Bordeaux (Photo:marcociannarel/Shutterstock)
5.0 / 5.0
Cruise Critic Editor Rating

By Maria Harding
Cruise Critic Contributor

Port of Bordeaux

The glorious port city of Bordeaux, which lies on the Garonne River in Aquitaine, near the Atlantic coastline of southwest France, is one of the country's loveliest cities and arguably one of the finest in the world, a delightful blend of ancient and modern so well laid out and easy on the eye that it was used as the model for the 19th-century rebuilding of Paris.

A major renovation of the city began in 1996. In 2007, Bordeaux's entire old city was designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. This was the first time such a large area had received this honor; Bordeaux's Heritage Site spans nearly 5,000 acres and includes 347 listed monuments and three churches that -- as key stops on the pilgrimage route to Santiago de Compostela -- were already listed as World Heritage Sites.

The Bordelais have continued the good work of restoring their fine city. Once-derelict warehouses and shabby wharves on both banks of the river have been extensively renovated, with a large swath of its Left Bank turned into a lovely recreation area with bars, cafes, sports facilities and parkland.

And that's not all. The city's magnificent 18th-century buildings and public squares have been cleaned up and access to it all made sustainably accessible via a network of tramlines.

So, modern-day Bordeaux (also known as the wine capital of France and gateway to the Saint-Emilion area) is a city to savor, its broad boulevards and fine restaurants, art galleries, museums and lively neighborhoods so well worth exploring that, faced with only a few hours there, you'll feel torn between browsing on your own and taking a tour of vineyards and grand chateaux in the surrounding countryside.

Our tip? Book a cruise that overnights there if possible, or be prepared to come back for a longer stay (or both).

About Bordeaux


Pro

This stunningly beautiful port city has no shortage of world-class historical sites

Con

Very large ships must dock at a port about 90 minutes' drive from Bordeaux

Bottom Line

This world-famous wine destination features historical treasures surrounded by heavenly vineyards


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Where You're Docked

The Port de la Lune terminal on the Garonne River lies close to the heart of the city at Quai Louis XVIII, near the Bourse Maritime (Maritime Exchange). River cruise ships dock there, as do small luxury ships or vessels.

If you dock there, you'll find a tram terminus at the dock, with most of the main attractions within a 15- to 30-minute walk. The Bordeaux Tourist Office is efficient and will usually send representatives onboard to issue maps and point you in the right direction.

Larger ships dock farther along the river at Bassens (a cargo terminal located about a 10-minute shuttle bus drive from Bordeaux). But the closest really big ships can get to Bordeaux is to stop at Le Verdon sur Mer, which lies at the mouth of the river about 90 kilometers (or about a 90-minute drive) away.

This is bad news if you're desperate to experience Bordeaux, but it's a good location for beach lovers. Le Verdon is a sleepy seaside resort with two gorgeous beaches. Plage Saint-Nicolas faces the Atlantic, and Plage de la Chambrette overlooks the Gironde estuary.

Port Facilities

If you're lucky enough to be in Bordeaux, make the most of it and get going - you're very close to the cobbled, car-free streets of Old Bordeaux and within a hop, skip and jump of the Place de la Bourse, which you'll see as you dock.

There's no terminal building at Port de la Lune, but tramlines run along the docks. So, if you want to see the city by tram, just head to the nearest station. (See Getting Around, below.)

Bassens is mainly a cargo port, so there's nothing to do there but get off your ship and onto a shuttle bus or a tour coach. It'll take you about 15 minutes to get into the city center of Bordeaux via the Chaban-Delmas Bridge.

If your ship calls only at Le Verdon, you'll need to book a tour or a "Go as You Please" transfer if you want to see Bordeaux, which is a 90-minute drive away. On the other hand, Le Verdon is well placed for vineyard tours, as it's only 30 minutes away from some of the most imposing chateaus of the Medoc region.

A third option, if you've been before and done all that, would be to spend a day at one of Le Verdon's fine beaches. But note, there is no public transport at this port, so you'll have to take a taxi (all three ports have metered taxi ranks).

If it's your first trip, however, it's worth it to get to Bordeaux.

Good to Know

Tram inspectors will issue a fine if you lack the right ticket or haven't validated it. French law insists that everyone carries personal ID, so carry your passport or a driver's license with a photograph. Also, beware of over- enthusiastic cyclists!

Getting Around

By Tram: The tram system, installed in 2003, is a good way to get around. It's quite simple to use because there are only three main lines. It's also more environmentally friendly and easier on the eye than most tram systems because it's powered from the ground, not from ugly overhead lines.

You'll find ticket machines and maps at every tram stop, and the machines take credit cards and issue multi-use day tickets for maximum flexibility. Just remember that when you board a tram, you need to validate your ticket at the yellow machine onboard.

By Bike: Bordeaux features a citywide network of cycle lanes and a bike hire scheme that offers 1,500 cycles installed at more than 100 stations around the city. So, if you like to get about on two wheels rather than two legs, you can join the city's VClub cycle scheme for the day for around one euro (you then pay two euros per hour after the first 30 minutes). As with the trams, you'll find clear multilingual instructions on what to do at each bike station, and can use your credit card.

By Walking or Bus: Your ship will almost certainly have Bordeaux Tourism reps onboard, and it's worth asking about daily walking or bus tours run by them or checking these out in advance if you don't want the ship tours (more information below).

Currency & Best Way to Get Money

Currency is the euro. For the latest exchange rates, visit www.oanda.com or www.xe.com.

Bordeaux contains plenty of exchanges bureaus and banks with ATMs. You'll find ATMs at the main railway station, Gare de Bordeaux Saint-Jean, and all around the city center. You'll also find banks with machines on the rue de l'Espirit des Lois, which runs inland from Quai Louis VIII.

Major credit cards are also widely accepted. Carry some cash just in case.

Note that France applies VAT (value-added tax) to most goods and services at the rate of 20 percent, which adds a hefty whack to restaurant and shopping bills. As a tourist, you can claim a tax refund on any goods bought for deportation, so keep all receipts and be prepared to present them -- possibly with proof that you are taking the goods out of the country -- at a VAT refund station. You'll find these at airports, railway stations with international links and most tourist offices.

Language

English is widely spoken and understood in Bordeaux, particularly at tourist attractions. But don't assume everyone speaks it because the French can be prickly with people who carry on as though English is the universal language.

Food and Drink

With its Atlantic coastline, Bordeaux is obviously a great destination for lovers of what the French call fruits de mer. Seafood includes huitres du Bassin d'Arcachon (oysters harvested off the coast of Arcachon, a nearby seaside resort). So, if you love shellfish, you'll be in heaven. Crabs, clams, scallops, mussels and whelks abound in the teeming Atlantic waters.

But the Bordelais also love their meat dishes, and if they can find a way to combine them with wine, so much the better. Check menus for entrecote bordelaise -- ribeye steak cooked in a delicious gravy made from butter-fried shallots, herbs and bone marrow combined with a hearty dollop of Bordeaux wine.

Prefer your meats spicy and cold? Ask for le grenier Medocain, a selection of charcuterie sourced and flavored in the Medoc region. If you're feeling adventurous, whistle up a plate of le salmis de palombe (stewed pigeon). Les cepes de Bordeaux (mushrooms baked with olive oil, shallots, parsley and garlic) make a delicious side dish.

For dessert, ask for canneles -- soft, round fluted puddings made with rum and vanilla. And if you can manage it after a "grand bouffe," try noisettines du Medoc (roasted hazelnuts rolled in spiced sugar) with your coffee. Yum.

If you're happy to combine a pot luck lunch with shopping and sightseeing, the area around Saint-Pierre in Old Bordeaux is a good hunting ground for restaurants offering inexpensive feasts in a lively environment; prix fixe menus start around 15 euros for three courses.

Le Gabriel: A stylish restaurant set in the central pavilion of the magnificent Palais de la Bourse, opposite the water mirror, Le Gabriel has an alfresco dining area, so you can enjoy all that wonderful architecture as you eat. The restaurant offers three levels. The ground floor serves light meals, afternoon cakes and evening cocktails, while on the first floor, you'll find a wooden-tabled bistro. On the second a grand, a Michelin-starred restaurant dishes up concoctions like whole grilled sea bream with orange and rosemary and green pepper salmon tartare with sour cream. (10 Place de la Bourse; +33 5 56 30 00 70; open noon to midnight)

La Tupina: Eat locally sourced food in cozy surroundings in Old Bordeaux, between the churches of Sainte-Croix and Saint-Michel. La Tupina -- which looks like a comfy old French farmhouse complete with roaring log fires and a roasting spit -- serves regional specialities like crab veloute, slow cooked lamb, spit roasted beef and pork with lentils. (6 rue Porte de la Monnaie; +33 5 56 91 56 37; open noon to 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. to 11 p.m.)

La Brasserie Bordelaise: This is a bustling eatery at the heart of the Saint-Pierre district and is popular with residents. You'll find tables made from barrels, a good wine list, fine meat and shellfish dishes at affordable prices -- and lots of laughing Bordelais. It's noisy but fun. (50 rue Saint-Remi; +33 5 57 87 11 91; open noon to 3 p.m. and 7 p.m. to midnight Monday to Saturday, closed Sunday)

Shopping

If you like the finer things in life, this is the city for you. Head to rue Notre-Dame for antiques, art and craft shops.

If you prefer to take home a few bottles of Bordeaux (or claret, as the Brits call it), wine shops abound. One of the more unusual shops is Millessima (87 Quai de Paludate, 33050), which, for a price, will store your wine in ideal cellar conditions then ship it to you when you want it. The downside? It deals in pricey Grand Cru wines, so expect to pay at least $600 a case. If that's too rich for your blood, more affordable wine shops are plentiful, and some hold free tasting sessions.

Best Cocktail

Obviously, it has to be wine. They've been making it around these parts since the Romans introduced the idea in the first century A.D., and they are rather good at it. The Bordeaux tourist office (at 12 Cours du 30 Juillet, near the riverbank down the road from Bordeaux Opera House) runs daily tours to the vineyards that surround the city. (See More Information, below.)