In northern Gironde, where the Isle River merges with the Dordogne, Libourne is a venerable bastide town with mythical wine labels in its backyard.
In medieval times the wine from Pomerol, Fronsac and Saint-Émilion was brought to Libourne’s river harbour to be exported to England, the Netherlands and the Hanseatic trading cities.
Now, Libourne is a wine destination par excellence, with a bewildering number of châteaux nearby for tours, tasting sessions and purchases.
Also in the blend are bucolic landscapes, rich culture, loads of outdoor activities and the UNESCO city of Bordeaux only a brief drive away.
Lets explore the best things to do in Libourne:
1. Château de Sales
The old wine estates around Libourne have the dual charm of world-class wine and centuries-old architecture.
The Château de Sales, in the Pomerol appellation, has been in the same family for 500 years, and remains an intimate operation to this day.
You’ll be welcomed to tour the sublime 17th-century property, gaining privileged insights about contemporary winemaking paired with exciting snippets of history.
You’ll see the vat house, storehouse and the vineyard growing cabernet franc and cabernet sauvignon grapes to make their silky smooth wines.
After getting to know this legacy and culture, you’ll be able to taste a selection of vintages in a matchless setting.
No more than 10 minutes east of Libourne is the enchanting World Heritage town of Saint-Émilion.
The name is already known far beyond France for its red wine, which despite being grown over a small area is very diverse due to the mix of limestone, sandy and clay soils.
But the beauty and history of the place will win your heart: Saint-Émilion is on a crag, mined for more than 1,000 years for its limestone.
Some monuments were hewn straight from the rock, like the awesome monolithic church.
It’s the second-largest construction of its kind in the world and was built in the 11th century to store the relics of Saint-Émilion, the Breton hermit who was the first to settle here in the 8th century.
3. Château du Tailhas
Like the Château de Sales this wine estate is run by a family.
So you’ll receive a warm welcome and get eight decades of savoir-faire from the horse’s mouth.
This is also a Pomerol winery with 11 hectares of vines, and crafts its red wine from merlot, cabernet franc and cabernet sauvignon according to sustainable principles.
On an hour-long tour you’ll be impressed by just how much of the process is done by hand, from picking to sorting and crushing.
You’ll get to see most of the processing and storage equipment, being talked through the finer details on the way.
And as you’d hope you can taste past vintages of this famously smooth wine.
4. Wine Tourism
We’ve dealt with the châteaux within a couple of minutes of Libourne.
But the truth is that you could devote a whole holiday just to winery visits and tasting sessions.
labels in the Libournais area, like Pomerol, Fronsac, Côtes de Vayres and the Côtes de Castillon.
These are household names, and they’re only the beginning.
What makes the wine here so superior? Centuries of family-shared knowhow, a climate softened by the Atlantic and 2,000 years of viticulture in the very soil.
These qualities and many more place Libourne among the best places in the world to indulge your fascination for wine and winemaking.
5. Isle River Quays
You have to go down to the water on the River Isle in Libourne.
Not so much because of what’s there now, but because of what this place represents.
Libourne was founded in the 13th century to be the outlet for wines produced in the Dordogne Valley.
So at the Quai des Salinières and Quai Souchet there was a big inland seaport, loading wine to be exported to England and the Hanseatic Ports on the Baltic.
Go for a restorative walk under the shade of the plane trees, and see the imposing Tour du Grand Port, the last of the 13th-century defences.
6. Musée des Beaux-Arts
For a small provincial town, Libourne has a large fund of Baroque paintings.
That’s down to the many donations by wealthy benefactors and deposits by the state.
Élie, duc Decazes, who was a one-time Minister of Police in the 1810s endowed the museum with its first collection of works.
Before long it had built up a large assortment of Flemish and Italian Baroque paintings by artists like Jacob Jordanens and Bartolomeo Manfredi.
The 19th and 20th-century collections are also first-rate, with works by Foujita, Raoul Dufy, Rodin and Libourne native René Princeteau.
It’s all waiting for you on the second floor of Libourne’s town hall.
7. Libourne’s Water Mills
After the Hundred Years’ War, Libourne and its surroundings were in disarray and the region’s new lords decided to build dozens of flour mills as an economic stimulus.
Because, with the Isle and Dordogne Rivers, there’s definitely no shortage of water power.
And while they started out grinding flour, when the Industrial Revolution came along many were transformed into steel and oil mills.
Although most of these industries are long gone, these old buildings still contribute to Libourne’s character.
Two remain open to visitors: The refined Moulin d’Abzac is from the 1700s and holds the headquarters of the Abzac SA industrial group.
While the Moulin de Porchères on the Isle is special because it has kept all of its flour milling machinery intact.
8. Lac des Dagueys
In the cooler seasons you won’t be blamed for ignoring this body of water a couple of minutes up from Libourne.
But when the sun’s out from the last weekend of May to September the lake takes centre stage, most of all if you’re holidaying with little ones.
There’s a generous beach, supervised during the school holidays, and an inflatable adventure playground in the water that will get thumbs up from the kids.
On land there are yet more playgrounds for youngsters, along with beach volleyball and basketball courts.
In the water you can hire a pedalo, canoe or kayak and paddle off to see what you can find around several kilometres of wooded shoreline.
9. Château de Vayres
Around a bend in the Dordogne River is a sumptuous waterside château with exquisite gardens.
The story of the castle is both complex and compelling: It was beefed up by a nobleman loyal to the English King Edward II in the 14th century, and a lot of these works are still visible in the moats, gate and keep.
After changing hands between the English and French, the future King Henri IV stayed here in the 16th century, around which time it was updated to its current Renaissance style.
But today it’s the gardens that are the headline, with formal boxwood and yew parterres beside English-style parkland.
There’s a stairway leading down from the château, and the scene of the parterres and river behind will stay with you long after you’ve left.
10. Place Abel Surchamp
Like most medieval bastide towns, Libourne has a grid system and is centred on a main square.
This is Place Abel Surchamp, which is home to the town hall, built in the 1500s and remodelled at the start of the 20th century.
Place Abel Surchamp remains a fixture in daily life, as there’s a huge open air market here on Tuesdays, Fridays and Sundays.
It also has the trademark bastide arcades on all four sides, which now boast cafes and restaurants with tables that overflow onto the square.
11. Le Jardin du Fond de l’Or
Easily reached a few minutes up from the Dordogne, this calming “jardin remarquable” has a Japanese theme.
It is woven into a wooded valley and has a stream running through it, which cools it off, even on the hottest summer days.
The humidity in this little hollow has allowed the owners to cultivate many exotic plants, like the Brazilian giant rhubarb and large, jungle-like ferns.
The gardens were planted in 1981, and where old trees were cleared their stumps have been sculpted into works of art that line the pathways.
12. Train Touristique de Guîtres à Marcenais
An evocative way to experience the Isle Valley countryside is to hop aboard this heritage train at the town of Guîtres.
If you’re inspired by the days of steam travel there’s a museum at the station with locomotives and carriages dating between 1880 and 1950. The Compagnie des Charentes laid this line in the 1870s, but it was closed to passenger traffic in the 1930s and then freight trains stopped rolling through in the 60s.
It reopened as a tourist line in the 70s and completes round trips to Marcenais a few kilometres away, stopping once at the picturesque Moulin de Charlot for photos.
France’s fifth-largest city is an easy day trip from Libourne, and must not be missed.
First for the architecture, as Bordeaux’s golden age took place in the 1700, furnishing it with one of the great ensembles from this century.
This cityscape, with its sweeping quaysides by the Garonne, is so majestic and uniform that it has earned UNESCO World Heritage listing.
If you want to see it all you’ll need a few days, but your priorities will be the Esplanade des Quinconces, the largest square in Europe, the Place de la Bourse reflected in the Miroir d’Eau and the 1.2-kilometre Rue Sainte-Catherine shopping street.
The Fine Arts Museum is obligatory too, for paintings by Delacroix, Renoir, van Dyck, Rubens, Veronese and a cavalcade other masters.
14. Dordogne Mascaret
To fill your trip with experiences that you’ll remember forever, consider surfing the tidal bore on the Dordogne River.
This is a rare phenomenon, more associated with far-off rivers like the Amazon.
But on certain days in summer the forces of nature (lunar tides) conspire to form smooth, waist-high rollers that never seem to end.
Seasoned surfers will have no trouble keeping their balance for up to 30 minutes, but newcomers will also find the rollers very forgiving.
Every now and again you’ll look up and be reminded that you’re surfing through Bordeaux’s wine country!
At the confluence of two great rivers, and a short way from the mighty Gironde Estuary, Libourne’s cuisine is sourced from the water and the land.
If you want to pick up something completely authentic make it a pot of rillettes de lamproie, which is a kind of pâté made from lamprey and red wine.
The Gironde Estuary is a breeding ground for sturgeon, and this means first-rate caviar, so see if you can find some caviar de Saint-Seurin-sur-l’Isle.
And being in the southwest, the duck and other poultry is exceptional.
Confit de canard is duck cured in salt, while foie gras (duck liver) comes seared, half-cooked or raw.