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 people plan their day trip to Saint Emilion they’re surprised to discover that it’s also one of the most fascinating villages in the Southwest of France.
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. Today the stunning Saint Emilion is listed as a heritage site by UNESCO
Planning your first-day trip from Bordeaux to Saint Emilion can be a bit overwhelming. In this article, I want to give you all the information about what 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 decide to stay the night in Saint Emilion (which I highly recommend), here are my hotel recommendations. In case you’re looking for a unique experience in the vineyards of Bordeaux, check out my article about the best wine hotels in the region.
Car / Public transport
Generally speaking, I always recommend renting a car when you visit vineyards because it gives you a lot of flexibility to visit any winery you want. And driving in between the small wine villages surrounding Saint Emilion is just magic by itself. If you decide to rent a car, check out this website for good deals.
However, if you rather avoid driving just know that it’s very easy to visit Saint Emilion or other wine areas in Bordeaux by public transport. Here’s a detailed explanation of how to get to Saint Emilion from Bordeaux. If you prefer taking a guided tour of the vineyards I have a few recommendations in this article, you can click here if you want to read it now.
I have another article about the best wineries to visit in Saint Emilion so if you want to jump straight to wine tasting, simply click here. Also if you’re traveling with kids here are some of my recommendations for the most kid-friendly wineries.
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 in 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. That 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 its 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 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 of 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 architectural monuments in Gironde. There’s still a debate among 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 actually find here sparkling wine as well. The wine is called Cremant de Bordeaux and it’s produced 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. The Codeliers offers 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) accompanied by 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. Unfortunately, there’s no market in the center of Saint Emilion but one of the best markets in the Bordeaux region is just within a few minutes drive!
Libourne market is a must for anyone who wants to visit a big regional market with tens of stands of local cheese, wine, charcuterie, oysters, and other local delicacies. The market is taking is taking place every Tuesday, Friday, and Sunday in the center of Libourne.
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.
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 its 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 (1 Place Pioceau)
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 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. I highly recommend visiting at least one chateau when in the region. Here I want to facilitate the planning part for you with some tips.
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.
As I had the chance to visit many chateaux in Saint Emilion since moving here, I’ve gathered a list of some of the best wineries to visit in Saint Emilion. This list is very limited and there are of course many other excellent wineries in the region but I found those to be particularly friendly to visitors.
Most of my list is dedicated to small family estates rather than big wineries owned by big companies. I personally prefer these kinds of visits as they feel more personal and allow you to discover the passion and history stretching several generations of winegrowers in one family.
Note– Most of the wineries are reachable only by car. If you rather using the train to get to Saint Emilion, check out my article about wineries you can reach by public transport.
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, you should also visit the luxurious neighbor of Saint Emilion, the Pomerol Appellation. Pomerol is one the most prestigious appellations in the area, even though 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 of 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 if you rather avoid planning or driving, here are a few recommended tours you can take from Bordeaux to Saint Emilion. For more options for wine tours in the Bordeaux region check out my article about the Best wine tours in Bordeaux.
From Bordeaux: Afternoon Saint-Emilion Wine Tasting Trip – one of the most popular half-day tours from Bordeaux to Saint Emilion. The tour takes you from the center of Bordeaux to visit two wine chateaux. You can find all the details of the tour and book directly here.
Full-Day St Emilion Wine Tasting Tour – This tour from Bordeaux to Saint Emilion allows you to visit three different chateaux in the region as well as the town itself. 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.
Saint-Emilion Electric Bike Day Tour with Wine Tastings & Lunch – one of the best ways to discover the vineyards of Saint Emilion is on E-bikes. Rustic Wines is a company that offers amazing full-day ebike tours in Saint Emilion. The tours include a visit to two wineries, a lunch, and a visit to the village. Book the tour here.
Private wine tours– there are quite a few amazing guides here in the region that can take you on a private tour to Saint Emilion. Three I particularly like are Olala wine tours, Niclolle from SIP, and Anne from Aquitiane travel guide.
What to eat in Saint Emilion
Saint Emilion takes itself very seriously when it comes to gastronomy with plenty of restaurants in the city center as well as at the vineyards of the region. Saint Emilion is a very popular touristic destination which means that if you’re traveling in the summer season, reserving a table is a must!
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 – The first wine bar in Saint Emilion that has become 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
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
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 and a meal at Chateau de Candale.
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 posts about the events taking place in and around Bordeaux (including Saint Emilion) as well as a weekly newsletter I send to my subscribers. 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 end of April/ beginning of May with almost 90 wineries opening their doors to welcome the public for three days of free tours, wine tastings, exhibitions, concerts, and more. Here are more open-door events taking place in the Bordeaux wine region.
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.
Fête les Vins Kms de Saint-Émilion – The official marathon (and semi-marathon) of Saint Emilion, taking place every March.
What’s the best time to come to Saint Emilion
In my opinion, the best time to visit Saint Emilion is from May to Mid July and then September and October (the harvest season). But that’s the short answer, it’s obviously it a bit more nuanced than that. You can find my detailed answer about when to come to Saint Emilion and when to avoid it here. However, I just want to highlight that it’s a huge and very popular wine region, so you’ll find a winery to visit no matter when you come.
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 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 (the 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.
*You can also read the full article about where to stay in and around Saint Emilion, where I included luxury experiences as well and more simple and cute B&B in the countryside around the beautiful town.
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.
Le Relais de Franc Mayne Saint Emilion
A magical B&B with the most beautiful view of the vineyards of Saint Emilion. The rooms are quite spacious and beautifully decorated. To book a room click here.
Hope you find this article helpful! If you do, please share it with your friends!
Want to save this article for later? Save it on Pinterest!
Are you also planning to visit Bordeaux?
Here are a few articles to help you plan the best trip to Bordeaux:
And this is a full list of all Bordeaux wine-related articles with more winery recommendations, that will help you plan your Bordeaux self-guided wine tour:
Best wineries to visit in Saint Emilion Best wine tours in Bordeaux
A guide to the Bordeaux wine region
How to visit wineries in the Bordeaux wine region without a car
A weekend in the Medoc wine region
Best wineries to visit in Sauternes
Best wineries in Bordeaux to visit with kids
You can also get plenty of tips on things to do in the Southwest of France via lost in Bordeaux’s social media accounts and email list, check them out here:
*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 🙂