Strasbourg is a glorious city with an ancient heart, and a dynamic culture, chic boutiques and main High Street stores, and a hit list of fine dining and quality restaurants serving an imaginative mélange of regional and international dishes.
It’s labelled as the capital of Alsace (Grand Est) and a good way of understanding what the city is all about is to do nothing other than to perch yourself at one of the street cafés in the cobblestoned place de la Cathédrale and just watch (and listen) as the world goes by.
Moreover, you’ll discover what a fascination the city holds for people of all nations, not just France.
On the international stage, New York, Geneva and Strasbourg are the only cities in the world to accommodate pan-cultural organisations without the distinction of being capital cities.
The choice of Strasbourg as European capital was not a chance decision, but one that was intended as a symbol of reconciliation between the people of Europe. The architecture of the European Quarter is a complete contrast from the rest of Strasbourg; this is a town within a town.
Surrounded by two arms of the River Ill, the Grande Ile (Big Island), is the historic centre of the Alsatian capital. It has an outstanding complex of monuments within a fairly small area.
The cathedral, the four ancient churches and the Palais Rohan – former residence of the prince-bishops – far from appearing as isolated monuments, form a district that is characteristic of a medieval town.
These beautiful buildings illustrates the city’s evolution from the 15th to the 18th century. This unique distinction qualifies the island as a whole with World Heritage Site status.
Things to do in Strasbourg
As with every French town and city, events from puppet shows and flea markets to beer festivals and orchestral concerts, feature throughout the year.
But it is at the end of November when this already buzzing place especially comes alive. For that is the time, through December, when the world-celebrated Christmas Market (Christkindelsmarik) is held, a feature of the Strasbourg scene since 1570.
Baubles, bangles and bright lights bring an other-worldly gaiety to the city as the whiff of spices, roasting chestnuts (marrons chauds) and mulled wine drift on the air.
This is the time when everyone goes back to their childhood, and the kids hang around looking embarrassed by the antics of their parents.
Read more: Strasbourg Christmas Market
But it can’t be Christmas every day, so what else is there to do in Strasbourg once all the tinsel and glitter has been packed away?
See the city by foot or by tram
One of Strasbourgs particular appeal is the ease with which you can get around. Walking, of course, is always the most edifying way of getting to know the city, and you can take a pedestrian tour with an audio guide if you want to be sure not to miss anything.
But five tram routes criss-cross the city linking with the suburbs and warden-controlled park-and-ride areas for those that arrived by car.
Of course, there are the customary tourist trappings from water boats with panoramic windows and audio commentary systems to a mini-tram that pootles about the city streets in an unhurried and mildly bemused kind of way.
The excellent tramway system in Strasbourg is superb for getting across the city and out to the suburbs, especially for those in search of less pricey hotels.
But the best way of getting round the ancient centre is on foot, stopping off at any one of the many cafés every time the urge for coffee comes upon you.
At Christmas time, the whole city comes alive with the Christmas Market, but during the rest of the year this is just a most agreeable city to explore.
The ancient city stands on a great island, surrounded by the River Ill. At the south-western corner is La Petite France, a most attractive and endearing quarter that in the past was occupied by fishermen, millers and tanners.
Today, its glory is its wealth of half- timbered houses, many dating from the 16th and 17th centuries, among which La Maison des Tanneurs dates from 1572.
Not far away, the Ponts Couverts were a kind of wall bridge built between 1200 and 1250, originally made of wood and covered with tiled roofs, hence the name.
The stone bridges you see today date from the 19th century. Facing them is the Barrage Vauban (the Vaudan Dam), built after Strasbourg became part of France in 1681, and beneath its 13 arcades floodgates could be closed to flood the southern part of the city as a defensive system.
The dam had been closed since 2008, but has been completely renovated and reopened its doors in late 2012. The panoramic terrace provides a great view over La Petite France, and the dam looks especially attractive at night.
Central to the city is La Place Gutenberg (Gutenberg Square). This used to be the centre of the political and social life of the city, and features a number of outstandingly attractive buildings.
Standing in the square is the statue of the eponymous Johannes Gutenberg, a German blacksmith, goldsmith, printer and publisher. He introduced printing to Europe, starting the printing revolution that ranks among the most important events of the modern period.
Only a short walk away, the Maison Kammerzell is the most beautiful building in Strasbourg, having been built in the 16th century, and was later owned by a grocer, Philippe Kammerzell.
Today it sees service as a restaurant, and overlooks the great square in front of the cathedral, founded in 1277 and a remarkable architectural achievement with an exceptional collection of stained-glass windows, and a renowned astronomical clock.
Best museums in Strasbourg
There are two particular museums that are well worth visiting: Le Palais Rohan, housed in a building that is very much in the Parisian style, was built between 1732 and 1742 as the residence of the Prince-Bishops.
Today, it houses the Decorative Arts Museum, the Fine Arts Museum and the Archaeological Museum, admission to which is reduced for those with a Strasbourg Pass (Open daily (except Tuesdays) from 12 noon-1800, Saturdays and Sundays from 1000-1800).
The Musée Alsacien, a folk art museum featuring rural costumes and ways of life, is found across the Pont du Corbeau, and was established in 1907 in three beautiful Renaissance houses (23-25 quai Saint Nicolas: Open daily (except Tuesdays) from 12 noon-1800, Saturdays and Sundays from 1000-1800.
Parc de l’Orangerie
If you want to stretch your legs a little, then walk out to the Parc de l’Orangerie, which is not far from the various European buildings for which Strasbourg is renowned.
You can take Tram E to Droits de l’Homme station, but it is so much nicer on a sunny day to follow the Ill, and then cut through to the Avenue de l’Europe and enter the park.
This is a lovely place, with a children’s play area, lakes, an aviary, a Michelin-starred Restaurant (the Buerehiesel) and another, Le Jardin de l’Orangerie, that offers no pretension, just excellent and inexpensive set lunches – right next to a ten-pin bowling alley.
For a slightly different perspective, take a 70-minute trip on the River Ill from near the cathedral, on one of the large tourist boats that sail up and down, and let you explore the city from water level, in warmth and comfort.
Operated by Batorama, these trips offer commentaries in 12 languages are broadcast via individual headsets.
Eating out in Strasbourg
The range of places to eat in Strasbourg (more than 150 of them) is excellent, from Michelin-starred palaces of haute cuisine, to burger bars, bistros, wine bars and international and regional restaurants.
There is a comprehensive list on the tourist office website, but here are a few that I’ve tried and found excellent, and value for money.
Incidentally, I’ve yet to find anywhere in Strasbourg where the food was anything less than you’d want it to be. You can’t go wrong.
10 rue de l’Outre, 67000 Strasbourg.
Tel: 03 88 32 13 02; www.au-crocodile.com
Open: daily (except Sun and Mon) 1145-1330, 1900-2130 (Closed: last week of July and first week of August)
The Crocodile today has one Michelin star. When I first visited, it had just been down-graded from 3 stars to 2; the proprietor tried to shrug it off as of no consequence (not that I believed him – his mouth said one thing, but his face said another).
Anyway, that’s all in the past; there’s a new chef now, and he has earned one star, which is good enough for me.
Expect impeccable service and cuisine, a truly fine dining experience, but with prices to match….maybe this is the place for a special occasion. But then, if I wake up and I’m still breathing, I think it’s a special occasion.
16 place de la Cathédrale, 67000 Strasbourg.
Tel: 03 88 32 42 14; www.maison-kammerzell.com
Open: daily 1200-1430, 1900-2300
This has to be the most beautiful building in Strasbourg; I’ve dined here a couple of times, once when I watched a young woman face up to a mound of choucroute – she was still eating when I left.
And again with my wife, when we enjoyed the salon upstairs and a delightfully relaxing ambiance to go with the excellent Alsacienne cuisine. I still have the ‘ticket’ from the bottle of wine we had that evening – it was a 2003 Beaujolais-Villages Nouveau.
Wise eaters make reservations, not least because it is right in the centre of town. And if you want the restaurant to soak off the label from a particularly good bottle of wine for your scrapbook, say something along the lines ‘S’il vous plait, puis-je garder le ticket’. If they can, they will, but sometimes the label won’t come off.
Aux Armes de Strasbourg
9 place Gutenberg, 67000 Strasbourg.
Tel: 03 88 32 85 62; www.auxarmesdestrasbourg.com
Open: daily 1130-2400
Brilliantly convenient; not far from the centre, and open for more than 12 hours; roll up any time and enjoy Alsacienne cuisine cooked to perfection in a splendidly decorated restaurant housed in a 16th-century building.
Service is efficient and agreeable, typically hectic at the height of the season. This is a great place to try those regional dishes you keep meaning to, Baeckeoffe, for example, and wonderful hearty meat stew.
La Chaine d’Or
134 Grande Rue, 67000 Strasbourg.
Tel: 03 88 75 80 24; www.chainedor.fr
Open: 0900-2300 (lunch 1130-1430, dinner 1830-2230).
Possibly not the most welcoming or intimate of places, but for a quick no-nonsense lunch or early dinner it’s ideal. This is nonetheless a popular brasserie with an Art Deco feel about it, so you might want to get there at the start of service if you don’t make a reservation.
The cuisine is traditional Alsacienne and the customary run-of-the-mill dishes that all these places seem to provide these days, like moules frites. But it’s very good value for money. The dish of the day can be as little as €8, plus drinks.
Le Jardin de l’Orangerie, Parc de l’Orangerie, 67000 STRASBOURG.
Tel: 03 90 41 68 05; www.jardinorangerie.fr
Open: daily from 1130
You won’t be disappointed by dropping in at Le Jardin de l’Orangerie for lunch.
Not only is it set in a magnificent park in which the great white storks of the region nest on chimney pots during the summer, but there is a fine lake outside, and easy walks all around the park. The restaurant does excellent two-course meals at lunchtime.
Whenever I’m in Strasbourg, I come out to the Orangerie at least once, and more often if I can.
It’s just so nice to get away from the bustle of the centre, and if you’re a walker, then just follow the River Ill for most of the way before cutting through streets to the entrance to the park.
At strolling pace, it should take about 30 minutes to get there, by which time you’re ready for lunch. Then walk it off going back, but first take a quick visit to the little aviary, or, believe it or not, enjoy a game of ten-pin bowling right next door.
At opposite ends of the spectrum, the park also offers Michelin-starred dining at Buerehiesel (www.buerehiesel.com), or a quick quiche and chips at a mobile food kiosk. You just can’t go wrong here.
And if the hubbub of the city centre gets too much, then take a stroll out to the Orangerie, a large ornamental park in close proximity to the European Parliament buildings.
Here you’ll find storks nesting on chimneys, play areas, a large pond, pets corner, ambling, tree-shaded paths, a tenpin bowling alley, a Michelin-starred restaurant, and one that isn’t but which does a worthy trade in lunchtime business (Le Jardin de l’Orangerie).
Relatively compact this city may be, but one thing is certain, you will need to come again. One visit can never be enough.