Saint Émilion is a must visit town in southwest France for those who love wine, history and charming scenes. The area is known for its wine since as far back as the 2nd century when Romans planted grapes here. Today, the town and the surrounding vineyards are UNESCO world heritage sites and continue to produce world renowned wine.
While this region is a wine lover’s paradise, Saint Émilion also offers other things to do in its historic center. In this quick guide, I’ll share where to stay, a few wineries to visit, and things to do in Saint Émilion, France.
How much time do I need in Saint Émilion?
You only need one day to see the town of Saint Émilion. It is very small and easy to cover by foot from one end to the other. With accessible train transportation, it can be an easy day trip from Bordeaux. Check the train timetable and prices on SNCF.
I chose to stay the night on a longer road trip though the region so I would have more time to visit a few wineries (more on that shortly…).
Where to Stay
La Maison Colline – This quaint guesthouse was high on my list after getting an excellent recommendation from Marlene of @cookiesncandies. I was bummed to discover they don’t allow dogs though. For those not traveling with their dog, the hill house offers three cozy rooms of your choice in the center of town with continental breakfast available.
Le Relais Franc Mayne – For a swimming pool and chateau experience in a vineyard, I chose Le Relais Franc Mayne. It was just a short walk into town (read: drink all the wine you want without having to worry about driving). It was a treat to stay in such a beautiful room complete with a bathroom vanity I would have taken with me if possible. A tour of their winery and tasting is included with your stay.
A delicious breakfast is also included, but I think they were understaffed for breakfast service with only person cooking and serving a full house during peak season in August. Another point for improvement would be the late 4pm check in (although, it wasn’t exactly torture to have a glass of wine by the pool for a few hours).
Chateau Hotel & Spa Grand Barrail – For a luxury stay in a 19th century chateau, choose Chateau Hotel Grand Barrail. This premier property in the Saint Émilion area offers a full spa, gym, outdoor swimming pool and fine dining restaurant. Bike rentals are also available as this property is just over 2 miles from town.
Top things to do in Saint Émilion
1. See Historical Monuments
For such a small town, Saint Émilion packs above its weight in noteworthy monuments. It won’t take long to cover them all by foot though in this small town.
The largest monolithic church in Europe sits right in the middle of Saint Émilion. From the neighboring square with several restaurants, you can see the three arched windows that are the outside of the church. But, this hardly does the structure justice.
You have to take a guided tour to see inside the underground church that was carved in the 12th century. I don’t take a tour in every place I visit, but this one was absolutely worth it. On the tour, you’ll also visit the hermitage of Saint Émilion and learn about the monk who founded the town. The tour also covers the catacombs and Trinity Chapel with restored paintings.
Unfortunately, there are no photos allowed, but you can see photos on their official website. The official tourism office is open every day for most of the year, with reduced hours during December and January. Tours are available in English and our guide was wonderful. 12 euros per person.
If you miss the tour, there are a few other historical landmarks in Saint Émilion that also deserver some attention. As you enter town on the north side, you can’t miss the Les Grandes Murailles. It’s the last wall still standing from a 12th century Dominican convent.
While strolling around town, you might easily walk by this timber framed facade while looking at the archway. The facade is from the 16th century and deserves a close up look.
2. Visit Wineries
Château Coutet was high on my list of wineries to visit. The organic winery has been in the family for 14 generations with little modern interventions over the centuries. We were treated to a personal tour by a wonderful and informative guide, who had just stopped pruning in the vineyard (yet, simultaneously looked like a model from a French magazine).
She explained how they still use ancient techniques to make wine and care for the land. They even skip the modern day machinery on some plots when mowing is needed between the rows of vines and use mules instead.
Book a tour and tasting for 7 euros person and you won’t regret it.
With the cellar right on the outskirts of town, Château Guadet is a convenient stop if doing a day trip from Bordeaux. This estate has been in the same family for seven generations and is closely related to the Pétrus wine estate. Under a shaded sitting area in the garden of the wine estate and home of Guy-Petrus Lignac, he tells us a brief family history and his environmentally sustainable principles of wine making.
The tour of his underground cellar was very unique. The area under his private home is dug out from limestone quarries which offers optimum humidity and temperatures for storing wine. I also quite enjoyed getting a peak into his beautiful home filled with antiques.
One hour tour and tasting, 15 euros.
The Cordeliers Cloister is part underground wine cellar, part wine boutique, part outdoor wine bar all under the roof of a former 13th century convent. After a long religious history, the owners in the 19th century took advantage of the underground tunnels and used them for sparkling wine cellars.
Tours of the Cordeliers cellar are also available for 11 euro, tasting included.
3. Enjoy the View
This incredible look out point in Saint Émilion can’t be missed. It requires zero planning, no tour and it’s absolutely free.
Starting at the tourism office, walk out to the foot of bell tower which is also the roof top of the underground church.
4. Try the Macarons
When you think of French macarons, you probably picture a stack of pastel colored cookies in a light green Laudree box (à la Instagram c. 2017). The macarons in Saint Émilion are made with similar ingredients of almond, egg whites and sugar. You won’t find any fancy packaging with these cookies sold on a sheet of thick white paper, but they are just as delicious.
Naturally, there are several claims to the “original.” I picked up a 12 pack from Nadia Fermigier’s small shop located at 9 rue Gaudet. They claim Nadia Fermigier is the only person with the actual recipe from 1620. You can also visit their tea room Au Parvis des Thés around the corner for a larger selection of pastries and teas.
5. Enjoy the Restaurants
While Saint Émilion is known for its wine first and foremost, it also boats quite the fine dining food scene. I asked my French-American friend Léanne Ansar on Instagram where to eat. Since she is originally from Bordeaux, I didn’t hesitate to book a table at O Trois Fontaines when she recommend it. When Léanne says to get the camembert rôti, you get the camembert rôti.
Logis de la Cadene and Le Tertre were highly recommended by Guy-Petrus Lignac of Chateau Guadet. The style is a bit frou frou for my personal taste, but foodies and those with an adventurous palate will enjoy it.