This post gives ideas for day trips from Bordeaux, focussing first on St Émilion, but also covering ways to explore the surrounding countryside and nearby coast. Hikes and bike rides, car trips, boat trips and oyster tastings are all ways to enjoy the Nouvelle Aquitaine culture surrounding Bordeaux.
This idyllic little town – actually, a village! – makes a perfect destination for a day out from Bordeaux. Surrounded by thousands of hectares of vineyards, its steep cobbled streets are a pleasure to explore and pretty new vistas open up at each turn. This World Heritage Site can be reached in half an hour by train from Bordeaux, with a 15 minute walk into the centre on arrival. The bus, which leaves from the Quinconces terminus, takes a little longer, but deposits you just 5 minutes’ walk away from the main square.
The Romans occupied this area, calling it Ascumbas, and planting the first vines which, given the excellent soil and climate, flourished and began the wine industry for which St Emilion has been famed ever since. The town is named after Emilion, a Breton monk who fled here from Brittany in the 8th century to live as a hermit in one of the underground caves. He was famed for his preaching, attracting growing numbers of pilgrims en route to Santiago de Compostela and gradually the town became known as a great religious centre. After his death, his followers renamed it in his memory: St Emilion
In 1199, the town became independent when the English King John set up a ‘Jurade’ or town council to govern it and in return he was granted gifts of local wine, which he took back to England, spreading St Emilion’s reputation abroad. The area was just on the border between French and English territories and fierce battles were fought during the 13th, 14th and 15th centuries, followed by religious wars in the 16th century, when St Emilion was attacked and pillaged by Huguenots. Gradually, the wine trade prospered and by the 18th and 19th centuries wealthy vintners were building chateaux here, many of which you can still visit today.
what to see in st emilion
It’s a lovely place to just wander, enjoying views of medieval rooftops and the surrounding vineyards and there are plenty of shops and restaurants to stop at. A main attraction is the Église Monolithe, an underground church dug into the rocks where – on a guided tour – you can visit the catacombs and the 14th century Chapelle de la Trinité. Your guide will almost certainly tell you the story of St Émilion’s role in World War II when these caves were chosen as a top secret hiding place for precious stained glass windows removed from churches and cathedrals all over France. They were dismantled and stored here in protective casings to keep them safe from the bombings. Guided tour information here.
The Eglise Collégiale is another very central site to visit. The church itself is a mix of styles – Romanesque and Gothic – and the beautiful 4-sided cloisters are some of the best-preserved in France. Today you can wander them to find art and craft stalls of all descriptions. Look out for modern takes on bible stories, displayed on the walls. Climbing the 13th century Tour du Roy, or King’s Keep, will give excellent views of the town and its surroundings and at Les Cordeliers you can visit the underground tunnels built in the 19th century – on the site of a former Franciscan monastery – to make and store the area’s well-known sparkling wine, Crémant de Bordeaux. There’s also a wine bar, obviously!
You can book wine tours of the area through the Tourist Office or consult them on the ‘château du jour’ system, which ensures that at least one wine cellar is open for visits every day. The Open Doors Festival, held annually in April or May, sees some 90 wineries welcoming the public for tours and tastings, alongside a programme of exhibitions and concerts. The ‘Ban des Vendanges’ marks the wine harvest in September, beginning with a torchlight procession and then a ceremony at which new ‘Peers and Ambassadors of the Jurade’ are elected, members of the Brotherhood which oversees wine production in St Emilion and ensures it keeps its global reputation for excellence.
more days out from Bordeaux
Consult the Bordeaux Tourism website for ideas on getting to the nearby beaches, and for details of a cycle route from Bordeaux to Lacanau, a coastal town known for its sandy beaches and excellent surfing conditions. It’s 60 km in total and takes you along the route of a disused railway line and through the Bruges Marshes nature reserve. There is a Grande Randonnée hiking trail around Bordeaux, called the Bordeaux Métropole and you can do the whole 160 kilometres in stages, or – of course- select a section or two!
A day out to Arcachon is also a possibility and it is less than an hour away by train. It’s attractive to visit, having sandy beaches and a pretty array of 19th villas and seafood restaurants to explore. It’s also a good place to eat oysters or rent a boat or take a cruise out to see the bay and its oyster beds and it’s a handy centre for touring the Côte d’Argent (Silver Coast) to see forested areas, fishing villages and oyster farms. A 30-minute bike ride from Arcachon will take you to the Dune de Pilat, Europe’s highest sand dune at 328 feet, where there are steps to climb up for magnificent views of the whole area.
The Bordeaux Tourism website has lots more ideas for exploring even further afield: ‘Are you keen to visit the ancient caves of Lascaux, discover the Basque culture, ride a bike across the Ile de Ré, visit the town of Cognac, or surf the waves of the French Landes region? All these places and activities are easily accessible from Bordeaux!’
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links for this post
Guided Tours in Saint Emilion
Introduction to St Emilion
The King’s Keep
Macarons de St Émilion
St Èmilion Open Doors Festival
Ban des Vendanges Festival
Hot Air Balloon Festival
Finding Beaches near Bordeaux
Cycle route from Bordeaux to Lacanau
Hiking trail around Bordeaux
Oyster tasting in Arcachon
Boat Trips from Arcachon
More ideas for trips out from Bordeaux
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