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).
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.)