Perfectly preserved, the picturesque Petite France district in the city of Strasbourg, Alsace, north east France, is one of those places where visitors, on seeing it for the first time, stop in their tracks and whisper “wow”.
Pretty half-timbered houses, beautifully decorated bars and restaurants and the sparkling water of the River Ill make this a magnet for tourists. But, it wasn’t always this way…
History of Petite France, the old district of Strasbourg
The area where Petite France is located was once popular with fishermen, tanners and millers, home to workers and the poor. Washhouses lined the sides of the river. Even at the turn of the 20th century, there were still around 100 wash houses in use.
I wonder what they would think of the fact that this area is now a trendy, much loved tourist attraction.
The name Petite France isn’t anywhere as romantic as you might think. It’s an island which, in the 15th century was where soldiers of French king Charles VII were sent to a hospital which specialised in treating syphilis. It was nicknamed the “French disease”, and the island became “Petite France”.
So, it was considered the sort of place you really didn’t choose to go to and as a result was pretty much left alone. It was a poor area and largely abandoned by the authorities. In fact, if it weren’t for some artists who had discovered just how pretty the area was, it might not be there today as it was only due to their protests that some of the most iconic buildings we now know and love, weren’t demolished by the city council.
It wasn’t until the 1970s that things began to look up for Petite France. The area was pedestrianised, making the enchanting cobbled streets and pretty footbridges which crisscross the river, perfect for strolling. Cafés, bars and restaurants opened. Pleasure boats took passengers alongside the beautiful medieval buildings. It’s the perfect place for a gastronomic stop with restaurants serving traditional dishes and Alsace wines.
Petite France is now part of a UNESCO listed heritage site, full of charm – and a must-see visit if you’re in Strasbourg.
What to see and do in Petite France
It’s a small island and easy to wander about. You should definitely allow time for a break at the many eateries to enjoy the views. And to shop at the quirky boutiques (including an all year-round Christmas shop). The architecture is astonishingly well-preserved, one of the finest buildings, the Tanners House built in 1572, now a restaurant, is one of the most famous landmarks of the area. It really is a fairy-tale looking place, where every street is a photo-worthy opp.
Around the island is also magnificent. The 13th century “Covered Bridges”, built for city defence but no longer covered, are great for a panoramic view over Petite France.
Opposite the Covered Bridges, is the Barrage Vauban (Dam). It was built to military plans supplied by Louis XIV’s genius military engineer, Vauban. It could flood the area if the town were under attack. Climb to the top of the dam where there’s a terrace from which the views are truly sublime, with the great Gothic Cathedral in the background.
Behind the Vauban Dam, which is beautifully lit at night, is the Museum of Modern Art which is well worth seeking out.
At the edge of Petite France, you’ll find the Quai Saint-Nicolas. Built in the 15th century. From here it’s a just a few minutes’ walk to the Musée Historique de la Ville de Strasbourg, the Cathedral, the Musée des Beaux Arts and the fabulous cobbled streets of the Cathedral district.
How to get to Petite France
From Paris, the fast train takes from just 1 hour 46 minutes, with 16 trains a day. It’s a short walk to the Petite France district and to the main sites of Strasbourg including the Cathedral.
You could do a day trip from Paris – but longer is better as there really is a lot to see.