Wine enthusiasts don’t need an introduction to Saint Emilion. The small wine appellation (comprising only 6% of the vineyards in the Bordeaux denomination ) has long gained a reputation as one of the greatest wine regions in the world. It’s no wonder it attracts more than a million tourists every year. However, when many visitor plan their day trip to Saint Emilion they don’t realize it’s also one of the most beautiful and fascinating villages in the Southwest of France, registered as a heritage site by UNESCO.
For many decades this picturesque town has been an economic and religious center attracting royals, winegrowers and pilgrims. Every square in the small village center is packed with history and some incredible architecture. Thousands of hectares of vines surround the medieval village making the landscape an unforgettable scenery. And so, many tourists arriving to Bordeaux become overwhelmed when trying to construct their own trip. In this article, my goal is to tell you about all there’s to do and see in Saint Emilion, where to eat and how to get there. While you can still take guided tours, I hope this complete guide to Saint Emilion will make you want to do it by yourself and at your own pace. If you still prefer to take a guided tour, I have a few to recommend, so you can continue reading or go directly to my article on how to get to Saint Emilion (with or without a tour).
I previously published an article about the best wineries to visit in Saint Emilion so you can skip all my explanations about the city center and jump straight to wine tasting if you wish, simply click here.
What to do and see in Saint Emilion
A little touch of history
Saint Emilion has an integral part in the history of Bordeaux and the region. The history of wine in Saint Emilion (or Ascumbas as it was called back then) can be traced to the 3rd century BC, when the Romans planted the first vines in the region. It originally had a mere 200 hectares dedicated to vineyards, clearly not the wine empire it is today.
In the 8th century, a monk named Emilian arrived to the little village in search of a quiet simple life and decided to make it his home. He lived in a little cave, receiving the many followers who traveled all the way to Saint Emilion to get his blessing. That’s actually how the village received its name, Saint Emilion. In the following decades, many religious orders would follow the steps of the monk and move to Saint Emilion to build their churches and convents, which explains the abundance of religious buildings in such a small village. The city became an important landmark for many of the pilgrims following the Camino de Santiago pilgrim way to Spain. The cave of Saint Emilion inspired the construction of the most impressive monument of Saint Emilion, the monolithic church.
In the middle ages, during the 300 years of British rule, Saint Emilion was an autonomous city with a lot of financial and governmental power. In 1199 the British king established the Jurade, a group of magistrates governing the city. In return for the economic and political autonomy, the British received in return the best wines of Saint Emilion. That’s how the wine of Saint Emilion become so popular in England.
The rich history of this little town left many traces in the city center. Many books have been written about its historic monuments, but here I want to share with you a few places that are in my opinion a must on your day trip to Saint Emilion.
Take a tour to discover the underground of Saint Emilion
Probably the most famous monument of Saint Emilion is the 12th-century Monolithic church that as its name suggests is carved from one stone. It’s the largest Monolithic church in Europe and it’s construction required the extraction of 15 000 m3 of stone. When looking at its modest front, it’s hard to imagine how big it is from the inside. I saw many pictures of the Monolithic church before going to Saint Emilion for the first time but I was still amazed when I saw this masterpiece firsthand.
As it’s a preserved site, to visit the church you will need to take the tour proposed by the tourist office. I know that many people are not big fans of guided tours but this one is really worth it. During the tour, you get to also visit other underground sites which tell some of the history of the city. Apart from the church itself, you will visit the catacombs, where the important people of Saint Emilion used to be buried in the middle ages. You will get to sit on a fertility chair in the original cave of Saint Emilion (according to the tourist office many babies have been born following this ritual) and to see the impressive paintings on the 14th century Chapelle de la Trinité.
Two English tours are offered two times a day. At 11:00 you can take a general tour in Saint Emilion which ends with the underground tour. While the 14:00 tour is dedicated only to the underground sites. Times may change according to the season. See more details on the official tourist office page.
The bell tower of the Monolithic church.
While the church itself is well hidden in the rock, its bell tower is standing tall and can be seen from every spot in the city. If you’re interested in architecture, the tower is a fascinating monument by itself, built in both Romanesque and gothic styles. You can climb the bell tower and see a magnificent view of Saint Emilion from the highest point in the city.
The Collegiate church
The Collegiate church is a beautiful monument built between the 12th and 15th centuries and you can visit it all by yourself, without taking a tour. Here again, you can see an interesting mix of Romanesque and Gothic styles, reflecting the long period of its construction. The west door of the church was built in a pure Romanesque style during the 12th century while the north door is a Gothic one from the 14th century. It’s located behind the tourist office and you can enter it through one of the two doors or through its beautiful cloister. If you pay close attention to the walls of the cloister you will see quite a lot of interesting items such as graves, statues and even a little dragon.
La tour du Roy
The 13th century King’s Keep is one of the most famous military architecture monuments in Gironde. There’s still a debate between historians on who ordered its constructions but one thing is sure, it’s a beautiful monument well worth a visit. It’s also a great spot to see the view of the vineyards of Saint Emilion. The tower is open daily for visits, consult the opening hours and prices here.
Les Cordeliers – drink sparkling wine in an old cloister
Red wine is not the only famous product of Saint Emilion, you can surprisingly find also one sparkling wine as well, called Cremant de Bordeaux. The producer of the sparkling wine sits in a beautiful old cloister that is worth a visit even if you’re not a fan of bubbly wine. The Cordeliers cloister was established in the 14th century by the Franciscan brothers. For several centuries that’s where they used to live, pray and grow vegetables in their beautiful garden. Most of the building was destroyed during the French Revolution and was later sold to private owners. In the 19th century, the new owners of the place decided to use the enormous underground galleries to produce and store sparkling wine.
Today the production has moved to a remote location but they still store their bottles in the caves underneath the cloister and they offer daily tours where you get to visit the caves and taste the sparkling wine of Saint Emilion. Although the tour is nice, it’s not a must unless you really want to see the underground galleries.
They also have a nice bar outdoors where you can grab a glass of Cremant de Bordeaux (the sparkling white or rosé) together with a picnic basket and sit in the beautiful garden. For more details about the tours and the history of the place click here.
Address: 2 Bis Rue de la Porte Brunet, 33330 Saint-Émilion
Enjoy the vibes of the Local markets
The markets in the Southwest of France are a treat so visiting at least one should always be on your list. The market in Saint Emilion takes place every Wednesday and Sunday between 8 am and 1 pm in the city center. It’s a nice small market that can give you a little taste of how a typical French village market looks like. However, if you want to experience a real big regional market with tens of stands of local cheese, wine, charcuterie, oysters and more you must visit the Libourne market that takes place every Tuesday, Friday and Sunday. Libourne is located just a few minutes drive from Saint Emilion so it’s really in the neighborhood.
If you’re about to visit Bordeaux on your trip, don’t miss a chance to visit Bordeaux’s main market, Marché des Capucins. It’s truly one of the liveliest markets in France and a great place to try local food. There are plenty of restaurants at the market and you can read about the best ones in my article about where to eat at the Capucins market.
Like many small villages in the area, Saint Emilion holds a weekly night market during the summer months. The market takes place at Parc Guadet and has a very fun local vibe to it. Every year it attracts many tourists and locals to enjoy the best local food and concerts. If you arrive to Saint Emilion in July-August you can get all the details about the night market in the tourist office.
Try regional sweets
If you’re tired of wandering around soaking history and sipping wine it’s time to stop for some local sweets! Yes, the Bordeaux region has special sweets that you can’t find anywhere else in France and one of them is coming straight from Saint Emilion. Did you know that the original Macaron was actually born in Saint Emilion? The macaroons of Saint Emilion are produced there since 1620 when the Ursulines sisters established their convent in the village. The recipe is being passed from generation to generation and hasn’t been changed ever since. You can get a box of macarons at the little sweets shop “Fabrique de macarons” ( Address: 9 rue Guadet). Or have a cup of tea with a great variety of local sweets and pastries at Au Parvis des Thés, a nice coffee shop, located behind the tourist office. Address: 1 Place Pioceau, 33330 Saint-Émilion
If you want to learn more about the macarons and other Bordeaux sweet specialties go to my article about the sweets of Bordeaux.
The Saint Emilion wine route – visiting wineries
How to visit wineries in Saint Emilion
We’re finally getting to the topic most visitors come for – how to visit the wine chateaux of Saint Emilion. If you just want to drive around the Saint Emilion area and taste and buy some wine directly from the wineries, it’s quite straightforward. Many of them will happily welcome you to the chateau and will happily let you taste their wine. However, if you’re interested in a tour (even a basic one), you usually have to either make an appointment or book online. So it will require some communication on your part, but I highly recommend visiting at least one chateau when in the region.
Here’s a good tip for those of you who don’t like to plan and would just love to visit a few properties. The tourist office in Saint Emilion publishes a list of two to four chateaux on a daily basis that are open for a visit without prior reservation. It allows you to be both spontaneous and to discover some wine chateaux you may have never heard of. You can see the daily list of wine chateaux here.
Having said that, I know that most people traveling such a long distance to the southwest of France would love to know ahead what chateaux are the best ones to visit. There are more than 130 wine producers in the great Saint Emilion area, many of which are open to visitors. So obviously choosing only one or two is not easy. But as I had the chance to visit many chateaux in Saint Emilion in the last two years, I’ve gathered a list of some of the best wineries to visits in Saint Emilion. This list is very limited and surely there are many other excellent wineries in the region but I found those to be particularly friendly and interesting to visitors. At least half of my list is dedicated to small family estates rather than big wineries owned by big companies. I personally prefer these kind of visits as they feel more personal and allow you to discover the passion and history stretching several generations of winegrowers in one family.
Most of the winery owners and their employees speak English so contacting them should not be a problem. However, If you don’t want the hassle of contacting the chateaux you can always book a visit through Rue des Vignerons.
Discover the Pomerol Appellation
If you’re really passionate about wine I would also recommend discovering the luxurious neighbor of Saint Emilion, the Pomerol Appellation. It’s located very close to Saint Emilion but is considered a separate wine area and while it’s one the most prestigious appellations in the area, it’s not included in the official classification from 1855. It’s the smallest wine appellation in the Bordeaux wine region, covering roughly 800 hectares of vines.
Chateau Petrus is the most famous one in Pomerol. Unfortunately, most of us cannot visit this chateau as they are open only to wine professionals and honestly, most people can’t afford it either. But there are several Pomerol wineries that will be more than happy to welcome you to their estate. Two of the most impressive ones, in my opinion, are Chateau de Sales (book a visit here) and Chateau Beauregard with the most impressive wine tanks I’ve ever seen. Other smaller family-owned properties I love include Château du Tailhas (book a visit here) and Chateau Bel Air.
Even if you don’t have the time to visit a winery in Pomerol you can still taste it in one of the wine shops in Saint Emilion. It’s really a great wine so I strongly recommend it. Many call it a ladies wine because it’s easier to drink than a Saint Emilion, but don’t say that to a Pomerol producer, they don’t like that label 🙂
Taking a guided tour to Saint Emilion
While I believe that Saint Emilion is a great trip to do on your own, I know that many visitors love to take guided tours. So for those of you who would rather not drive in France or just don’t want to spend time planning their visit, here are a few recommended tours that will take you from Bordeaux to Saint Emilion.
- This is one of the most popular half-day tours from Bordeaux to Saint Emilion. Besides the ride to Saint Emilion from Bordeaux the tour also includes several wine tastings and a visit to two wine chateaux which for many people is plenty for one day. The price is €94 per person. You can find all the details of the tour and book directly here.
- This is a half-day tour in Saint Emilion with a visit to one winery for € 75 per person. It’s rather intimate as they book small groups meaning you get to actually listen and ask questions. You can check out the details and get your ticket here.
- A full day trip from Bordeaux to Saint Emilion, visiting three different chateaux at € 125 per person. This is a great option if you want to see different techniques of winemaking and taste different wines from the same area. You can see all the details and get your ticket here.
- One of the cheapest tour options (€ 42 per person) is a half-day trip to Saint Emilion leaving on Wednesdays and Sundays that also includes a visit to a chateau. The downside is that these groups are quite big so don’t expect an intimate experience. See all the details and get your tickets here.
What to eat in Saint Emilion
The village of wine must take itself seriously when it comes to gastronomy and indeed there are dozens of great restaurants in Saint Emilion. Nevertheless, as I already mentioned, Saint Emilion is a very popular tourist destination which means that there are plenty of tourist traps to watch out from. Also, it’s crucial to make reservations in advance! Most of the good restaurants are booked so avoid trying to enjoy a spontaneous meal there. I gathered a shortlist of good restaurants in Saint Emilion, which includes both high-end gastronomic institutions and more simple but very good restaurants.
Logis de la Cadene – I dare say that this one Michelin star restaurant is the most praised restaurant in Saint Emilion. If you’re celebrating a special event or just want to have a culinary treat, this is the place for you.
Address: 3 Place du Marché au Bois, 33330 Saint-Émilion
L’Envers du Décor – It’s the first wine bar in Saint Emilion that became one of the best restaurants in town. The place is a bit pricey but the food and the overhaul experience are worth it. Plus, they have a nice little garden which is super fun when it gets warm. It’s currently owned by the Perse family, the owner of the famous Château Pavie so perfect wine matching won’t be a problem. The restaurant is open daily. The address is 11 Rue du Clocher, 33330 Saint-Émilion
Delices du Roy – a delicious menu of local cuisine with a more relaxed atmosphere than many of the other restaurants in Saint Emilion. One of their trademark dishes is the duck burger. Address:1 Rue de la Porte Bouqueyre, 33330 Saint-Émilion
L’huitrier-pie – a creative restaurant with great food. It feels very fancy but the prices are not too high compared to the more expensive restaurants in Saint Emilion. Address: 11 Rue de la Porte Bouqueyre, 33330 Saint-Émilion
Comptoir des Arts – If you don’t want to spend a lot of money or just prefer a light lunch head to Comptoir des Arts. This small little restaurant serves nice quiches and salads at very reasonable prices. The restaurant is located at the very pleasant Cour des Arts in the center of Saint Emilion.
Chateau de Candale – If you want to take full advantage of the wine region you can have lunch between the vineyards. Chateau de Candale has a nice gastronomic restaurant in their wine chateau and you can even combine it with a great wine tour. Click here to book a wine tour in Chateau de Candale.
Attend some of the best events in Saint Emilion
Saint Emilion is a small but very lively town with plenty of events taking place throughout the year. This wine region celebrates everything from wine to gastronomy to Jazz music so check out if there’s an event lining up with your planned trip. I write monthly and weekly posts about the events taking place in and around Bordeaux (including Saint Emilion) so all the events will eventually appear on my blog. But here are just a few of the major ones:
The open doors in Saint Emilion – a weekend at the beginning of May when tens of wineries open their chateaux and welcome the public for free tours, wine tastings, exhibitions, concerts and more.
Saint Emilion Jazz festival – The Saint Emilion Jazz festival is one of the biggest music festivals in the region taking place at the end of July. Plenty of local and international Jazz bands arrive to Saint Emilion to celebrate music and good wine.
Montgolfiades de Saint-Emilion – a hot air balloon festival taking place every year in October above the vineyards of Saint Emilion. This event is absolutely stunning!
Ban des Vendanges – a ceremony taking place on the King’s Keep in September, officially starting the harvest season in Saint Emilion.
What’s the best time to come to Saint Emilion
Let’s start with when not to come to Saint Emilion! try to avoid coming at the beginning of April as it’s the primeur week. The En Primeur way of buying wine is very common in Bordeaux thus most wineries are busy with hosting wine traders and won’t have time to offer you a tour. Also, once in two years in June, Bordeaux hosts one of the biggest wine events in the world – Vinexpo, meaning that many wineries will send their staff to the expo and will welcome only a minimal amount of tourists. The next one is about to take place in June 2021. Also, avoid coming to Saint Emilion in the last week of December and the first week of January. While many wineries stay open for visits even during the winter, in those two weeks you will have a hard time finding an open chateau. Don’t forget that many of the wine estates employ only a small number of people and these usually leave for their Christmas vacation.
Is Summer a good time to visit Saint Emilion?
Generally, summer is a good time to visit the Southwest of France and the Bordeaux area in particular. It’s the official tourist season and most places are open and offering you a world of activities and adventures in this lovely area. On the other hand, arriving in August, the most touristic month, can also be a disadvantage. Saint Emilion is one of the most popular destinations meaning that during the summer it gets packed with tourists flooding its narrow streets. Even getting a simple lunch in the city center can become a real hassle. And while the big chateaux are all open for daily tours some of the small family-owned chateaux can close their wineries for a few weeks in August. I’m not discouraging you from coming in August of course but I want you to be prepared. If there’s a particular winery you’d like to visit, contact them in advance. And most importantly, book your lunch and dinner in advance as well or else a homemade sandwich might be your only friend in August 🙂
When is the best time to come to Saint Emilion?
In my opinion, the best time to come is from Mid April to July and then in September through October. May and June are excellent months for a visit as all the tourist attractions are open for the summer season but it’s not too crowded yet. September and October are the magical harvest season and if you’re interested in wine it’s something you wouldn’t want to miss.
How to get to Saint Emilion
My directions here mostly focused on people coming from Bordeaux for a day trip. I will just mention that the two closest airports to Saint Emilion are the Bordeaux airport in Merignac and the little airport in Bergerac.
How do you get from the center of Bordeaux to Saint Emilion
Saint Emilion is one of the easiest destinations to get to from Bordeaux as there’s a direct train from Gare Saint-Jean (Bordeaux’s main train station) to Saint Emilion. The station in Saint Emilion is located about 15-20 minutes walk from the city center. If you want to know in detail about the train’s time schedule, where to buy tickets and how to get transport from the station to the city center, read my article about how to get from Bordeaux to Saint Emilion.
Nonetheless, if your day trip to Saint Emilion includes a visit to more distant wineries I do recommend coming by car – if you need to rent one click here.
Where to park in Saint Emilion?
There’s the free parking lot of the Gendarmerie (police station). However, this parking is often full on busy days in which case you can leave your car at the free parking next to the train station. There are also several paid parking lots (about 2 euros/hour): around the collegiate church (the upper town) and Place Bouqueyre (bottom town).
Where to stay in Saint Emilion
I know that many visitors go to Saint Emilion only for a day trip but consider staying a night in the medieval beautiful city as it can really be a beautiful experience. Here are a few recommended hotels for those who decide to stay in Saint Emilion.
Logis de la Cadene
This is one of the most recommended hotels in the center of Saint Emilion. The hotel, with an amazing view of the historic center, has a warm and elegant design to it. And as I mentioned above it also has one of the best restaurants in town. Book it here.
Hostellerie de Plaisance
One of the most luxurious and beautiful hotels in the center of Saint Emilion. The hotel is located just next to the Monolithic Church of Saint Emilion and offers a magical panoramic view of the medieval village and the vineyards. Book it here.
Les Chambres d’Ovaline
Les Chambres d’Ovaline is a cozy and beautiful B&B located a few minutes walk from the center of Saint Emilion. The rooms are beautifully designed and you can enjoy your breakfast in their cute garden. It’s also much more affordable than the other options in Saint Emilion. Book a room here.
Château Hôtel Grand Barrail
A luxury hotel located in the middle of the vineyards a few km from the center of Saint Emilion. The hotel has a pool and a SPA facility as well as a gastronomic restaurant. This is a great place if you’re looking for a more isolated vacation. Book it here.
Le Relais de Franc Mayne Saint Emilion
A magical B&B with the most beautiful view on the vineyards of Saint Emilion. The rooms are quite spacious and beautifully decorated. To book a room click here.
If you don’t mind driving a bit, this cute B&B is located in an old wine farm, about 14 km from the center of Saint Emilion. Their price is really great and the setting is quite amazing. Book a room here.
I know that this article was very long so if you got to the end, “Bravo” as the French say. Here are a few other articles you’ll find useful when traveling to the area.
Hope you find this article helpful! If you do, please share it with your friends!
*Note – Some of the links in this article include affiliate links for which I earn a small commission. It adds absolutely nothing to your cost and helps me continue writing about this amazing region. Don’t worry, I’m not getting rich here, I’ll never recommend anything I don’t believe in 🙂