It’s famous for its delicious red wine, but did you know that Saint-Émilion is one of the most beautiful small towns in southwestern France? This small medieval town is a maze of narrow cobblestone streets with stone buildings, wine shops, macaroon bakeries and limestone churches. It’s a popular day trip from Bordeaux, but there are so many things to do in Saint-Emilion that you can easily spend a few days here and soak up the laid-back atmosphere when the day trippers go home.
It is a delightful city to explore. Climb one of the medieval towers to see the city below and the vineyards that stretch as far as the eye can see over the surrounding landscape. The whole city is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and offers new sights on every corner. Walk under old stone arches and follow steep alleys where you’ll find typical French houses with wooden shutters and flower boxes. Ivy tumbles over the walls and in the cobbled squares of the city, guests sit at the tables of the various cafés and restaurants.
Every other shop is a wine merchant or a winery and many offer free tours of the cellars. Barrels and bottles of wine are stacked in underground caves. Saint-Émilion is as delightful as it is on the surface and keeps the best treasures under your feet, from the wine cellars, where the wine is aged in oak barrels, to a huge underground church and the cave where the monk died City has given its name to wine.
Discovering the underground treasures is one of the best activities in Saint-Emilion, and our kids loved the prospect of exploring secret caves and underground tunnels. You can only visit this part of Saint-Émilion on a guided tour, which becomes all the more mysterious when you enter a cobbled courtyard on the side of the church and the guide closes the gates behind you.
Our tour guide Sophie spoke excellent English and was full of stories about the secret underground world under this pretty medieval town. As we descended the narrow stone steps into the cave, she told us about the 8th century Benedictine monk named Émilion, who smuggled bread in his hometown of Vannes in Brittany to feed the poor. He was suspected of theft, but when he was ordered to reveal what was hidden in his cloak, the bread turned into pieces of wood.
After this first miracle, Émilion fled to the small town of Ascumbas in southern France and lived here in a cave for the last 17 years of his life. You can see the stone slab he used as a bed, the table he carved into the rock, and a stone chair. Émilion attracted a following for the miracles he accomplished, many using the water that still flows into the cave. His stone chair is said to be a fertility chair. One of the more unusual activities in Saint-Emilion is to pray to the saint while sitting in his chair. If you do this, you will be born within a year.
The miracles of Émilion made the city an important place of pilgrimage in the Middle Ages. After his death, Ascumbas was renamed Saint-Émilion.
The next stop on our subway tour was the creepy catacombs where Saint Émilion was buried. In the 8th century, graves were hewn out of the rock for people who wanted to be buried near the saint because they thought this would give them a better chance of getting to heaven. We climbed over the rocks and into the various underground chambers. Above our heads we saw a dome with a hole at the top which, according to Sophie, should enable the souls of the dead to ascend to heaven.
The Trinity Chapel next to the Saint-Émilion cave is worth seeing for its beautiful frescoes alone. They were painted on the wall in the 14th century and show Jesus, Mary and John the Baptist. Take your time to discover the more intriguing details – the bishop may have the traditional miter on his head, but take a closer look and you’ll see that he has the body of a dragon and the wings of a peacock.
The largest – and most impressive – monument to the saint and one of the best things to do in Saint-Emilion is the monolithic church dug out of the rocky hills at the beginning of the 12th century. It is said to be the largest underground church in Europe built from a single stone. From the outside, the big bell tower is the most impressive – it is 68 meters high. But the inside of the church is even more impressive.
The first thing you notice is how big it is – there are three ships and the ceiling is 12 meters above your head. When you walk around you can see angels on the ceiling. The massive concrete columns that hold the roof are ugly, but necessary after cracks in the heavy bell tower were discovered above.
The boys were intrigued to discover that the church had been used as a gunpowder factory during the French Revolution. The walls of the church were originally adorned with paintings, sculptures, and tapestries, but these were stolen during the French Revolution along with relics of Saint Émilion.
When we got out of the subway we wanted to see more of the surrounding landscape. The best place to rent a bike in Saint-Emilion is to explore the area on two wheels. It’s also a great way to escape the crowds. The pretty Saint-Émilion is one of the most visited cities in France – more than a million tourists visit this city every year.
We managed to avoid the crowd by leaving the season. A rainy day in late October will not attract as many tourists as in midsummer. We rented bicycles from the tourist office and drove on practically empty roads. Less happy for us when we started it started to rain.
At the tourist office you can rent bicycles with saddlebags and a brochure with suggested routes with maps and instructions. You choose routes of one and a half to three hours with different levels of difficulty. It’s a great way to see the famous vineyards up close as you cycle past castles and through vineyards. The routes run on quiet roads and gravel paths and are therefore ideal for families.
We cycled to the outskirts of the city and quickly cycled through the vineyards that stretch for miles around the city. One of the most popular activities in Saint-Emilion is the delicious wine. This is one of the most famous wine regions in the world and its vineyards date back to Roman times. The full-bodied red wine comes mainly from Merlot and Cabernet Franc and the wines produced here are among the most expensive in the world.
We drove past the large castles houses where the wine is made, most of which have been in the same family for generations. The landscape here is beautiful. If it hadn’t been raining, we would have loved to spend hours discovering more of the area.
The bicycles had many gears and front wheel suspension, which was useful for overcoming the harsher routes. We drove back to Saint-Émilion much wetter than we started, but were glad to have explored such a beautiful part of France. If you are visiting in better weather, pack a picnic in these panniers and enjoy it on the go.
YOU NEED TO KNOW:
Saint-Émilion is less than 32 km from the city of Bordeaux in 45 minutes by car or in 35 minutes by train.
If you are looking for things to do in Saint-Emilion, you can rent a bike for a day at the hotel Tourist Office of Saint-Émilion from 19 € for an adult bike and 9 € for a children’s bike. The prices include helmets, baskets and locks. Tickets for the guided subway tour cost € 9 for adults and € 7 for children. Children under 10 years are free. The subway tour is free if you have 72 hours Bordeaux CityPass, It is worth noting that you cannot take photos during the subway tour.
You can book the metro tour and rent bicycles as part of a bespoke trip to Bordeaux Original journey That includes flights and accommodation. Original Travel experts can put together an itinerary of activities tailored to your family‘s interests.
Further ideas and suggestions for visiting the UNESCO World Heritage Sites can be found at:
Valletta: A tour of the city of palaces in Malta
Things to do in Matera: Italy’s city of caves
and culture and cake on a Bordeaux bike tour.
Disclosure: This is a collaborative contribution. We were given a free metro tour of Saint-Émilion and bike rental in return for an honest review. All words and opinions are of course my own.
Have you been to Bordeaux? What do you think are the best things to do in Saint-Emilion?
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