People say there are no guarantees in life. But they are wrong.
If you’re going anywhere near Bordeaux on your next trip to France, it’s a given that someone will point you in the direction of Saint-Émilion.
In fact, it is an absolute sure thing.
I know that every time I breathed the word Bordeaux, I was met with “You must visit Saint-Émilion”. And the words came towards me at startling speed!
I found this near universal adoration intriguing and immediately put Saint-Émilion on our to-do list.
But when I started looking into tours of the famed medieval wine village, I was anything but inspired. Too many fellow travellers. Overpriced. Not long enough. Left Bordeaux at a ridiculous time.
Yes, I know I’m fussy. But I’m also a fan of making our trips to France as special as they possibly can be. No one wants to waste precious travel time or euros on a tour that leaves them feeling decidedly underwhelmed.
However, after the success of our Do-It-Yourself Visit To Champagne (you’ll find part two here, and click here for part three) I was undeterred. If you can’t find the tour that is right for you, it is easy to create your own perfectly tailored experience when you know how.
Here I’ll be sharing everything we learned on our Do It Yourself Tour Of Saint-Émilion. I promise to help you explore Saint-Émilion your own way. And you will quickly understand why everyone raves about the place – and it’s not just because of the wine (although, I have to tell you the wine is pretty good).
Getting To Saint-Émilion
Saint-Émilion sits around 35 kilometres from Bordeaux. If you happen to have a car you will have no trouble getting there. And on the plus side, a car will help you navigate some of the village’s steep terrain. On the downside, you’ll need to think about limiting your tastings of the red wine the village is famous for if you choose to drive.
For our Monday in Saint-Émilion we chose to take the train from Gare Saint-Jean in Bordeaux. Check online for current timetables, but on the day we travelled there was only one train in the morning, and then a train to Saint-Émilion every hour during the afternoon. We purchased two return tickets for 38 euro and took the train that left around midday with the view of spending a long half day in the village. The train trip takes a little over half an hour, so you soon find yourself at the Saint-Émilion railway station which – according to a well positioned sign – is about a 20 minute walk from Saint-Émilion itself.
If the walk seems like something you’d rather not do, you can jump on an electric Tuk-Tuk which awaits the arrival of the trains and be whisked into town for a mere 3 euro. Due to all the yummy things we’d been choosing to gobble while we were travelling, we opted to walk. For the record, it’s a fairly easy walk up a gently sloping hill and we made it to Saint-Émilion just in time for lunch.
What To See On Your Do It Yourself Tour Of Saint-Émilion
Now in a perfect world we would have arrived a little before lunch because the first thing you should do is visit the tourist office….and it closes at lunchtime.
However a visit to the office – which is situated right on the highest point of Saint-Émilion – is incredibly helpful in planning your visit.
Make sure you pick up the map that features the 12 key historic monuments in Saint-Émilion, all of which are contained on a self guided walking tour. Highlights include the mysterious King’s Keep, whose commissioner remains unknown and the historic wash houses.
While the village certainly has plenty to offer visitors, if I was going to recommend just one thing to do in Saint-Émilion it would be to take a tour the underground monuments of the village’s namesake.
The cave where Saint Émilion lived, the Trinity Chapel, the Catacombs and the Monolithic Church are definitely worth a visit. You would never guess that these treasures can be found behind a couple of simple doors. The vast Monolithic Church in particular delivers a ‘wow moment’ – it is an incredible space, carved straight out of the limestone.
I’d booked our tickets online, which saw us joining a French speaking tour. But tours run regularly in English and can be booked at the tourism office. However don’t be concerned if you find yourself on the French tour. Simply ask for the extensive tour notes (again, available from the tourism office) which include an English translation of the tour and enjoy the opportunity to practice your French listening skills.
The Wine Of Saint-Émilion
This might go without saying, but many people travel to Saint-Émilion to taste the famous local wine. Interestingly, the wines in this part of the Bordeaux region only come in red varieties, with Merlot being the predominant grape used in the local wine. Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc play supporting roles in the making of Saint-Émilion wines. But white wine drinkers need not worry – the whites of Bordeaux can easily be purchased in Saint-Émilion’s numerous restaurants and bars.
If you are keen to try out the local red wines, it is worth making an early stop at the Maison Du Vin De Saint Emilion. Situated right next door to the tourist office, the Maison Du Vin offers the opportunity to not only purchase Saint-Émilion wines but to also learn more about them.
The Maison contains a wine school for the truly dedicated as well as small, informal group classes that are held numerous times throughout the day – but you need to book! Scott and I signed up for a blind tasting which is hilarious given how little we knew about Bordeaux wines (having said that, Scott did very well in the blind tasting. Me – not so well). Our tutor Frédérick was knowledgable and fun and taught us a lot about the wines of Saint-Émilion – and all of Bordeaux – in the process.
What To Wear
When it comes to deciding what to wear on your Do It Yourself Tour Of Saint-Émilion, start by thinking of your feet. Believe me when I tell you to wear the most comfortable walking shoes you have with you. Even if you drive in or jump on the Tuk-Tuk at the station you’ll still need decent shoes to ensure you can explore the steep and narrow streets, or tertres, that give Saint-Émilion its character.
In terms of clothing, go for a smart casual outfit – remember, you are still in France and you don’t want to stand out as a tourist.
And opt for layers. Even on cool days, there is a strong chance that you’ll warm up as you navigate the terrain.
Despite being a relatively small village, Saint-Émilion has something to delight every visitor. Whether you are into history, wine or just outright charm, you’re sure to find Saint-Émilion appealing. And if you are on a Do It Yourself tour, you’ll have all the time you need to enjoy it.
Oh, and it is safe to say that I have now joined the army of people who are quick to announce “You must visit Saint-Émilion”.
Have you visited Saint-Émilion? Did you enjoy it as much as we did? And did you go it alone, or did you visit with a tour group? I’d love for you to share your story in the comments section below.
Until next time – au revoir.
Scott’s photo of Frédérick has been used with Frédérick’s permission.
Looking for more French inspiration? Then don’t miss the #AllAboutFrance Linkup over at the Lou Messugo Blog. Click this link and you’ll discover a diverse range of blog posts all about France.
19 thoughts on “Our Do It Yourself Tour Of Saint-Émilion”
It’s such a pretty village. The first time I went was in spring and we visited a couple of vineyards and had a rustic lunch in the middle of the vines. The whole experience was terrific. The second time was in August when it was much, much fuller. My advice would definitely be to go out of season if you can.
Excellent advice Graham – thank you. But it is an absolutely beautiful village. I understand why it is so popular.
This looks like an absolutely adorable place! I’ve never been to Bordeaux but when we go, I know I’ll make sure to visit Saint-Émilion! Thanks for the delightful description!
My pleasure Tammy. And I know that you will love both Bordeaux and Saint-Emilion.
Hello Janelle! I’ve been there twice and we had great weather both times. Even if you’re not into wine, it’s a beautiful town to discover on foot. And if you like wine? Well, it’s heaven. #allaboutfrance
Hi Diane. I think you are clever to have headed back to St Emilion for a second time – I’d love to go back and explore some more. And yes, the wine there is rather special!! #AllAboutFrance
Hi, Janelle. We did our own “do-it-yourself” tour of St Emilion in September, so your lovely post really evoked some very pleasant memories of the trip. I especially liked seeing the photo of La Tertre, the little restaurant on the steep cobblestone street. We had dinner there during a violent end-of-summer thunderstorm, and it was one of the best experiences we’ve had anywhere in France — the owner recommended one of his favorite bottles of St Emilion (by Virginie de Valdenraud), the meal was a good example of perfectly-executed French cooking, and the thunderstorm gave everyone in the place the feeling of being associated somehow. Thanks for a nice post!
Thanks so much for your comment Richard. St Emilion really is a special place and – between the food, wine and thunderstorm – it sounds like you had an amazing experience there. As for me, I’d happily go back tomorrow!
Don’t forget to try the macarons while you’re there! Les Véritables Macarons de Saint Emilion…
Thanks for that tip! Just another reason to get myself back there!
I avoid guided tours where possible as it is much more rewarding to be free to stop and go according to what you find. A bit of pre-planning helps though, and it is always good to read others’ recommendations – thanks!
It’s my pleasure Catherine. And I agree – guided tours often don’t allow for the flexibility the France often requires.
I’m sad to say I’ve never been to St Emilion but have heard such good things about it and definitely hope to visit before too long. Good for you for going it alone, we always do too, not being fond of guided tours.Thanks for linking up to #AllAboutFrance
I can highly recommend a visit Phoebe if you are ever over that way. And yes, self guided tours are the only way to go. #AllAboutFrance
Hi Janelle, Saint Emilion is indeed a beautiful village, we were there a couple of years ago & reading your post took me back. I agree with your tip to wear good footwear as there are lots of steep cobblestone streets . The whole of Bordeaux is stunning though isn’t it? A great post!
Thanks so much Denise and happy travels tou too. Bordeaux is truly beautiful- Scott and I looking forward to visiting that part of the world again next year.
Thanks for the insights.
Could you please name some Vineyards in St. Emilion we could just stop in on or make a reservation the day before.
We are trying to do our own self guided tour.
How much time do I need for St emilion?
I will be coming from Bordeaux by train, arrived around 9.50am, thinking what time should I buy for my return ticket.
Is 3hr sufficient or 5hrs?
Is there a standard timing for wine tasting?
Hi Jas. I’d say it depends on how long you want for lunch – everything except the restaurants were closed for lunch while we were there. Perhaps allow 5 hours just in case – that’s about how long we spent. And yes, the wine tastings were timed, at regular intervals throughout the day.