I will start off by disclosing that this is a companion piece to my recent post My Day in St. Émilion Without A Tour Company! You will see some of the same pictures and read some of the same facts, but this post is meant to provide a more detailed guide to exploring and planning St. Émilion without a tour guide! As I have mentioned before, St. Émilion is an absolutely stunning medieval French town located 40 minutes outside of Bordeaux. St. Émilion is known for two things: its robust red wines and its well preserved, medieval old town. As you can imagine, both of those draw big crowds and St. Émilion is hugely popular with tourists, especially the upscale crowd! Think lots of swanky hotels, numerous Michelin starred restaurants, and some of the best red wines that can be found…
Since St. Émilion is so popular with tourists, almost all Bordeaux tour companies offer day trips from Bordeaux to St. Émilion – starting around €80,00 a person and going up from there (FYI – €80,00 per person is on cheap end…). We almost joined one of those tours, particularly one that cost about $300 USD a person, but decided to visit St. Émilion on our own and it was super easy, much less expensive than joining a tour, and allowed us to explore the town and wine taste at our own pace! Here are my tips on exploring St. Émilion on your own without a tour guide!
How To Get To St. Émilion from Bordeaux?
Getting to St. Émilion from Bordeaux is quite easy, despite what the tour companies tell you… A local train runs direct from Bordeaux to St. Émilion and back several times a day, and the train trip between Bordeaux and St. Émilion takes about 35 minutes. Note that at this time, the only morning direct trains between Bordeaux and St. Émilion leave at 7:05 and 8:05 (what we took). If you take a later train, you will have to connect in another town – increasing your travel time substantially. As such, I recommend starting your morning early! Afternoon and evening trains from from St. Émilion to Bordeaux run hourly around the 20 minute mark until 7:00 p.m. There is only one train after 7:00 p.m., at 9:21 p.m. Don’t miss it; cabs/ubers are not nearly as frequent as you would think!
The St. Émilion train station is a 20 minute, beautiful walk through vineyards from the train station to St. Émilion proper. An able-bodied adult will have no trouble with the walk, but it is slightly uphill and there is no sidewalk. Alternatively, the St. Émilion train station posts taxi numbers that you can call (the taxi will have to come from St. Émilion to pick you up and this could take 20 minutes itself). Or you can rent one of these awesome cars to drive around:
Wine Tasting In St. Émilion!
After arriving in St. Émilion, the first thing that many tourists will want to do is wine taste, and I cannot blame them. The wine is delicious and EVERYWHERE! In terms of visiting a château, note that the great majority, if not all, of the châteaux, require advance reservations and only offer one or two English tours a day. Lucky for the English speaking tourist, the St. Émilion Tourism Office has an excellent English website (linked below) that details many of the châteaux schedules and some even allow online reservations. If you arrive in St. Émilion without any wine tasting reservations, you can go to the St. Émilion Tourism Office and ask what is available that day. They will try to set you up with a tasting. I would also note that many of the châteaux are not right in medieval St. Émilion, but are just outside of town. Many of these are within walking distance, a few require a car. If you are coming in on the train and want to stay in St. Émilion proper, there are two excellent châteaux right in St. Émilion that don’t require leaving the medieval town. These are the two that we visited and we certainly did not feel like we missed anything by not venturing out in a car. Note that both tours should be booked online prior to arrival.
Château Villemaurine is the sole red wine château in medieval St. Émilion; the others are just outside of the medieval town. Château Villemaurine is located on the backside of St. Émilion, a few blocks behind the Clock Tower and the St. Émilion Tourism Office. It is certainly accessible on foot. Since Château Villemaurine is the only red wine château in St. Émilion proper, it is very popular and tours, especially those in English, book up. Lucky for you, Château Villemaurine’s website is excellent and upfront with information on its tours. I emailed Château Villemaurine before I left home and booked a tour for two via email. We paid upon arrival. I was a bit skeptical about touring Château Villemaurine since it is in St. Émilion proper (I thought it may just be for tourists), but it was an excellent tour and included a tour of Château Villemaurine’s underground wine cellar! In addition to a substantial tour of Château Villemaurine’s underground, the tour included a tour of the grape pressing process, the vineyard and ended with a tasting of two Château Villemaurine wines!
Les Cordeliers is another excellent wine producer in medieval St. Émilion proper, but unlike most St. Émilion châteaux, Les Cordeliers does not produce red wine! Instead, Les Cordeliers makes only sparkling wine! What a treat!! Another cool tidbit about Les Codeliers is that the château used to be a monolithic church, lots of its ruins are still on the property, and it is a UNSECO Wold Heritage Site! As if you need another reason to wine taste! Like Château Villemaurine, Les Cordeliers offers tours, which include a tour of the wine making facilities, a tour of Les Codeliers underground cellar (actually way cooler than Château Villemaurine’s), and a tasting of two Les Cordeliers sparkling wines of your choice! If you do not want to take the tour, Les Codeliers has a great “wine garden” on its property. Anyone can walk up to the bar and buy a glass or bottle of Les Cordeliers wine and enjoy it in the “wine garden.” Highly recommended, especially if you have had too much red wine in Bordeaux (if that is even possible…). English tours can be reserved through St. Émilion Tourism Office website (linked below).
In addition to châteaux, there are so many wine shops in St. Émilion. SO MANY. Luckily, many of the wine shops offer complimentary tastings of certain wines, advertising via an an easel outside the shop. While there is no obligation to buy if you taste, the shop keeper will probably try to sell you some wine. This is a good option if you are unable to tour a St. Émilion château.
What To Do In St. Émilion (Aside from Wine)?
While probably most famous for its red wines, as I mentioned St. Émilion is also an absolutely beautiful medieval town that would attract visitors even without its delicious wine! Aside from wine, the two main tourist attractions in St. Émilion are the Église Monlithe (Monolithic church) and the Clock Tower. The lesser known monolithic church at Les Cordeliers runs a close third!
Église Monlithe (Monolithic Church).
The most well-known and largest monolithic church in St. Émilion is located on the left side of town if you are looking up toward the Clock Tower. You can walk around the outside of the Monolithic Church and photograph it for free, but you can only enter the church on an official tour organized by the St. Émilion Tourism Office. Aside from being (allegedly) made out of a single stone, the most interesting feature of the Monolihtic Church is its expansive underground portion, which makes up the majority of the church. We skipped the underground tour, as we already saw an “underground” as part of our Chateau Villemaurine tour (see above) and knew that we would see Les Cordeliers’ monolithic church on that tour. Note – if you are touring a château in St. Émilion, there is a good chance that it will have its own underground cellar – many of the buildings in St. Émilion have an underground portion!
Le Tour du Roy.
Le tour du Roy (below) is also pretty cool to see and offers pretty views of St. Émilion. Le tour du Roy used to be a large castle, but the below is all that is left. Located very close to the Monolithic Church.
The St. Émilion Clock Tower.
While the Église Monolithe is St. Émilio’s most well-known land mark, its Clock Tower is the most visible. The Clock Tower is located just in front of the Tourism Office and offers excellent views of the town and surrounding vineyards. You can climb up the Clock Tower during the day by payment a small fee and collecting the key from the St. Émilion Office of Tourism. Like the Église Monolithe, we skipped climbing the Clock Tower. Bad tourists.
As you can imagine, St. Émilion is filled with lots and lots of shops. Not designer shops or high fashion boutiques, but cute wine-inspired shops. Surprisingly, the shops that I visited were not terribly expensive, although you can find wine priced at whatever price-point you are willing to pay. Some of my favorites were the soap shop, La Savonnerie de L’Isle, and the original macaroon shop!
As I mentioned, one of my favorite shops is the original macaron shop – La Fabrique du Macaron. Yes, the original macarons, which are much more like a sugar cookie than the colorful macarons that are so famous today. La Fabrique is located just down from the St. Émilion Tourism Office. If you are facing the St. Émilion Tourism Office, Fabrique De Macarons is to your right on the hill. Can’t miss if you are in St. Émilion. Their products are inexpensive and they often offer samples!
Eating And Drinking In St. Émilion!
St. Émilion has no shortage of restaurants. A restaurant seems to be on every corner, and a good number of them have Michelin stars (especially for such a small town!). As such, it can be difficult hard to find budget food in St. Émilion. We enjoyed two meals in St. Émilion, breakfast and lunch. Since there are so many great restauarnts in St. Émilion, I strongly recommend having at least one meal there. However, do your research as many of St. Émilion’s famous restaurants will require a reservation and some have a dress code.
Le Bistrot du Clocher.
For breakfast, we stopped at the only restaurant that was open at 9:00 a.m., Le Bistrot du Clocher, located, not surprisingly, just below the Clock Tower! We ordered Le Formule Petit Déjeuner for €11,00/person, which included an express beverage, coffee, or hot chocolate, orange juice, a croissant, a piece of baguette and butter and jam. Not the most economical, but certainly not the worst in St. Émilion. The best part of our meal were the views from its outdoor seating area (which you can access on your own without eating there):
You certainly do not need a reservation to eat at Le Bistrot du Clocher, but it is also not the best meal or nicest restaurant in town. I would skip it except for an early breakfast.
L’Antre Deux Verre.
Our second meal was at L’Antre Deux Verre, a lovely lunch spot that we randomly stumbled upon while searching for a reasonably priced restaurant that did not specialize in duck (Dan’s allergic)! We had almost given up and resigned to eating at a pizzeria when we saw L’Antre Deux Verre’s outdoor terrace and decided to give it a shot. At L’Antre Deux Verre, I ordered pork in a foie gras sauce that ended up being one of my favorite dishes of the entire trip! Highly recommended if in St. Émilion for lunch! We did not have reservations and did not have a problem getting in. Only open 12 – 15.
If you are super into food, you can find tons of information on all of St. Émilion’s fine restaurants with a quick internet search. You can also find lots of information about St. Émilion and its tours and tastings on St. Émilion’s Tourism Office’s website!
STEAL OUR TRIP
SNCF: French train website. Useful information in English, including schedules. No need to buy train tickets to St. Émilion in advance (they do not sell out), unless you want to skip the lines at the train station.
Château Villemaurine: Useful English website, along with descriptions of English speaking tours with times. Email directly for a reservation.
Les Cordeliers: Sparkling wine producer in St. Émilion. 9,00 € a person/tour with tour and tasting of two wines. Tickets can be purchased from the St. Émilion Tourism Office here. Bilingual French/English tour weekend April & October at 16:30 and daily May – September 16:30. Advanced purchase recommended, confirm times on website.
Le Bistrot du Clocher: No website. 3 Rue du Clocher, 33330 Saint-Émilion, France. Touristy restaurant serving breakfast, lunch and dinner just below the Clock Tower. While there are certainly better restaurants in St. Émilion, le Bistrot du Clocher is pretty quick, has easy food that children will eat (pizza, sandwiches) and was the only place open at 9:00! Reservations not required.
L’Antre Deux Verre: Excellent restaurant with outdoor terrace overlooking medieval St. Émilion. Good spot for lunch or dinner. We walked in for lunch without a reservation, but reservations would be helpful as the restaurant is tiny. Only open 12 – 15 for lunch.
St. Émilion Tourist Office: Very useful website and tourist office with lots of information in English and French, including options to book tours and wine tastings. Le Doyenné – Place des Créneaux – 33330 SAINT-EMILION | Tél. +33 (0)5 57 55 28 28 – Fax +33 (0)5 57 55 28 29. Open Monday – Friday 9:30 – 12:30 and 2:00 – 6:00 and Weekends 9:30 – 6:00. Longer during high season.
ON A BUDGET
If you are on a strict budget, there is one additional option for visiting St. Émilion, which may be cheaper than going on your own. The Bordeaux Tourism Office offers one half-day tour a week to St. Émilion from Bordeaux advertised as the Châteaux and Terriors: On the Bordeaux Wine Road. In short, the tour claims to offer transportation between Bordeaux and St. Émilon and back, a visit to one château and a visit of the medieval old town. I did not love the Bordeaux Tourism Office’s tours that I took (see other Bordeaux posts), but this seems like a viable budget option. The cost is around €38,00 euro a person for the transportation, 1/2 tour, wine tasting and town tour. That’s about as cheap as you will find it!