Whether wine, architecture, food or photography draws you to this charming medieval town, this itinerary will guarantee you spend your One Perfect Day in Saint-Émilion, well, perfectly!
A forty-five minute drive west from Bordeaux, surrounded on all sides by neat rows of grapevines behind sturdy wooden fences, lies the shining medieval city of France’s wine country: Saint-Émilion.
Scrolling absently through boards and feeds and threads, you may’ve stumbled upon a photo or six of rolling hills blanketed by emerald green vines. Of a sandstone-hued city with the sun shining through its bell tower. Of a cathedral carved intricately into the stone beneath it.
Saint-Émilion lures visitors from all reaches of the world to wander its charming streets, sample its delectable food and, of course, imbibe in the fruits of its terroir, aka its BALLER WINE.
A trip to Bordeaux isn’t complete without a jaunt to Saint-Émilion. Trust me on this. But I understand how real the struggle is with so many vineyards to visit in the area in so little time.
Therefore I’ve broken it down to ensure you make the most of your ONE PERFECT DAY in Saint-Émilion. Enjoy!
Tip: Park above the city
The city of Saint-Émilion is built on a hill that slopes downward from north to south. It’s really quite beautiful when you see it from above (more on that later). But the reason I mention it now is because, if you’re arriving by car, you’ll need to park. And parking can be expensive.
But above the city, beyond the roundabout, is the “Gendarmerie Nationale.” (Type that into Google Maps and it’ll find it for you.) On the other side of the street from this “police station” are vineyards behind chest-height stone walls. And chances are when you arrive there will already be cars parked along it. That’s free parking, baby. You’re welcs ?
Bonus: On your way into town after you’ve parked, you’ll pass the beautiful “Great Wall” (Les Grandes Murailles) looming prettily over neat rows of grapevines. It’s all that remains of a huge Dominican monastery destroyed in the Hundred Years War.
1. Begin your day at the Collegiate Church (L’Eglise Collegiale)
Part because of proximity and part because you want to get there before the crowds descend, a great place to begin your day is at the Collegiate Church (L’Eglise Collegiale). Enter through the main door, which will bring you into the cavernous, gothic-style church. Or you can enter through the more hidden side entrance directly into the luminous cloister (cloître).
Once you’re there, have a seat between the stone pillars to admire the colorfully intricate mural, “The Apocalypse.” Painted by François Peltier, it depicts the book of Revelation, the struggle between Good and Evil and the ultimate triumph of Good. It’s huge (38.5 meters long x 5 meters high) and will be on display in the cloister for free until July 31, 2021.
2. Climb to the top of the iconic bell tower
Yes, you can really climb the bell tower! And you should do it early so you aren’t stuck waiting for the keys. Because, yes, there are actually three keys to the bell tower you must request from the Tourist Center!
Tip: Take your iconic photo beneath the bell tower overlooking the sloping town of Saint-Émilion BEFORE you climb. Early. So the landing won’t be too crowded and you’ll be able to get your shot!
Once you get the key, which will cost you €2 and a photo ID (you’ll get the ID back when you return the key), climb the 196 winding steps to the top.
Take your time to enjoy the view on each of the two platforms on your way up. It’s absolutely gorgeous and quite quiet since there are only three keys to the tower in play. Boyfriend and I had the place to ourselves for almost the whole time we visited!
3. Take a slow lap of Saint-Émilion
The best time to explore this city-on-a-hill is without a doubt during the calm hours of morning. The crowds are fewer. The heat is cooler. The lighting for photos is much better (nothing worse than afternoon shadows casting harsh grays over pretty streets).
Have a wander through the city’s close alleys, up and down its narrow stone stairways, or tertres. Peek around its archways and through its gallery windows. Cover it all on foot if you’re able. The city is so small it will only take, at most, an 1-1.5 hours.
Some major sites to hit are the wash houses (Les Lavoirs) at the foot of the King’s Keep, the arched gate of Cadene on Rue Guadet (La Porte de la Cadene) and the Market Hall (Les Halles du Marché).
And, hey, treat yourself to a Saint-Émilion-style macaron while you walk. It’s melt-in-your-mouth, gooey, almond-y, buttery heaven. Much better than Paris’ and Nice’s versions, IMO.
4. Lunch local at Le Bistrot des Vignobles
If there’s one place in Saint-Émilion at which you want to have a sit-down meal, it’s in the garden of Le Bistrot des Vignobles.
With a backyard feel that’s simultaneously both elegant and super-friendly, you’ll moan over local delicacies like magret de canard (duck breast), fois gras (duck liver paté), entrecôte marchand du vin (cut of beef with rich gravy made of red wine, butter, herbs and bone marrow) and shellfish straight from the bay of Bordeaux. The waiters are happy to help you select a wine pairing (or two), and they serve everything with jokes and smiles.
We each ordered an “Entrée + Plat Menu” (Appetizer + Main) for €26. Boyfriend ordered the couteaux en persillade à l’huile d’amandes (razor clams in almond oil/parsley sauce), I ordered the huitres (6 oysters), and we both had the demi magret de canard on a purée d’artichauts (half a duck breast on artichoke puree). We each had a glass of wine with our meals for €6. And everything was outstanding.
However, if you’re looking for a quicker option or you’re a budget backpacker, no worries! We spotted a few boulangeries around town serving classic baguette sandwiches you can eat as you walk. When I was backpacking full-time this was one of my favorite ways to lunch so as to maximize my time and pocket money. (Sandwiches usually run for €5-€7 as a general rule.)
5. Take a Saint-Émilion wine tour
As one of the sommeliers explained at a recent tasting I attended at the Eat Brussels! Drink Bordeaux! festival: “In terms of wine, there’s Bordeaux, and then there’s Saint-Émilion. Saint-Émilion really is a class all its own.”
Oh, and it is. And you have two options for experiencing it:
Option 1: Château Villemaurine (without a car)
The first option is to visit Château Villemaurine, a winery only 500 meters (7-8 minute walk) from the Saint-Émilion Tourist Center. It’s easily reached on foot, which may be a good thing if you also had wine at lunch. And, I mean, you probably did. Because Saint-Émilion.
I’ve read only good things about the tour and tasting Villemaurine puts on, and it’s very popular with tour groups in town for the day. The wine is, as I understand, excellent. And it’s easy to make an appointment through their online booking feature on their website!
Tours last one hour, guiding you through the vineyards, cellars and underground quarries and ending with a tasting of two wines. As of March 2020 tours are offered almost every day (with just a few exceptions for holidays) at 2:30 on weekdays and at 11:00 and 2:00 on weekends. The price is €15, €6 for 12-17’s, and free for Under 12’s.
Option 2: The “Château of the Day” (with a car)
Every day two to four vineyards around Saint-Émilion’s open their doors to visitors as the Saint-Émilion Tourist Center’s “Château of the Day.” They’re often only a few kilometers out of town — so they do require a car or access to one — so it won’t take up too much extra time. And the payoff is great, as you’ll get to see so much more of the countryside en route.
Château of the Day is a fantastic option for those of us who don’t have specific labels in mind, who just want to sample great wine and/or tour unique wineries. All you have to do is call the number of the vineyard you want on this site and schedule a time to visit! Don’t worry, every vineyard receptionist speaks English, and the tours they give will also be in English.
Tip: You MUST make a reservation to visit the châteaux in Saint-Émilion. You may get lucky rolling up and joining a tour already scheduled, but I wouldn’t count on it. You can call the wineries, or make a reservation online at RueDesVignerons.com! (More on this below)
We visited Château Franc Mayne and Château de Sales, both of which we’d definitely recommend (for different reasons). If you want to know more about the full day we spent wine tasting around Saint-Émilion, stay tuned! I’ll give all the deets soon ?
Note: As of March 2020, “Chateau of the Day” visits have been suspended due to COVID-19. Womp womp. But really, stay safe everyone ?
Optional: Champagne & Chill at Cordeliers
Okay, okay, so there’s been a lot of imbibing already. But I’d be remiss if I didn’t at least mention the whimsical Romanesque cloister-turned-sparkling-wine-cave, Cordeliers.
This spot is perfect for a short break if your feet (or head) are starting to protest. The cloister is light and airy, with ample shade from the high afternoon sun. And inside the adjacent church is a boutique with all manner of wine-themed doodads and, of course, Cordeliers’ own sparkling wines.
Have a glass of water. Have a glass of sparkles. However you’re feeling, Cordeliers is worth a visit.
If you want to tour their wine cellars, stop by the bar and see if you can join the next tour. As of March 2020 the price is €6, or free for Under 16’s. They offer four tours (2:30, 3:30, 4:30 and 5:30) every day between May 1 and September 30, and finish off the tour with a tasting of two sparkling wines.
Another fun thing Cordeliers offers in high season is something they call “Picnic Hampers.” There’s a menu of sweet and savory items offered in the boutique to choose from, and they arrange it all in a little wooden picnic basket for you to enjoy either on the lawn of the cloister or the wooded garden out back.
6. Tour the magnificent Monolithic Church (L’Eglise Monolithe)
Saint-Émilon’s monolithic church is the city’s crown jewel. Its sheer size is something that takes a few minutes to comprehend wide-eyed and slack-jawed ? And it’s the ONE THING you don’t want to miss when you visit this charming medieval town.
? Brief Backstory: Legend has it that a teenaged monk named Émilion was performing too many miracles in his hometown of Brittany in the north of France. So they chased him down to what is now Saint-Émilion (named for him) where he set up shop in a small grotto that became the hermitage of the Monolithic Church.
His followers built the church directly into the limestone around this sacred place to protect it. Therefore much of the church is below ground — a really spectacular site to see! On your tour you’ll also visit the catacombs and Holy Trinity Chapel (the only stop on the tour above ground).
Because this unique church is on every tourist’s must-see list (for a good reason) I highly recommend purchasing tickets online beforehand. You can only see it on a guided tour (it’s privately owned), but the tour itself is full of great info and is only 45 minutes long. Simply go to this site, make sure its in English if you want an English tour, choose the date you want to visit, select the number of tickets you require, et voilá! You’re golden.
If you aren’t able to purchase tickets beforehand, don’t worry. Just stop at the Tourist Office right next to the church’s bell tower first thing in the morning and see if you can join a tour that day. Prices (as of March 2020) are 9€ for adults, 7€ for Under 18’s and Student ID holders, and free for Under 10’s.
*Oh, and no photos inside. Womp womp.
7. Try a sugary canelé at Fabrique de Macarons
Canelés are a local favorite sweet. Therefore you must try them!
Pop into Fabrique de Macarons on Rue Guadet and get a small one for €1.50 or medium-sized one for €2.50. The outside is sweet and smokey, the inside moist and gooey. This place is the best in town, and is now run by a woman named Nadia Fermingier (her name is on the window, so you’ll know you have the right place).
Fabrique de Macarons is also one of the best places to get those Saint-Émilion-style macarons we talked about earlier. Their recipe has apparently been passed down since the 1600’s!
8. Visit Rue de la Porte Bouqueyre for a personalized wine tasting
Girl, by now you’re feeling a little tipsy. I know. But, trust, you don’t want to skip this step. Rue de la Porte Bouqueyre is where you’ll choose the bottle you want to bring back to your hotel for the night. Or, heck, the bottles you’ll want to have shipped and waiting on your doorstep when you return home!
It’s so much fun because it’s so PERSONALIZED. And, also fun, you have no obligation to buy!
There are several shops on the street so just pick the one that gives you the best vibes that day. It’s going to be all about how dedicated the sommelier is to finding you your perfect bottle, so if you don’t get the feeling s/he will do that move onto the next shop. Each has about 50 bottles of wine open and sitting on a tasting table in the middle of the room. All you have to do is tell the somm the flavors you like and your price range.
Tip: Don’t be afraid to be honest! It’s your somm’s job to find you your perfect bottle. If you don’t like what you taste, say so. And if you can, describe what you don’t like about it. These men and women are experts and chances are they know exactly the bottle you want, and they will find it if you can help them get there!
Another Tip: If you try something that’s out of your price range but that you swear you’ll be dirty dreaming about for the rest of your trip, ask if they can recommend another year of the same label that’s cheaper. That’s what we did. A difference of one year brought the price of our INCREDIBLE wine down €30! We didn’t get to sample it before we bought it, but we trusted our somm and were so glad we did. It was amazing.
(In case you’re wondering, the bottle we bought was a 2011 Chateau Destieux Grand Cru Classé for ~€50.)
9. Enjoy the 360° view from the King’s Keep (La Tour du Roi)
Oh, yeah. You’re feeling it now. That heavy-lidded happy buzz that tells you you’re ready for either food or a nap. But if you can rally for just one more site, you can watch the sun setting over the city from the top of the King’s Keep right behind the wine shops.
No one knows for sure to which “King” the tower refers. But it doesn’t really matter, does it? It offers a fantastic view over the town of Saint-Émilion, and is currently used by the Jurade, the city’s wine-making brotherhood. Seems about right that wine should be the current “King” of the keep, eh? ?
As of March 2020 the price of entry is €2, or free for Under 6’s. There are 118 steps to the 360° view at the top! Watch the sun bathe the city in gold before it will eventually slip behind the bordering vineyards for the evening. It’s lovely ?
Optional: Shop for apéro on Rue de la Porte Bouqueyre
Boyfriend and I are suckers for the kinds of Bordelaise delicacies to be found on Rue de la Porte Bouqueyre. (Yes, the same place we had lunch and our wine tasting. I mentioned the town is small, yes?)
So before we headed back to our AirBnB, we snagged a little can of fois gras, three saucissons (flavors: fig, walnut and goat cheese), two cheeses (flavors: comté and tomme) and, of course, a baguette.
And demolished them with our AirBnB host next to the pool ?
Wherever you are in your trip planning, be sure to read on for tips for maximizing your time in Saint-Émilion! As a day trip, things are going to be tight. So it’s important to give yourself a full day to see everything this medieval town has to offer.
When To Visit
During the Autumn Harvest (Third Weekend in September)
In my opinion the best time to visit Saint-Émilion is in mid-September during the harvest. The weather is perfect — not too hot, but plenty hot enough to leave your jacket behind.
Additionally the famous Jurade, Saint-Émilion’s wine-makers’ brotherhood, make a big to-do announcing the beginning of the harvest season! Donning long garnet robes with white capes, flat-top caps and white gloves, the 130 Jurats parade through the streets of Saint-Émilion to the Collegiate Church on the third Saturday in September. The following day they meet at the top of the King’s Keep to proclaim the harvest begun.
End of Summer (August/September) or Spring (April/May)
Generally the end of both spring and summer are excellent times to visit for the weather and lack of tourists. After all, Saint-Émilion is tiny, therefore
wandering squeezing through the streets in the summer can get mildly claustrophobic.
Of course, the summer can also be pretty great!
All of the surrounding wineries’ doors are open wide for visitors to have a tour and a taste at their gorgeous chateaux — you literally have your pick! The nearby Dordogne River is also fun for a swim (or nap) when the weather is hot (though you’ll have to drive or taxi to get to a swimming spot). And the red-robed Jurats also come together to announce the “Judgement of the New Wine” on the third Sunday in June.
Just be aware that you’ll be constantly fighting bus-loads of tourists for lunch reservations, wine tours and photo opps.
Winter (December-March) (DO NOT RECOMMEND)
The only time I advise against visiting is in the winter. After all, with the wine already made, there isn’t a need for much staff. So the wineries close to let the wine do its thing in their cellars.
Plus, you know, cold.
There are several ways to get to Saint-Émilion depending on your starting point.
Take a Train
The train is an excellent option if you’re already based in France. The TGV high-speed train will get you to Bordeaux in 2 hours, after which you can take a 30-minute local train to Saint-Émilion. Just check the SNCF website for your options.
The station is a 2 km walk (or taxi ride) from the Tourist Center through some of the area’s most famous vineyards. It’s beautiful, but uphill. So grab a taxi (or tuk-tuk) to town if you want to save your legs.
Tip: Be sure to check the train schedule BACK to Bordeaux so you don’t accidentally end up stranded! It’s easy to get caught up in Saint-Émilion’s unique charm, but not so easy to find last-minute accommodations.
Hop a Flight
Because Boyfriend and I were coming from Brussels, we took a plane. If you’re coming from out of the country, I recommend flying in to save time. You’ll land in Bordeaux-Mérignac airport (BOD), take a bus (either local or shuttle) into the city to the Bordeaux St-Jean train station, and hop a train to Saint-Émilion.
Drive/Rent a Car
Or you can drive! Since we had five days in the area, Boyfriend and I rented a car from the airport in Bordeaux and drove directly to our AirBnB outside of Saint-Émilion. IMO this is the best option because it gives you so much freedom to explore the incredible wineries in the surrounding Pomerol, Fronsac and Libourne areas in addition to Saint-Émilion.
Stay tuned for more tips for visiting Bordeaux and its wine country!
Tip: Almost every rental car company has an age rule, no exceptions. This means, for example, if you’re under 25 years old most of them will charge an extra (very high) fee if you want to rent from them. This isn’t always the case internationally, but in France I’d venture it is. Be sure to read the fine print before renting!
Where to Stay
Depending on your budget and means of getting around, you’ve got a few options in terms of accommodation.
Hotel/B&B in Saint-Émilion
The great news is there are a handful of very cute, surprisingly affordable hotels right in town, or within walking distance! Think €70-€100/night depending on the month. And, of course, there are also a bunch of very nice hotels in the €150+/night range. Take your pick!
AirBnB outside Saint-Émilion
Boyfriend and I are AirBnB loyalists. There’s something so satisfying about coming home from a day of touring to, well, an actual home! And the area around Saint-Émilion and Bordeaux is full of incredible AirBnB’s. Many supremely stylish. In the middle of the vineyards. With outdoor pools. And super-snuggly pets. Like ours ?
This option is best for those renting cars, who have the flexibility of driving 1-3 kms into Saint-Émilion for the day, and who are probably spending more time in the general area.
Hostel in Bordeaux
For those solo-traveling, I still recommend checking prices of hotels in Saint-Émilion. However, if they’re out of your budget, Bordeaux is a great option for a hostel “home base.” Dorms in the city center run between €30-€40/night, and you can just hop on the train to Saint-Émilion in the morning.
Just be sure to weigh this option against the convenience factor + price of a round-trip train fare. It could be just as economical to stay closer to Saint-Émilion for the night!
How To Make Château Tour/Tasting Reservations
In Saint-Émilion you’re surrounded by some of the most revered terroir in the world. OF COURSE you’re gonna wanna sample the goods! And sample you will, as long as you remember to make a reservation. You can do this in advance (recommended during the summer months), or on the day of. But it is mandatory. And there are three ways to do it:
Call the château directly
(Almost) every château in Saint-Émilion has a website. On each of these websites is most likely a “Tab” dedicated to winery visits. Most give information on available tours (when, how much, how long) and offer a phone number to call for scheduling.
Tip: Some websites only offer a form to fill out for “more information.” These are usually the extremely prestigious châteaux that, more often than not, only allow professional somm’s and press through their doors for tastings. Best to move on if this is the case!
Schedule through the château website
A select few websites offer online booking of tours directly through their websites! (Château Villemaurine is one of these.) Just select the tour, date, language and number of tickets, pay, and you’ll be confirmed immediately.
Book through RueDesVignerons.com
RueDesVignerons.com was an excellent resource Boyfriend and I ended up using to schedule our day-of visit to Château de Sales. Extremely intuitive, it prompts you to choose the wine region you’re in (you may also use this website for all other wine regions in France) before offering you over 60 wineries to choose from (at least in the Bordeaux region).
Each chateau description includes photos, types of wine (red, white, rosé), appellation, user reviews, and of course tours and the option to book. You can search by city, date, language, whether a winery is organic… whatever you want! Rue des Vignerons is convenient and super user-friendly. Have fun with it!
Saint-Émilion is a too-charming-to-miss medieval village in France’s Nouvelle-Aquitaine region. And with so much more to visit in the area it’ll be important to maximize your time in order to see, taste and experience everything it has to offer in One Perfect Day.
Whether wine, architecture, food or photography is drawing you to visit, I hope this guide has given you a solid itinerary off of which to start planning your own perfect day in Saint-Émilion!