For better or worse, the historic French city of Bordeaux is perhaps most well-known for one thing: wine. As an American expat who moved to the City of Wine as a twenty-something young adult, I can tell you that although the stereotype of the wine-loving city is not entirely without merit, there certainly exist plenty of other marvelous aspects about Bordeaux which are waiting to be discovered. Here, I will take you on a short journey through the highly modernized city and give you a taste of a few of the free (or mostly free) things to do to pass your time during your stay. Let’s get started!
La Cathédrale Saint André
One of the most historic sites to see in Bordeaux is the Cathédrale Saint André, or as it is referred to by the locals, “l’Hôtel de Ville”. Like most cathedrals in Europe, it was once a Roman Catholic church (this one dedicated to Saint Andrew). Plans for this Gothic cathedral were first put underway around 1096, and seeing how it’s nearly a thousand years old, it’s easy to understand why it has been partially under restorative construction for the past few years thanks to the City of Bordeaux. On one face of the cathedral, tourists can see scaffolding where the restoration process is being done. However, all the other sides of the magnificent church stand unobstructed from view and thousands of pedestrians and tourists alike pass by every day, thanks in part to the tramway intersection of lines A and B which lies just a few meters away from the base of the cathedral. People can be seen taking photos of the ancient beauty from all angles during day and night, in all four seasons.
La Place des Quinconces
A few minutes’ walk from the Cathédrale Saint André, you’ll find the Place des Quinconces, which is almost always reserved for a carnival, fair, flea market, or, from the late part of November until early January, a Christmas market. It is a large open space in the central part of Bordeaux, and it while it serves as a historically beautiful site with monuments of both famous French philosophers and authors Montesquieu and Montaigne on both sides, it doubles as a public transportation hub in the city, where bus and tram lines cross once again. It is a commonplace for friends to meet up for a picnic or just as a starting point before spending a night out on the town. Children especially love this location, if not only because of the events which often occupy it, but also for the large stone water fountain which is located there. Bathing is strictly forbidden, according to signs nearby, but that has never stopped a toddler or a dog before.
Another great spot in Bordeaux for dogs and children alike is on the Quais – right along the edge of the banks of the Garonne, one of France’s five largest rivers. Joggers, cyclists, dog-walkers, families, elderly couples, roller-skaters, and groups of tourists are all commonplace here. At approximately 80 meters in length, the quai on the left side of the river – “La Rive Gauche” – sees foot traffic like this every day. Just across the bridge – “Le Pont de Pierre” – on the opposite side – “la Rive Droite” – is a shopping haven for anyone with a taste for haute couture. Many shops, boutiques, department stores, restaurants, and even a science museum line the quai on the right side of the river, making it easy for just about everyone to have a great time walking the quais on a sunny afternoon.
Le Miroir d’Eau
The Water Mirror – “Le Miroir d’Eau” – is also on the left bank of the quai, right in front of La Place de la Bourse, which is another of Bordeaux’s iconic and historic buildings. While the Water Mirror operates all year long, it undoubtedly attracts bigger crowds in the warm summer months when the sun is beating down on the hot Bordelais sidewalks. Flush with the concrete, the Water Mirror is exactly what it sounds like – a series of pipes and drains which give the impression that the sidewalk is flooding itself every few minutes, just before draining itself and starting its show all over again. For anyone who has ever seen the fountain display at Versailles, the Water Mirror at Bordeaux is essentially a smaller, free version of the same idea. Families with children and dogs are often seen at the Water Mirror taking a few moments to cool off when the sun is out. It’s not at all uncommon to see small children under the age of five or so in their bathing suits or their underwear, jumping around in the water and splashing one another for hours on end. Young people without children also enjoy the atmosphere; and as it is ideally located next to a tram stop, it serves as a practical meeting place for couples or groups. There are often ice cream vendors in mobile carts set up along the perimeter to quench the desire of any tourists or passersby.
Le Jardin Public
Finally, my personal favorite location in all of Bordeaux, despite all its historical relevance and European beauty: The Public Garden. There is no better place in a large city like Bordeaux with its twisty-turny sidewalks to go for a nice, long run, than on the soft gravel and soil in the Public Garden – “Le Jardin Public” for the locals. Surrounded by trees, covered in grass, featuring a large pond with ducks and geese, a play area for small children, and even a restaurant with numerous large tables and umbrellas situated outside, the Public Garden is a paradise for anyone who enjoys relaxing outdoors. On any given day, tourists will find several people here on blankets in the grass, enjoying picnics with friends or even passing some time alone lost in a book. The Public Garden is often the host of many free concerts in the spring and summer when the park – which spans a square city block – is completely packed full of festival-goers. In a metropolis, it truly feels like a break away from the car horns and ambulance sirens which are so often the soundtrack to our busy city lives.
There you have it: A short and simple list of things to see and places to go in Bordeaux that cost little to no money. Bordeaux is a vast and beautiful city, and it has so much more to offer than just wine. There’s always something happening in Bordeaux, and you really don’t have to look very hard to find it.