The French sleeping beauty has woken up. Bordeaux has become the modern, hot, hip place to be in France. Whether you’re a resident or a visitor, you can’t help but feel the vibe every time you step out into the city streets. Named for the ancient Roman site of Burdigala, Bordeaux has it all – history, architecture, art, music, nightlife, cuisine, wine, shops, parks, gardens, modern transport, good employment, and much more. And it’s located smack in the middle of the best wine country in the world. In fact, Bordeaux is so noteworthy that the city of approximately one million inhabitants was named a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2007. And this year,  the travel guide Lonely Planet named Bordeaux the number one metropolis to visit in the entire world!

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Bordeaux has been a favorite of mine for years with its impressive medieval gates, elegant 18th and 19th century architecture, terrific cuisine, and superb situation along the Garonne River. And it’s been fascinating to see its urban renovation in progress. In 1995, Mayor Alain Juppé began a program of renewal, and Bordeaux has never looked back. First off, to combat its shabby, run-down exterior, the city incented residents and property owners to clean the facades of their buildings. Most residents responded and the beautiful blond stone shines bright once more. However, you can see below where a few Bordelais (residents of Bordeaux) have held out against the clean-up project and black soot remains on their building (or even their PART of the building) – and paid fines as a result!

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Bordeaux also has been cleaning up its dull and dilapidated industrial riverfront, tearing down old warehouses and creating new outdoor spaces and view-friendly development. To my mind, the stunning Place de la Bourse overlooking the river is the city’s centerpiece with its wonderfully symmetrical architecture set off by mirror fountains. 

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Also critical to breathing new life into the city was the installation of a modern tramway system which crisscrosses the town making it very easy to get around. Bikes are another great way to travel, thanks to kilometers of good bike paths and trails. And Bordeaux also decided to make large parts of the historic city center pedestrian only. Bustling shops and restaurants attract patrons day and night, particularly on the Rue Sainte Catherine the longest pedestrian shopping street in Europe.

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Getting all the buzz these days, however, is smashing new Cité du Vin on the Garonne River north of the center city. Hailed as Bordeaux’s version of the ’Guggenheim Bilbao’ or Paris’s ‘Fondation Louis Vuitton’, the museum and cultural center focuses on everything about wine including the design of the building. The daring architectural curves of the upper portion are meant to resemble wine swirling in a glass and also the eddies of the Garonne outside. The lower part takes on the form of ship which recalls the centuries old shipping and wine trade of Bordeaux. The Cité du Vin offers exhibits, events, tastings, restaurants, shops and other activities all year round – click here for more details. It is the latest must-see for anyone interested in wines and their cultural significance in France. 

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We could go on and on about all the other things to see and do in Bordeaux. A few of the most important include the Esplanade des Quinconces – the largest square in France and one of the largest in Europe, the historic St. Pierre district, the Aquitaine Museum covering prehistory to modern times in Bordeaux and southwest France, the Bordeaux Fine Arts Museum, many churches in the center city, the Grand Théâtre – Bordeaux’s gorgeous opera house second only to the Palais Garnier in Paris, the antiques district, and Bordeaux’s lovely Botanical Garden and Public Gardens. And of course the shopping. You can find top designers and brands as well as local specialty boutiques. My favorite French scarf designer has their headquarters in Bordeaux and their design atelier in a chateau about 40 minutes outside the city – great article to come on their fabulous scarves, shawls and accessories!

And then there’s the food. Bordeaux has loads of super bistrots, classic brasseries, trendy restaurants, haute gastronomie (think top chefs Gordon Ramsay, Philippe Etchebest, Joel Robuchon), tapas bars, wine bars, fusion cuisine, and more. With the Atlantic not far away, seafood is a great culinary option as well. And all this can be paired with local wines coming from thousands of different Bordeaux vineyards, wineries and chateaux. Last but not least are two Bordeaux sweet treats that you can’t miss on a visit to this jewelbox of a city. The first is the divine cannelé bordelais – a delicious little fluted cake with a light custard-like interior and dark caramel-like exterior that fits in the palm of your hand. Culinary legend has it that the recipe was invented around 300 years ago by convent nuns eager to use up the egg yolks given to them by local vintners; the yolks were left over from the wine-making process when stiff egg whites were used to filter wines. Whatever the recipe’s origin, you’ll want to taste cannelés from a good shop such as Baillardran (see below) which makes them the old-fashioned way.

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Finally, Bordeaux has a specialty for chocolate lovers too – its version of the truffle. As soon as you arrive, be sure and head to the historic chocolate shop Cadiot-Badie for a box of ‘diamants noirs’. These ‘black diamonds’ feature a chocolate ganache interior flavored with crushed grapes soaked in Bordeaux wine and are enrobed in dark chocolate and then rolled in fine sugar crystals for a little culinary sparkle.

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To sum up, Bordeaux is now a true destination and not just a side trip. If you haven’t been, be sure and add it to your France visit list ASAP. And if you haven’t been in a while, it’s definitely worth coming back to see the city in its revitalized glory. As for me, it’s on my visit-as-often-as-possible list - I discover something new every time I’m there. Fun, dynamic, modern, historic, interesting, elegant, profound, Bordeaux might just be the new Paris.

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Photo courtesy of the city’s convention bureau

How to Get There

Bordeaux is accessible by plane, train or automobile. Air France has multiple flights a day from both Orly and Charles de Gaulle airports. This summer, a new super-fast TGV line will make it possible to get from Paris to Bordeaux two hours and four minutes, down from three hours and fourteen minutes. (With such a short journey now from la Capitale, the Bordelais are bracing for all the Parisians who will be zooming down from Paris for the weekend!)

Join French Affaires in Bordeaux This Fall!

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Our ‘Fall in Southwest France Trip’ this October includes several days tasting the pleasures of Bordeaux plus experiencing the delights of the Bordeaux and Dordogne countryside. For the full trip itinerary and registration information, please email us at French.culture (at) frenchaffaires.com. A bientôt!

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