Strasbourg surprised me! I was expecting just a few streets of half-timbered houses as seen in the pictures when I googled Strasbourg. But no, it’s everywhere. Around every Single Corner. As I strolled into town and delight in the black and white timber-framed buildings and passing thru canals with summer flowers – I can imagine Belle from Beauty and the Beast, bursting into song amidst the quaint streets.
City of Strasbourg
Strasbourg is a relatively large city and the capital of Alsace Region, with a metro area population of 775,000. Home to many functions of the EU’s bureaucratic functions as one of the capitals of the European Union, there’s quite a bit of hustle and bustle! There is light rail public transport, but you don’t really need it if you’re just exploring the historic center.
History of Strasbourg
Strasbourg is located directly on the boarder between the countries of France and Germany, and because of that it has changed nationalities a remarkable number of times over the centuries of its long history.
After spending 400 years as a “free imperial city,” Strasbourg officially became French in 1681, after it was conquered by King Louis XIV. It was French until the Germans defeated the French in the Franco-Prussian War (which led to the unification of Germany), until the end of WWI, when it became French again. Then it had 4 more years under Germany during Germany occupation of France during WWII, and after Germany’s defeat, it’s been part of France ever since!
And, during all this time, they had enough capacity to build their stunning Cathedral, in addition to many other remarkable cultural achievements. The first newspaper was printed here in 1605 and the French national anthem, La Marseillaise was written here in 1792, as the French Revolution began to devolve into wars with its neighbouring nations. And they are also famous for their beer.
How to get to Strasbourg
- By Train. The Strasbourg Train Station (Gare de Strasbourg) is the second largest train station in France. This station offers travellers a wide range of connections to other regions of France, in addition to countries such as Belgium, Germany, Netherlands and Switzerland. With the high-speed TGV train, Strasbourg is easily reachable from Paris in 2 hours and 20 minutes. We took the train from Aix-en-Provence TGV and it was a 6hours journey.
- Fly to Strasbourg Airport. There is a train departing from airport to Strasbourg Train Station every 12 minutes and the journey time is only 8 minutes.
Best Things to do in Strasbourg
Petite France (“Little France”) is Strasbourg’s most picturesque and visited area. In the past, tanners, fishermen and millers used to live and work there, because of the water nearby. Today, we come here to admire the numerous half-timbered houses that are extremely well preserved and to walk in the small cobblestone alleys at the water’s edge. The island is reserved for pedestrians and cyclists, so you can enjoy the calm of the place. This is my favourite area in Strasbourg!
Les Ponts Couverts de Strasbourg (The covered Bridges)
Next to the Petite France, you can see the covered bridges that have retained their name despite they have no roof any more. They were built to serve as a rampart to reinforce the fortification on the waterways. The bridges were used to connect the 3 medieval towers, vestiges of the ancient ramparts, and had covered wooden galleries, which have now disappeared.
A few meters upstream of the covered bridges is the Vauban Barrage (Vauban Dam). It was built to protect Strasbourg when the covered bridges became obsoletes because of the evolution of artillery. The dam allowed, by clogging its arches, to raise the level of the Ill river and flood the surrounding fields in order to trap the enemies in the mud. You can cross the river by passing inside the dam, thanks to a corridor where many gargoyle statues are stored.
But the most interesting thing to do is to climb on the roof where there is a splendid panoramic terrace. Perfect to admire the maze of Strasbourg canals, covered bridges and the Petite France.
Strasbourg is crossed by the Ill river. As such, it’s made up of several islands, but the best known is the Grande Île (“Large Island” in French), which has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1988. It’s the historical centre of the city and the place where you can admire the main monuments and points of interest that make Strasbourg famous.
The world renowned Strasbourg cathedral (cathédrale Notre-Dame de Strasbourg in French), 4 medieval churches, as well as several hotels and palaces from the 18th century are located there. The Grande Île is the ideal place to start your visit of the city and soak up its historical atmosphere.
It’s the symbol of the city and the oldest Gothic cathedral in the world. Entry is free of charge.
The Cathedral brings together three architectural masterpieces:
The highest spire of Christianity dating from 1439
The large rose window on the main facade above the entrance
The astronomical clock, the most famous attraction of the city. Every day at 12:30 pm precisely, the automatons animation begins and presents the different ages of life and the parade of the apostles before Christ.
Another experience not to be missed is to go up on “the platform”. After an ascent of exactly 332 steps in a spiral staircase, you will have the privilege of contemplating the city from the cathedral’s roof. If the sky is clear, you can even see all the way to Germany.
Visit Strasbourg medieval churches and St. Paul’s church
After the cathedral, you can visit the 4 medieval churches of the Grande Île of Strasbourg and the magnificent St. Paul’s church of Strasbourg (église Saint-Paul).
St. Thomas Church, which houses in its choir a funerary masterpiece of Baroque art: the tomb of the Marshal of Saxony (tombeau du Maréchal de Saxe).
The Saint-Pierre-le-Vieux Church, the first large Christian building in Strasbourg
The church of Saint-Pierre-le-Jeune to see for its 14th century frescoes
Saint-Etienne Church classified as a historical monument
St. Paul’s Church, located at the intersection of the Zorn and Mullenheim platforms.
The Rohan Palace (Palais Rohan) is another historic monument on the Grande Île and one of the main points of interest in Strasbourg. Originally a princely residence, it was home to 4 princes of the Rohan family, hence its name, and now houses 3 museums:
The archaeological museum will allow you to discover the complete history of Alsace since prehistory
The museum of fine arts with a very rich collection of paintings, from Botticelli to Goyat and Rubens
The Museum of Decorative Arts with its collection of furniture and ceramic pieces
If you don’t want to visit the museums, I still advise you to go and admire the architecture and facade of the Rohan Palace. It deserves a photo!
Located a few steps from the Cathedral, the Gutenberg Square (place Gutenberg) was named after the inventor of the printing press who lived in Strasbourg for 10 years. A statue in his honour is erected there.
It was the administrative and political center of the city from the Middle Ages to the 18th century and you can see the Renaissance building of the Chamber of Commerce.
It’s also the ideal place to have a drink on one of the many outdoor terraces plus there is a Carousel if you’re traveling with little kids.
Another building listed as a historic monument is the Kammerzell House (Maison Kammerzell), an Alsatian typical half-timbered building.
It’s considered to be the most beautiful house in Strasbourg! On the beams, you can see wooden sculptures depicting secular or sacred scenes, all the signs of the zodiac, or some important historical figures such as Charlemagne and Caesar. A must-see tourist attraction in Strasbourg.
Another very famous Square, if not the most important, is Strasbourg‘s main public square in Grande Île: Kleber Square. It’s the meeting place for locals at major cultural or sporting events as well as the place where you can admire the huge Christmas tree during Christmas time.
Around the square there is a pink sandstone building dating from 1770, the Aubette. It’s name comes from the fact that soldiers went there every day at dawn to seek their orders of assignment. The square is a very pleasant pedestrian area with its flowerbeds and water fountains.
If you have more than one day…
There are other key attractions in Strasbourg to visit if you have more than 1 day. We actually had 1.5 days in Strasbourg but it was raining the whole day on our second day so we decided to take it easy. The weather dropped down in the week we went to the North after a Heat Wave hits France the week before.
Historical Museum of Strasbourg
If you are interested in Alsatian history and culture, you can visit the Historical Museum of Strasbourg (“Musée historique”).
It retraces the city’s urban history with a collection of models, maps and daily life objects from the Middle Ages to the French Revolution.
You will find Opening hours and prices for visiting this museum on the official website.
The Orangerie Park
After walking along the small alleys, go for a walk in the Orangerie Park (“parc de l’Orangerie”) to take a breath of fresh air.
It’s the oldest and largest park in the city with more than 26 hectares.
This park, loved by both locals and tourists, is a great place to take a stroll or do some sport. There is even a skatepark! Children have a merry-go-round, several playgrounds and a mini zoo with free access.
You can also enjoy a large lake with canoe rentals and a place to buy ice-cream, waffles and other delicacies.
Finally, the park is the ideal place to observe the emblematic animal of Alsace: the stork. You will see their nests on the top of numerous trees in all seasons.
Strasbourg European institutions
Close to the Orangerie park, you will find the institutions that make Strasbourg the capital of Europe:
The European Parliament
The Council of Europe
The European Court of Human Rights
To discover them, I advise you to follow the “Parcours d’Europe” which will take you for a 2.5 kilometers walk around the European institutions.
Several explanatory panels and playful installations punctuate the route. Of course you won’t be able to enter the institutions, but it’s always interesting to see the places where important decisions are made.
Moreover, the “Europe Day” (“fête de l’Europe” in French) takes place in Strasbourg every year in May. This day, visitors can enjoy cultural and sports activities as well as debates. However, people’s favourite is for sure the European Parliament’s open day. It’s the only day where you will get a chance to visit the parliament!
You will find more details about visiting Strasbourg European institutions on the official website.
Strasbourg Christmas Market
Another name Strasbourg is famous for is Capital of Christmas. If you’re lucky enough to visit in Winter time, you can experience the magic of Christmas starting 25 November. And Strasbourg is said to offer one of the best Christmas Market Experiences.
Where to Stay
I will suggest to stay in the Hotels near the Train Station. The train station is close to the historic center and Petite France. It is nice to only have to walk with our suitcases a short distance after we arrived at the train station.