The alternative guide to Bordeaux

by Rachel Hand

After eight months of being a student in Bordeaux, I know just the places to go. If you're young, poor and like partying, if you're gay or vegetarian or just plain sick of wine tasting, read on...

There are so many lovely things to do in the Bordeaux area: the vineyards, the chateaux, the Grand Théâtre, the fabled Entrecôte restaurant… Well, that will last you about a week unless you have a real passion for wine tasting. I, on the other hand, was lucky enough to live in Bordeaux for eight months as a student. That meant a limited budget, many lazy days to fill, and a desire for variety and authenticity, occasional reminders of home, alternative culture, and vegetarian food. Here are my insider tips.

Ships and shops

My friend recommended a hotel in the Chartrons area of Bordeaux, to the north on the left bank of the river. But then, he worked at an art gallery there, the MLS (123 Quai des Chartrons), one of dozens in the area. When he finished work, we would sit and watch the youths in the skate park opposite, or admire the huge ships moored on the quay. In spring, we walked inland to the Jardin Public (Cours de Verdun) to lounge in the sun amongst families, guitar-toting students and jugglers. In winter, a short stroll took us to the Place des Quinconces, where there would often be a circus or a fairground, overshadowed by dramatic bronze statues. In December, they held a Christmas market there. Ah, the decorations! The chestnuts! The smell of the hog roast! And, oh dear, the mulled wine…

Near Gambetta tram stop is a bookshop named Mollat (+33 5 56 56 40 40). If, like me, you can read French and are a bit of a bookworm, you’ll be in your element; but even the English section is bigger than your average WH Smith. The maze of rooms includes art and music sections, and the bookshelves reaching to the ceiling, only accessible by ladder, make you think you’ve stumbled into Harry Potter!

However, you’d be forgiven for bypassing this block-wide shop in favour of staring at the imposing towers of Cathédrale St André before you. The shade it provides makes a great chill-out area, especially for wolfing down a sandwich from Brioche Dorée (who put Subway to shame and are just as ubiquitous), but beware the rather persistent beggars. Beyond the cathedral lie the museum and a couple of reputable Internet cafés.

Running from the Grand Théâtre in the north to Place de la Victoire in the south is the epic Rue Sainte Catherine, a shopping street a kilometre long, which ranges from gilt-and-glass designer boutiques at the north end to fake Adidas and kebab shops at the south. On the quay at the north end, near the old stock exchange, is the Miroir d’Eau, a mere inch of water that in winter is eerily reflective, but in summer is crowded by hundreds of soaking locals.

Further down Rue Ste Catherine and to the east lies the Saint Pierre quarter, a corner of the city that is extremely gay- and culture-friendly. When my parents came to visit me, they stayed in the Quality Hotel here: the staff spoke English, the rooms were wonderfully airy, and there was generally nothing they could fault. Outside, the square around the beautiful church often has traditional music groups, and there is a tiny alternative bookshop called La Mauvaise Réputation (19 Rue des Argentiers).

We often succumbed to the temptations of Utopia (+33 5 56 52 56 56), a cinema like no other, situated in the tranquil Place Camille Julien. It is a beautifully converted church, where barely any of the films are commercial and entry is rarely over €5; it also does enormous sandwiches and salads. 

About half way down, Ste Catherine gets a little colourful. Mesopotamia (number200) and Wap Doo Wap (216) sell goth and punk clothing, with the friendly Percikopat piercings (199) across the road, and Salsa (136) for the hippies. And finally, after walking so far, the shopper reaches Place de la Victoire. We had our photo taken sitting on the giant tortoise, we sat outside the many bars, we watched life buzzing around us... The tram stop is one of the busiest, and you are guaranteed to see some, erm, let’s say ‘local colour’ here at night.

A stroll down Cours de la Marne, leading off Victoire, can be rather intimidating. If you can stand it, the youth hostel at 22 Cours Barbey (+33 5 56 33 00 71) is apparently not too bad once you get inside, and the Rock School (+33 5 56 33 66 11) on the same road plays regular gigs. There are plenty of brand-name hotels at the bottom of Marne, and the train station for when you want to escape.

Eating, drinking and entertainment

Now, we all know the French aren’t exactly vegetarian-friendly; I was usually directed to the fish section or offered a plain omelette. The best French dishes on offer were rich gratins, quiche-like tartes, pizza-like tartines, and good old crepes. O, Sorbet d’Amour! at the bottom of Rue Ste-Catherine (4, Place du General Sarrail) sells the latter, as well as offering over 100 flavours of sorbet - but yikes, steer clear of the lemon and basil one! On the other hand, Cassolette Café on Victoire (+33 5 56 92 94 96) offers quite traditional French food for unbelievable value, and always has a few meat-free options on the menu.

Luckily, Bordeaux is a haven of diversity; we tried Brazilian, Moroccan, Indian, Lebanese, Mexican, Chinese and Italian restaurants, all of which provide vegetarian options, and many of which are represented on Rue St Rémi, leading east off Ste-Catherine. The best things about this road are the value for money (think three courses and a glass of wine, and change from €20), and the eventual gentle slope down to the river and the Miroir d’Eau - great for walking off those three courses.

Elsewhere, Place Gambetta has a café on one corner named La Riche, which boasts mouth-watering goat’s cheese and tomato on toast, and is just across the road from a sweet shop. Rue St-Siméon features the exquisite Café Japonais (+33 5 56 48 68 68), selling great (vegan) udon soup, lots of fish dishes, and eye-watering sake. Molly Malone’s bar at 83 Quai des Chartrons does an exquisite Irish coffee and is probably the least cringeworthy of Bordeaux’s many Irish pubs. The English-speaking servers are always only too happy to throw together a veggie meal or salad if you ask.

In St-Pierre, Rue de la Devise has some specifically gay bars such as L’Odivin at number 62, as does Rue Alsace-Lorraine, with Azuli at number 55; they're usually clearly designated by rainbow flags. Also in St-Pierre is my favourite bar in Bordeaux, the Comtesse - a masterpiece of decadence and understated cool, with plenty of seats outside for a muggy dusk with a demi pêche (lager with peach syrup - heaven).

On homesick days, try the Cock and Bull pub at 23 Rue Duffour-Dubergier (on the tram line, across the road from the museum), which has English bar staff, Only Fools and Horses posters, and a fry-up and soap omnibus on a Sunday. A trip here also demonstrates just how anglicised Bordeaux has become; there is a huge Erasmus student community, and it can be very tempting to mix with British, Irish, Americans and Australians rather than with the French. Another British stronghold is the Dick Turpin on the dingy Rue du Loup (72), where the jukebox consists mainly of The Smiths. Try also the Houses of Parliament (11 Rue du Parlement Sainte-Catherine) for its pub quiz. Just off Victoire, the Nieuw Amsterdam (37 Cours Aristide Bruand), in all its fluorescent orange glory, is great for a change or some live DJs, and Le Lucifer (35 Rue Pessac) leaves the customer spoilt for choice, with at least 100 beers and ciders.

At the bottom of Cours de la Marne, crossing the bridge over the train tracks leads to the aptly named Comptoir du Jazz (58 Quai de Paludate, +33 5 56 49 15 55), lots of clubs on Rue du Commerce and 4 Sans (+33 5 56 49 40 05) at 40 Rue Armagnac. Entry is selective and expensive, drinks are ridiculously overpriced, and the experience is decidedly British, complete with sleazy men and vomit everywhere. But walking back along Marne at 5am, being first in the pâtisserie when it opens, and reaching Victoire with a belly full of warm croissant just as the sun is rising – that’s not something you’ll forget in a hurry.