What to see in Strasbourg, the city with two souls

average
delicious cakes, wine and beer!
February 2018
a weekend

When last summer I spent 3 days in Alsace, between Colmar and the surrounding villages, I came back home with a weird feeling: was I really leaving Alsace skipping its main city?
This desire didn't leave me for few months until I decided to buy myself a birthday present: a weekend abroad with my best friends 😊 Me and Valentina were departing from London, Daniela from Naples. Where to meet halfway? Strasbourg, of course!

How to get to Strasbourg

This time I haven't chosen the easiest way, just because we had to meet Daniela at the airport: London has direct flights to Strasbourg, while Naples doesn't. So I choose Basel airport, within easy reach from both cities.
EuroAirport Basel-Mulhouse-Freiburg is located on the border between France and Switzerland: once landed you need to follow the signs to the French exit.
Right outside the arrivals you'll find the bus stop; take the bus n.11 and in 10 minutes you'll get to St. Louis station (you can buy the bus ticket on board, it's €2.50 - better to carry coins with you). At St. Louis station you'll need to take a regional train to Strasbourg, the rail operator is called TER and it takes about one hour. Trains depart more or less every 30 mins during the week, every hour during the weekend: you can find flyers with train schedules at the station. The ticket is €23.80 per person each way, or at least that's what we paid at St.Louis: at Strasbourg station, instead, buying the return ticket, we got the 2X1 discount, paying €11.90 each. Therefore I suggest you to ask info at the station before buying your tickets.

Where to sleep in Strasbourg

This time I wanted to choose a hotel as close to the city centre as possible, so that we could walk around the city both day and night. Le Kleber Hotel is perfect: it's located on Place Kleber, opposite Galeries Lafayette and 10 minutes walking from all major attractions. Clean, comfortable, stylish and fairly priced: €198 for a triple room for 2 nights, same as €33 each per night!

What to visit in Strasbourg

Strasbourg looks like a large island, mainly because it's surrounded by the Ill river (read ILL). Most of the sites of interest are located in the historic centre, called Grande Île, a place that looks like to have been frozen in time and is on the UNESCO World Heritage List. Unlike the historic centres of Colmar and the Alsatian villages, the one in Strasbourg is enhanced with many monuments, churches, little shops, breweries and bakeries.

Let's see together what's interesting in Strasbourg 😊

Petite France

We arrived in Strasbourg late afternoon, left our luggage at the hotel and made an early taste of Alsatian food and beer (I'll get through it at the end of this post), then we headed to the most typical part of the city, Petite France.
Formerly populated by tanners, millers and fishermen, this district is named after a hospital, built in the late 15th century, treating French soldiers affected with syphilis.
Although its origin does not link to good memories, today Petite France crawls with tourists, locals and photographers looking for the best point of view to snap a picture. The houses, in fact, perfectly suit this purpose: half-timbered, coloured, some of them still decorated since last Christmas, often reflecting in the canals. Too pretty! 😍

Cathedrale de Notre Dame de Strasbourg

Strolling around the streets of the city centre our attention got catch by the majestic Cathedrale de Notre Dame de Strasbourg, impressively lit in golden light.
Victor Hugo was right when he described the Cathedral as a "huge and delicate wonder".
We were petrified by that Gothic prominence and beauty, I snapped some night pics and we promised to come back the following day.

As promised, the morning after we began our exploration of Strasbourg right from its Cathedral.
The portal of the façade, a masterpiece of the gothic era, is considered the largest Bible of the Middle Ages: the door is carved with some detailed episodes of Jesus' life. Getting closer and closer to the door and looking up made me feel tiny and useless!

The Cathedral was built from the pink sandstone of the Vosges mountains closeby: this is where its unique colour comes from.

Strasbourg, like many other cities, has been enriched by the Gothic Cathedral but did not succeed, during the Middle Ages, to complete the works, leaving it incomplete also because of the huge size of the project.

The difference between Notre Dame de Strasbourg and many other Gothic Cathedrals is, in fact, the evident lack of one of the two bell towers, that gives a strong asymmetrical effect to the overall view.

We didn't miss the opportunity to climb the top of the Cathedral, on the observation deck, where we enjoyed a beautiful top view of the city! The ticket costs €5 each and we had to climb a good 332 spiral steps!
Tip: take a long breath and avoid looking back if you suffer from vertigo 😅

With a total height of 142 meters, the Cathedral has been for over 230 years, between 1600 and 1800, the tallest building in the world. Today it is the sixth tallest church in the world and can even be seen from the Vosges Mountains and the Black Forest.

Fun fact: During the French Revolution the rebels wanted to tear down the Cathedral spire because, with its height, offended the ideal of equality. A blacksmith, however, to save it from destruction, came up with the brilliant idea to put a huge red phrygian hat on, made out of metal sheet and left up there until 1802.
The Phrygian hat is a cone-shaped red headwear with the top bent forward (same as the one worn by Papa Smurf 😂), worn by the convicts of Marseille during the French Revolution. Probably for this reason, in addition to its historical relevance of change and freedom, the phrygian hat was then adopted as a symbol of the revolution itself.

Back on the ground, we visited the Cathedral from inside.

Admission times: from 7 a to 11.20 am and from 12.40 pm to 7 pm, free entry!

The astronomical clock, located at the back of the Cathedral, plays a leading role. Being broken for many years, in the XVI century Jean Baptiste Schwilgue managed to bring it back to life thanks to deep studies in mechanics. Unfortunately, we have not been able to see it working because it was under refurbishment 😞

The huge rose window, the stained glasses, and the beautiful representation of Jesus's life enrich the Cathedral and diverted our attention from the astronomical clock scaffolding.

Notre Dame lived a dark period during the II World War: in 1940 Hitler himself visited the Cathedral in detail, contemplating for a long time its architectural beauties. Leaving the Cathedral he asked his soldiers: "What do you think, gentlemen, are we going to return this jewel to France?". They said: "Never!"
Strasbourg and the whole Alsace destiny was sealed: after this visit Hitler personally decided to forbid Catholic worship in the Cathedral, which remained closed for 4 years until the liberation of Strasbourg on November 23, 1944.

Place du Marché-Gayot

Leaving the Cathedral we decided to wander for a while, getting lost on the streets of the city.
Nearby we found Place du Marché-Gayot, a cute and super-colourful little square populated by half-timbered houses, a few bars, a Christmas tree with lights still on 😍 Super photogenic!

Place de Gutenberg

To the east of the Cathedral we found Place de Gutenberg, very popular during winter for the Christmas markets.
At the centre of the square there's a bronze statue of Gutenberg, the man who invented press and lived in Strasbourg from 1434 to 1444. The statue holds a parchment saying: "And there was light".

The building behind the statue is called Neue Bau, it's Strasbourg former town hall and current Chamber of Commerce; once the square was the city centre of political and social life.

Interesting fact: the French national anthem, Song for the Army of the Rhine, known today as "La Marseillaise", was composed in Strasbourg on April 25th, 1792 by Claude Joseph Rouget de Lisle, during a dinner organized by the mayor of the city.

European Council

Over the centuries Strasbourg has long been fought over France and Germany; in about 75 years, i.e. between the first French-Prussian conflict, through the First and then the Second World War, the city passed 4 times from one country to another.
That's why Strasbourg became a symbol of peace for French and German population, a city with double culture, with an idea of European unity that helped to gain, in 1949, the reputation of Political Capital of EU.

Leaving the historic centre and walking north-east, on the road parallel to the river called Allee de la Robertsau, there's a parade of elegant villas where the deputies of all the countries of the European Union stay.
At the end of the road we found European Parliament, European Council and the Human Rights Building.

Parc de l'Orangerie

Opposite the European Council there's Parc de l'Orangerie, a beautiful park with ponds and little waterfalls. Of course, in winter any park is not that exciting, with cold, mud and bare trees, but the thing that pushed me the most to enter was the fact that you can find storks, animal symbol of the city, flying freely and nesting on trees! It's been a thrill to see them for the first time, so close, carrying twigs from tree to tree and doing weird noise with their beak!
In an enclosure, in the middle of the park, we also found flamingoes, same here: first time for me!

Boat tour

Another very interesting, relaxing and fun thing to do is a boat ride on the river Ill. The tour company is called Batorama, there's a small shop in Place de la Cathedrale where you can check departure times and buy tickets.

Warning: at high tide boats will not depart, so always check with the kind lady at the ticket office. In fact, we had to wait for Sunday morning, before going back to the airport, because on Saturday the service was suspended all day long.

A ticket is €13 each, the tour lasts 70mins and takes you from Petit France to the European quarter with an interesting audio guide. A tour leaves every hour.

In addition to the fascinating history of Strasbourg, full of details and stories especially during the Fascist period, the audio guide also explains how a canal lock works, just as our boat approaches to pass from one height to another. Sailing from Quai des Batelliers to Petite France, at one point the boat slips into a narrow channel and stop in front of a high gate: beyond the canal continues, but 1.80 meters higher. How do we get on?
To overcome the height difference, another gate closes hermetically behind us, the front gate opens up letting 360 k litres of water enter: in this way the boat slowly gets up reaching the same level as the canal beyond! How cool is that! 😃

Sailing towards the European district we also saw Neustadt, the "new city", built after the war in 1870 by the German emperor who made Strasbourg the capital of the Reichsland of Alsace and Lorraine.

Where to eat in Strasbourg

But let's get to the most delicious and happy topic: where and what to eat in Strasbourg 😁
First of all, I'll have to say that I was quite down-hearted because last year Colmar left me disappointed with the typical dishes, the crowds found in restaurants and the high prices. Generally, when I have little or no expectations, there is always some sort of surprise! Indeed...

Breakfast at our hotel wasn't included in the price (€9 extra per person), but no harm done: we couldn't wait to sit in a patisserie and taste the legendary French croissants!

  • Breakfast: Atelier 116, 116 Gran Rue
    They make the best croissant and pan au chocolat ever! It's a little and cosy bakery on the high street, with free wifi, places to sit, their staff is friendly and quick. Prices are not too bad, as well: we bought 2 cappuccinos, 1 tea, 2 croissants, 1 pan au chocolat and 1 lemon tart for €15 in total.

  • Lunch: Flam's Freres, 29 Rue des Frères
    it's a little restaurant specialized in Flammekueche, a kind of Alsatian pizza, very thin and crispy, it can be savoury or sweet. Flammekueche is a typical dish, you cannot miss it! Or you can try some Spaetzles, a kind of baked gnocchi with cheese and bacon (I hope you know what gnocchi are!). A Flam costs around €5-6, a plate of Spaetzles €8.

  • Dinner/beer: Troquet des Kneckes , 112 Gran Rue
    this is a really cool pub, on the high street close to Atelier 116. I had a burger with pulled pork in a pretzel dough (its name is waedele burger dans son pain bretzel), it was delicious! And 1 litre of beer 😊 This pub is full of young people, they have table football and thousands of random bits and bobs hanging on the walls 😊
    Strasbourg is actually full of microbreweries, so just stroll around the city and let the windows inspire you 😉

  • Winery: Le XX Bar a vins, 3 Rue des Planches
    it's a 20 minutes walk from the city centre, their bottles of wine are slightly cheaper than those of the wineries in the city centre. If you like white wine, I recommend Cremant d'Alsace: it's light, fresh, and bubbly, almost like a Prosecco. We took 2 plates of cured meats and 2 bottles of Cremant (we had to celebrate my birthday! 😊): €32 for the bottle and €8 for the cured meat plate.
    Cheers! 😁

Conclusive notes

Why going to Strasbourg?
Strasbourg has a half French and half German soul. With the second largest university in France, after Paris, it's a city filled with young people: clubs are open until late, it's easily walkable and cyclable, there are loads of micro-breweries. Prices are fair, food is good (especially sweets!) and you'll never get bored. Perfect for a fun weekend with friends, but also romantic especially in the Petite France area. Talking about that makes me want to come back! 😍

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