Ask a Local: What Should I Do/See/Eat in Saint-Émilion, France?

Apr 29, 2019    /    ask a local

Photo credit.


Welcome back to Ask a Local, a series of posts in which I interview locals all over the world about what to see, where to go, what to eat, and how to fit in in their city or town.

Today, we’ve got Nathalie from Saint-Émilion here to reveal the secrets of her city…

About Nathalie

I was born and raised in Bordeaux and studied tourism there for a while before moving to Toulouse, where I finished my studies and became a certified guide. For the last eight years, I’ve been living in the middle of the vineyard in Saint-Émilion, as my husband is a winegrower (not very unusual here). We have two girls aged five and two.

I’ve been traveling in English- and Spanish-speaking countries since I was 15 years old (in school and language exchange programs). And now I’m a certified guide in the region where I grew up, welcoming, leading, and guiding visitors in French, English, and Spanish in Saint-Émilion and other region hot spots like Bordeaux, Blaye, Médoc, Arcachon, Cadillac, and the Gironde Estuary.

In my free time, my family and I like to visit friends and go to exhibitions and music festivals in the region.

What to do in Saint-Émilion (the Basics)

Start by exploring a wine estate to learn about the secret of wine making in Saint-Émilion. Some of the fancier family estates operate out of real castles. And try to see one of the traditional underground cellars in a former quarry if you can.

Next, take a guided tour of the Monolithic Church (the largest underground church in Europe), which was carved entirely out of the limestone plateau in the 12th century.

Finally, spend some time just wandering the cobblestone streets of this charming town built in the Middle Ages. It was formerly a walled city and some pieces of wall still stand today. While you’re wandering, grab a key at the tourist office (for €1.50 per person) and climb the 196 steps up into the bell tower above the church.

And don’t forget to wander out of town a bit and enjoy the unique landscape, which is full of combes—a kind of amphitheater created by millions of years of erosion.


Image by www.traveljunction.com.

Hidden Gems for Seasoned Travelers

The Cloître des Cordeliers—a former Franciscan monastery—is something special, full of ruins and surrounded by an excellent garden. It’s a wonderful place to escape the crowded streets in summer and appreciate the freshness of the trees while tasting sparkling wine produced in the underground quarry 56 feet under the garden.

Another nice thing to do is walk to the famous Château Ausone winery (a place designated with the coveted 1st Grand Cru Classé—a classification that earmarks some of the region’s top wines). To get there, pass behind the keep (fortified tower) and follow Rue du Couvent until you reach a narrow passage (formerly a fortified gate). When you get to Rue des Douves, you’ll find a former underground stone quarry. Left of the quarry, walk along the small path for an outstanding view of the vine landscape (the first place classified by UNESCO in 1999 for its cultural landscape). Watch for a pillar with the winery name (Ausone) carved into the rock. The beautiful mansion will be on your right. Visits are hard to come by, but do try to book one.

Before you leave the winery, make sure to stop at the former Chapelle de la Madeleine, an archeological site where an ancient villa and huge graveyard were recently unearthed.
On the Rue des Girondins (between the Credit Agricole Bank and the pharmacy), the playground at the private elementary school (Saint-Valéry) is home to a gully hole that opens to a former stone quarry. Known as Girondins Well, this was a place where people hid from Robespierre during the French Revolution (1793).

Another gem is the Château Villemaurine winery, where you can take a classic tour of a Grand Cru Classé but with a light and sound show in the underground cellar.

Every Saturday morning, enjoy an introduction to wine tasting at the Maison du Vin de Saint-Émilion, a specialist wine cellar where you’ll learn the intricacies of the AOC system, as well as the typical Saint-Émilion wine characteristics (grape varieties, soils, wine tasting techniques) for €25 per person. (And more courses are available for those who want to dive deeper.)

Château Coutet, an organic wine-growing family estate surrounded by the most famous wines of the appellation (like Angélus), has wonderful in-depth tours, complete with a stroll through their picturesque park past ducks and an old chapel.

And I may be biased, but a visit to my husband Marc’s estate— Château La Fleur Picon—is also something special. Before returning to the family estate, Marc worked in music and sound. And these days he compares the winemaking process to the writing of a song. It’s all music and lyrics for him. (And when I do the tours, I compare it to cooking.)


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Where to Stay

The best option is to stay in a guesthouse in the middle of the vineyards (or even directly in a château). I personally recommend Château Franc Pourret and Château Pierre de Lune. The only downside to these is that you’ll need a car to get around. Neither is easily accessible by bus and taxis can be quite expensive.

For something closer to town, I like the three-star Logis des Remparts hotel and the vineyard-surrounded, four-star Château Hotel & Spa Grand Barrail.

Day Trips

The Sunday morning market in Libourne is wonderful, with its 200 stalls of local goods, crafts, and produce. It’s colorful and full of locals.

Bordeaux and Bergerac are just 25 miles away (though in different directions). In the Entre-Deux-Mers wine region (between the Dordogne and Garonne rivers), there are several beautiful towns called “bastides,” built in the Middle Ages with central squares full of arcades (arches), Romanesque houses, and former ramparts. The squares in Cadillac and Saint-Macaire are some of the most beautiful I’ve ever seen.

An hour away by car (three by bus/train), the Citadel of Blaye, built by Vauban in the 17th century, along with the Gironde statuary, is also worth a visit. From there you can take a boat to the left bank and the famous vineyards of the Médoc.

Saint Emilion
Photo credit.

Where to Walk

There are biking and walking paths of varying lengths throughout the vineyards. Along the Dordogne River, the gabare (local flat-bottomed boats) are a lazier, but still explorative, way to spend the day. And in nearby Sainte-Terre, the Jardin de la Lampoie features a small exhibition on prehistoric animals, along with a restaurant where you can have traditionally cooked leeks and red wines and an aromatic garden, which is great for picnicking.

What to Eat & Drink

Of course, you have to start with Saint-Émilion wines (only reds). These are the main attraction for visitors and we’ve got hundreds of wine estates with tastings available by appointment. For a larger taste of the region without a lot of traveling, head to the wine shops in town and pick up some wines from nearby regions as well.

Saint-Émilion is actually where macaroons originated in France (in the 17th century), so if you try them anywhere it should be here. Legend has it that the Ursulines nuns introduced the traditional round cookies during the plague epidemic so that the inhabitants would let them stay. Thus, we have tons of macaroon shops in town. The most authentic, however, is Nadia Fermigier (9 Rue Gaudet next to the post office).

For main dishes, steak grillades aux sarments (grilled over vine shoots from the winter pruning here in wine country) is the must-try. The beef comes from Bazas (37 miles south), which is famous for its flavorful meat, and is grilled over the shoots. Once you try it, you’ll understand why the locals no longer grill any other way.

Another specialty of the region is sel de vin (wine salt). It’s essentially salt from Guérande mixed with the leftover yeast from the winemaking process. It’s made from Merlot, Cabernet, and Syrah wines and is used as a spice for salads, grilled meat, and even fish. The best comes from Delbeck Vignobles & Développements.

Where to Eat & Drink (Favorite Restaurants & Bars)

My favorite brasserie is Comptoir de Genès (5 Lieu-Dit la Croix in nearby Saint-Genès-de-Castillon; phone: +33 5 57 47 90 03). It’s a traditional brasserie with fresh and local products in an unusual setting, with tables surrounded by cases of Castillon Côtes Bordeaux wines (Saint-Émilion’s neighbor appellation, not as famous). You can pull your wine straight from the cases.

For gastronomic food, I love l’Huîtrier Pie (11 Rue de la Porte Bouqueyre; phone: +33 5 57 24 69 71). It’s a paradise of fresh food and local products and specializes in fish dishes. It also has a lovely shady terrace. It’s my favorite family-run place.

Finally, La Terrasse Rouge (in Château La Dominique at 1 La Dominique) offers monthly cooking classes with local products.

Saint Emilion
Photo credit.

Budget Tips

Saint-Émilion is a popular place and it’s rare to find guesthouses for less than €60 per night. That said, Camping Yelloh! is very nice and clean and offers more than just tent pitches. You can even rent a cottage by a stream. The only downside is that there’s no public transportation out there, so it would be best to go with a car or a bike.

A good restaurant with low prices and an easygoing atmosphere is Table 38 (38 Rue Guadet).

Avoid the other restaurants in the main square uptown that present themselves as budget places. The prices may look attractive, but it’s industrial food and the cleanliness of the kitchens is doubtful. (Paradoxically, this same square is where our fabulous Hostellerie de Plaisance with its Michelin star is located…but it’s easy to see the difference between that and the flashy budget places.)

Saint Emilion
Photo credit.

Best Places to Take a Photo

The viewpoint behind the Tour du Roy is spectacular at night. And the view from the top of the bell tower is great anytime.

If you’re dying for a vineyard shot, Château de Pressac, on the top of the limestone plateau, dominating the Dordogne Valley with vines on terraces along the slopes, is something to behold.

Final Notes & Other Tips

Travelers are always passing through on day trips and saying that they regret not having more time here. So book a few days and really get into the atmosphere.

Find Nathalie at agica.info & lafleurpicon.fr.

Flying to France? Air France is an excellent option.


France - 100 locals tell you where to go, what to eat, and how to fit in Did I mention that I wrote a book full of these interviews?
Get 100 interviews from top chefs, culture buffs, and locals all over France.

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One Comment
  • bell
    May 20, 2019

    Hhey!Saint-Émilion is a popular place and it’s rare to find guesthouses for less than €60 per night. That said, Camping Yelloh! is very nice and clean and offers more than just tent pitches. You can even rent a cottage by a stream. The only downside is that there’s no public transportation out there, so it would be best to go with a car or a bike.

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