Rouen is a Norman city in a prime location between Paris and the port of Le Havre on the banks of the Seine.
In medieval times this made the city a merchant’s paradise, and Rouen grew dramatically in the 14th and 15th centuries when traders settled near the Rive Droite and built themselves handsome timber-framed homes.
Hundreds of these old buildings are still standing along adorable cobblestone streets.
Rouen also serves up world-beating landmarks to steal your heart, whether it’s a working medieval clock, a record-breaking cathedral or sights that recall the final days in the life of Joan of Arc.
Lets explore the best things to do in Rouen:
1. Rouen Cathedral
For four years at the end of the 1870s Rouen Cathedral was the tallest building in the world.
This was after the neo-gothic tower was finished, replacing a renaissance one destroyed by lightning earlier that century.
There are some highly distinguished burials at this breathtaking building: namely Richard the Lionheart, and the early Norman rulers like Rollo and William I. Many of the stained glass windows made in the 1200s survive, and there are some gorgeous ones to see in the south transept that date from the 1500s.
The cathedral’s delicate western facade was the subject of some of Monet’s most famous paintings: He made 30 between 1892 and 1893, capturing it in different weather and at different times of the year.
2. Gros Horloge
One of Rouen’s big medieval landmarks, the Gros Horloge is an astronomical clock with a mechanism from the 1300s mounted above a renaissance arch and passageway.
The structure is a belfry that was erected in the 15th century to replace a wooden one destroyed during the Harelle Revolt in 1382. The clock is believed to be the largest mechanism of this kind still intact, and its face dates to 1529, representing a sun with 24 rays on a blue sky background.
The Rue du Gros Horloge is a one of Rouen’s main shopping streets, where high-street stores are juxtaposed with marvellous half-timbered houses, some of which still show damage from the Second World War.
3. Musée des Beaux-Arts
Rouen’s world-class fine arts museum was inaugurated in 1801 when the precious items seized from churches and stately homes during the Revolution were nationalised.
It ranks as one of the richest provincial museums in the country with art, sculpture and decorative items from the 1500s to the 20th century.
Here are some of the names you may know : Caravaggio, Poussin, van Dyck, Velázquez and Veronese.
The impressionists, very active around Rouen, also feature heavily , with works by Sisley, Renoir, Degas, Monet, Pinchon and Pissaro.
4. Vieux Rouen
When Rouen’s ramparts were destroyed in the 18th century they were replaced by broad boulevards that continue to mark the limits of the medieval old centre.
This part of Rouen has 227 registered historical monuments, which places it sixth for all French cities.
Every few steps there’s yet another reason to get your phone or camera out.
Vieux Rouen contains around 2,000 timber-framed houses, the oldest of which dates back to the 1200s, and the older they get the more charmingly crooked they become.
The oldest can be seen on Rue Étoupée, Rue Saint-Amand, Rue Damiette and Rue Abbé-de-l’Épée, to name just four of many streets.
5. Jardin des Plantes
Just south of the old centre, Rouen’s main park is the site of many a family outing but it also has scientific merit, tending plants from five different continents.
The park is fabulous from April through to November.
In spring the wisteria irises, camellia and rhododendrons produce a riot of colour.
Then in summer the rose gardens are in bloom, and autumn brings those famous reds and oranges.
If you do come in winter, then life continues inside the garden’s greenhouses where tropical species thrive all year round.
6. Ceramics Museum
The palatial 17th-century townhouse, Hôtel d’Hocqueville was built over a part of Rouen’s former castle and has contained the city’s Ceramic Museum since 1984. The attraction holds the coveted “Musée de France” label and shows off the historic riches of Rouen’s celebrated potteries, with a fine assortment of faïence and porcelain.
There are almost 6,000 items in all, demonstrating the excellence of local craftsmen but also displaying pieces such as a beautiful vase by the art deco designer Jacques-Émile Ruhlmann.
7. Historial Jeanne d’Arc
Joan of Arc was tried right here in Rouen’s Episcopal Palace in 1431, so it’s fitting that there should be a museum dedicated to her life in this historic building.
What you encounter isn’t so much a museum with static displays and artefacts, as a dynamic multimedia journey through her short but eventful life.
The “historial” takes just over an hour to complete and is the kind of immersive light and sound show that French attractions do so well.
You cut straight to the facts of her heresy trial and her violent demise, but also learn about her legacy and how she became a French historical icon.
8. Church of Saint-Maclou
As you’ll often see in the best French gothic churches, the portal of the western facade has carvings on its tympanum (the panel above the entrance). In a typically apocalyptic vision you can identify Jesus in the middle, and on his right hand are the righteous on their way to heaven, while on the left are the damned going to hell.
A brief walk from the church on Rue Martainville is the Ossuary of Saint-Maclou.
After an outbreak of plague in 1348 that killed three quarters of this parish the local cemetery was deemed insufficient and this eerily beautiful ossuary was constructed around a courtyard.
The bones were removed in the 1700s but you can make out carvings of skulls and bones in the buildings’ timbers.
9. Musée Le Secq des Tournelles
This one-of-a-kind museum is inside the former Church of Saint-Laurent, which was completed at the start of the 16th century.
After entering it may take a moment to comprehend what you’re looking at: Hanging in the church’s gothic arches and in glass cabinets is centuries-worth of ironwork collected by Henri Secq Tournelles and bequeathed to the museum in the 1920s.
Going back to the 1500s are tavern signs, chests, tools, hinges, locks, keys, jewellery and basket hangers.
10. Old Market Square
On the western end of the Rue du Gros-Horloge is the square where Joan of Arc was burnt alive on May 30 1431. Around the square are some lovely half-timbered and corbelled houses, and in the middle is the modern St.
Joan of Arc Church, built in 1979. Before the Second World War Rouen’s stained glass windows were removed from the city’s various churches and placed in storage.
The medieval Church of Saint-Vincent that was at this location was destroyed during the bombing, but its glorious surviving windows now adorn the modern church in its place.
11. Musée Flaubert et d’Histoire de la Médecine
A museum with both a medical and literary vocation, this attraction is found at the birthplace of the 19th-century Gustave Flaubert, in the former Hôtel-Dieu hospital.
The whole place is full of strange curios from the more primitive days of medicine, like an 18th-century mannequin used for childbirth demonstrations, military surgery kits, the mummified heads of two political agitators hanged in the 1700s and a collection of 200 antique medicinal jars.
On the first floor is the room where Gustave Flaubert, author of Madame Bovary was delivered.
12. Palais de Justice
Set in the old Jewish quarter, Rouen has the largest gothic civic building in the country, built to house the Exchequer of Normandy from 1499. The Parliament of Normandy also sat here from the 1500s to the 1700s.
The sandy-coloured building is in the late flamboyant gothic style, with decorative spires, gargoyles and a balustrade tracing the roof.
There’s clear evidence of bomb damage from the liberation of Rouen in the Second World War, kept as a memorial.
These are working courts, but you can see what it’s like on tours every Tuesday and on the last Friday of each month.
13. Panorama XXL
The quays on the Seine have been revitalised in the last few years and one of the new attractions is Panorama XXL. This is pretty much what the name suggests; a massive, 360° panoramic painting that is updated for a new exhibition every few months.
These ultra-realistic panoramas of historical cities are made by the artist Yadegar Asisi and projected onto a huge spherical screen.
In 2015 the subject was ancient Rome, and in 2016 there’s an exhibition of Rouen during gothic times.
It’s a small attraction but you’ll spend a lot of time in awe at the rich detail of the image.
14. Country Walks
Normandy has a reputation for its wooded countryside, with farms bordered by hedges, orchards and rich greenery.
Lucky for you, Rouen is on the edge of a large natural park that continues all the way to the coast: Just west of Rouen the River Seine meanders into the Parc Naturel régional des Boucles de la Seine Normande.
Your best bet for a day in the countryside would be to pick up the GR2 trail, beginning at the peaceful hamlet of Saint-Pierre-de-Manneville and winding along the course of the Seine for 120 kilometres.
Of course, you don’t need to go that far, but the stretch through Saint-Martin-de-Boscherville (15 minutes from Rouen) guides you past a 12th-century abbey.
15. Food and Drink
If you walk the GR2 in the summer you should plan your lunchtime picnic around the delectable fresh fruit (cherries and plums) that is sold on the roadside by local farmers.
Fruit farms surround Rouen, and here the apple is king.
It goes into the city’s souvenir candies like sucre de pomme and cent-clochers (apple infused chocolates), and is distilled to make Calvados apple brandy.
Among the cheeses from the Normandy region are the renowned Pont-l’évêque, neufchâtel, and not to forget camembert.