Home to dozens of museums and art galleries spotlighting everything from the decorative arts to the region’s maritime history, Bordeaux offers a cultural menu as diverse as its wine lists.
Bordeaux has long been famous for its outstanding beauty, fascinating history and cultural influence – and it can thank the local museum scene for keeping that legacy alive and well. While each of Bordeaux’s arts and culture venues is unique, they all combine an awe-inspiring architectural setting with an in-depth exploration of a subject close to the city’s heart. Whether you’re a history buff, an art aficionado or just hoping to learn something new, Bordeaux’s museums and galleries are sure to delight and inspire.
Explore the Bordeaux of yesteryear at the Musée d’Aquitaine
If you’ve been getting up close and personal with Bordeaux and want the bigger picture, start here. Located a short walk from the grand, Gothic Cathédrale Saint-André, the Musée d’Aquitaine traces the history, archaeology and ethnology of the Aquitaine region, from its prehistoric roots to the 21st century. Highlights of the museum’s permanent collection include statues, mosaics and architectural fragments from the Roman occupation of Bordeaux beginning around 60 BC, tombs and cenotaphs of famous Medieval figures, such as Michel de Montaigne, and artefacts illustrating Bordeaux’s prominent role in the transatlantic trade of the 18th century.
Bordeaux’s natural history museum, created in 1791 just after the beginning of the French Revolution, is well worth a stop on your promenade through the Jardin Public. Following 10 years of extensive renovations, the museum reopened in 2019 with engaging, wall-to-wall displays of beautifully preserved specimens from all over the world. According to Laurent Lachaud, assistant director of cultural affairs, the new layout, content and messaging aim to explore “our relationship with nature from the very beginning of human history”. If you’re travelling with young children, make sure to check out the “Early Years Museum” on the ground floor, specially designed to entertain and educate children under six.
Bordeaux’s much-anticipated wine museum opened in June 2016 and quickly shot to the top of every sightseeing itinerary. Spread over 10 levels in a curved, reflective structure evoking the eddies of the adjacent Garonne River and the swirl of wine in a glass, the Cité du Vin teaches you about wine’s influence on history, geography, culture and civilisation – and vice versa. Themed routes and interactive multimedia displays cater to visitors’ individual learning styles and interests, culminating in a visit to the Belvedere bar for a wine tasting and 360-degree views of the city.
In the wings of the Palais Rohan, now the site of Bordeaux’s City Hall, the Musée des Beaux-Arts boasts an impressive collection of European art from the 15th to the 20th centuries. The works – which include paintings and sculptures by Delacroix, Van Dyck, Rodin and Matisse – are displayed chronologically, offering visitors an accelerated tour of the major art periods and movements from the Renaissance onwards. The adjacent Galerie des Beaux-Arts hosts the museum’s temporary exhibits, including a 2019 exhibition in partnership with the Louvre, which saw the museum borrow dozens of works from the famous Parisian institution.
On the banks of the Garonne in Bordeaux’s trendy Chartrons district, a heritage-listed former warehouse holds the city’s contemporary art museum. Founded in 1973, the museum has a permanent collection but not a permanent exhibition; it does, however, have seven works custom-designed for the site, including a mural by Keith Haring in the elevator shaft and two land artworks by Richard Long on the rooftop terrace. A diverse programme of temporary exhibits and events explores new forms and themes, all with the goal of provoking thought and discussion. “If we can succeed in opening up a few minds, if we can make people think – that’s huge,” says Myrtille Bourgeois, head of cultural mediation.
Once among the biggest ports in Europe, Bordeaux is the perfect place to explore humans’ seafaring past and present. The brand-new Musée Mer Marine, located just north of the city centre, has collected more than 10,000 marine objects, reflecting the region’s significant maritime heritage. The permanent exhibit features a dramatic fleet of model ships, along with atlases, maps and other navigational instruments, while temporary exhibitions have showcased ocean photography by National Geographic veterans Paul Nicklen and David Doubilet; drawings by beloved local illustrator Jean-Jacques Sempé; and models of Da Vinci’s wildest inventions, based on his original notes and sketches.
Step inside an 18th-century home at the Musée des Arts Décoratifs et du Design
Museum, Art Gallery
The Hôtel de Lalande, built in the 1770s for a member of the French Parliament, has undergone numerous transformations in its nearly 250-year history. After Lalande’s heirs were beheaded in the French Revolution, the mansion continued to serve as a private residence until 1880, when the city of Bordeaux turned it into a police headquarters and prison. Today, it houses the Museum of Decorative Arts and Design, where visitors can view furniture and decorative objects from the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries, interspersed with the occasional design piece. “The layout is largely chronological, but we do mix in design pieces here and there to create a dialogue between the two,” says Camille Jolin, a curator for the collection. Since 2016, the former prison has hosted design exhibitions on everything from party ambience to sneakers.
Bordeaux’s Base Sous-Marine offers a mise en scène like no other. This massive submarine base – one of five built by the Germans along the Atlantic Coast during World War II – includes 11 atmospheric exhibit spaces connected by an interior walkway. In the spring of 2020, four of these spaces will be transformed into the largest digital art centre in the world: the Bassins de Lumières. Its inaugural exhibition will feature the work of Gustav Klimt and Paul Klee, digitally projected onto the concrete walls of the base and reflected in the waters below. Accompanying music by Luca Longobardi guarantees a fully immersive – and unforgettable – experience.
Glimpse a new side of history at the Musée National des Douanes
After paying a visit to Bordeaux’s magnificent Place de la Bourse, take a stroll through the National Customs Museum – the only museum of its kind in France. This lofty former customs hall displays a curious collection of objects – uniforms, weapons, scales and more – related to one of the country’s oldest administrative branches. “People think of customs and tax as abstract concepts, but customs agents have always had a very concrete role,” says museum curator Aurélie Guichemerre. “Their job was to search through merchandise, and they had practical, technical tools to do it.” Don’t miss the contraband display featuring items seized from all over the country.
Meet the art world’s latest and greatest at the Institut Culturel Bernard Magrez
Art Gallery, Museum
The 18th-century Château Labottière, perched on the outskirts of Bordeaux’s city centre, has been home to the Bernard Magrez Cultural Institute since the spring of 2011. Bernard Magrez, a lifelong wine and art lover, launched this intriguing cultural and event space to make contemporary art accessible to all audiences. Its eclectic programme of temporary exhibits and exquisite French gardens make this a memorable stop on a weekend afternoon – and a great photo op.