“We used to say Bordeaux was ‘the sleeping beauty,’ but now it’s quite awake,” says Florent Maillet of Chocolatine
, one of Virtuoso’s on-site tour connections in France. He credits the city’s 2007 UNESCO designation as a World Heritage site with driving the turnaround. “Over the past decade, Bordeaux reinvented itself in a way that makes it friendlier and prettier – and the food scene is better too.”
To appreciate what’s new, begin with the ancient. It’s the first visit to the region for my wife, teenage son, and me, and our aristocratic base for a few days is the InterContinental Bordeaux
, known locally as Le Grand Hotel, built where the Roman forum once stood. The hotel is an unapologetic throwback, with its Empire furnishings and tasseled ruffles, but there’s plenty to hashtag, including a two-Michelin-starred Gordon Ramsay restaurant, a rooftop “night beach” bar, and a stunning two-story indoor pool done up in black tiles with soaring red columns.
The eighteenth century was the beginning of Bordeaux’s golden age, and Baron Haussmann, a local prefect, used the city’s neoclassical look and open spaces as a guide when Napoléon III asked him to remake Paris into a modern capital. On a walking tour one cloudless morning, our guide, Hela Soula, leads us across the cobbled square from Le Grand to the magnificent Corinthian colonnades of the 1780s Grand-Théâtre de Bordeaux
, now home to the Bordeaux National Opera and Ballet. “This building three times served as French Parliament, but it was also a hospice – and, for a time, a place of leisure and gambling,” she says. “As with everything in Bordeaux, you can’t always tell what’s happening by the face.”
That bears out everywhere we go. Along rue Notre-Dame in the villagelike Chartrons quarter, honey-colored row houses where international wine merchants once haggled today contain digital art galleries, pop-up design shops, and organic juiciers
. A World War II bunker in the concrete submarine pen at Bassins à flot is now – mon dieu
! – the Moon Harbour
whiskey distillery (true, it’s not red wine, but the corn and barley do come from nearby Gironde). On the reborn Garonne River waterfront, miserable dock warehouses – “You wouldn’t have walked around here in the 1990s, night or day,” Soula says – are giving way to industrial-hip havens such as Les Halles de Bacalan, an airy glass-and-steel food hall as ingredient- and provenance-focused as anything you’d discover in Copenhagen or Brooklyn. The scoopers at the chocolate mousse counter will talk you back to the cacao bean’s origin if you let them.