Bordeaux anchors a world-famous wine region but you don't need to be a connoisseur to enjoy this grand port city lining a curve of the temperamental Garonne River in south-western France. The city's packed with so many fine 18th- and 19th-century buildings that in 2007 half of Bordeaux was World Heritage-listed. Visionary mayor Alain Juppe started the renaissance – scrubbing grime from limestone facades, installing riverfront tram lines and opening up access to the river – in 1995 while he was both mayor and France's prime minister. Today, the broad waterfront promenade hums with joggers, cyclists, skateboarders and lovers strolling hand in hand, as if things have always been this way.
Bordeaux's $A116 million wine museum, La Cite du Vin (laciteduvin.com), opened in June, 2016 on the banks of the Garonne. The striking building, with curves that echo a slosh of wine into a glass, a gnarled grapevine and the Garonne's turbulent eddies, can be spied from miles away. Put aside at least three hours to explore the 10-storey multimedia extravaganza that explores every imaginable facet of wine (including its role in some rather raunchy movie scenes). The 20-euro entry price includes a glass of wine from a selection of 20 drops in the Belvedere, the minimalist eighth-storey bar with a 360-degree view over the city.
Track down a canele, a tiny caramelised fluted cake linked to Bordeaux's wine-making history. It's said that a few centuries ago, as winemakers used egg whites to filter their wines, they'd give the yolks to nuns who turned them into these delectable chewy treats. Try them at a Baillardran (baillardran.com) bakery outlet (there's one at 10 Cours du 30 Juillet next to the visitors' centre) or at La Toque Cuivree (la-toque-couvree.fr, 41 Place Gambetta). For a charming bistro lunch, take a seat at the 19th-century market hall opposite Le Bistrot des Anges (bistrotdesanges.fr) before the day's specials start running out.
Miroir d'eau (Water Mirror) is proof that sometimes the simplest ideas are the most compelling. The mesmerising feature, built in 2006 along the riverfront opposite Place de la Bourse, is the world's largest reflecting pool. The brilliant thing about its design, from the late landscape designer Michel Corajoud, is that the unfenced granite slabs are covered in no more than 2cm of water – meaning that anyone, including the wheelchair-bound, kids on skateboards, babies in prams, big kids, toddlers and teens – can roll or stroll straight through it. In summer, the water turns into an all-enveloping fog every 15 minutes, adding even more drama to proceedings.
One of the city's most exciting developments is found on the rapidly transforming right bank. Hire a bike and pedal over to Darwin (darwin.camp), a multi-faceted enterprise that's turned abandoned military warehouses into a hipster hangout and co-working utopia (as well as a skateboarder's idea of nirvana). The first occupants moved in at the end of 2012 – the "eco-system" is now home to 180 businesses. Visitors can chill out on the sofas at Magasin General (magasingeneral.camp) – a restaurant and organic grocery store – and soak up the chilled alternative vibe.
The 45-room Seeko'o Hotel (seekoo-hotel.com) boasts that it's the "least typical" hotel in Bordeaux. Certainly, the snow-white cube looks nothing like its time-warped neighbours along the riverfront. The boutique hotel (some rooms feature round beds – ooh la la) is four tram stops from the historic centre near the high-tech Jacques Chaban-Delmas vertical-lift bridge, and overlooks a bustling riverfront area packed with outlet stores and water-view cafes and restaurants.
Want to visit the region's famed wine chateaux but don't know where to start? Head to the dedicated booking counters within La Cite du Vin or at the Bordeaux visitors' centre (12 Cours du 30 Juillet, bordeaux-tourisme.com) where staff can help out with tours, appointments and directions.
Katrina Lobley travelled as a guest of Scenic.