As a Bordeaux wine guide, I spent many days and hours in the town of Saint-Emilion. I wrote a few articles about Saint Emilion wineries, wine bars wine country restaurants in my blog.
In this article, I have summarized everything you might need to know about visiting Saint-Emilion and my recommendations for restaurants and things to do in the town.
Why Visit Saint-Emilion?
Saint-Emilion is one of the 22 villages of the greater Saint-Emilion area and the unofficial capital of the right bank wine country. Most visitors come here as they take a break from visiting local wineries.
The medieval town has several protected historic monuments dating back to the period between the 12th to the 15th century. In 1999, Saint-Emilion and seven surrounding villages were inscribed as a Unesco World Heritage Site.
Besides, with dozens of wine shops, Saint-Emilion is a great place to taste wines. You can taste wines at one of the wine shops in the town or at one of the famous wineries right in the town or in the surrounding areas.
If you are not into historic churches or wine, just wander around the medieval town, walk the cobblestone streets, pop into shops and small art galleries, and buy local treats and souvenirs.
Saint-Emilion is a very “instagrammable” spot – make some great shots.
History of Saint-Emilion
The first evidence of human establishment in Saint-Emilion dates back to 35,000 to 10,000 BC.
The town owes its name to monk Emilion who settled here in the 8th century AD. Emilion, born in Vannes, in the Brittany region of northwest France, dedicated his youth to helping the poor. As young Emilion served as intendant at the house of Duke of Vannes, he was unrightfully accused of theft and decided to flee and make a pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela. While on his way, he stopped at a benedictine monastery of Saujon in Saintonge.
Eventually, escaping another false accusation, Emilion stopped in the forest of Cambes where he stayed as a hermit on the slopes overlooking the Dordogne (today Saint-Émilion) joined by other Benedictine monks. Emilion died in 767 and the village was named after him.
Between the 8th and the 12th centuries, the village which was on the route of Camino de Compostela became home to five religious orders – the Dominicans, the Benedictines, Augustinians, Franciscans, and Ursuline sisters, building convents and churches, many of which have been well-preserved.
Between the 9th and the 19th centuries, the limestone rock was excavated from the limestone plateau underneath Saint-Emilion forming a labyrinth of more than 200 kilometers under the town and the surrounding vineyards. The limestone rock was used to build Saint-Emilion and many buildings in Bordeaux including the Grand Theatre.
The first vineyards were planted in the Saint-Emilion around the 2nd century AD by the Romans. Winemaking was popular in the area due to its religious activities, as wine was used for worship.
The fact that for 300 years, Aquitaine was part of the Kingdom of England, made Saint-Emilion wines popular among the English noble. From the 19th century, the area completely turned to wine growing, abandoning all other types of agriculture. As I drive around the Saint-Emilion area, all I can see is a sea of vineyards.
In 1199, King John of England gave powers of Saint-Emilion to the Jurade, the local governing body. The Jurade was dissolved during the French Revolution and reconstituted only in 1948. Today, it plays mostly a ceremonial role in the local wine industry.
How to Get to Saint-Emilion from Bordeaux?
Saint Emilion is located in the Aquitaine region of France (Nouvelle-Acquitaine), approximately 47 kilometers, or 28 miles from the city of Bordeaux.
Saint Emilion is to the east of the Dordogne river, which is considered to be the Right Bank of the Bordeaux region.
You can get to Saint-Emilion by car or by train.
See more in my article Where is Saint-Emilion and How to Get There?
Map of Saint-Emilion
When is the Best Time to Visit St. Emilion?
Saint-Emilion is the best in the spring and summertime – between May and September. Even though the small village may get crowded at times, it gets very lively. Cafes and restaurants are full, wine tastings are taking place everywhere.
The winter months can be great to explore the town’s history and architecture. However, expect some shops, restaurants, and hotels to be closed in the months of January and February.
In my opinion, Saint Emilion is the most beautiful during sunrise and sunset hours when its limestone walls and towers turn golden.
What to Do in Saint-Emilion?
The Collegiate Church - L'Église Collégiale
As you park in the northern part of town enter the Collegiate church of Saint-Emilion from the side door.
The church was built between the 12th and the 15th century, which is reflected in the different architectural styles from southwest Romanesque to Gothic. It was initially built for the community of canons of Saint-Augustin. Today, it is the parish church of the town.
The church houses a statue of Saint Valéry a local saint and protector of winegrowers. The statue of Saint Emilion can also be found to the left of the altar.
As you walk to the main entrance turn left and make your way to the 14th-century cloister. Only the walls and openings to the east and south remain of the original cloister built in the Romanesque period, while the rest of the monument was rebuilt in the Gothic period.
Pass the historic tombs and modern murals and exit the cloister from the opposite side to find yourself on the Square of the Bell Tower, la Place du Clocher.
The Lookout - La Place du Clocher
One of the most incredible lookouts in the Bordeaux area is at the bottom of Clocher, the bell tower of the Monolithic church.
Enjoy views of Saint-Emilion and the vineyards. This might be the best viewpoint in town.
If you like to go even higher, climb the 196 steps of the Bell Tower for even better views.
Cadene's House and Gate - La Maison et La Porte de La Cadene
Walk along rue de Girondins in the directions of rue Guadet.
On your right, you will see a steep street (Tertre) going down to the Monolithic church. I do not recommend taking it, as it is the stones are quite slippery.
Continue on rue Girondins take a right and another right to arrive at Cadene’s house, the oldest house in Saint-Emilion. This house is the last-timber framed structure in Saint-Emilion with a beautifully carved facade dating back to the 16th century. The gate here was the inside gate of the city.
The Cordelieres' Cloister - Le Cloître des Cordeliers
Do not descend yet, walk up a few meters to see the Cordeliere’s Cloister, the 14th-century Franciscan convent. The covent is beautifully restored. Have a glass of Bordeaux sparkling wine “cremant de Bordeaux” or buy a picnic basket and enjoy it at in the shady cloister or in the garden behind it.
You can also join a tour to visit the cellars where sparkling wines are made.
Today, there is a large souvenir and wine shop inside the old church.
The Monolithic Church - L'Église Monolithe
As you exit the cloister take a left and then walk down rue de la Liberte to the square of the Monolithic church, Place d’Eglise Monolithe. This is an excellent place to have coffee before visiting the underground monuments.
The Monolithic church is the main monument of Saint-Emilion. was carved out in limestone in the 12th century.
You can visit the church by booking your tickets here.
The Wash Houses - Les Lavoirs
The 19th-century washhouses were used by local women to do their laundry. The larger one with a roof – for the rich, and the smaller one for the poor.
The King's Keep Tower - La Tour du Roy
Finally, walk up the street and the stairs to the 13th-century King’s Keep tower. With 118 steps the tower provides another great spot over the Medieval Saint-Emilion and its famous vineyards.
If you are not on a Saint-Emilion wine tour already, you can visit several wineries right inside the town of Saint-Emilion or nearby.
Where to Have Lunch in Saint-Emilion?
Saint-Emilion offers numerous options to have lunch – from Michelin-star restaurants to simple bakeries.
These are some interesting places to consider for lunch in Saint-Emilion
La Table de Pavie is a 2-Michelin star restaurant located at the bottom of the Bell tower. The restaurant is owned by the Perse family who is also in charge of Chateau Pavie, Premier Grand Cru Classe A of Saint-Emilion.
Have an haut cuisine lunch by chef Yannick Alléno with a wonderful panoramic view of Saint-Emilion.
It is important to make a reservation and follow a formal dress code.
Lunch from noon up to 1.15pm
Dinner from 7.30pm up to 9.15 pm
Closed for lunch on Thursdays and the all day on Sundays and on Mondays.
Pets are not allowed.
Logis de la Cadene
A young talented chef, Alexandre Baumard, who used to work in restaurants of Paul Bocuse and Christophe Bacquié, leads the team at Logis de la Cadène.
Chef Baumard offers a concept of classical French dishes made with creativity and modern elegance. In February 2017, the Logis de la Cadenne was awarded a Michelin star.
Logis de la Cadène is open from Monday to Friday for lunch and dinner.
L'Envers Du Decor
L’Envers du Décor, the first Historic Wine Bar in Saint-Emilion in Gironde, was aquired by the Perse family, owner of Château Pavie in 2017.
Come for a quick lunch made from from scratch from fresh products and a glass of wine from their excellent wine list. Service is fast and friendly. Good value for money.
The restaurant is open every day for lunch and dinner.
During warm month, L’Envers du Décor offers lunch in the garden by walls of the collegiate church.
The Cordeliers Cloister
For an informal meal or a picnic in the cloister of the Dominican monastery, head to the Cordeliers cloister.
You can select a basket of snacks and grab a bottle of sparkling wine made in the underground cellars.
The bar is open every day in season from 11 am to 7 pm.
What to Buy in Saint-Emilion?
Macarons of Saint-Emilion
Macarons of Saint-Emilion are made by Nadia Fermigier who uses the traditional recipe that was passed by the Ursuline sisters who had a convent in Saint-Emilion from 1620.
These little cookies are made of sweet and bitter almonds, egg whites, and sugar. They make for a nice souvenir.
You can buy the macarons at the “flagship shop” at 9 rue Guadet, as well as at many souvenir shops of Saint-Emilion, or taste them first at Parvis des Thés, a tea room at 1 place Pioceau.
Wine accessories, tea towels, scarves, hats, magnets – a typical set of souvenirs can be found all around town.
I find the souvenir shops at the Cloitre des Cordeliers and at the Office of Tourism to have the best assortment.
Should You Buy Wine in Saint-Emilion?
Saint-Emilion provides numerous opportunities to buy wine. There are wine shops literally on every corner.
Many wine shops in town are owned by Bordeaux wine merchants who trade directly with the wineries. Therefore, Saint-Emilion may be a good place to find rare vintages of your favorite Bordeaux chateaux.
If you are not looking for a specific bottle or vintage, I would look around elsewhere as sometimes I find wines that are widely available somewhat overpriced in those shops. However, the benefit of buying in Saint-Emilion is that you can taste and choose among a wider variety of Bordeaux wine.
Read more in my article Where to Buy Wine in Bordeaux?