catherine, you’ll find Place de la Comédie, which is home to a couple impressive buildings, including this 5-star hotel. Even if you don’t stay in the hotel, the exterior is lovely in all seasons. There are flowers along the windowsills in the spring and summer, and seasonal decorations in the winter. If you come in the winter, you may even be able to eat in one of their glass igloos right outside the hotel. The Bordeaux Christmas Market is also right next door.
Photos used with permission of Nadine from Le Long Weekend. Check out her France Travel Guides for more travel ideas in France!
Grand Théâtre de Bordeaux / Opéra National
Also at Place de la Comédie, the Théâtre de Bordeaux is a venue for classical performances, often ballets. The exterior of the Grand Théâtre features impressive columns, but I also went to a ballet as a student in Bordeaux, and was awestruck by the different rooms inside the theatre. Tickets to various performances can actually be affordable, especially as a student (I paid 10€). You can check out the performance calendar to see if something suits your schedule (just be sure to select Grand Théâtre as the “lieu” or “location”). You can also pay 6€ to visit the interior, but you must book ahead of time.
Photo by Christophe Finot on Wikimedia Commons with permission to reshare
Prettiest Restaurant Interiors in Bordeaux, France
It wouldn’t be a city guide without mention of some food, so here are some of the most instagrammable restaurants to visit in Bordeaux (the food is good, too!).
For other vegan/vegetarian restaurants to visit, check out my Vegan/Vegetarian Guide to Bordeaux, France.
Mère Michel (crêpes)
For traditional meal in an eclectic setting, check out Mère Michel. You can get savory and sweet crepes and be seated outside when the weather is good, or inside the fun interior in all seasons.
The inside of the restaurant is really quirky, with vintage/hipster objects lining the walls and ceilings. In particular, I remember X-ray prints, old radios, and a huge pepper grinder. This restaurant is pretty affordable at around 9-15€, and is located in Place Saint-Michel. This would also be a good stop on Day 3.
Cafés Along the River
There are a TON of restaurants close to Place de la Bourse on Quai Richelieu. These tend to be traditional French restaurants with indoor and outdoor seating (“la terrasse” in French), and are usually quite aesthetic spots. Prices also can be higher because it’s a very touristy spot, unfortunately. Even if you don’t eat there, it can be really nice to enjoy a glass of wine on the patio at night.
Likewise, there are many traditional restaurants on the Quai des Chartrons, where you can also eat inside or outside. These tend to be newer and more upscale, and might not have the same old charm as the cafés near Place de la Bourse.
Day Trips from Bordeaux
Many people go to Bordeaux specifically to visit the surrounding vineyards. If that’s you, definitely consider a day trip to Saint-Émilion. This medieval town is home to some of the most famous vineyards in France, and the town itself is incredibly quaint. You can reach Saint-Émilion in under an hour from Bordeaux by train, and the round-trip costs 10-25€.
Another popular Bordeaux day trip is Arcachon, a beach town whose claim to fame is the nearby Dune du Pilat, the tallest sand dune in Europe. The dunes are incredibly impressive, and you feel as if you’re no longer in France, but instead in the desert (though there’s the ocean on one side, and trees on the other haha). You can also reach Arcachon by direct train for 10-25€, and there’s a bus that takes you to the Dune du Pilat.
For more info on these two towns, check out my post Day Trips from Bordeaux by Direct Train.
Best Time to Visit Bordeaux
Bordeaux is charming in all seasons, really (though it can be kind of gray in January-February). When to visit should depend on what you’re hoping to get out of your stay.
High season is definitely the summer, so if you’re hoping to avoid crowds while still having nice weather, aim to visit in late spring (late April-May) or early fall (September-October). A couple other reasons to avoid summer is the obscene cost of flights to Europe then (if you’re flying from the US), and the heat.
Bordeaux is further south in France, and while average temperatures might not seem that bad (high 80F/27C and low 60F/15C in July and August), most apartments in France don’t have air conditioning, or mesh window screens to keep out bugs (even some hotels!). There was also that historic heat wave in Summer 2019…
Of course, sometimes you don’t have much of a choice of when you can take vacation, and might have to visit in the summer. If that’s the case, don’t worry—Bordeaux in the summer can still be enjoyable, and it could be a good opportunity to visit some surrounding beach towns (see my post Day Trips from Bordeaux, France for more info!).
Even winter in Bordeaux can be lovely, and is also much milder than what you’d experience in the northern US (high 50F/10C and low 37F/3C). The storefronts are covered in decorations, streets are lined with lights at night, and there’s a little Christmas Market in December.
Where to Stay in Bordeaux
I always stayed with friends in Bordeaux, but here’s a selection of some Airbnbs and hotels that are highly-rated:
Budget (25-35€): Central Hostel Bordeaux Centre
Central Hostel is a really hip space with woven chairs, hanging lights, and neon signs. You can get a bed in a shared 6-8 person room (co-ed or female only) for 25-35€, or reserve a private double room for 95-130€. The hostel is incredibly central, just steps away from Rue Sainte-Catherine.
This apartment rental sleeps up to 4 people and is a short walk away from the tram and town center. There’s a kitchenette and washing machine, and the hosts are said to be extremely helpful and welcoming.
Luxury (230€ or more):
If you’re looking to pamper yourself, the Grand Hôtel is a classic choice. Right across the street from the Grand Théâtre, this 5-star hotel offers a pool, spa, fitness room, generous breakfast, and bar. Rooms range from 200€ all the way up to almost 7,000€ for a royal suite (and everything in-between).
Transportation in Bordeaux
Bordeaux is a pretty walkable city, especially if you stay near the city center. This 3-day itinerary could be done completely on foot if you’re a relatively active person, but Day 1 might be a bit of a stretch because Cité du Vin is further away.
There’s a pretty good tram and bus system though, if you plan to go places beyond the city center, like Cité du Vin and the train station or airport.
When it comes to transport prices, it costs:
- 1,70€ for one ticket
- 5€ for 24 hrs
- 13,70€ for 10 trips
- 14,20€ for 7 days
You can buy a ticket at any tram stop—there will be machines where you can pay by cash or card (only the stop in from of Place de la Bourse doesn’t have these machines, for aesthetic purposes haha). You can also buy tickets on your smartphone, using the app Witick. Each ticket is valid for any transfer within 1 hour (even if it’s the return trip!).
Once you board the tram or bus, you must validate your ticket at of the machines. Sometimes you can get away with not buying a tram ticket, as anyone can just get on without one, but there will be “surprise checks” by transport staff who board the tram and ask to see your ticket. If you don’t have one with you (or if it hasn’t been validated), you could be fined a lot of money. It’s always best (and most honest) to have a valid ticket 🙂
Google Maps does work with the local transport system, so if you need to figure out directions, you can use the app to figure out which route to take. If you don’t have data in France, I recommend buying a Lycamobile France SIM card at one of the many “tabac” or convenience stores. You can also get a SIM card sent for free to a French address. I used Lycamobile when studied abroad, and paid only 5€ for unlimited national text/calls plus 2 GB of data in a month. It’s no-contract, and super easy to use—you can even roam in other EU countries for free.
Is the Bordeaux CityPass Worth It?
Bordeaux does offer a CityPass for 24h (29€), 48h (39€), or 72h (46€). With it, you get unlimited access to transport, entry to 20 monuments and museums, 1 guided tour, and discounts on other attractions.
Some of the attractions mentioned in this post that are included in the Bordeaux CityPass are:
- Cité du Vin Museum (20€)
- Pey Berland Tower (6€)
- Porte Cailhau (5€)
- Flèche Saint-Michel – bell tower (5€)
With this 3-day itinerary, I’d say that the 72h CityPass is worth it if you plan to visit the above 4 places, and take public transport at least 6 times (the attractions add up to 36€ themselves, and each individual transport ticket is 1,70€). It could also be worth it for Day 1 if you’re planning to visit the Cité du Vin and go inside Porte Cailhau, plus take transport at least 3 times.
Personally, I don’t know that I’d pay for the CityPass unless you’re planning to take transport a lot, pay for a tour, and visit more museums than I mentioned in this post. Even with the two scenarios I listed where the CityPass might be worth it, the amount you’d save is marginal.
Of course, sometimes it’s nice to pay for a pass like this just for peace of mind (you can take as much transport as you want, and visit tons of places for free). It can also motivate you to visit more places. Ultimately, it depends on what will best suit your traveling habits.
What to Pack for Trip to France
There are a couple essentials you’ll need for a trip to France, if you’re coming from outside the EU. These links go to Amazon if you’re planning to shop there anyways, but I also want to encourage you to buy from small, local shops, if you can.
- Universal adapter—I used this one during my one-year stay in France, and when I traveled to the UK. Keep in mind that this doesn’t have USB C charging ports, so you’ll need a USB to USB C cable or adapter if that’s what your phone needs.
- European SIM card—You can buy SIM cards once in France (I recommend Lycamobile, which is cheap and can be found in many “tabac” or corner shops). But, if you want cell service upon arrival, you’ll need to buy something at home, or at the airport. This SIM card has good reviews, but feel free to shop around as well.
If you have any questions, feel free to leave them in the comments!