Bordeaux secret and ‘must know’ places #2: city guide for history

In the past, the city of Bordeaux was industrial and polluted. Traffic filled the city center and buildings were black. More recently, Bordeaux has transformed through cleaning and enhancement initiatives. Now, visitors can enjoy a vibrant and modern city packed with history and culture. In this article, we’re focusing on how and where to experience history in Bordeaux.

The city’s makeover spotlighted its spectacular architecture and historical sites. In 2007, Bordeaux’s old town became the largest urban UNESCO heritage site. While not a huge city, Bordeaux is second to Paris in its number of monuments. It has around 350!

After exploring Bordeaux’s iconic sites like Place de la Bourse and the Saint Andre cathedral, we suggest venturing off the beaten path to marvel at some lesser known and hidden historical spots around the city.  Here are some places to intrigue and surprise history lovers.

1. Ancient history in Bordeaux: Palais Gallien

First, venture out of the city center to a residential area near the Jardin Public. Hidden in this unassuming neighborhood, we can find Bordeaux’s oldest monument: a vestige of Gallo Roman Bordeaux!

Celtic tribes first established Bordeaux. Later, the city flourished under the Romans. This third-century monument gives us a rare peek into ‘Burdigala’, the Roman city of Bordeaux.

Today, only a small portion of the original Roman structure remains. However, we can see part of what was once a large amphitheater that seated up to 20 000 people.

Interestingly, this unusual site is the source of legends, including:

-In the middle ages, witches would gather to worship the devil and perform sacrifices.
-Later, in the 17th century, it was a meeting place for prostitutes, a site of duels and illegal bull races.

Additionally, the Palais Gallien name itself is shrouded in mystery. In the middle ages, Charlemagne supposedly constructed the ‘palace’ for his wife, Galiène. However, as we now know, the structure comes from the Roman era.

After this myth was debunked, another emerged: The name comes from a Roman emperor, Gallien. This story prevailed in the sixteenth century until discovering that the amphitheater actually originates from an entire century before his reign.

Therefore, the mystery of the name remains and only adds to the mystique of this unique monument.

2. More than just a city square: Place Gambetta

Unlike the Palais Gallien, Place Gambetta is not hidden away. On the contrary, it’s one of the city’s main squares and a large transportation hub. However, its history is lesser known and quite surprising.

To begin, this square has evolved over time since its creation in 1770 as Place Dauphine. We can see its different names etched into a street corner. In 1883, its current name was adopted to honor Léon Gambetta, a republican statesman who defended France during the Franco-German war of 1870.

Notably, during the revolution, Place Gambetta was the site of the city’s guillotine!

MyFrenchLife™ – – history in Bordeaux – Gambetta

More recently, the city began a large renovation project in 2013 to transform the square into a ‘place jardin. To complete the project, a number of chestnut trees were set to be cut down. As a result, a dramatic controversy brewed, pitting the city and environmentalists against each other. In 2018, the city sneakily cut down the trees before sunrise one morning. The protesters arrived just after the event, horrified and shocked at what the city had done!

As of February 2021, the construction is complete after many years. Finally, residents and visitors can now enjoy a luscious green space within the city center while contemplating Place Gambetta’s curious past.

3. Unique history: Musée Nationale des Douanes

Bordeaux has a number of impressive museums. Notably, Musee d’Aquitaine is the largest French history museum outside of Paris. The museum is certainly worth a visit to learn about the history of Bordeaux and the Aquitaine region.

Additionally, we recommend a unique and lesser-known history museum in Bordeaux, the Musée Nationale des Douanes.

This quirky museum details the history of customs in France from medieval times to the present. The Bordeaux Tourism website describes:

“From opium pipes to a painting by Monet, the museum features an amazing cabinet of curiosities going back to the 18th century.”

It’s the only custom’s museum in the country, offering visitors a look at France’s oldest civil service. Fittingly, it’s located in the iconic and beautiful buildings of Place de la Bourse. Formerly, the location housed the regional headquarters of French customs, collecting taxes for the king.

After a visit to the museum, visitors can enjoy the nearby river and historical port with a walk along the quai.

Bordeaux is a wonderful place to discover on foot, from the impressive neoclassical buildings of the Place de la Comédie to the winding cobblestone streets of the Saint Pierre district. It’s packed with history. You will surely be delighted to make discoveries around every corner.

Had you heard of these places for history in Bordeaux? Which one would you like to discover? Please share your thoughts in the comment section below or on Twitter @maviefrancaise

  1. Explore the world’s largest urban Unesco world heritage site via
  2. The ultimate checklist for one day in Bordeaux via
  3. Palais Gallein via
  4. Hotel de Ville, Meriadeck, Gambetta via
  5. Gambetta une Place Jardin via
  6. Aquitaine Museum via
  7. National Museum of the Customs via
  8. Place de la Bourse via
  9. The left bank quays overlooking the Garonne via
  10. The darker side to Bordeaux via
Image Credits:
  1. Une carte postale à ciel ouverte via @visitbordeaux on Instagram
  2. Bordeaux this morning via @heleneslifestyle on Instagram
  3. Le Palais Gallien via @visitbordeaux on Instagram
  4. Noms anciens et actuel via @lespritgambetta on Instagram
  5. Au XVIII siècle Gambetta était la place Dauphine via @lespritgambetta on Instagram
  6. Comme un air de printemps via @lespritdegambetta on Instagram
  7. Maquette de l’Aurore via Wikimedia Commons
  8. Place de la Bourse Bordeaux, France via Wikimedia Commons

Bordeaux secret and ‘must know’ places

Bordeaux is bursting with sites and experiences waiting to be discovered.
Use our city guides to plan your next trip to Bordeaux.

#1: city guide for wine
#2: city guide for history (this one)
#3: city guide for culture

By Published On: Apr 1, 20210 Comments

About the Contributor

Alexis Herrington

Growing up in the United States, I always dreamed of living abroad. After completing degrees in English and French, I was able to live in different parts of France as an English language teacher. I currently live in Bordeaux and work remotely as a copyeditor for Jellysmack's Paris office. I spend the rest of my time exploring this beautiful city and learning as much as I can about French wine.

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