Bordeaux may be the best-kept secret in France. Or at least, it was kept a secret from us. In twenty-plus years of visiting France a recent visit to Bordeaux was the first time we got this far west. It was a speedy two-hour ride from Paris on a modern, comfortable train to Gare St-Jean in central Bordeaux, followed by a short taxi ride to our apartment on central Place du Parlement. The city surprised us – we didn't know it would be so good.
Bordeaux, we quickly found out, has a lot of what we love about Paris, starting with limestone buildings, built in Louis XV and Louis XVI styles, with facades very similar to those in Paris. If you, too, are a regular visitor to Paris, looking at these buildings may stir up a bit of deja vu – "It feels like I’ve seen these before." Well you have. In Paris.
Baron Haussmann, the grand renovator of Paris in the 19th century, was initially prefect (the head, or governor, of the department) here in Bordeaux before moving to the capital at the command of Napoleon III. The Baron clearly took along more than a few good ideas from Bordeaux, as seen in the uniform facades along the Paris streets built under his term as Prefect of Paris.
The creamy limestone buildings in Bordeaux show one important difference, though. They are one or two stories lower than their Paris descendants, allowing more light into the streets and giving the flaneur a much better view of the sky.
The city also has other advantages, both practical and beautifying, at least in its UNESCO-listed historic core. Here are ten top things about Bordeaux –
The automobile respects the pedestrian. You can actually step out in front of a car to cross the street without risking hefty medical bills.
A series of spacious places connect the quartiers of the city, providing greenery, light, and fresh air. In Bordeaux you’re never far from a shady bench, a cafe, or a monument .
Classic churches seem to have been strategically placed to be able to give their names to the neighbourhoods surrounding – Saint Michel, Saint Paul. The oldest and most spectacular church is Saint-André Cathedral, which has been around since the 1100s. Climb the 233 steps of the bell tower for majestic views.
There is a mighty river called the Garonne. Although a bit muddy, it has been vital for the transportation of wine for centuries. Mostly to the Brits across the Channel. No surprise there.
A modern light-rail tram system floats through the streets silently on a wireless electric network. The trams tie together with an efficient bus system and even a handful of river bus/boat routes.
There is a serious food and wine culture.
We couldn’t find a Starbucks. (Not that we looked that hard.)
There are several large public parks.
There's a grand opera house with nuances of Palais Garnier in Paris. (Like every city in Paris – or so it seems – Bordeaux claims its opera house was the original inspiration for Palais Garnier.)
There are beaucoup de stylish shops. And not just the French and international chains, but some of the most interesting shoe, eyeglasses, and clothing stores we've found in France. (You may have heard of Rue St Catherine, the longest retail street in France, Europe, or the world, or maybe the universe. Just avoid it. )
However, and in the interest of truth in journalism, the museums of Bordeaux don't hold a candle to their Parisian counterparts.
Best Bordeaux bonus? It’s a bargain compared to Paris. All over the city a mere €20 buys a gourmet 3-course lunch, eaten while you mingle with the well-bred/dressed/behaved Bordelaise at the surrounding tables.
Victor Hugo wrote about Bordeaux, calling it his favourite city, “Bordeaux is a curious city, original, perhaps unique. Take Versailles and mix it with Antwerp, you have Bordeaux.”
Bordeaux vs Paris fun facts:
Population: 256,045 vs 2,140,526
Number of visitors each year: 5.8 million vs 40-something million (pre-COVID, of course!)
–Diane & Mark
photographs copyright Mark Craft
PS. Here's the crazy-busy Rue St Catherine, the longest retail street in France, etc...