Strasbourg is a city steeped in history and cultural diversity. Located in a strategic position in Europe, it has a long history of occupation and was most recently annexed to Germany in 1940. Liberated in 1944, Alsace was returned to France and Strasbourg became a symbol of reconciliation between the two countries. It is no wonder the city is so unique, with hints of its diverse history everywhere. To help you make the most of a short break in the city, I’ve put together my Essential Strasbourg City Guide…
Today Strasbourg is the charming capital of the Grand Est region of France and the official seat of the European Parliament. Located close to the border with Germany, it is the capital of the Bas-Rhin département, and just two hours by train from Gare de Paris-Est.
Essential Strasbourg City Guide: Top 10
1. Cave Historique des Hospices
The historic wine cellar of Strasbourg Hospital, dates back to 1395, and is well worth a visit for wine lovers. Here you can see the oldest wine matured in a barrel anywhere in the world and soak up the atmosphere of a bygone age before buying a more recent vintage or two. For more information, check out my earlier post.
2. The Alsatian Museum
Strasbourg has an excellent range of museums to visit, but my favourite by far is the Alsatian Museum (Musée alsacien). Dedicated to all aspects of (mostly rural) daily life in pre-industrial and early industrial Alsace, the museum contains over 5000 exhibits.
The museum is notable for the reconstruction of the interiors of several traditional houses and features a rich collection of artefacts documenting the everyday life of Alsatian people of both the Jewish and Christian faiths.
3. Notre-Dame Cathedral
The Notre-Dame Cathedral is truly awe-inspiring, not least of all because of its sheer scale, but also the splendour of its intricate stone masonry and numerous sandstone sculptures.
Construction of the cathedral took place over four centuries, leaving a masterpiece of gothic art with a 142 metre spire. Key features inside include the Great Organ, the Angel Pillar, a gigantic pulpit, and the Astronomical Clock. For more information, check out my previous post.
For great views of the city, visit the viewing platform at around 66 metres high. Accessible via 332 steps, the view from the platform extends across the city to the Black Forest beyond.
4. The Astronomical Clock
Inside the Notre-Dame Cathedral, the Astronomical Clock deserves a mention in its own right. It dates back to the 16th Century and is a superb example of Renaissance art, with a unique mechanism and numerous dials. It was designed to test evolving scientific theory.
The clock was renovated between 1838 and 1842 by Jean-Baptiste Schwilgué and is in full working order today. When it comes to life, the automation of the Apostles Parade is quite something. I personally thought it far more impressive than the famous astronomical clock in Prague.
5. Maison Kammerzell
The heart of Strasbourg includes many architectural treasures and is known for its pretty decorative wood-framed buildings.
One of the best-known buildings in Strasbourg is the fifteenth century Maison Kammerzell.
This Renaissance house with its steeply sloping roof, wood beams, and detailed carvings, was once a merchant’s house.
Today it is a renowned Alsatian restaurant serving regional specialities. Inside, the building retains many original wooden features.
6. La Petit France
This is perhaps the most famous district in Strasbourg, dating back to the Fourteenth Century. The history of La Petit France is quite a paradox. Originally it was one of the poorest parts of the city, but today it is one of the most popular and charming places to visit in the city.
Historically, this was the centre of the milling and tannery industries, and the area functioned as a port. It would have been a place of foul smells and unattractive industry, avoided by the rest of the city.
The name Petite-France (‘Little France’) comes from the hospice of the syphilitic, which was built in the late fifteenth century here to cure people with syphilis, then called Franzosenkrankheit (or French disease) in German!
7. The Grande-Île
The Grande Île is an island at the historic centre of the city, which is surrounded on one side by the main channel of the River Ill and by the Canal du Faux-Rempart on the other. Grand Île was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1988, when the International Council on Monuments and Sites noted that it is ‘an old quarter that exemplifies medieval cities’.
The three massive watch towers of the Ponts-Couverts are the last traces of a wall that surrounded the city in the Middle Ages near Vauban’s Dam.
The banks of the River Ill are a delightful area to explore on foot. Look out for the Old Customs House, the Cour du Corbeau, the Palais Rohan, the Higher Institute of Decorative Arts and the Saint-Pierre-le-Jeune Church nearby.
8. Saint-Thomas’ Church
A short walk from La Petit France, Saint Thomas’ Church is the Protestant Cathedral of Strasbourg. It is famous for its imposing marble Mausoleum of the Marshall Saxony, an Eighteenth Century sculpture. The architect and master sculptor was Jean-Baptiste Pigalle.
9. The European District
Strasbourg is the official seat of the European Parliament. When the European Union was looking for a place to host its parliament and several other institutions, Strasbourg was an obvious choice. The city had been torn between France and Germany for decades, but had itself been a symbol of unification since the late 1940s.
The European District features a number of different buildings with striking contemporary architecture, including the European Parliament, The Human Rights Building (home of the European Court of Justice) and the Palais de l’Europe, where the Council of Europe sits.
The European Parliament building has been controversial, not least of all because it is one of two expensive parliament buildings (the other located in Brussels). The Parliament meets here one week out of every four, although staff are located here throughout the year.
10. Other places of interest
Strasbourg also has some wonderful parks and gardens, such as The Botanical Gardens, the Orangery Park, Pourtales Park, and the Deux Rives Garden.
Unfortunately time was too short during my visit, but the Imperial District is said to be worth a visit for some impressive imperial architecture. After coming to power in 1870, the Reich decided to make Strasbourg a showcase city. Buildings of note include the National University Library, the Strasbourg National Theatre, The Rhine Palace, the Palais Universitaire and the Opera building.
The city authorities in Strasbourg recognise that developing the city further has a direct impact on the environment and our shared future. They have been considering the very real challenge of how to come up with a system of urban development which makes limited use of resources, is respectful of the environment and encourages solidarity and access to good quality housing for all its citizens at every stage in their lives.
The Urban Community of Strasbourg (CUS) is strongly committed to a future driven by sustainable development, a significant feature of which is Eco-Districts. Six urban Eco-Districts are under development and more information is available from the CUS website.
Where to Stay
There are accommodation options to suit every budget in Strasbourg.
I stayed in an excellent studio apartment booked through Airbnb. La Cerise Studio tout Confort was in rue Gloxin; just 15 minutes’ walk from the central station and well located for all of the main attractions. Owners Thomas and Margot offered a warm welcome and the studio apartment was clean, well-equipped and self-contained with kitchen facilities for self-catering.
If you’re new to Airbnb, sign up using this link, and we will both get £25 travel credit when you enjoy your first stay.
Most of these key attractions can be found within a relatively small geographical area within the old city. It is easy to get around on foot and this is definitely the best way to take in the atmosphere. There is also a convenient network of trams. Or since Strasbourg is very cycle-friendly, you might like to hire a bike.
Food and Drink
Strasbourg has a thriving food culture with lots of regional specialities to discover. There is something for everyone here, although not all restaurants cater for vegetarians so it is worth doing your research if you have special dietary requirements.
The food is rich and delicious and one of my favourite dishes is Flammekueche (tarte flambée), a fine pastry topped with a blend of fresh cream, fromage blanc and sliced onions, baked in a hot wood-fired over. A simple dish that is lovely with a glass of crisp white wine.
Other local dishes include Spaetzle (Alsatian pastry), Baeckeoffe (a dish of pork, beef and lamb marinated in white wine and served with sliced potatoes), Fleischknepfle (pork and veal meatballs), Leverknepfle (liver quenelles), and Choucroute (sauerkraut sometimes with sausages).
The Patisserie is also delicious in Strasbourg, with Kougelhopf, Streusel, Bredle and bibeleskas are local specialities.
As with anywhere in France the wide variety of patisserie on offer will leave you up a dress size if you’re not careful!
The Alsace Region is well known for its delicious white wines. For local wine suggestions, check out my earlier post.
Places to Eat
Le Dix – Restaurant opposite the station with great service and both a veggie and a vegan option when I visited.
La Fabrique á Miam – A great family-run bistro-restaurant on the corner of Rue Gloxin, serving a fantastic tarte flambée.
Corde a Linge – a brassarie that serves a fantastic mushroom and cheese spetzel.
La Plouzinette – a nice creperie with a huge menu.
La Tarbouche – a Lebanese restaurant with comfy chairs and great food.
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