Most people I know, myself included, like info in small, digestible bites, because we are all overwhelmed with information these days. This is why we’ve started running a top five list every Tuesday on the gg2p What’s Hot blog, and we include a top five list in each issue of the Girls’ Guide to Paris ET PLUS digital magazine. Picking the top five things to do in Bordeaux is especially difficult because I have been able to spend so much time at this World Heritage site, as it’s only 45 minutes west of our country home.
First, what makes Bordeaux so special is its dramatic waterfront and its majestic limestone buildings sitting beside one another in grand form, facing the Garonne River in a crescent shape. The Pont de Pierre (“stone bridge” in English), which was built in the early 1800s and leads to Bordeaux from neighboring Cenon, is elegant and offers you a regal welcome. It was the only bridge to the city until the 1960s. The two architectural masterpieces on this crescent-shaped waterfront are undoubtedly the Porte Cailhau, built as a defensive and triumphal arch and gate to the city, celebrating a battle King Charles VIII won in 1495 when it was constructed.
Second, you’ll find the Place de la Bourse, built as a royal square and dedicated to King Louis XV, which was constructed in the early part of the 18th century. In the center you’ll see a beautiful water element, the fountain of the Three Graces, which represents three very powerful historical women: Empress Eugénie of France, Queen Victoria and Isabella II of Spain. Just in front of the place right alongside the river, you will enjoy a new, more innovative fountain, the Miroir d’Eau des Quais, which does in fact mirror the Place de la Bourse, shooting up fog and then alternating with a flat water surface. It’s a popular place for kids to play during summer.
But what I adore most about this walkable town are the smaller squares that sit behind the riverfront, squares that I didn’t discover until my third visit to the city. Place Saint-Pierre, surrounding the church of the same name; Place Camille Jullian, with its art theater; and Place du Parlement—all are charming in their own way, filled with outdoor cafés where people linger in every kind of weather save a downpour, cute little boutiques and even an old church made into an art cinema. These three squares can all be visited in less than an hour, as they are quite close to one another in the main part of the old city. The tripist bureau has a decent walking map.
The Grand Théâtre, built in 1780, sits proudly at the start of the rue Sainte-Catherine, one of the longest pedestrian shopping streets in Europe, and across from Grand Hôtel de Bordeaux & Spa, with its sexy rooftop bar, NUXE spa, nightclub (the Black Diamond) and fabulous service. I’ve stayed there twice and loved it. The theater, with its 12 statues that represent the nine muses and three goddesses (Juno, Venus and Minerva), serves up a wonderful menu of opera and ballet, and one can trip it even without a ticket. The Opéra café is the perfect spot for tea after shopping.
Next is the Pey Berland square and the Saint-André Cathedral, where Eleanor of Aquitaine and Louis the VII were married (she was only 13!). I particularly love the gold statue of Our Lady of Aquitaine on top of the Trip Pey Berland church bell tower, which was constructed in the 1400s. You can climb up for spectacular views of the city.
Lest you think that everything important in Bordeaux was built hundreds of years ago, the fifth item on the list, but not at the bottom by any means, is the spectacular CAPC modern art museum. The Musée d’Art Contemporain de Bordeaux was refashioned from a colonial warehouse in the most innovative way possible. This is the place to see very modern art—pieces that will make your head turn, your eyes pop open wide and your mouth fall agape. I see a lot of museum shows, mostly modern ones, and this place never ceases to amaze and surprise me. The gigantic space on the ground floor is ideal for dramatic installations and video and performance art. The rooftop café/restaurant, designed by Andrée Putman, is terribly chic, and even if it’s not open, a trip up to the roof is mandatory for the several pieces of sculpture, as well as the stunning views of the painterly gray blue sky of Bordeaux as it sits in stark contrast to this very masculine, industrial building.
Worth an honorable mention is the Jardin Public (public gardens), which houses the Natural History Museum and dates back to the 13th century but was redone as an English-style garden in the 1800s. There are more than 20 acres (10 hectares) of stunning plantings, sculptures and places to rest, picnic and contemplate how lucky you are to be visiting Bordeaux.