Travel Diary: Bordeaux, France
Updated: Apr 21, 2021
Bordeaux in May was just about the most relaxing way to spend the first four days of our two week European vacation. When we were planning and mulling over itinerary options for our Basque-centric trip, Bordeaux came up at once as an option because of its proximity to our region of interest. It seemed to have a quieter feel which I thought would be nice before our whirlwind Basque gastro-tour. We passed it over for some time because there aren't direct flights from NYC, but we came back around and decided to start our trip here. I'm glad we did. What we found was a very pretty, very relaxed city filled with people who love to spend time outdoors in the perfect spring weather.
Situated right on a bend in the Garonne River, Bordeaux is a port city and the hub of France's eponymous wine region. We saw limestone buildings with dark blue-gray rooftops, fancy plazas, sculpture topped fountains, and the architectural magnificence that France is known for. We learned from our sweet AirBnB host that the tourism industry in the city really picked up about 30 years ago, when the local government set about scrubbing the limestone facades of the soot that collects as a result of pollution. This helped Bordeaux earn its status as a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2007 and we came to understand why during our stay.
It's a place that can be overshadowed by its grand sister in the North, the City of Light, but the Port of the Moon (a most romantic nickname) disarms you with its persistent beauty and a feeling of lightness when you walk its streets and sip the slow-living culture of Southern France. I'm a sucker for those moments when a place seems to open up to you and let you in on its distinct identity. Bordeaux presented me with happy surprises, challenging my preconceived notions in often amusing, layered, and quirky ways.
Bordelais blue was the first surprise the city gave me. The place is awash in blues! I gazed out of the car window the whole ride from the airport, taking in my new surroundings. I immediately noticed that the sidewalks weren’t very crowded. Then I noticed an absolute abundance of blues, mainly on doors, but also painted shutters, window grates, metalwork. So much of it everywhere, and from that first car ride on I would continue to see it all around. Who knew that instead of the color of red wine, my memories of Bordeaux would be filled with these deep cobalt hues. As you'll see below, I formed a theory about where this love for blue comes from when the city revealed one of its more gorgeous aspects on the very first night.
Second, the wine. I’d read that Bordeaux wine isn’t put to market at lower price points, even locally. Expect quality, and to pay to for it. I also thought that 90% of what I’d try would be red and that at higher prices, it would be served with at least some level of pretension. Instead, not only was the wine at the restaurants we went to affordable, delicious, and young, it was casually set down in carafes with drippy spouts. Also, the wine lists were about equally balanced between reds and local whites/roses.
Beyond the wine, I was surprised to find a buzzing little craft beer scene. We saw a good deal more beer drinking going on than wine consumption! We loved trying the craft beer joints, including one particularly rowdy Spanish beer bar that served basically only Estrella (throwback to my trip to Barcelona!), a local brewery, and a corner beer bar that became a favorite.
Third, the food. French cuisine is more than butter and cream, I know that. But I wondered how varied the dining scene could be aside from the more obvious diversity of restaurants serving Asian, Mexican, Italian and other fare. The places we went to, L’Equis, Lauza, Horace, and Bistrot des Globetrotteurs, were modern and interesting departures from what you would think of as traditional French cuisine. The meals we had were seasonal, with plenty of veggies. Bordeaux dining was good, but it didn’t knock my socks off this time around, though I’m sure given more time to try more restaurants, we would have been very happy.
Fourth and more generally, the vibe was so much more laid back than I could have ever imagined. There are so many locals going about their daily lives who really seem to know just how wonderful of a place they live in. We saw people outdoors on benches, at the riverside, in squares, at the reflecting pool, dining outdoors, drinking beer, at all hours of the day, just hanging.
Getting There & Getting Around
We flew TAP Portugal with a <2 hour layover in Lisbon. The airline allows for one carry on at no additional cost and feeds you a meal and a snack, along with beverages on the overseas flight. Not bad for an economy ticket in this day and age.
Uber is available in Bordeaux so we called one from the airport to our AirBnB. We were instructed to meet by the “the big bottle of wine.” Sure enough, there’s a statue of a bottle of red wine toward one end of the arrivals area. Adorable.
Where We Stayed
The AirBnB we booked was in a great location, right outside of the old town area and a couple minutes' walk to the Grosse Cloche gate. In fact, all of our lodging throughout this trip turned out to be very well-located and made walking around so much more enjoyable as we were able to stop back at the apartment whenever we wanted to drop things off or take a quick break.
One lesson that we learned the hard way is to make sure to avoid beds with footboards from now on. My husband and I are both fairly tall, and neither of us could stretch out fully in the bed in Bordeaux. It made for four very uncomfortable nights of sleep. But our host, an ex-pat originally from California, provided for an otherwise lovely stay, and again, the location almost made it worth it. It did for sure encourage us to stay out a little longer into the nights.
Speaking of late nights, the sun set around 9:30pm during our stay, giving us long, luxurious hours of day. Once the sun set, the last light of blue hour lingered on and on into the evening. Every night in Bordeaux, I would drink up that deep blue light as much as I could, regularly checking my watch in disbelief at how long it clung to the sky. That gorgeous Bordelais blue I’d noticed in the car ride to town lit up the night until well past 10pm every day during our stay. I’ve never seen anything like it.
The Old Gates: Port Cailhau & the Grosse Cloche
We stayed a short distance from the Grosse Cloche and often began our walking trips by crossing through this gate into Old Town. The streets become at once narrower, but this area doesn’t have that same frozen-in-time yet touristy feel you’d expect from anywhere that’s referred to as an “old town.” People live here, they operate everyday businesses selling fro-yo, menswear, and home decor, they frequent favorite places and they bump into friends here. Restaurants are packed with more locals than tourists, it seemed. A strong and vibrant local identity shines through in the commerce and social activity that often spills out onto the sidewalks.
Port Cailhau is where I’d set down roots if I could open a shop and live in Bordeaux. This gate faces the river, and from the outside in you see a plaza, at the far end of which is a tiny, busy bar. From the inside out, you’re probably sitting at one of the tables at said bar, Chez Fred. If you look straight ahead you see the Garonne through the arched gate entrance. Look up and you see enviably located apartment balconies, some with their shuttered full-length windows thrown open. You see plants and laundry and signs of everyday life. You want to hear music drifting out of those homes and sometimes you do. You start to imagine yourself in this town, start to wonder “How hard is it to learn French, really?”, start to plan your daily routine: where you’d go for coffee, where you’d shop for groceries.
Upon leaving the old town you cross a boulevard to the wide pedestrian walkways beside the Garonne River. This is where the Miroir d’eau is situated, affording it an incredible view of the Place de la Bourse across the way, especially after dark.
Manicured gardens sprawl on either side of the Miroir. We walked to the riverside often and saw so many happy people sitting on the grass or splashing in the reflecting pool. The crescent bend of the river affords a long view of the city's skyline. We sat on those steps too one day, with popsicles from a nearby cart, then laid back on the sun-warmed stone for a bit before moving on.
Where We Ate & Drank
Chez Fred is a bar that won the real estate lottery, and that is its primary draw. All of the tables are clustered outdoors, some under its small awning, the majority laid bare to the elements. They serve a compact menu of classic drinks and aren't trying to push the envelope, which is okay because you come here to people watch, to enjoy sitting in a European square that isn’t overrun with crowds, to sip something you don’t have to think about, but mostly to relax and chat.
Directly at the foot of Port Cailhau there’s a corner beer bar called La Bieristerie. We stopped here for an evening after our day trip to St. Emilion. We sat beside the open window and ordered the meat plate, then the cheese plate, then the mixed meat and cheese plate. We drank locally brewed beer on tap and tried imported beer from small breweries all over Europe. I loved the hanging macrame planters, the accent wallpaper, the white marble bar top. The several hours we spent here are some of my favorite from our time in Bordeaux. The easy meal was so nice after having come back by train from St. Emilion sun drenched and tired.
Bar A Vin
The tricky thing about visiting a wine producing region is that you’ll never be able to drink it all! As a wine lover it feels like such a loss to see these beautiful bottles that will never rise to the production level conducive to an export business to the US. I felt this sense of missing out once before while gazing at the shelves of a wine shop in Tuscany, filled with gorgeous labels from wineries I’d never heard of. Oh travel, how it makes you think thoughts about global trade and the limits of the human experience all at the same time.
To help ameliorate this feeling of being overwhelmed by options, go to Bar A Vin. It’s a city subsidized wine bar that allows you to experience the wines of the region at very affordable prices. Try a couple of glasses and a plate of charcuterie. It’s in a high ceilinged space with a few rooms to choose from. It's located right by the fancier Opera district so you can head out to do some window shopping right after.
Bistrot des Globe Trotteurs (since closed)
Our AirBnB host recommended this place. It was a short walk from our studio and located a just a bit away from the busier areas of town. The place was unassuming from the outside with eclectic decor and a simple dining area with wooden tables, banquets, and one shared picnic table on the inside. The food was good, the wine was cheap, and the vibe was relaxed. What more could we have asked for in a first meal?
Originally added to our list as a coffee shop, we ended up going to Horace one day for brunch. We had a funny moment where our waitress didn't speak English so my husband had to converse with her in Spanish. He'd learned it in high school, practiced it while working as a waiter during college, and it's really stuck. It's come in handy on numerous occasions when traveling including this one, in France of all places.
We both ordered a brunch bowl of samosas, his with meat and mine with veggies. We had giant iced coffees as well and enjoyed the light meal in the bright, sunny, very pretty room.
In my research I’d come across rumblings of a young cafe culture taking root in Bordeaux. I was very interested. I’d marked nearly a dozen for our trip and we ended up trying out several of them. My favorite was L'Alchemiste. Tucked in the crook of a curving street near the edge of the Opera district, it had a bright anterior room where you ordered your drinks and a moodier interior room up a few steps where you could sit. That room had copper pendant lights, jungle themed wallpaper, and beautifully marbled and speckled natural stone tables. There was even a tiny art gallery in the backroom through which you have to walk to get to the even tinier black and white checkered bathroom.
If we'd stayed at that hotel next door I would have been at L'Alchemiste every single morning.
A fantastic taste of Bordeaux life can be found on this short street. We walked this way often, passing through on our way to the riverside from the apartment. There's a flower shop, Amour de Fleurs, that is bursting with color. There's a small gourmet grocery shop, La Recharge, a Spanish beer bar La Cueva, and several eateries and another bar farther down the street.
La Cuerva's outdoor seats seemed to be ever packed with people from 4pm on. We learned by observing locals to buy some bread and cured meat from La Recharge and bring it over to enjoy with cold beers.
We came back to this area of town on our last night in Bordeaux, sitting down at an outdoor cafe for some espresso. We were treated to another gorgeous night with the moon rising down a wide boulevard. We sat there for some time taking the scene in, forgiving our forgotten orders, and when the espresso finally came I sipped that tiny cup slowly, slowly, slowly, until it was time to go.
Sometimes it can be easy to overlook the first stop of a multi-leg vacation because you’re filled to the brim with excitement about the rest of this trip. That didn’t happen in Bordeaux. I loved it there immensely. It made me so much more interested in exploring more of France.
More pictures from Bordeaux below.