After several incredible trips to different regions of France over the past few years, we finally found ourselves visiting Bordeaux! This decision was encouraged by our growing enjoyment of wine, which was encouraged by one of our favorite sommeliers in Paris, as well as one of our favorite restaurants. Both made Bordeaux wines feel more approachable. While it rained almost the entire time we were in Bordeaux, we fell in love with the beauty of the city, the kindness of people, and the food and wine of the area. The medieval streets were enchanting in the evening. We’re definitely thinking about returning during the warmer months, but Bordeaux also holds a lot of magic at Christmas.
As with most places we’ve traveled around Europe during Christmastime, it felt very local. I think we only heard English once. We saw Spanish, French, and German tourists, but the Americans weren’t there when we visited in December.
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Getting to Bordeaux
Since we had Paris Opera Ballet tickets, I decided that it would make the most sense to go to Bordeaux when we first landed in France. We flew DFW-CDG, took the RER B to Denfert-Rochereau, and transferred to Metro line 4 to get to the Montparnasse train station. It took about a little under an hour. This was a little bit more difficult than when we’ve taken the direct train to Strasbourg from Charles de Gaulle, but it was fine.
Knowing that we would be traveling in the holiday season, I booked our train tickets via SNCF in advance. We took a direct train from Paris Montparnasse to Bordeaux Saint Jean, which took about 2.5 hours via INOUI. The return trip, from Bordeaux Saint Jean to Paris Montparnasse, took 2 hours via the TGV train. The drive would have taken at least 6 hours, so if you are thinking about traveling to Bordeaux, I recommend taking the train and then picking up a car if you truly need one. Diane has a lot more tips for traveling through France by train.
A few things to Know about trains in France:
- I always book flexible tickets if I’m booking train tickets for the day of arrival. In this case, the earlier train was sold out, but we could have switched to a later train if our flight had been delayed.
- Some train tickets limit the size or amount of luggage you can bring. Make sure you plan accordingly. Since we were traveling with our wine suitcase, I added a piece of luggage to our trip. I don’t know how it’s enforced, but it gave me peace of mind.
- Many trains have seat reservations. Choose your seats when you book and govern yourself accordingly. Seat numbers are above the seats, on electronic screens, or on the side of the seat. Please don’t try and force people to switch seats with you by merely sitting in their seats. (This is particularly true on trains that make stops.)
- Make sure you check your train number, not your destination. Your train’s final destination might not be your final destination. It’s entirely possible to get on the wrong train if you don’t double check the train number, just like you would a flight number.
Why Visit Bordeaux?
The Beauty of Bordeaux
The old city center of Bordeaux is protected as UNESCO World Heritage Site. As such, it is beautifully maintained, though there are parts of the city that allow you to see what it looks like before it became a UNSECO site. If you love the architecture in Paris, you will probably love the architecture in Bordeaux. I try not to compare cities too much, but parts of Bordeaux reminded me of our trip to Bayeux as well.
The Food of Bordeaux
There are more restaurants per capita in Bordeaux than any other city in France. And, as a result of that, according to our guide, the expectation for quality is very high. We spent most of our meals in wine bars and trying to learn as much as we could about the Bordeaux wines, but we found the planches (charcuterie boards) to be very high quality.
And, of course, the wines. Bordeaux wines are among some of the most famous and the highest quality. We were a little nervous that the wines were going to be too expensive for us to truly enjoy, but there are great wines in Bordeaux at every price point. Yes, there are very famous wine chateaus that produce very expensive wines, but there are a lot more small producers that sell great bottles of wine. The trick is being open, asking for recommendations, and trying as much as you can. Thankfully, we have taken advantage of this wine tasting in Paris multiple times, so we were able to navigate Bordeaux with some knowledge about the area. (Highly recommend if you are starting your France trip in Paris! It’s helped us in all other areas of France.)
Things to Know about French Wine Before Visiting Bordeaux
I am not an expert in French wine, but I enjoy exploring the different wine regions of France (both when I travel and via a good wine list!). I have visited more wineries in Italy than I have in France, and most of my wine tastings in France have been in Alsace. The first thing you need to know about French wine is that you will order by the region, not the grape. That’s very different from the US. If you ask for a pinot noir or a chardonnay, you may get a blank stare. It’s not that the French are being rude, it’s that there are multiple varietals that include different grapes. Like Italian wines, there are a few classifications of wine that are helpful to know before you head to Bordeaux. You can think of it like a pyramid.
Vin de Table (VdT) – This is table wine and the broadest category. It won’t have a vintage year on the bottle and it can come from anywhere in France. This is the base of the pyramid.
Vin de Pays (VdP) – This is a step up from table wine and it is wine from a designated area, so you’ll find a specific region and vintage year on the bottle. It doesn’t require strict production or ratios, so you might find some creativity in here. I think of it as being similar to IGT wine in Italy.
Vin d’Appellation d’Origine Controlée (AOC) – AOC wines are strictly regulated and come from a specific geographic area. These controls may include the types of grapes used in the wine and what the percentage of blends can be, how the grapes are harvested (hand vs. machine) and cultivation techniques, and amount of production. This is similar to a DOC status in Italy.
Grand Cru – Grand Cru wines come from specific appellations and are strictly regulated. In between AOC and Grand Cru wines, you may also find Villages AOC and Premier Cru wines. I’ve found the Villages AOC to be more common on French wine lists. This would be your DOCG wine in Italy.
I know a lot of people think that French wines, especially French wines from Bordeaux have to be expensive. They don’t. I promise. We were nervous about visiting Bordeaux because of that, but we found some outstanding wines at very fair prices. The expense came in when we started pricing out the same bottles in the United States. So, if you like wine, I strongly suggest following our trend of buying a wine suitcase and saving the money you would spend on shipping. Our wine suitcase paid for itself on its first trip and every trip since.
Wine Tastings in Bordeaux
We decided when we started to plan our trip to Bordeaux that we would spend our time in the city exclusively for our first trip. We didn’t want to do a lot of day trips, and it can be a little tricky to schedule wine tastings in the best of times, let alone the off season. However, we wanted to try as many wines from Bordeaux as possible since we’re still learning about French wines. When we go back to Bordeaux, we may stay outside the city and visit some of the wineries, but similar to our trip to Honfleur this past summer, if we’re in a town, we want to be there. Maybe in the future we’d be more up for wine tours to the countryside, but with so many great wine bars in Bordeaux, it’s hard to want to leave the city.
Le Sobre Chartrons
Our tour guide in Bordeaux recommended Le Sobre Chartrons as a great place to try different wines. He was absolutely correct. We enjoyed the experience so much, we went back three times. This wine bar offers wines by the glass, but you can also buy a bottle to enjoy there or take away. We ended up buying 3 bottles of the Pessac-Leognan that we enjoyed there. On our last visit, we met the owner, who had noticed how often we had come in, and we had a great conversation and shared many laughs.
We ordered charcuterie platters at Le Sobre Chartrons, and they were outstanding. Everything was expertly sliced and the flavors were unreal. While I’m still learning a lot about French cheese, all of the cheeses at Le Sobre were exceptional. I will be thinking about the truffle ham and thinly shaved sheep cheese for awhile.
One of the things I really loved about this wine bar is that they used the card system, so you could do a small pour to taste a wine, or do a full or double pour if you wanted a glass of wine. We were able to try some of the more popular red wines from Bordeaux, but we also tried several white wines, including a lovely 2008 Sauternes, which is a sweet wine that I didn’t see at many of the other wine bars.
Though we were able to grab a table during quieter hours, it did become quite busy. I suggest making a reservation if you are visiting during more popular times.
The wine cellar with the most extensive list of wines by the glass that we visited was Max. We didn’t do an official tasting, though they do offer that as an option. Instead, we went through the wine list and tried things that we were most interested in. My favorite glass of the night ended up being a 2015 Chateau Mazeyres Pomerol. (2015 is apparently a great vintage year for Bordeaux, similar to Montalcino.) The only draw back of Max Bordeaux, for me, is that they didn’t have food to accompany the wine, and I was worried about it going straight to my head, but I guess we could have eaten before we went. I’m just obsessed with food and wine pairings these days.
This bar also functions as a wine shop, and the wines were very fairly priced. I would have brought home the Pomerol if it hadn’t been the first week of our trip, and we hadn’t purchased so much of the Pessac already.
Le Bar a Vin
Rounding out our list of wine bars in Bordeaux that we enjoyed is Le Bar a Vin. This was probably the most beautiful of the wine bars we visited with a well manicured list of white, red, rose, and sparkling wines from Bordeaux. We worked our way through the red wines and ordered the cheese and chocolate platters to accompany our wine tastings. This place does get quite popular, and we saw lines during the afternoon and in the early evening.
Things to Do in Bordeaux
Since we didn’t have a lot of time to plan our trip to Bordeaux, imagine our surprise when we opened the one travel guide that we brought… and there was NOTHING on Bordeaux. This felt a little daunting, but we were also quite busy with work. If we had a long list of things we wanted to see in Bordeaux, we would have felt like we were missing out – so I think we hit a good balance. We only spent 4 days in Bordeaux, so we made it work.
When we go back, I will do a lot more research in advance. We were lucky to find a tour on such short notice in the off-season, but I know we missed out on so much more by not having a book to help direct our energy.
Bordeaux Walking Tour
Once we realized that we did not have any sort of introduction to Bordeaux, Tom jumped into action trying to find a tour. We registered for a free walking tour of Bordeaux, but were contacted by the guide letting us know that the tour didn’t make and offering other options. They didn’t fit with our schedule, so we booked a private walking tour of Bordeaux with Caz. This ended up being the best way to learn more about the city, and he provided so much information and we covered so much ground in a short time. We started at Place des Quinconces, one of the largest open spaces in France.
I am a firm believer that you should always do a walking tour of a city when you first arrive so that you can better understand what is important to an area and figure out where you want to focus more of your time. Caz covered everything from the history of Bordeaux, to the architecture and changes made to the city in pursuit of UNSECO status, to information about food and wine. We would have enjoyed doing a wine tasting with him if time had allowed.
Le Cite du Vin
On our first full day in Bordeaux, we booked a visit to Le Cite du Vin, the Bordeaux wine museum. This was a great introduction to wine-making across the world, and it had several unique exhibits. There is an audioguide available, and we opted for the DIY version. In retrospect, it might have been more useful if we had simply followed the museum tour that they recommend, but Tom had very specific exhibits that he wanted to see.
Our ticket included a “wine tasting,” which included a glass of wine at the rooftop wine bar that overlooks the city. We didn’t love either of the wines we tasted, and we visited on a very cloudy and rainy day, so it probably wasn’t the best experience. Still the wine museum is fantastic, and it’s worth a visit.
You can take the tram or walk to the museum – it’s really not as far as it seems. I think the view of Le Cite du Vin from the Garonne river is impressive, even though the architecture doesn’t completely fit the medieval old city nor the grand architecture.
Bordeaux Christmas Market
If you are visiting Bordeaux in late November-December, you will find the Marché de Noël de Bordeaux in the heart of the city. This market reminded me a lot of the Tuileries Christmas Market in Paris simply because of the sheer number of food stalls and the international flair. This would be the perfect place to grab lunch or dinner and people watch. There are over 100 vendors selling everything from Alsatian specialities (and bretzels!) to Basque specialties, and everywhere in between. There were (surprisingly), a lot of Canadian products, and (unsurprisingly), all the French pate and foie gras products you could want. Pro tip: Buy a bottle of Sauternes to pair with foie gras for a decadent culinary experience in France.
Unfortunately for us, it rained most of the time we were in Bordeaux, so I didn’t ever feel like I could stop and truly enjoy the market, but it definitely felt local and I loved the ambiance. It was far less crowded than the Christmas markets in Alsace, and similar to Alsace, there are shorter “pop up” markets throughout the city and in the smaller towns surrounding Bordeaux throughout the holiday season.
Bordeaux’s large cathedral, Cathédrale Saint-André de Bordeaux, is absolutely stunning, especially from the outside. Similar to the Bayeux Cathedral, it has Gothic, Romanesque, and Renaissance elements, all of which contribute to a beautiful facade. The interior, by comparison, feels austere by comparison, though it does have an incredible organ and some beautiful stained glass. Be aware that the cathedral does close for lunch, so you’ll want to plan your visit accordingly. Fun fact: the bell tower is not attached to the cathedral because they feared the vibrations from the bells would impact the building. (This is true in Honfleur, as well.)
One of our regrets was not having time to purchase tickets for Luminscence, an interactive light show in the cathedral during the evening.
Where to Stay in Bordeaux
There are not a lot of luxury hotels in Bordeaux, and many of them are pretty expensive for what they are. I’m a globalist with Hyatt, and I was excited to find the Hotel FirstName. We’ve had great experiences with Hyatt hotels in France. I ended up booking a Hyatt Prive rate for our stay in Bordeaux because of the benefits it offered.
Why would you want to book a Hyatt Prive rate with me, your friendly travel advisor? In addition to offering a buy 3, get 1 night free rate, the FirstName Bordeaux Prive rates offer additional benefits, including:
- Daily Full Breakfast for 2
- Welcome Amenity
- $75.00 Property Credit per stay
- Room Upgrade
- Early Check-in
Hotel FirstName Bordeaux
Since it was our first time visiting Bordeaux, I wanted the amenities of a hotel. We took a cab directly to the hotel from the train station, which took about 12 minutes. (On the way back, we took the tram, which took about 20 minutes. It requires a change, but it’s super easy.)
We arrived around 3:45 and Chloe immediately helped us check in. She remarked on my Globalist status, explained the Prive benefits, and let us know that the hotel opened in January 2023, so she was excited to hear our feedback. Our room wasn’t quite ready, but she offered us a drink and held our luggage while we waited. Shortly after, she came to confirm our wine preferences and bring our key to us.
Our standard king room was upgraded to a corner king deluxe room, or a Carat room. The design was sleek and modern. It reminded me a lot of a grown up Moxy (though far, far more comfortable) and a cross between the Thompson Central Park. Every part of this room was stunning. Our windows (that opened!) offered a sweeping view of the city with a window seat. It was a great set up for an in-room picnic on our first night.
We had a large walk-in closet with plenty of storage space, including shelves, streamlined hangers, and a safe. There was a French press coffee maker, as well as a tea kettle in our room. I loved the artistic details that made it feel like you were staying in someone’s chic apartment, rather than a sterile hotel room. The entire room, excluding the bathroom, was carpeted, which was much appreciated on cool, damp days.
With dual vanities, a soaking tub, and an overhead shower, as well as a handheld shower, the bathroom was HUGE. The toilet was in a separate room with its own sink. (We loved that.) Bath amenities were full-size Oceopin, a new-to-me French brand that felt very clean and soft.
There was a large bottle of water and chocolates in the room when we arrived, and they also delivered a bottle of a Bordeaux red wine, which they were willing to deliver at our request. It was delicious and the perfect way to end our first night in Bordeaux.
Last thing about Hotel FirstName: this is one of the most comfortable hotel beds I’ve ever slept in. The linens were high quality and cozy. I’d stay it rivals the bed at the St. Regis Florence or the Four Seasons. I need more hotels to get on board with the same quality of mattresses, bedding, and pillows!
Hotel FirstName Amenities
This is such a fun and funky boutique hotel, despite its concrete exterior. One of the things that is unique about Hotel FirstName is that they have a small kitchenette on each floor with drinks and small snacks. It is, by no means, an Executive Lounge similar to the Hyatt Etoile in Paris, but it was a very thoughtful touch.
Our rate included breakfast every day, though we only took advantage of it once. There were a number of buffet options, including trout (Tom loved it), pastries, charcuterie, and fruits, but they offered made-to-order eggs. They were some of the best hotel eggs I’ve ever had.
The restaurant at Hotel FirstName is a destination in itself. La Bada is chic with a focus on local food and wine. Cedric Bechade is the master chef, and he has earned a Michelin star for his creative cuisine at La Table de l’Auberge Basque, a Relais & Chateaux restaurant. (You might recall my love affair with Relais and Chateaux from our stays at Chateau d’Audrieu in Normandy or Maison des Tetes and Le Chambard in Alsace.)
The restaurant doubles as a bar during outside of lunch and dinner with a limited bar menu. We took advantage of the wine line and bar to work for a few hours during the week. They staff was so very kind.
Finally, there is a gym on-premises, but we didn’t take advantage of that. There was too much wine to try in Bordeaux. The city is easily walkable from the hotel, don’t let it’s location “outside” of the old city center scare you. It’s very accessible by foot and by tram.
Final Thoughts on Visiting Bordeaux in December
We really enjoyed visiting Bordeaux, and we stand behind our decision to simply stay in Bordeaux. When we return, I would like to do a few days in Saint Emilion and a few days in Bordeaux. Saint Emilion is one of my favorite Bordeaux wines so far, and it looks to be an easy train trip from Bordeaux. I did really enjoy being there in the off season, and I would have liked to enjoy the Christmas market without the rain. I’d also like to do a food tour and learn more about the cheeses. The charcuterie in Bordeaux was truly exceptional. We tried to ask about the cheeses, but it’s hard to learn simply by just visiting a restaurant. Our food tours in Paris have always been more impactful in learning what to buy and what to bring home, and I think the same would be true in every region of France!
Creating the Perfect France Itinerary
Originally, when we were planning our summer vacation last year, we were between Bordeaux and Normandy. We ended up choosing Normandy over cost. If I had to choose between visiting Bordeaux and visiting Normandy, I would really struggle to make the choice. On one hand, the summer in Mont St. Michel was absolutely lovely, but winter in Bordeaux brought its own magic. Bordeaux is such an interesting mix of the beauty of Paris and the beauty of small town France. It’s a completely different vibe than Paris, but it couples together nicely. It’s definitely worth visiting, especially if you like wine. (If you like cider, visit Normandy! If you like white wine, go to Alsace!)
All that said, I really enjoyed our experience. Bordeaux is a beautiful city, and it’s easier to get to than I expected. I’m not sure what temperatures look like during the summer, but I bet Bordeaux is lovely in the fall and the spring. The longer days would be enjoyable though, so it’s a little tough to say when the best time to visit Bordeaux on our next trip would be. I think I’d like to couple it with a trip to Carcassonne though. It’s not *too* terribly far. From there, we could head to Languedoc-Roussillon for more wines inspired by one of our favorite restaurants in Paris.