An industrial powerhouse in Alsace, Mulhouse’s manufacturing pedigree now translates to top-notch museums for everyone.
No locomotive museum in the Europe is larger than the Cité du Train here, and the same applies to the EDF electricity museum, while the Museum of Printed Fabrics recounts centuries of textile expertise.
The attractions are cleverly set out so that experts and enthusiasts will come away as fulfilled as casual visitors and kids.
Mulhouse is most famous for its fabrics, a heritage celebrated at Christmas when the historic Place de la Réunion is draped in colourful cloth.
Lets explore the best things to do in Mulhouse:
1. Cité de l’Automobile
There are car museums, and then there’s the Cité de l’Automobile, which is a spectacle that almost defies belief.
Car connoisseurs will travel long distances to see just one Bugatti: Well, there are more Bugattis at this former textile mill than in any other single place in the world.
You have 400 cars to see and more than a quarter of these are Bugattis, while the remainder goes back to the earliest years of the automobile with Léon Bollée’s “tricar” from 1896. These cars were brought together by the Schlumpf brothers, textile factory owners who amassed the vehicles in a disused mill in secret, only for them to be found when striking workers broke in during the 1970s.
2. Cité du Train
If the Cité de l’Automobile may be the best car museum in the world, the same honour applies to Cité du Train, which is certainly the biggest in the world.
From the earliest locomotives in the 1840s to the cutting-edge TGV, you will lose count of the number of trains lined up.
What’s also cool is the way the Cité du Train manages to make the exhibits modern and interactive, without skirting around the sort of technical information that the real enthusiasts and engineers will come for.
In the newly renovated building displays go into depth explaining how steam, diesel and then electric locomotives function.
You can also look inside a steam locomotive to fully appreciate its mechanisms.
3. Musée de l’Impression sur Étoffe
This textile-printing attraction is many things in one: The museum deals with decorative arts, fashion, local history and industry.
You’ll see the big machines from the early years of industrialised printing, like the Lefèvre copper roller from 1809, and a whole range of sewing machines and pantographs.
But there’s also the beautiful printed fabrics that this machinery helped produce, and these are presented in extensive galleries.
The museum is also a vital resource for designers, as six million print samples from the last 200 years have been documented and are made available to students, researchers and people in the textile industry.
4. Musée EDF Electropolis
One of Mulhouse’s greatest pieces of technical heritage takes centre-stage at the largest electricity museum in Europe: A steam generator from 1901, which is coupled to a Sulzer BBC alternator, sure to give goosebumps to the physicists among us.
Electropolis brings you on a voyage through man’s relationship with electricity, including the earliest experiments in the 17th and 18th centuries through the pioneers like Volta, Edison and Tesla in the 19th century.
There’s a ton of vintage machinery to browse, like Voss’s electrostatic machine from 1881, Edison’s dictaphone and phonograph, early telephones and the first household appliances, like radios, TVs and fridges.
5. Hôtel de Ville
Mulhouse’s former city hall is from 1552 and is in a renaissance style typical of the Rhone area.
All but one side of the exterior is covered with trompe l’oeil painting, with allegorical images of justice, courage, temperance, faith and charity.
On the right side is a stone head hanging from a chain: This is the klapperstein, which weighed 12 kilos and would be hung from the necks of gossipers and “scandalmongers”, who would wear it riding around the city backwards on a donkey! The city hall is no longer an administrative building, but weddings, ceremonies and meetings of the city council do take place here.
6. Musée Historique de Mulhouse
Go into the city hall for an informative museum about the history of Mulhouse.
You’ll get to know about the days of the city state, the Republic of Mulhouse, which lasted up to the French Revolution and Mulhouse’s development as an industrial giant, starting in the 18th century.
The displays all evoke life in the city down the years, with antique costumes, stained glass, furniture, maps, portraits and toys.
The museum has also recreated a typical kitchen from the Sundgau, as well as the interior of a traditional winstub, or tavern.
The original klapperstein we mentioned earlier is also here for all to see.
7. Parc Zoologique et Botanique
Mulhouse’s zoo was founded in 1868 by a group of philanthropic industrialists and encompasses 25 hectares on the edge of the Tannenwald forest.
Around a thousand animals are kept here, from 170 different species.
There’s an arctic area, with polar bears and arctic foxes, and big enclosures for Asian lions, Siberian tigers, snow leopards, squirrel monkeys and meerkats.
The botanical park has the label “Jardin remarquables”, and is heavenly in spring and summer when 400 types of iris, and then 100 varieties of dahlias are in bloom.
There are all kinds of exotic trees planted back in 1867, including a giant cedar from America and a Japanese cedar.
8. Musée des Beaux-Arts
Also created by industrialists in the 1860s is Mulhouse’s Fine Arts Museum, which gives you an overview of the history of European Art, leaning heavily towards the 19th century.
The highpoint of the museum is “La Scène de Patinage” (Skating Scene), an oil painting on wood by the Flemish renaissance master Pieter Breughel the Younger.
The works of 19th-century Alsatian painter Jean-Jacques Henner shed some light on society life in the Sundgau at the time, as his many paintings at the museum depict the artists’ family, friends and his rich benefactors.
9. Tour du Belvédère
Close to the zoo in the upper, southern part of Mulhouse is a eccentric remnant from 1898. The Tour du Belvédère is a sort of mini-Eiffel Tower, 20 metres high and made with wrought iron.
Take the stairs to the top for an observation platform at 350 metres above sea level and with a 360° view of the Vosges, Black Forest, Jura and Bernese Alps mountain ranges, as well as the cities of Colmar and Freiburg.
The tower was restored about ten years ago and has a handy orientation table to tell you what you’re looking at.
10. Temple Saint-Étienne
This neo-gothic church was completed in 1866 and at 97 metres is the tallest of any protestant church in France.
It replaced a church that went back to the 1100s but was demolished in 1858 because it was in a state of disrepair.
What’s great is that a lot of the decoration from the old church was installed at the new one: So you’ll find the incredible stained glass windows from the mid-14th century, considered one of Mulhouse great medieval treasures.
The oak choir stalls are in the baroque style and date to 1637.
11. Sights around Old Mulhouse
Unlike, say, Colmar and Strasbourg, Mulhouse doesn’t have a large old centre to potter around.
Instead there are interesting little fragments sprinkled here and there.
On Rue de Metz you’ve got the Bollwerk tower between two arches dating to the 1200s.
The Pharmacie-au-Lys is on the corner of Rue des Boulangers and is a renaissance building from the 15th century that has been in business a chemist since 1649! The paintings on the ceilings are from the 1600s and the 18th-century cabinets are still intact.
Lastly, you’ll be able to identify the 16th-century Maison Mieg on Place de la Réunion for its turret and trompe l’oeil paintings.
12. Écomusée d’Alsace
In Ungersheim, a quick trip north of Mulhouse, there’s one if Europe’s largest outdoor heritage museums.
Here you have 100 hectares of countryside and village, with 70 historic houses from around the region saved from demolition and transported and rebuilt at this attraction brick by brick.
If you want to know how things were done in Alsace in medieval times then you can work your way through ateliers , where potters, blacksmiths and wheelwrights will demonstrate centuries of savoir-faire.
To make it really authentic, almost every house here has a stork’s nest on the roof, this bird being an emblem of the region.
13. Parc du Petit Prince
Also in Ungersheim is a new theme park inspired by the universe of the Petit Prince.
This character first appeared in the world-famous novella by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry in 1943. The whimsical attraction is touted as “the first aerial park in the world”, with the tethered balloons described as the “balloon planet”, and the ” Aérobar”: This is a cross between a tethered balloon and an observation tower, and has views 150 metres above the Plain of Alsace.
A lot of the fun inside the park comes from the animal attractions, and you can meet sheep and foxes, and walk through a butterfly house.
14. Christmas Market
In December Place de la Réunion is the scene of Mulhouse’s delightful Christmas market.
All the hallmarks of a traditional Alsatian market are here, like glühwein (mulled wine), pain d’épices (gingerbread) and bredeles, small cakes and biscuits flavoured with aniseed or orange and cinnamon.
The city makes sure Mulhouse is unique at this time of year by decorating the streets and squares with Christmassy fabrics, a nod to the area’s textile history.
You won’t help but get into the spirit.
15. Food and Drink
In the southern part of Alsace, known as the Sundgau, fried carp will show up on many traditional menus.
This freshwater fish is breaded, deep-fried and almost always served with chips and mayonnaise for dipping.
Alsace is well-known for a cuisine that blends French and central European flavours.
Choucroute is essentially sauerkraut, fermented cabbage that normally comes with sausages and potatoes.
The main regional wines in Alsace are white: Crisp and acidic Riesling, which goes nicely with choucroute, and Gewürztraminer, which is richer and spicier, and often paired with desserts.