Last Updated on October 1, 2023

From the moment we entered Strasbourg, my wife and I knew we were in for a magical journey into Europe’s rich and storied past. One of the premiere stops on our Rhine River Cruise, Strasbourg, France, with its well-preserved medieval, timbered architecture, tranquil canals, and inviting cafes immediately captured our hearts in a way that guaranteed a return visit.

As the largest port on the Upper Rhine, Strasbourg is the cultural center of France’s Alsace region. Home to 285,000 residents, this romantic gem exudes a powerful Old-World charm that beguiles all who visit.

Strasbourg’s history is rich and diverse with a fascinating Franco-German heritage due to its border location. This unique blend of cultural influences has deeply shaped the city’s remarkable character, architecture, and traditions.

Strasbourg History

Strasbourg is one of Europe’s oldest cities, beginning as the Roman frontier settlement of Argentoratum in 12 BC. Suffering through Alemannic and Hunnish invasions, the devastated city was incorporated into the Carolingian kingdoms of Clovis, Charlemagne, and their descendants beginning in 496. In 870, the Germans annexed Alsace and Strasbourg became part of the Holy Roman Empire.

The city endured medieval religious and political quarrels that pitted rival artisan, Episcopal, Catholic, and Martin Luther-inspired Reformation forces against one another at various times. In 1681, the city reverted back to French control for the next 200 years. Since 1870, Strasbourg has repeatedly changed hands between France and Germany during times of war.

In late November 1944, French forces drove out Nazi Germany troops, cementing France’s enduring claim to Strasbourg and the Alsace region. Nineteen fourty-nine marked Strasbourg as the home of the newly established Foundation of the Council of Europe. The European Parliament held its first session in Strasbourg in 1979 and the city was designated as the permanent seat of this European Union (EU) Parliament.

Touring Strasbourg

Old Town Strasbourg.
Old Town Strasbourg. Photo by Michael Kompanik

Our guided tour began with a drive past the sites of the Neustadt that lay along the Ill River just beyond the historic downtown. The Neustadt (German for “New Town”) district of Strasbourg was created by the Germans during the Reichsland period of 1871–1918 to serve as a new city center. In contrast to the old town on the Grande Île with its narrow and crooked streets and few squares, the new town was constructed with monumental boulevards and broad, rectilinear streets.

We observed the varied architectural styles present in the Neustadt, many on a grand scale: Baroque Revival, Renaissance Revival, Gothic Revival, Romanesque Revival, and often a mixture of several, or all of these styles, including the more modern Franco-German blended Art Nouveau.

Among the most impressive structures were the Palais du Rhin, former palace of the German Emperors, the University Palace housing an observatory, the zoological museum, and the botanical garden, the National and University Library, the National Theatre of Strasbourg, the former Parliament building of Alsace-Lorraine, the Palais de Justice, the Palais des Fêtes, St Paul’s Church, the Strasbourg railway station, and Hôtel Brion.

The Neustadt is also home to numerous other landmarks and monuments. In 2017, the heart of the district was listed as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO, making it an extension of the site including the older city centre (Grande Île) and Strasbourg Cathedral.

Old Town

Old Town, the historic center of the city sits on the Grande Île, nestled in the arms of the River Ill, a tributary of the Rhine. This compact neighborhood is deeply rooted in history and is easily walkable. 

Many of Strasbourg’s most impressive and historical sites are found here and there is something to see along every avenue and around every bend.  Here resides numerous historic churches and cathedrals including the imposing Strasbourg Cathedrale Notre Dame, the Municipal Opera Theatre, and the charming canal-lined neighborhood of La Petit France.

La Petit France

Flowered canal house in La Petite France.
Flowered canal house in La Petite France. Photo by Michael Kompanik

Our tour of the Old Town began with the picturesque section called La Petit France. This charming district of lovely postcard-perfect canals, half-timbered houses, covered bridges, flower boxes and pathways, literally takes your breath away. La Petit France appears like it just stepped out of a story book. Every building, every tower, and every waterway is a worthy photo stop.

Its name, however, has a history far from idyllic. It was named after the French hospital that once stood here, treating 15th century largely French troop patients who suffered from the “French disease,” otherwise known as syphilis. 

Time has been kind to this district. Once home to the tanners’ quarter, many large half-timbered structures still sport the large openings to aid tanners drying their hides hanging inside. The largest, the Tanner’s House (Maison des Tanneurs), was once the seat of the tanner’s guild.

Many of these decorative multi-story homes feature elaborate exterior timbered trim in a dazzling variety of styles, catching the eye in every direction.

The four canals are linked by covered bridges, medieval towers that were once fortified, a lock dam, and pleasant little squares. At least one street showcases fashionably painted homes in a variety of pastel hues, adding a splash of color to accompany the flower-filled boxes lining the canal paths and hanging from timbered windows.

As we explored Le Petit France strolling through its narrow cobblestone streets, we came across hidden courtyards, charming shops, and enjoyed innumerable picture-perfect moments.

Another popular method of touring this delightful neighborhood and one we will enjoy on a return trip is to enjoy the district by open air tourist boats. These popular craft offer a distinctly different and relaxing perspective from which to enjoy the many sites and sounds of the storybook land known as La Petit France.

Cathedral of Notre Dame

Stained glass windows of Strasbourg Cathedral.
Stained glass windows of Strasbourg Cathedral. Photo by Michael Kompanik

Also referred to as the Strasbourg Cathedral, this imposing structure with its 142-meter spire was described by Victor Hugo as “a giant and delicate marvel.” Perhaps even this is an understatement.

The massive cathedral towers over the city, its incredibly elaborate façade complete with gargoyles.

It projects such power and majesty that Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, the famous German poet, playwright, novelist, scientist, and statesman, liked to greet the sunrise from its high platform.

Construction of this superb Gothic treasure spanned four centuries, commencing in 1176 and ending with the completion of the towering spire in 1439. It remained the highest structure in Christendom until the 19th century when it was surpassed by the cathedral towers of Ulm and Cologne.

The main portal entrance and stunning interior of the cathedral are in no way diminished by its imposing exterior. Its three portals are framed by delicate double gables and a massive six-petalled rose stain-glassed window dominates the second story.

The 64-meter-long and 32-meter-high nave sports narrow arches that soar gracefully to the heavens. The nave is surprisingly well lit in the golden brilliance of the bright colors from its original stained-glass windows.

While widely considered to be among the finest examples of Rayonnant Gothic Architecture, the cathedral still retains some earlier Romanesque elements, most notably in the dome over the choir and the tympana on the south portals.

One of the cathedral’s most impressive features is its famous astronomical clock, complete with automated figures that parade before a Christ figure every day at 12:30 pm to receive His blessings. We were fortunate to be there inside to observe this spectacle that dates back to 1570.

Astronomical Clock in Strasbourg Cathedral.
Astronomical Clock in Strasbourg Cathedral. Photo by Michael Kompanik

Place de la Cathédrale

Also known as Cathedral Square, this ancient public square surrounds the Strasbourg Cathedral and is home to several other sites worth visiting.

The Maison Kammerzell is a massive, ornate half-timbered home built in 1571 on the northwest corner of the square. Its 75 windows are framed by secular and religiously themed sculptures portraying biblical, mythological and zodiac characters.

The Pharmacie du Cerf’ building is the oldest pharmacy in France. Its bottom stone floor dates back to the 13th century while its attractive upper half-timbered floors were built in 1567. Both structures foundational ground floors feature medieval arches.   

Alsatian Cuisine

We made it a point not to leave Strasbourg without tasting some of their local specialties such as choucroute (sauerkraut), and my wife’s favorite —tarte flambée (also known as flammekueche in German). Made in various styles featuring bacon, onion and crème fraîche, this French pizza is especially popular.

Pairing them with local wines added an unforgettable romantic touch to an Alsatian European culinary adventure.

Other Noteworthy sites and attractions

We had only four hours in which to sample as many Strasbourg treasures as we could. While we did not have the opportunity to visit the following places, they are definitely on our list when – not if – we return.

Strasbourg Historical Museum

This museum offers insights into the fascinating and complex history of Strasbourg and the Alsace region. It’s a great place to learn more about the city’s storied past.

Strasbourg’s Christmas Market

We lived in Europe for several years and recently enjoyed a spectacular Danube River Christkindlmarkt Cruise. If you visit during the holiday season, Strasbourg is famous for its Christmas markets, which are some of the oldest in Europe.  

Palais Rohan

This beautiful palace houses several museums including the Strasbourg Museum of Fine Arts, Decorative Arts Museum, and Archaeological Museum.

Museum of Alsace

Showcases the culture and history of the Alsace region through exhibits of traditional costumes, crafts, and everyday life.

The Alsatian Wine Route

Strasbourg is located in the heart of the Alsace wine region. Consider taking a day trip to explore the picturesque vineyards and taste some of the region’s renowned wines.

Strasbourg is one if those special places that leaves an indelible mark on your soul and beckons you to return. It’s a city with a rich cultural heritage, stunning Old-World ambiance, and a certain magic that simply put, is impossible to forget or get out of your system.  

Author

  • Michael Kompanik

    Michael Kompanik is a retired Navy CAPT and San Diego freelance journalist. His love of Europe began with his NATO assignment to Naples, Italy in the 90s where he traveled extensively to 17 European countries. Since then, trips to Europe are always on his radar.

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