From Architecture to Food & Markets
One of France’s finest cities, Strasbourg is so much more than the annual Christmas markets that have made it famous (though these are certainly worth seeing). The capital of Alsace (now also officially incorporated into the “Grand Est” region), Strasbourg has a stunningly complex history and local culture, having boomeranged at various points between German and French control over the centuries.
It’s easily accessible from Paris by train– less than three hours from Gare de l’Est in the capital by high-speed train– and is an essential gateway to the wider Alsace region. With its diverse and exciting architecture, handsome squares, distinctive local cuisine and relaxed but exciting urban energy, the city has much to offer. Here are some of the best things to see and do in Strasbourg, particularly on a first visit.
A note on navigating the article: This is an in-depth guide to the city that’s best browsed by using the “Explore This Article” drop-down menu just below. Navigate to one of the sites or attractions you wish to learn more about, then click the “Top” button at the right side of the screen to get back to the table of contents.
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See Strasbourg Cathedral
I didn’t expect to be wowed by Notre Dame de Strasbourg, one of the only French Gothic cathedrals that genuinely rivals its counterparts in Paris and Chartres.
But in the end I was gobsmacked by the sight of the immense facade, rising up and towering over the narrow side street like a wave of pink sandstone. It was awesome, in the traditional sense. And this is no mistake: until the 19th century and the creation of skyscrapers, the Cathedral was the tallest building in the world, reaching a height of 466 ft/142 metres.
With its unusual and striking facade in sandy pink, sky-piercing spire and tower, handsome rose windows and ornately decorated portals, the Cathedral is a sumptuous sight whether viewed day or night, and even in overcast and grey conditions the hues of the pink sandstone come through.
The tones of the stone subtly change depending on the time of day and quality of the light, of course.
While the Cathedral was completed in 1439, it sits on foundations of earlier churches that were established on the site starting in the 5th century, and construction of the present-day Cathedral began in the 12th century. It has both Romanesque and Gothic elements, but with its flamboyant spire and delicate stained glass, it represents for many the pinnacle of high, or “Rayonnant”, Gothic architecture.
Approaching Notre Dame from the front, take note of its hyper-decorative “west front”, whose portals are crowded with thousands of intricate sculptures and figures replicating various biblical scenes. Also admire the outside of the enormous rose window, which is particularly beautiful from outside when viewed after dark.
Inside, take in the Cathedral’s hundreds of panels of stained glass, many original and dating to the 12th-14th centuries. The rose window in unusual hues of bright yellow and green is much warmer than its counterpart at Notre Dame de Paris.
One of the most striking features of the interior is an enormous astronomical clock dating partly to the Renaissance period; its elaborate mechanized characters and automata were created during the mid-19th century.
Each day at 12:30 pm, the automata “come to life” in an uncanny and amusing display; the highlight of the show involves 12 biblical Apostle figures who pass in front of Christ, while a mechanical rooster crows at various intervals.
The planetary dials featuring illustrations of the 12 signs of the zodiac are also mesmerizing, and other more secular figures (such as a death figure holding a scythe) add to the interest and mystery of the clock.
Climb the Cathedral Platform
Once you’ve completed your (free) visit of the exteriors and interiors, consider climbing the Cathedral Platform (for a small fee). 330 winding steps up a spiral staircase takes you to the top; from here the panoramic views over the city are remarkable.
When clear skies abound, you might even be able to see as far as the Vosges mountains and the Black Forest (across the German border).
There are also fine architectural details to admire, such as trefoils which you can peep through to frame the city in interesting ways, gargoyles and grotesques.
The entrance to the platform is on the Place du Château square, around the corner to the right of the main entrance. If you’ve purchased a Strasbourg City Card (see more by scrolling to end of the article), you’re entitled to a significant discount to climb the platform.
Getting There, Practical Information & Around the Cathedral
The Cathedral is located on the central Place de la Cathédrale, with many convenient transport links in close reach including several tram lines.
Visit the official website for more information on opening hours, tickets for the Cathedral platform, accessibility and more.
Around the Cathedral, you’ll find plenty to do on the Place de Cathédrale and the streets just around it. While the area is admittedly quite touristy- sometimes even bordering on kitschy with its many shops peddling trinkets and souvenirs– it boasts countless fine examples of typical Strasbourgeois architecture from the Renaissance period and earlier.
This includes the Maison Kamerzell (pictured above), located at 16 Place de la Cathédrale and originally constructed in 1427. It was later rebuilt and its current facade dates to 1589. A restaurant now occupies its interiors, serving traditional Alsatian fare (more information here.)
Also around the Cathedral are sights and attractions including the Palais Rohan, housing three important city museums, numerous cobbled side streets featuring typical Alsatian restaurants housed in more half-timbered houses, and the Strasbourg Historical Museum (see more about the latter by scrolling below).
Wander the Petite France District
Particularly on a first trip to Strasbourg, one of the first long strolls you’ll probably want to embark on is through the district known as “Petite France”. It’s part of the “Grande Île” UNESCO Heritage site that encompasses most of the city center encircled by the Ill River– but is also very much a distinctive neighborhood in its own right.
Cute in a Grimm’s storybook kind of way, it’s also often been compared to Venice or Bruges for its series of interconnected canals. The district is studded with traditional restaurants, taverns and bars that are popular year-round with tourists, as well as shops and quiet little niches and alleyways that are a real joy to happen upon.
The area, built around five channels of the Ill River that are interconnected with a series of footbridges and locks, famously abounds with well-preserved, brightly hued half-timbered Alsatian houses. These reflect on the water in places where it’s mirror-like and still, and in the spring months balconies often overflow with lush blooms, adding to the picturesque-mirror effect.
A Bit of History: The area began as a traditional center for tanneries (leather drying and processing) due to its proximity to water mills. During the 15th and 16th centuries, it was known as a smelly, disreputable place, mostly populated by poor fishermen, mill owners and in some places, prostitutes. The half-timbered houses we now find so cute and quaint were cheaper to construct than fully cladded counterparts.
Still, the area thrived as a center of commercial activity in the city. Well-preserved half-timbered houses such as the iconic Maison des Tanneurs (Tannery House), now a restaurant and Alsatian tavern but once a guildhouse for local tanners, were built in the 16th century.
I suggest visiting once during the day and once at night, since after dark the riverside reflections and twinkling, warm lights from the old houses create quite an enchanted effect.
Be sure to pay a visit to the covered bridges (ponts couverts), a defensive structure composed of four towers and three bridges that are vestiges of the medieval wall that once surrounded the city. Despite its misleading name, it hasn’t been covered for centuries.
Just upstream, you’ll see the Vauban Dam (Barrage Vauban), another defensive structure built in the late 17th century that’s brilliantkly illuminated in soft violet tones at night.
Access the terrace level at the dam (free) for mesmerizing panoramas of the city skyline, including the Cathedral and the Petite France district.
Getting There & Getting Around
The Petite France district, whose main artery is the Rue du Bain-aux-Plantes, is easily accessed on foot from the Strasbourg train station or the city center around the Cathedral; use Google Maps or another navigation apps to get to sites including the Maison des Tanneurs/ Place Benjamin Zix or the Rue du Bain-aux-Plantes, both good starting points for a walk.
The area is also served by tram lines A and D (at the Langstross/Grand Rue stop) and lines B and F (descend at the Alt Winmärik-Vieux Marché stop and walk south along the river quays to the area).
For more details on what to see and do in the Petite France district, see this page.
Warm Up at Strasbourg’s Famous Christmas Markets
Unlike Paris, whose high season comes in spring and summer, Strasbourg is at its most-crowded and vibrant in November and December, when tourists throng on the city to experience its world-renowned Christmas markets.
In fact, Strasbourg even claims the mantle of inventing the European-style marché de Noël: the city has held one or several within its walls since 1570, and for many years was the only place to do so. Since then, the model has spread throughout Alsace, France, Germany and elsewhere in Europe, with its iconic wooden chalets decked out in lights and decorations, and peddling everything from hot spiced wine and gingerbread cookies to toys.
If you’re visiting during the season, make sure to reserve some space in your suitcase for whatever goodies or gifts you might find at the markets. And try to reserve time to wander through several of the markets, getting a feel for their different specialities (see a list of markets operating this year by scrolling down).
For typical Alsatian treats, look for vin chaud (mulled wine), enormous pretzels baked with crunchy seasalt or laced with cheese, yeasted bundt cakes called Kugelhopf, gingerbread (pain d’épices), Christmas cookies and stollen (Christmas cake).
The markets are also an excellent port of call for hand-crafted tree decorations, porcelain figurines, toys, cozy clothing and home items.
Strasbourg Christmas Markets & Decorations: Dates in 2022
In 2022, markets will be inaugurated from November 25th and remain open until around January 2nd, 2023. Wander from square to square to browse a total of some 300 chalets/stands across almost a dozen markets.
This year, you’ll find marchés de Noël on Place Broglie, Place de la Cathédrale, Place du Château, Place Kléber, Place du Marché-aux-Poissons, Place du Temple Neuf, Place Saint-Thomas, Place Benjamin Zix, as well as on the plaza in front of the Palais Rohan and along Rue Gutenberg and Rue Hallebardes.
Find more information on markets and festivities this year at the Strasbourg Tourist Office.
Eat & Drink at a Typical Alsatian Winstub (Wine Tavern)
No trip to Strasbourg and the wider Alsace region would be complete without sampling some of its local cuisine, from choucroute (sauerkraut served with a variety of sausages and vegetables) to flammkuchen (or tarte flambée in French), a thin, pizza-like savory tart topped with Munster cheese, onions and, often, cubes of fatty bacon (lardons).
The region’s distinctive wines, mostly white, include Rieslings and Gewurtztraminers; these are often served in tall glasses with delicate green stems. Crémant d’Alsace, meanwhile, is a regionally produced sparkling white wine whose quality and complexity rivals those of Champagne.
While there are plenty of more modern tables in Strasbourg that innovate on Alsatian dishes, it’s (in my view) always a good idea to dine at least once or twice at a traditional winstub (wine tavern).
Sure, the vibe errs more than a bit towards the kitsch, with most winstubs featuring red and white-checkered tablecloths, lacy curtains and walls stacked high with Alsatian knick-knacks. But that’s arguably part of the experience, especially at institutions such as the aforementioned Maison des Tanneurs in the Petite France district; and the centuries-old Zuem Strissel, near the Cathedral. A tavern has been in operation at the latter since the 14th century.
I must disclose that, as a vegetarian who occasionally eats fish, I haven’t tasted most of the heavily meat-based dishes that form the backbone of winstub menus. I ended up eating a lot of cheese-focused fare, including a delicious, copious portion of Kase Spaetzle– a rich, macaroni-and-cheese like dish featuring small, twisted dumplings swimming in munster cheese and cream– at Chez l’Oncle Freddy in the Petite France district.
I also feasted on vegetarian versions of tarte flambée, including a good one at La Fignette. Many winstubs will happily offer veggie versions of meaty Alsatian pizzas, since these are almost always made to order anyway– so don’t hesitate to ask even if you don’t see any on the menu.
A word to the vegans among you: you won’t likely find much to eat at most conventional winstubs, except perhaps the occasional steamed vegetable plate (and how boring is that?) It may be best to choose among Strasbourg’s many good vegetarian and vegan restaurants for lunch or dinner, and head to a winstub for a before-dinner drink or two so you can still enjoy the experience. Many have extensive wine lists, cocktails, beers and other drinks, so you can make a full experience of it.
That said, one restaurant, Le Kuhn, reportedly makes a vegan sauerkraut that’s worth trying, as well as other Alsatian-style dishes for non-carnivores. Whether it has a traditional winstub atmosphere or not, I can’t say.
For an extensive list of good Alsatian-style restaurants and winstubs in Strasbourg, see this page.
Go Back in Time at the Strasbourg History Museum
For those of you who can’t get enough of city history museums (maybe you’ve already visited the Musée Carnavalet in Paris?)– the Historical Museum in Strasbourg is one to add to your list. This is a beautifully curated, accessible collection of artworks and artifacts tracing the city’s rich heritage, and stretching from the medieval period to the present day.
The collection– comprising everything from paintings to costumes and armour, realistic city models and maps to stained glass, sculptures and manuscripts, is housed since 1920 in a former slaughterhouse overlooking the River Ill. It’s arranged chronologically on two levels, ushering you through centuries of Strasbourg’s complex, often painful history.
From the development of guilds to battles and wars, local daily life and innovations (Strasbourg was notably a major center for book printing when it was first invented), the museum intelligently narrates the ways Alsace’s capital city has always enjoyed a certain independent identity, all the while tracing its dual cultural and political positioning between France and Germany.
One of the sections I found the most compelling tells the story of how Strasbourg was annexed to Germany during World War II, becoming a strategic center for the Nazi regime prior to its liberation (and return to France) in 1944. Propaganda posters, pamphlets and documents attesting to the persecution of Jews and dissidents during this dark period in Strasbourgeois life are one of the museum’s many strong points.
Getting There & Practical Information
The Museum is located in the city center, just blocks from the Cathedral and on the banks of the River Ill.
- Address: 2 rue du Vieux-Marché-aux-Poissons, 67000 Strasbourg (Tram lines A, D; Porte de l’Hôpital stop).
- This museum is accessible to visitors with limited mobility (ramps and elevator available)
- Visit this page for more information on opening hours, tickets and more
Roam the City’s Historic Squares
Strasbourg is home to numerous handsome city squares, and all are worth exploring. But since space is limited here, we’ll focus on two of the most famous among them.
Place Gutenberg (pictured above) is just a block from the Cathedral, and is graced with a statue commemorating Johannes Gutenberg, who invented practical moveable type during the printing revolution of the 15th century. He was a resident of Strasbourg during the 1420s and 1430s, so the city stakes a claim in his genius by honoring him on one of the grandest squares.
The immense plaza, surrounded by shops, boutiques, and many fine examples of old half-timbered buildings, is a good spot for gift shopping, with prices typically in the mid-range. Kids, meanwhile, will enjoy the large old-fashioned carousel that merrily operates next to Gutenberg’s statue most days.
Next, head to Place Kleber, Strasbourg’s largest square and the heart of the city center or “Grande Ile”: a UNESCO World Heritage site prized for its well-preserved French and Germanic buildings from the Roman antiquity, medieval, and Renaissance periods.
The square affords plenty of opportunities to browse open-air market stalls and shops, observe Strasbourg residents as they go about their day, and sit out for an aperitif on enormous cafe terraces during the warmer months of late spring and summer.
On Place Kleber: Visit a Fascinating Avant-Garde Space Circa 1928
A remarkable gem hidden within the walls of a neoclassical building on Place Kleber called “L’Aubette” is a time capsule of sorts: one shuttling visitors back to the bold artistic experiments of the 1920s.
Called “Aubette 1928”, the complex was designed by three avant-garde artists, Sophie Taeuber-Arp, Jean Arp, and Theo van Doesburg during the “roaring twenties”.
Designed as a multifunctional space for artistic happenings, exhibitions and social exchange, it was inspired by the De Stijl movement in painting and the arts (whose best-known figure is Piet Mondrian).
One of the objectives of the three artists who designed the space was to put spectators “inside the painting” rather than in front of it. The experience bears the concept out, too.
Consisting of several rooms, including a cafe, a piano bar area and a cinema/ballroom, the space also features an ornate stairway framed by a stained glass window reproducing the bold block colors (reds, blues, greens and yellows) of the other areas.
After falling into a period of neglect and disuse, Aubette 1928 was fully renovated and reopened to the public in 2006 as a free museum. It also hosts temporary contemporary art exhibitions and occasional performances
See more at this page to learn how to visit (Access is currently free for all). This is an accessible site (an elevator is available for visitors with limited mobility or with strollers/prams).
Go on a Riverside Walk and/or River Cruise
The banks of the River Ill are, at least from my first impressions, as worthy of poetry and inspired contemplation as those of the Seine in Paris. If you’re able to, take a long, meandering stroll along its banks, which wrap around the city center like a moat of sorts, then extend several arms to the east and west. You’ll take in lots of fresh air, interesting impressions of local life and fine architectural details.
Strolling from Petite France and its (almost disgustingly cute) half-timbered houses, locks and footbridges in the southwest, to the Quai des Pecheurs and, further east, the European District, you can extend your walk by wrapping back around towards the center to the northern quays near the Place de la République, then tack northeast to the Place des Halles, moving in time from medieval and Renaissance-era Strasbourg to areas dominated by eighteenth-century, Art Nouveau and contemporary architecture.
Tip: Get a free print map from the Tourist Office on the Place de la Cathédrale (more details below) to save your phone battery and easy plot your stroll without fretting about staying charged up.
There are several places along the river (including the Quay Saint Thomas near the Historical Museum) where you can descend stairs to stroll right beside the water. In warmer months, these areas are often crowded with young Strasbourgeois picknicking or enjoying beers straight from the bottle, and, of course, swans and ducks competing for crumbs.
An Accessible Option: Batorama River Cruise
If you have limited mobility or don’t have the time or desire for a long river walk, consider taking a commented cruise of the River Ill with Batorama. It comes with an audioguide that narrates some of the more interesting sites and buildings along the river as you float past them, and it offers an interesting and useful overview of historic places and highlights in Strasbourg.
You can purchase tickets at the Tourist Office, or here (via Batorama). Note that the Strasbourg City Card entitles you to a significant discount on the sightseeing cruise.
See the European Parliament & District
While many tourists never bother to head far enough east of the city center to see the ultra-modern European district, it’s worth a look if you’re interested in contemporary architecture, or want to learn more about how the institutions of the European Union work.
This is the buzzing center of EU policymaking in France– the other seat of the 27-country-strong-body being in Brussels. The European Parliament, European Court of Human Rights, and the Council of Europe all have headquarters here.
Architecturally, there’s quite a lot to admire (or at least find interesting). The European Parliament, a sleek elliptical structure whose facade is covered in glass and creates dramatic reflections on the Ill river, was constructed in 1999.
Meanwhile, the European Court of Human Rights is housed in a building from famed architect Richard Rogers; it features two semi-circular chambers clad in stainless steel that flank a central, glass-heavy entrance hall.
At the Parliament, you can learn all about the history and structures of the EU by paying a visit to the permanent exhibit at the Simone Veil Parliamentarium, which boasts a 360-degree theatre and interactive touchscreen features.
Free guided tours that last 90 minutes are also available for anyone who wants to delve deeper.
A Stop at the Nearby Parc de l’Orangerie
Feel like a bit of fresh air or a picnic on the grass? Take a turn in the nearby Parc de l’Orangerie, the largest of Strasbourg’s municipal parks and gardens. It harbors plenty of ambling green paths around artificial ponds and grottoes, all lined with numerous species of trees, plants and flowers.
Meanwhile, the Pavillon Josephine (pictured above) is an elegant building that houses exhibitions and other events, as well as eye-catching formal flower beds around the entrance.
At the park. there’s also an onsite restaurant that’s ideal for a casual lunch in an area that otherwise lacks options for eating out.
Getting There & Practical Info
Tram line B or E both serve the European Parliament stop (and leave from the central Place Kleber). You can also get there on foot via the city center by taking riverside paths; plot a course in Google Maps or another navigation app from the Musée Historique (for example) to the European Parliament.
For more information on visiting the Parliament and on booking guided tours of the complex, see this page.
Descend Into Strasbourg’s Historic Wine Cellars
Particularly if you’re interested in the history of wine and winemaking, a visit to the historic cellars of Strasbourg, located in the “bowels” of the city’s medieval Hospices, is something I recommend. Starting in 1395 and for more than 600 years, wines were produced and stored here, with proceeds used to support the charitable hospital and almshouse it shared its walls with. At the time, monks and other religious officials presiding over the hospices offered both shelter and food to the poor and needy, alongside medical care.
From the 17th century, a medical school was created at the Hospices; it’s rumored that medical students too poor to pay for their tuition with money would occasionally pay with wine.
In the 1990s, the Cave Historique was on the verge of closing its doors. The opening of a wine tasting room, shop and guided tours of the historic cellars allowed the site to remain open. Today, visits to the cellars are free, and you can browse (and take home) a large variety of Alsatian and French wines, from Riesling to Gewurtztraminer to Pinot Noir.
Visiting the shop and its nearly 4,000 square-foot-network of cellars is free; an audioguide (available in English and several other languages) costs a few Euros and gives expanded insight into the history and present-day activities of the cellars.
A number of Alsatian vintners have partnered with the cellars to continue to age and store wines there; these are sold with handsome labels mentioning the Cave Historique.
The cellars are also famous for harboring what it claims is the world’s oldest wine to remain barreled: a vintage from 1472 (pictured in its barrel below).
The centuries-old wine has been tasted for various special and ceremonial occasions, including in 1944 by Général Philippe Leclerc de Hautecloque, who seized back Strasbourg from German control at the end of World War II. It reportedly has deep notes of vanilla, fruit liqueur, honey and camphor.
Getting There & Practical Information
The Cave Historique des Hospices de Strasbourg is located within the Hôpital Civil, in the basement of the Direction Général building. You can access it by taking Tram A or D and getting off at the “Porte de l’Hôpital” stop.
- Address: 1, Place de l’Hôpital, 67000 Strasbourg
- This site is partly accessible to visitors with limited mobility (elevator to main cellar level; if door to elevator is not open ask for assistance from staff at ticket desk)
- More info, tours and reservations: See the official website (in English)
Getting Around & Making the Most of Strasbourg
Your first port of call when you arrive in the city should be the Office de Tourisme de Strasbourg (Strasbourg Tourist Office), located at 17 Place de la Cathédrale, just a minute from the Cathedral. The staff here are friendly and informative, and can offer free maps, transport schedules, tour information and advice on what to see and do in the city and the wider region.
The Strasbourg City Card
If you plan to see more than a few popular tourist attractions, including the Cathedral tower, Batorama boat cruise, Historical Museum and a ride on the mini tourist train, it’s a good idea to consider purchasing a Strasbourg City Card. The card entitles you to large discounts on numerous attractions, sometimes as much as 50% off the full fare, so it should pay itself off quickly assuming you use it frequently.
You can buy the card at the tourist office; see more info about what it covers here.
Using the Strasbourg Tram System
Aside from getting around foot (easy and quick in the city center unless you have mobility issues or are traveling with young children), Strasbourg’s tramway and bus system is easy to use. There are a total of six tramway lines (A, B, C, D, E and F) that cover the city in all possible directions, serving all of the main city sites and attractions listed above and even crossing the German border (to the pretty but uneventful town of Kehl).
Using trams and buses in Strasbourg is easy, and the service is regular and reliable. Passes can be purchased from kiosks outside most tram stations, at the tourist office, and at the Gare de Strasbourg (the main train station). Tourists can purchase passes for single rides; there are also passes valid for 24 hours and 36 hours. Families and groups can benefit from discounted rates, too.
Note that you’ll need to validate your tickets every time you ride, either outside tram stops using dedicated terminals (bornes de validation) or inside (on buses). To validate, simply hold your card against the area in the center of the reader and wait until you hear it beep.
You can find more information on travel routes, times/itineraries and passes at the Strasbourg transportation authority (in English).
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