During a conversation with a very sweet French woman I met in Avignon, I mentioned that I was planning to visit Nice and asked what her favorite places were in France. She didn’t think much of Nice, indicating in her limited English that the people weren’t very friendly and the prices were very high.
She approved of my plan to visit Bordeaux, however, and then mentioned Strasbourg. She placed her hand over her heart and shrugged her shoulders with a distant smile on her face, clearly communicating without words how much she loved the city. “It is sooo beautiful,” she said, unable to translate her impressions further. “If you can, I really recommend you to go.”
And just like that, Nice was off my list and Strasbourg was on it, sandwiched between Geneva and Paris on the itinerary.
As per usual on this trip, I’m glad I followed this local resident’s recommendation. The principle city in the Alsace region of northern France adjacent to Germany, Strasbourg’s architecture and traditions illustrate a convergence of both cultures. In fact, throughout its history, the city changed hands between France and Germany several times before the final Liberation of Strasbourg by French armies in 1944 during the Second World War.
Strasbourg is one of those cities where I’ve wanted to stop every few steps to take a photo. Consequently, this post contains tons of photos. Even though the weather was mostly gray and rainy during my visit, the city’s narrow cobblestone streets, historic half-timber houses (homes where the wood beams are visible from the exterior), tiny bakeries and pedestrian bridges charmed me immediately.
Strasbourg’s historic city center, known as the Grande Ile (Grand Island) was characterized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1988.
While in Strasbourg, I took a free walking tour. These tours are one of my favorite ways to get oriented to a city’s geography as well as learn some of the history. The tour stopped at several sites that I likely would not have visited on my own. One of those was the impressive Palais du Rhin, which is situated in the Place de la Republique and today houses the departments of fine arts and cultural affairs for the Alsace-Lorainne region. The building was constructed by Germany in 1889 as the Imperial Palace for the Kaiser for use during his visits to the region.
I also learned on the walking tour that half-timber houses like this one could be disassembled and moved to other locations. They were often included in ladies’ dowries, and the happy couple then had the freedom to move their homes a bit further away from the in-laws after the wedding if necessary! The homes were often built on top of concrete storefronts at the street level which served as the home’s foundation (and did not move with the rest of the structure).
No visit to Strasbourg is complete without touring the city’s Cathedral of Our Lady, which towers over the rest of the town.
The cathedral is home to a famous astronomical clock, which is interesting because of its size and workmanship, but watching the automated movements when the clock strike the hour is rather anti-climactic. If you’ve seen the astronomical clock in Prague, you probably won’t be impressed with this one. But it’s worth taking a look if you’re in Strasbourg.
Another activity I highly recommend in Strasbourg is to visit the rooftop terrace at the Barrage Vauban for amazing panoramic views of the old city. The Barrage Vauban is a covered bridge constructed between 1686 and 1700 over the River Ile. Admission is free.
The city is also home to a wide range of art museums, but I thought Strasbourg itself was the real attraction. Strasbourg lends itself to wandering, with many medieval streets and squares famous for their architecture and atmosphere.
The one museum I would have liked to visit is the Alcacian Museum, which focuses on the folk traditions and history of the Alsace region. Unfortunately, the museum (along with several others in the city) is closed on Tuesdays, which was the day I had planned to go. Learn from my mistake and check the hours ahead of time if you’d like to visit a museum in Strasbourg. Luckily, there were plenty of beautiful views to cheer me up.
In case these photos haven’t convinced you, let me say now that Strasbourg is a beautiful place to visit. And if you take advantage of the free sights and walking tours, it is possible to enjoy this lovely city on a budget. I visited Strasbourg in June, but one of the city’s main tourist attractions its annal Christmas market. If you don’t mind the market crowds, the holiday season is likely a great time to make a trip to Strasbourg!