Strasbourg – the capital and largest city of the stunningly beautiful Alsace region of eastern France – is a vibrant, modern metropolis with nearly half a million multi-cultural residents. The city – home to the nation’s second largest university and official seat of several international institutions, including the European Parliament, Council of Europe, and the European Court of Human Rights – is also a veritable treasure trove of well-preserved historic sights and monuments, many dating back to the Middle Ages. The majority of Strasbourg’s medieval treasures are found on the magnificent Grande Île, or “Great Island”, a UNESCO World Heritage Site featuring beautiful half-timbered houses, picturesque canals, labyrinthine alleys and pedestrian-friendly cobblestone streets (not to mention one of Europe’s most breathtaking cathedrals). It truly is a must-see and must-explore location for any visitor to this beautiful Alsatian gem!
At only one hour and thirty minutes from our home in Germany, Strasbourg has become a favorite day trip and weekend getaway destination. This post recounts our first journey to the city in late February 2016, including our visit to the awe-inspiring Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Strasbourg, our exploration of the impossibly charming district of La Petite France, and our adventures in mouth-watering French cuisine.
Accompanied by a longtime friend, we began our unguided walking tour of the city on the sunny banks of the River Ill at the Passerelle de l’Abreuvoir, a small “love lock”-studded footbridge adjacent to Place des Bateliers. While the passerelle offers easy access to several nearby attractions on the Grande Île – notably the Cathédrale Notre-Dame (its famous spire towering over the rooftops in the first photograph below) – we opted instead to wander along the river in the direction of the famed Quartier des Tanneurs.
At Pont Saint Martin, we stopped to admire our first glimpse of the quartier, former residence of Strasbourg’s medieval tanneries and slaughterhouses. From such a lovely vantage point, it took a great deal of imagination to envisage this charming neighborhood playing host to either grisly trade (indeed, the quarter’s position at the western edge of the Grande Île reflects a preference on behalf of the city’s elite to separate themselves – then living near the cathedral, in the center of the island – from the putrid aroma of the slaughter and tanning process). Today, brightly colored, half-timbered townhouses (maisons à colombages) line the riverbank, their balconies and window sills overflowing with early spring flowers. A series of sluices – sliding gates designed to control the flow of water between the upper and lower canals – are also visible just upstream, making the bridge a fine place to watch tour boats and other watercraft navigate this beautiful stretch of river.
From Pont Saint Martin, we walked in the direction of Quai des Moulins, an embankment of watermills in the heart of Little France. Interestingly, the name of this area is a reference to neither patriotism nor architecture, instead paying homage to the city’s unfortunate history of syphilis infections. Indeed, “la Petite France” derives its name from a 15th century hospital on the island dedicated to the treatment of syphilis, then known as Franzosenkrankheit (“French disease”) in German. Several structures here – including the beautiful (and somewhat crooked) white building positioned at 1 Quai des Moulins (pictured below) – are officially classified monuments historique (sites of historic or architectural significance). It was easy to see why – the entire district (STD history notwithstanding) is simply breathtaking!
Shortly after crossing the Pont du Faisan (a small bridge spanning the canal between Quai des Moulins and the Grande Île), we turned right onto Rue du Bain aux Plantes. Within moments, the cobbled street gave way to Place Benjamin Zix, one of the most beautiful and iconic sights in Strasbourg. Here, the Maison des Tanneurs – once a medieval tannery, now a restaurant serving traditional Alsatian cuisine – stands just beside the canal, offering its diners unparalleled views of the River Ill as it meanders slowly past the historic quarter’s unique half-timbered houses. It was difficult to believe, as we admired the outlook and ambiance in this quiet, charming square, that a vast, modern metropolis pulsed only meters away. It was absolutely magical. La Petite France, nous t’adorons!
While we could have remained rooted in this spot for hours, taking in the beautiful sights and sounds of the waterway, growling stomachs intervened. After noting with disappointment that the Maison des Tanneurs was closed on our Monday visit, we opted instead for an al fresco lunch at nearby La Corde a Linge. We could not have been more delighted with our choice – it was the best meal we’d had in ages (by far)! The “coton” (tender chicken breast sauteed with forest mushrooms in a creamy sauce), “lin” (roasted duck in a sauce Pinot Noir) and “organdi” (grilled beef cheeks with horseradish and a shallot confit) were incredibly delicious and fantastic value for the money. We loved it so much that we made the drive back to Strasbourg for a second meal the following month – it’s just that good!
After finishing our meals (and several glasses of picon beer and Alsatian wine between us), we continued our exploration of the Grande-Île on the Rue des Dentelles. This street – a charming promenade lined by tall, earthen-hued apartments once housing Strasbourg’s thriving lace production industry – is one of the loveliest in the city center.
Within minutes, the beautiful facade of the Eglise Lutherienne Saint-Thomas (St. Thomas Church) came into view. Located on the site of an ancient church dedicated to Thomas the Apostle in the early 6th century, the present-day eglise – completed in 1521 – played an important role in the Protestant Reformation of Alsace. Affectionately referred to by Strasbourg residents as the “petite fille de la cathédrale” (“daughter of the cathedral”), its bells have -in an effort to be heard before those of the cathedral – tolled the hour 4 minutes early for the past 400 years. Lovers of classical music will enjoy a peek at the church’s spectacular organs, including a 1741 Silbermann played by Mozart in 1778.
After leaving the Church of Saint-Thomas, we headed northeast in the direction of Place Gutenberg and the Cathédrale Notre-Dame. The place – a small square dedicated to German inventor Johannes Gutenberg (1398-1468), creator of the moveable type printing press – features a heavily oxidized bronze statue of its namesake, a variety of cafes and restaurants, and the city’s Chambre de Commerce et d’Industrie. Although we neglected to snap a photo of it (bad bloggers!), the square also houses a vibrant, modern carousel popular with young tourists.
The looming facade of the cathedral – the world’s tallest building from 1647 to 1874; today the highest extant structure built entirely in the Middle Ages (1015-1439) – came into view only moments after leaving Place Gutenberg. The western aspect, described by Victor Hugo as a “gigantic and delicate marvel” and by Goethe as a “sublimely towering, wide-spreading tree”, is indeed a veritable masterpiece of Gothic architecture and design. It was truly an astounding and overwhelming sight to behold.
After wandering through the Place de la Cathédrale for several minutes, trying (in vain) to photographically capture the cathedral in its exquisite entirety, we ducked inside to admire the breathtaking beauty of the interior.
The Palais Rohan – former residence of the prince-bishops and cardinals of the House of Rohan – stands directly adjacent to the cathedral on its southern flank. Although we didn’t have time to explore the palace on this visit (a shame, as it looked spectacular!), it’s undoubtedly worth several hours of exploration on a future trip to Strasbourg. Considered a major historical, cultural and architectural landmark, it today houses the city’s most important museums: the Musée Archéologique (Archaeological Museum), the Musée des Arts Décoratifs (Museum of Decorative Arts), and Musée des Beaux-Arts (Museum of Fine Arts).
Another significant landmark in the Place de la Cathédrale – the magnificent Maison Kammerzell – stands in the northwest corner of the square. This well-preserved burgher’s house – built in 1427 but twice transformed in 1467 and 1589 – is widely regarded as one of the finest remaining examples of medieval civil housing in the late Gothic style. Considered a gem of Alsatian architecture, Kammerzell House features a stone foundation, three half-timbered upper floors, 75 bottle-bottomed stained glass windows, interior allegorical frescoes and highly embellished exterior ornamentation. Today, the maison hosts a modern hotel and restaurant.
As we headed in the direction of our final destination – Place Kléber – we began to feel a bit famished. (Yes, we’d just eaten lunch, but who can – or would, in their right mind – refuse readily available French pastry?) We ducked into a patisserie on the corner of Rue des Serruriers and Rue de la Division Leclerc, purchased croissants au buerre and a sablé à la confiture (que magnifique!) and continued on our way, admiring the wares of local merchants along the Rue des Grandes Arcades.
Our journey through the Grande-Île – 2 1/2 hours of leisurely exploration on foot (not including lunch) – concluded in Place Kléber, Strasbourg’s largest central square and heart of the city’s commercial district. Named for (and final resting place of) French Revolutionary War general Jean-Baptiste Kléber, the square is a popular destination in the winter months during Strasbourg’s famed Christkindelsmärik. This Christmas market – established in 1570 and widely considered one of the finest in Europe – draws 2 million visitors to the Alsatian capital each year. Alas, we experienced every amateur travel photographer’s worst nightmare (also known as a dead camera battery) minutes before entering the square, and weren’t able to capture a single image. You’ll simply have to take our word for it that Place Kléber – with its excellent people-watching, luxury brand shopping, and 18th-century palace – is well worth a visit on any trip to Strasbourg!
For those interested in exploring these sites, we did so following the walking route below (starting at the red dot and heading in a westerly direction).
Thank you for viewing! – T. & B. June
Next week’s journey: Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque – Oman