It may be famous for its red wine, but the city of Bordeaux, on the Garonne river in southwest France, has many other charms – not least its stunning architecture, where historic buildings sit alongside ambitious modern designs. Whether it’s art you’re into, or history, discover the most exciting buildings to look out for.
Just a few steps away from the city’s famous Saint André Cathedral lies the Palais Rohan, built in 1771 in honour of Bordeaux’s archbishop Fernand Maximilien Mériadec de Rohan. Home to the mayor’s office and city hall since 1835, it was completely destroyed during World War II, but later rebuilt. You can admire the perfectly balanced structure of this neoclassical building from the Place Pey Berland, and don’t miss the elegant staircase inside.
You don’t need a day trip to the seaside or a neighbouring city for an excuse to visit the Gare de Bordeaux Saint-Jean. Built in the 19th century, this elegant mix between ancient and modern architecture has a huge departure hall and its glass roof, designed by Gustave Eiffel no less, is the largest in Europe. Since December 1984, the station has been recognised as an official Monument Historique; it underwent substantial renovation in 2017 as part of a regeneration and modernisation programme of the Belcier area behind it.
The Danish architecture firm Big’s contribution to the Bordeaux architecture scene is indeed a giant – La Méca, the city’s newest cultural destination which opened in 2019, measures 18,000sqm (193,750sqft). The venue celebrates contemporary art, film and performance, and was conceived as “a single loop of cultural institutions and public space”. An outdoor urban room invites the public to interact with the building, with the aim for the space to be a blank canvas for the people of Bordeaux. It spearheads the transformation of the city’s riverfront industrial area, with surrounding sites earmarked for future cultural institutions.
This majestic building is at the heart of Bordeaux’s cultural life. Created in 1870 by Victor Louis, it features 12 colossal columns and statues on the portico and is decorated in the royal colours of blue, white and gold. It has been perfectly preserved since its construction and embodies the neoclassical influence prevalent in Bordeaux.
Courtesy of InterContinental Bordeaux Le Grand Hôtel / Booking.com
Facing the Opéra National de Bordeaux-Grand Théâtre stands the InterContinental Bordeaux, aka Le Grand Hôtel, one of the most luxurious places to stay when you’re in town. No wonder the building is impressive – like the Grand Théâtre, it was designed by Victor Louis and features the same neoclassical-inspired façade and Corinthian-style colonnade. The interior is equally stunning, with marvels such as the marbled Sauternes Salon well worth seeing.
The Porte Cailhau is proof of the city’s effort to preserve its monuments. Built in 1494, this 35m (115ft)-high building, one of the city’s gates, commemorates King Charles VII’s victory over the Italians at Fornovo. Head up to the top for an exhibit of the tools that were used to build some parts of Bordeaux. Besides this, the sublime panorama of the docks is reason alone to visit this medieval defensive gate.
This massive concrete building was constructed by the Italian navy in 1939 during World War II within the German occupation zone. The interior of the gigantic bunker is akin to a honeycomb, with 11 chambers linked by an underground street. Today it’s used as a cultural space, with exhibitions, concerts, opera, jazz, theatre and dance held here – a great example of how functional historical buildings can be turned into cool contemporary venues. It’s also become a symbol of the Bassins à Flot neighbourhood.
This is where the historical and the contemporary collide: a market hall, originally built in 1869 by architect Charles Burguet, and restored in 1998. The former centre for Bordeaux’s wine trade still has traces of the wine barrels on its walls, but also features a 21st-century atrium. Today, the Chartrons building is a cultural hub and there’s plenty to see in the area – don’t miss the nearby Arc en Rêve Centre for Architecture.
La Grosse Cloche, the Big Bell, is one of the most-visited attractions in Bordeaux and a symbol of the city. Along with the Porte Cailhau, it is the only monument dating back to the Middle Ages and the massive bell tower, 40m (132ft) high, will delight architecture and history lovers alike. The gateway where the bell hangs was once used as a prison, and you can still visit its dungeons.
The Musée National des Douanes, or Customs Museum, is located in the magnificent Place de la Bourse. Built in the 18th century in a classical style, it was originally the customs department of the king and only became a museum in 1984. It is also home to the city’s inter-regional main customs office and is classed as a Monument Historique, thanks to its beautiful façades, courtyard and wooden décor in the former salon.