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Planning a mini-break? Consider our luxury guide to Bordeaux

Planning a mini-break? Consider our luxury guide to Bordeaux

We touched down in Bordeaux in real need of a holiday. Since getting engaged in October, my fiancé and I have found our every available moment taken up by wedding planning. As we created invitation spreadsheets, booked the church and delved into the surprisingly complicated task of napkin selection, this mini-break, three months before the big day, slowly became a bright spot on the horizon: a four-day respite, free of seating-plan chatter.

Like many people, my experience of France was limited to its most famous city and its coastlines – but, after just a few days in Bordeaux, I realised that I had now found somewhere that encompassed the chic, cosmopolitan nature of the former with the relaxed energy of the latter. Nestled on the banks of the Garonne River in the southwest of the country, Bordeaux is a charming maze of 18th-century streets boasting cafés on every corner, where you’re as likely to find jamon croquettes hailing from nearby Spain as you are a deliciously flaky croissant. Frequent breaks to enjoy wonderfully cheap coffee and the city’s traditional canelé pastries provided the relaxation we desperately needed.

With its grand, Napoleonic architecture and vast array of chic boutiques, it’s not for nothing that Bordeaux has earned the nickname ‘Little Paris’. But the city has a far more low-key vibe than the capital: the locals are unfailingly friendly (not something that can always be said of Parisians) and most restaurants – although there are several, cutting-edge spots – retain a sense of regional authenticity.

Of course, it’s impossible to visit the hub of France’s most famous wine-growing region and not mention (and sample) a few glasses of red – all under the guise of researching our wedding wine, naturally. Just a short drive from Margaux, Saint-Émilion and Sauternes, Bordeaux is an ideal spot for oenophiles, and wine tastings are popular among visitors to the city and beyond. Though I knew of Bordeaux’s grape-growing reputation, I hadn’t realised until our visit quite how much more it has to offer – all of which has made it a mini-break I cannot recommend more highly.

a building with a tower
The charming, 18th century streets of Bordeaux, built from honey-coloured local limestoneAlexandr Spatari - Getty Images

Here’s where we recommend staying, the restaurants and bars to try, and what to do in this most beautiful of French cities.

Where to stay

Bordeaux has no shortage of hip boutique spots, as well as larger hotels for those with more traditional tastes. The grande fromage is undoubtedly the InterContinental Bordeaux, a 130-room IHG Hotels & Resorts palace right in the middle of the city, opposite the famous opera house. The rooms, all spacious, classic and comfortable, have plenty of upmarket allure with their marble bathrooms and swagged curtains, which nod to the building’s grand heritage.

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A suite at the grand InterContinental Hotel Bordeaux, overlooking the opera houseCourtesy of the InterContinental Bordeaux

On the fifth floor is the hotel’s expansive Guerlain Spa, a heavenly escape patronaged by one of France’s most famous beauty brands, which boasts an indoor pool, sauna, hammam and a wide list of soothing treatments. A ‘sono sensory’ massage, during which our tense shoulders were expertly unknotted in time to hypnotically relaxing music, banished all signs of wedding stress. Just next door you’ll find the rooftop bar, which serves up excellent cocktails all year round (just pop into the conservatory if you’re cold) as well as the best panoramic views of the city’s landmarks.

the guerlain spa at the intercontinental
The Guerlain Spa at the InterContinentalGiuliano Ottaviani

If a good spa is key to your enjoyment of a trip (we hear you there) try Les Sources de Caudalie, a rustically designed but oh-so-luxury resort just outside the city, in the sleepy wine country of Martillac. Here, you’ll find the Vinothérapie Spa – the birthplace of beauty brand Caudalie’s world-famous, grape-based products – as well as three restaurants and (naturally) an excellent bar serving local vintages. If you’d like to work off some of that rich French food, be sure to book in for tennis lessons on the resort’s private courts.

For those seeking something more understated, Maison La Course in the lively Chartrons district is a little like staying at the house of a very chic French friend. With just five bucolic bedrooms, plus a cosy living room complete with a fireplace, this hideaway offers personalised service at its best: ask for a bespoke wine tasting, for which the staff will procure bottles from the hotel’s cellar according to your tastes.

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A room at the Hotel Indigo in lively ChartronsCourtesy of Hotel Indigo
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The wide-ranging view from the terrace at Hotel Indigo, a perfect spot for sunnier monthsVEERLE EVENS

Around the corner is another IHG property, the Hotel Indigo: just a two-minute walk from the river bank (so you’re a stone’s throw from the glorious food market on Sundays) this is an excellent choice for travellers looking for a more purse-friendly option. The staff here are some of the most helpful you’ll ever encounter; Emeric, the manager, is always on hand to give restaurant recommendations and fix any issues swiftly.

The rooms, masterminded by Morocco-based designer Stella Cadente, take their aesthetic inspiration from the nearby Arcachon bay on the Atlantic coast and feature beachside hues, as well as nods to the famous dunes and authentic oyster huts. They’re well-appointed, simple, but exceedingly comfortable – think feather-light duvets and power showers.

Where to eat and drink

One thing’s for certain: you won’t go hungry in Bordeaux. Wherever you find yourself in the city, you’re never more than a few metres away from one of the city’s countless cafés, all of which serve up traditional French fare: croque monsieur, canelé, steak, crisp salads and foie gras abound, as well as the oysters for which the region is famous. Try Le Carré in Chartrons for the best frites allumettes around.

For evenings out, you’ll find options that range from the super trendy to the very traditional. Le Pressoir d’Argent, the InterContinental’s two-Michelin-star restaurant helmed by the Gordon Ramsay group, sits somewhere between the two, with its modernised take on a classic menu of black truffles from the Gironde and Breton lobster. Opt for either of the tasting menus, and be sure to say yes to the wine pairing – in Bordeaux, of all places, you won’t be disappointed.

le pressoir d’argent at the intercontinental serves tasting menus with a twist
Le Pressoir d’Argent at the InterContinental serves tasting menus with a twistJulien Faure

We found an evening of rich French flavours to be balanced out beautifully by a trip to Symbiose, a bar and restaurant overlooking the river, which serves the best cocktails in Bordeaux, should you tire of wine. The restaurant, with its cork ceiling, hanging plants and thick tables hewn from tree trunks, feels cool and cosy, with a menu made to match: the sautéed mushroom gnocchi and crispy tapioca croquettes are must-orders.

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Quirky cocktail bar Symbiose also has an excellent menu of contemporary sharing platesSymbiose Bordeaux

You won’t find a restaurant, café or bar in Bordeaux that doesn’t have a decent list of red wine, but if you’re looking to flex your taste buds and try several, head to Bar à Vin in the centre of town, which is extraordinarily well-priced and offers the widest selection of wines – red, dry and sweet whites, rosés, clarets and crémants – you could hope to sample.

What to do

No trip to Bordeaux would be complete without a wine tasting (or three). Most hotels will offer them – the InterContinental even has a dedicated Wine Bar Suite with its own bar – so be sure to ask the concierge, wherever you’re staying. If you’d like to venture out to the actual wineries to learn about grape-growing and production, Olala provides excellent, small group tours to Saint-Émilion and Margaux. Led by wine experts who’ll guide you through the process and introduce you to a number of wineries, a full or half-day trip is well worth booking.

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The ancient town of Saint-Émilion, with its surrounding wineriestrabantos - Getty Images
cathedrale gothique saint andré dans le ville de bordeaux en gironde
The Cathedral of St Andrew in the centre of the cityDEBOVE SOPHIE - Getty Images

Culturally, there’s plenty to do in Bordeaux. The stunning Cathedral of St Andrew, which dates back to the 10th century, is an awe-inspiring architectural feat both inside and out; the smaller (but no less impressive) Church of Saint-Louis-des-Chartrons is also worth seeing for its stained glass windows.

When it comes to museums, you’re also spoilt for choice. The Cité du Vin is a veritable temple to Bordeaux’s most famous export, where wine comes to life through immersive exhibitions – a trend mirrored in the enormous Bassins des Lumière, a former submarine base, now the world's largest digital art centre. Buy yourself a tram pass to make best use of the city’s excellent public transport system, which we found to be by far the best way to get around Bordeaux.

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A digital exhibition at the Bassin des Lumières in northern BordeauxPHILIPPE LOPEZ - Getty Images
bordeaux, france june 16the city of wine of bordeaux is a unique cultural center dedicated to the wine on june 16, 2017 in bordeaux, france designed by the architects of the agency xtu and the english design agency casson mann limited, the city of wine is the only equipment in the world to offer a wide audience a journey through time and space to discover of wine in its cultural, civilizational, patrimonial and universal dimensionsthe city of wine is spread over 13,350 m on 10 levels between the tore and the tower, 3,000 m with 19 themed modules, the 35 meter high belvedere offers a unique wine tasting experience with a view panoramic view of bordeaux and its surroundings photo by patrick aventuriergetty images
The Cité du Vin, dedicated to Bordeaux’s most famous exportAventurier Patrick - Getty Images

Blessed with good weather? Take a stroll around the public gardens, an 11-hectare oasis of stately 18th-century buildings, ancient trees and the famous ‘Guignol Guérin’ puppet show. The streets themselves are a wonderful stomping ground, particularly if you’re fond of French fashion: Bordeaux has a variety of great shops, including Stella Forest, Des Petits Hauts and The Store (Rue des Remparts is particularly good for independent boutiques, and I found myself returning to London with a rather fuller suitcase). Antique hunters, meanwhile, should head straight to Rue Notre Dame, a quaint little street in Chartrons with some delightful antique dealers and brocantes.

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The picturesque Rue Notre Dame in the Chartrons district© Perrogon / Andia.fr - Getty Images

Weighed down with 40 vintage crystal glasses with which to enter married life (a bargain second-hand shop find) my fiancé and I boarded the plane back to London relaxed, a little more cultured and – miraculously, given our impressive wine consumption – not at all hungover. Even more surprisingly? Quite so much was there to distract us in Bordeaux, that we hadn’t discussed the wedding at all (well, maybe once – after all, those napkins aren't going to choose themselves).

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