The capital of the Alsace region has one of Europe’s largest medieval quarters. In Grand Île and Petite France cobbled streets weave between creaking timber-framed houses that have survived for hundreds of years.
Strasbourg has been the subject of a centuries-long tug of war between France and Germany, and is all the more exciting and beautiful for it. We’re left with a city boasting beautiful turn-of-the-century districts built by the Germans, and hi-tech 17th-century fortifications designed by Vauban. The sense of cross-pollination continues in the cuisine and wine, and also in the presence of international institutions like the European Parliament.
Lets explore the best things to do in Strasbourg:
1. Strasbourg Cathedral
For 227 years up to 1874 this spellbinding sandstone cathedral was the tallest building in the world, and is still the highest surviving structure to have been built entirely during the medieval period.
Writers have waxed lyrical about it for hundreds of years, and it’s hard not to be moved by the west facade or the view of the vaults that greets you once you step inside.
Another astounding thing about the cathedral is how much of it dates to the 1100s, including the entirety of the apse on the east side of the building.
You cannot turn down a trip to the top of the north tower, completed in 1439, and with views as far as the Black Forest, 30 kilometres away.
2. La Petite France
The most photogenic area in the city: Millers, fishermen and tanners plied their trades in this district of waterways, weirs and locks crowded by black and white half-timbered (colombage) houses.
These quaint old structures are from the 1500s and 1600s, and if you stand back and look up you can make out the opening in the roofs where animal hides were once laid out in the sun to dry.
On some of the cobblestone streets like Rue du Bain aux Plantes the houses look unfeasibly top-heavy, and every few paces are traditional restaurants serving Alsatian specialities like choucroute garnie.
3. Parc de l’Orangerie
Just across the Ill from the European Parliament and the Court of Human Rights, the Parc de l’Orangerie took shape during the revolution when 140 orange trees confiscated from Château de Bouxwiller were granted to the city.
There are now only three of these trees remaining, and you can still see them on certain days in the park’s greenhouses.
Naturally there’s a lot more to this fantastic park than that: You have a large boating lake, lots of long, leafy avenues, lawns, and even a mini-zoo and farm for kids.
There’s also a stork reintroduction centre; this type of bird has a special place in Strasbourg folklore, and it’s meant to be good luck for a household if a pair perch on the roof.
4. Barrage Vauban
Despite being built in the 1600s this fortified bridge and weir on the River Ill was a cornerstone of the city’s defences as late as the Franco-Prussian War in 1870. It was made with pink sandstone from the Vosges, according to plans drawn up by Vauban (the great French military engineer). The idea was that in times of siege it would raise the level of the Ill and flood the lands to the south, and also drop barriers to prevent invaders from passing through.
There’s an internal corridor running the length of the structure and you can go up to the roof to see the towers of the Ponts Couverts and the cathedral.
5. Ponts Couverts
Heralding your entry to Petite France is a set of three fortified bridges that you’ll know for their four tall square towers.
These were built in the 1300s and were part of the city’s original line of ramparts.
The bridges’ name is a bit of a misnomer these days as they aren’t actually covered any more: Up to the 1700s the crossings were protected by long roofs that would have offered cover during sieges.
The bridges became obsolete after the Barrage Vauban was completed upriver and the roofs have been gone for almost 300 years, but the name survives.
6. Église Saint-Thomas
Further proof that Strasbourg is at a cultural crossroads is this protestant church, which was the main Lutheran place of worship after Strasbourg became part of France in 1681. Église Saint-Thomas was completed in the 1520s and is the only example of a German-style hall church in the region.
This means that unlike most churches in France, the nave and the aisles have the same height.
They are brought under one roof and so are missing a clerestory (windows to light the nave). There’s much to explore inside, including a large gothic fresco of St.
Michael and the stunning romanesque sarcophagus of Bishop Adeloch, from the 1100s.
Finally, turn your gaze to the gallery organ from 1741, which was praised by Mozart when he played it in 1778.
7. Musée Alsacien
With a supreme location in a 17th-century house on a quayside of the River Ill, the Musée Alsacien couldn’t be better placed to teach you about local traditions and art in the city.
The galleries provide several reconstructions of historic home scenes and workshops, all presented with original ceramics, costume, furniture, tools, toys and everyday utensils.
The most intriguing displays deal with the traditional “savoir-faire” of the Alsace region, so illustrating how, for instance, wine was pressed in the 1700s and talking you through the Roman origins of wine-growing.
8. European Parliament
When you reflect on the city’s past, it makes perfect sense that Strasbourg should be home to the European Parliament as it has always been a place where different cultures, faiths and languages have been reconciled.
Strasbourg is one of three non-capital cities around the world to have an international institution, and the European Parliament needs to be on your itinerary.
You may have to call ahead to get a tour of this modern cylindrical structure, housing the 750-seat debating chamber.
Inside are three “internal streets”, one of which has a winter garden with a philodendron forest.
9. Palais des Rohan
This baroque Episcopal palace was built in the 1720s according to the designs of Robert de Cotte, the “first architect” of Louis XV. It’s a breathtaking building, erected for Cardinal Armand-Gaston de Rohan-Soubise the Prince Bishop of Strasbourg and loved for its high classical facade.
It was modelled on the grand mansions in Paris from this time and the interior is as opulent as you’d imagine.
There are three museums to browse inside, an archaeology exhibit in the basement, decorative arts on the ground floor and a display of fine art on the first floor.
Strasbourg tripled in size in the 34 years between the Franco-Prussian War and the end of the First World War.
This was the German period, and the speed of construction furnished a host of districts in Strasbourg with an architectural consistency that is hard to find anywhere else.
These areas were designed to be the new centre of the city, with broad boulevards on a grid system, which was deemed more hygienic and efficient than the medieval street plan at Grand Île and Petite France.
The Neustadt is roughly crescent-shaped, covering the western, northern and eastern parts of Strasbourg.
Some bits to discover include the areas around the Parc de l’Orangerie, the University, Place de la République and Île Sainte-Hélène.
11. Le Vaisseau
A useful rainy day alternative if you’re in Strasbourg with kids, Le Vaisseau is an interactive science museum for ages 3 to 15. Language shouldn’t be a problem either, as all the displays are in English, French and German.
The idea is for children to get stuck in and enjoy themselves, which makes it easier for them to learn things as they go.
So, for children aged 3 to 6, there’s a building site where they can build to their hearts’ content and with guidance learn about the processes of design and construction.
There are 130 interactive exhibits like this one, as well as a 3D movie that is updated every few months.
12. Musée Historique de Strasbourg
Also by the River Ill, Strasbourg’s historical museum is in the city’s former slaughterhouse and deals with the period between the middle ages and the 18th century.
There are weapons, maps, clothing, sketches and sculptures to help illustrate the complicated history of a city at the geographical, and also social, economic and political, nexus point of an entire continent.
The shining star of the collection is a plan relief dating to 1727. This is a highly detailed 1/600 scale model of Strasbourg and its outskirts, covering almost 80 square metres.
The detail is such that you make out all of the main landmarks, and, yes, the Ponts Couverts were still covered when the model was made!
13. Eglise Saint-Pierre le Jeune
Saint-Pierre le Jeune is remarkable because for 200 years it was divided in two by the Protestants and Catholics: The Protestants got the nave, while the Catholics used the choir.
The building has architecture from many different periods too.
In the crypt for instance are the vestiges of a Columban Church from the 600s, and the cloister is mostly romanesque, dating to the 1000s.
Meanwhile the nave and its colourful frescoes are from the 14th and 15th centuries.
In the gallery is an 18th-century organ designed by Johann Andreas Silbermann, the same man responsible for the organ at Strasbourg’s Church of Saint-Thomas.
And like the one there this instrument has national renown, and was used by the organist Helmut Wacha to record the works of Bach.
14. Alsatian Food
If Strasbourg’s culture and architecture are a blend of German and French traditions then the same applies to the food.
Choucroute is the obvious entry point, with sauerkraut (fermented cabbage with a sour flavour) combined with different kinds of sausages, including frankfurters and smoked Morteau, as well as cuts of pork and potatoes.
Another classic served up at traditional “stubs” around the old quarters is tarte flambée, bread dough rolled out, covered with fromage frais and topped with onion and lardons.
If you visit in April or May Strasbourg goes crazy for white asparagus, as they do in German cities in asparagus season.
In Strasbourg it’s roasted and then served with lentils and a poached egg.
15. Wine and Beer
Alsace is the only French wine region in which most of the wines produced are varietal, and so made only with the grapes that give them their name.
The most famous two are Gewürtztraminer, usually spicy and sweet and often paired with dessert or drunk as an aperitif, and Riesling, which is dry, complex and goes great with Alsatian classics like choucroute and pan-fried carp.
Strasbourg is also slap in the middle of France’s most productive beer region, with hops grown west and north of the city.
Brands known to all will be Fischer, Karlsbräu and Kronenbourg, but Meteor is an independent brewer operating just northwest of Strasbourg since 1640. From September 2016 Meteor has introduced a 90-minute guided tour followed by a tasting session.