Strasbourg in the north east of France in Alsace (now known as Grand Est), is a city of medieval houses, glorious architecture, fabulous restaurants, cultural venues, wine and art, watery arteries and stunning buildings – there’s something for everyone to fall in love with here…
The best way to visit Strasbourg is on foot. You’ll miss things otherwise and this is a city that is full of things you shouldn’t miss. Colourful streets lined with half-timbered houses, winding alleys of shops and restaurants and elegant courtyards. Fairy tale pretty in some parts such as the Petite Ile, architecturally splendid in others, the Neustadt (new town area) for instance, and friendly, funky and fun in areas like the Place d’Austerlitz and its surroundings. You can rack up the footsteps here though it’s a small big city. But that’s not a bad thing as the calories you burn can be replaced at so many restaurants that are seriously scrumptious. I promise you, you don’t come to Strasbourg and start a diet!
What to see and do in Strasbourg
If you love towns with medieval half-timbered houses painted the colours of a pastel rainbow – you’ll be in seventh heaven in Strasbourg’s Petite France district on the Grand Ile where canals cascade to create a stunning landscape. In the 16th century people suffering from syphilis were sent here to isolate them from the mainland. It was considered quite a poor district until the late 1980s. Now UNESCO listed, it’s a major attraction and perfect for a stroll, for sitting at a terrace watching the world go by and for shopping, with many of the former washhouses now restaurants and quirky stores. It’s easy to spend a half day wandering. Or even a whole day if you like to take your time and explore in detail and relax along the way.
The Cathedral of Notre-Dame Strasbourg
The number 1 attraction in Strasbourg is the red stone Cathedral with around four million visitors a year. You don’t need to be a cathedral fan for this one. The sheer monumental size and exquisite detail is mind boggling. The cathedral is, to quote a cliché, breath-taking and features amongst its medieval stained glass windows, a 14m high rose window. It was the tallest man made building in France until the 19th century. Though it was closed when I went, you can climb the 329 steps in one of the towers for a birds eye view over the city and as far as the Vosges Mountains.
Strasbourg Cathedral is over one thousand years old. Construction of the original, on the site of a Roman temple, began in 1015 but was destroyed by a fire. Reconstruction started in the 12th century, when the Gothic style of architecture was coming into vogue. Building went on through the 13th century and was finally completed in 1439 with the addition of the spire.
There’s an astronomical clock which lures the crowds every day, especially at 12.30 pm when a parade of automaton figurines including the apostles takes place.
Lit up at night, and on a cobbled square lined with shops and restaurants, it really is eye-poppingly incredible.
Take a Virtual Visit to Strasbourg Cathedral
Enjoy a virtual visit to this spectacular Cathedral and see it from outside and within: www.alsace-360.fr/2015/Fondation-Oeuvre-Notre-Dame/visite-virtuelle-insolite-cathedrale-strasbourg/
Hire an electric boat and see Strasbourg from its watery arteries at your own pace. Or, if you’d like to relax and take in the sights including the swanky buildings of the European Parliament without effort, join a guided boat ride with Batorama. If you want to take photos on a sunny day, book the open top boat (not the closed boat).
There are around a dozen museums in Strasbourg and if you’re a history fan you’re going to absolutely love the medieval museum and the Museum of Decorative Arts.
Inside track: +700 year old wine cellar/shop
You’re unlikely to ever find this place unless someone tells you. I’ve spoken to lots of locals who don’t even know about it!
A wine cellar in a hospital! If you think you know Strasbourg think again… This amazing cellar was created in 1395. It’s even older than the Hospices de Beaune. And why you might ask is there a wine cellar in a hospital in the middle of Strasbourg? Well, in the 14th century when it opened, only the rich could afford to pay for their medicine and care with money. That was less than 1 in 10 patients. So the hospital took payment in wine and vineyards too, over time becoming the biggest owner of vineyards in the region.
The hospital practiced “wine therapy”. Basically they allowed 2L of wine per day for each patient. They had a point – wine was lighter then with a 4-6% alcohol content but importantly it was cleaner than drinking water. The fermentation process killed bacteria so it was seen as a medicine.
Wine made in 1472!
Nowadays the hospital no longer owns heaps of vineyards. But, they keep the cellar open and locals know it is THE place to buy wine. The reason being that the hospital did a deal with local wine producers. They allow the producers to mature their finest wines in the renovated ancient barrels, some of which date back centuries. In return the producers gift the cellar thousands of bottles of wine each year. The cellar sells the bottles and all profits are passed to the hospital. Reach it via the hospital car park – you’ll see a plaque on the wall in a corner. Go down the stairs and here you’ll discover the cellar. It’s home to the oldest bottle of white wine in the world, dating to 1472. In fact they have a whole barrel of it but assured me it’s not drinkable!
If you’re really lucky you’ll meet Thibaud, a genial Frenchman who speaks impeccable English with a strong Australian accent and who will answer your questions about wine and the cellar. Don’t forget to buy a bottle to enjoy tout de suite or take home. I had one of the best Pinot Gris’ ever from here, matured in one of those ancient barrels it was memorable at 10 euros a bottle.
Free visit during opening hours. You can rent an audio guide (several languages) for a 30 minute tour. Group tours may be booked in advance (in English), and wine tasting on Portes-Ouvertes (special opening days). www.vins-des-hospices-de-strasbourg.fr/en/
Tips for souvenir hunters
If you’re after something to take home from Strasbourg, don’t miss the year-round Christmas shop. I went on a brilliant summer’s day and it felt like Christmas inside this quirky store with its Christmas trees and figurines! Un Noël en Alsace, 10 Rue des Dentelles.
Gingerbread: Head to the shop of Mireille Oster to buy some of the best gingerbread in town. She’s a 3rd generation maker and travel around the world to source spices for the gingerbread and biscuits which are made to an original recipe. 14 rue des Dentelles.
You could also buy some of the local pretty pottery, or kelsch (traditional linen cloth from Alsace), tablecloths, heart-shaped napkins. There are plenty of shops selling them.
Where to stay
Hotel Hannong is just a couple of minutes from Petite France and the Cathedral and a few minutes to the train station. Everything here is designed to cosset and pamper you. The bathroom products are lovely. It has the comfiest beds. Nothing jars the eye or the senses from the bedroom to the bathroom, bar and breakfast which is legendary. When I mentioned to a hotelier in Mulhouse that my next stop was Strasbourg and the Hotel Hannong they told me the breakfast is famous. They weren’t wrong, there’s even a juice bar and smoothie bar where you can make your own combo.
How to get around
It’s really easy to walk everywhere in Strasbourg. However, you can take the tram around town and further afield. Get tickets from vending machine on each platform or at the tourist office.How to get there
Hi-speed train from Paris takes just 1 hour and 46 minutes.