10 Best Things to do in Strasbourg: History, Culture, and Food

10 Best Things to do in Strasbourg: History, Culture, and Food

Buschur ! or Hallo ! You may be able to tell, that is not French or German. Instead, it is a language called Alsacian, as we are visiting Strasbourg, France. And it could easily have been Strasbourg, Germany. With plenty of things to do, beautiful architecture and places to see, it is no wonder that both countries wanted Strasbourg so much.

One of the most beautiful cities in the world, Strasbourg in Alsace, is defined by its location on the French-German border and the precarities of war in this part of the world.

Warning:

Now, if you are thinking of going to Strasbourg on a day-trip from Paris, let me stop you right here. Just because Strasbourg is nearby (2 hours by high-speed train) doesn’t mean you should. It is like visiting in New York and going to Boston on a day trip. There is so much to see and experience in Strasbourg that you would sell yourself short if try to squeeze it into a day trip from Paris. It’s charm and vibe is completely different from Paris, and there is so much more to see in Alsace.

Just my 2 cents, but let’s explore why, shall we?

History of Strasbourg in Alsace

i) Prehistory to the Middle Ages

Nobody is entirely sure how old Strasbourg is. Located on the Rhine River, excavations have found artificats from as early as the Neolithic era (12000BC). Everyone from the Celts, the Huns, the Franks, to the Romans have settled in the area.

In the 9th century, the city was known as Strazburg. It was around this time that roots of conflict between the French and German were sown. They say that every European is related to Charlamagne and his many children, so perhaps we can blame him for the centuries of dispute.

Charlamagne ruled vast portions of what is today France and Germany, but upon his death, his descendants started squabbling. In 842 AD, two of his grandsons, Louis of East Francia (Germany) and Charles of West Francia (France), decided to sign a treaty called the Oath of Strasbourg. Their goal was to oppose their older brother Lothair of Middle Francia whose lands were, you might have guessed, in the middle (the area including Alsace and Strasbourg).

The Oath of Strasbourg was written up in multiple languages: Medieval Latin, Old French, and Old German. (Presumably the brothers all grew up speaking one language, but then had to translate it for their regional armies!)

When Lothair died, the brothers divided the land between each other and continued to duke it out, with Louis the German and his descendants gaining Strasbourg.

ii) The Renaissance

Around 1333, Strasbourg got tired of the tug-of-war and declared itself a “Free Republic” within the Holy Roman Empire of which it now found itself a part of. This lasted until 1681 when the Sun King Louis XIV of France (the builder of Chateau de Versailles), decided to annex the city during the Nine Year War led by Austria and the Holy Roman Empire.

At the time, he was the most powerful leader in Europe, and could not be contested. He did, however, leave the city its special status as a “Free City”.

iii) The French Revolution and subsequent wars

The 1789 French Revolution was not kind to Strasbourg, with its special status being revoked, and the city’s great monuments almost destroyed to the ground.

And just as they were finished rebuilding would come the great wars. In a span of 80 years, Strasbourg ping-ponged 4 times between European countries more powerful than themselves:

  • The Franco-Prussian War of 1870 where he city was heavily bombarded, and then absorbed into the new German Empire.
  • World War I, when France took back Alsace as part of the German settlement of the War in 1919 as part of the Treaty of Versailles.
  • World War II, when German Nazi soldiers invaded from 1939 to 1944 and annexed the city.
  • After the war, when Strasbourg went back to France in 1944 as a gesture of reconciliation between France and Germany.

In recognition of its special importance between France and Germany, Strasbourg today is one of the 3 capitals of the European Union, along with Brussels and Luxembourg.

10 Best Things to do in Strasbourg, France

things to do in Strasbourg: the Cathedral

1. Notre Dame de Strasbourg Cathedral

One of the oldest gothic cathedrals in the world, along with the Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris. With its elaborate astrological clock and red sandstone surface, a visit to the Cathedral is a must.

During the middle ages, it was considered the tallest structure in the world. Heavily damaged by U.S. and British jets in World War II, renovations were only completed in the early 1990s.

At certain times of the year, there is a light show in the evenings, so be sure to check their schedule.

2. La Petite France

No list of the top things to do in Strasbourg could be complete without the historic center of Strasbourg. These quaint little streets and half-timbered buildings date from the 16th and 17th centuries. If you like Instagram, this is where you will spend all your time. This is probably the most photogenic area, in a city that is quite photogenic in general.

Located on the west bank of the Grand Ile, the area was named not for patriotic reasons, but because of a syphilis hospital, then called Franzosenkrankheit (“French disease”) in German. Talk about killing the romance!

Grand Ile Strasbourg
Architecture on the Grand Ile, Strasbourg

3. Grand Ile and Les Ponts Couverts

The Grand Ile is the large island that is in the heart of Strasbourg, and who can have an island without a few bridges? This area is dotted with many small bridges, some dating from the medieval age.

Les Ponts Couverts are a set of three bridges and four towers that were erected in the 13th century. You can walk across the Pont, which is usually open between 9-7pm. Access is free.

Barrage Vauban Strasbourg France
Barrage Vauban – Courtesy of Claude Truong-Ngoc for Wikipedia

4. Barrage Vauban

Right next to Les Ponts Couverts is the Barrage Vauban, which is a barrage constructed in 1690. It is basically like an artificial barrier that, in the event of an attack, can be lowered to raise the level of the river. This would flood all the lands south of the city, making them impassable to the enemy.

This defensive measure was deployed in 1870, when Strasbourg was besieged by Prussian forces during the Franco-Prussian War.

5. European Parliament

Another interesting thing to do in Strasbourg is to visit the European Parliament building. This modern building is the official seat of the EU, where the ministers sit. It was chosen as a point of pride for France while also demonstrating the EU reconciliation with Germany.

Meanwhile, parliamentary committees were to have their meetings in Brussels and the Secretariat (its staff) are based in Luxembourg. This is all quite controversial since obviously it costs quite a bit of money to transfer people and resources to Strasbourg once a year, when Parliament is seated.

So visit it while you still can, because this modern building could soon be abandoned in favor of Brussels if costs continue to spiral!

Place Kleber at Christmas

6. Central Squares and Pedestrian area in Strasbourg

Strasbourg has a large pedestrian shopping area, with many charming squares such as Place Kleber and Place de la Republique. There are several well-known shops in this area as well as restaurants with open-air terraces that are always open to customers. Put on your walking shoes and warm up your credit card!

7. Boat cruise on the Rhine River

Take an hour-long cruise along the Rhine River, which goes past all the main sights of Strasbourg noted above. With headphones, you can listen to commentary in any language you want (even Alsacien!). Departure point is near the Notre Dame Cathedral, just behind Palais Rohan.

8. The Museums

There are many museums in Strasbourg, but with the town’s beautiful architecture, I confess, we were more taken on our last visit with sightseeing than visiting museums. However, if you choose the following museums are excellent:

  • Palais Rohan – Palais Rohan is the former residence of the prince-bishops and cardinals of the House of Rohan. The building today houses 3 museums, the Archaeological Museum (Musée archéologique), the Museum of Decorative Arts (Musée des arts décoratifs) and the Museum of Fine Arts (Musée des beaux-arts). Access is free.
  • Musée Alsacien – The Alsatian Museum contains over 5000 exhibits from pre-industrial and early industrial Alsace. It also includes the reconstruction of the interiors of several traditional houses and has a collection of artifacts documenting the everyday life of Alsatian Jews.
  • Musée Historique de Strasbourg – Museum dedicated to the history of Strasbourg, including everything from military equipment to paintings and sculptures from the Middle ages to the 18th Century.
Sausages and Choucroute in Strasbourg
Sausages and Choucroute in Strasbourg

9. Have some Sausages and Choucroute

You cannot come to Alsace and not have some Sausages and Choucroute on your bucket list of things to do. Choucroute is pickled cabagges cooked in white wine, similar to the German sauerkraut. If you don’t eat sausages, you can also pair the Choucroute with salmon or trout.

10. Sit on a terrasse by the water and enjoy an Alsacien Wine or Beer

Wash down your meal with some local Reisling white wine or have a beer. Alsace is the main beer-producing region in France, with many breweries and microbreweries based around Strasbourg. There are many different beers, so don’t be afraid to ask your bartender.

To make the most of your visit, here are some options that should book in advance, so that you don’t miss out:

Frequently Asked Questions

How to get to Strasbourg, France?

It takes a little under 2 hours to get to Strasbourg by high-speed train, from either Paris or Frankfurt. The city is the seat of the European Parliament (which you can visit) and other European institutions.  The city also has a small international airport, with flights from neighboring cities in Europe and Northern Africa.

How many days should you stay in Strasbourg?

I would recommend spending at least 2 nights in Strasbourg. Some people try to squeeze this all in a day trip from Paris, but I don’t recommend this. It is so different from the other parts of France and there is so much to see, that I recommend at least 2 days of visiting, including the day you arrive.

Are there recommended day trips to take from Strasbourg?

Yes, there are many lovely villages around as well as a wine route. You can visit the Haut-Koenigsbourg Castle, wander through nearby villages of Riquewihr and Kayserberg. I recommend taking a tour to make the most of your visit.

When to visit Strasbourg?

Strasbourg is lovely at any time of the year. There is a famous Christmas market in December which is magnificent, but if you don’t like crowds, it is better to go at another time of the year. 
Summers are warm and lovely, but beware the tourists. With fewer crowds, Fall or Spring are absolutely lovely in Strasbourg. Note, there is a mini-Oktoberfest or “Fête de la bière” in Strasbourg, influenced by its German neighbor.

Where to stay in Strasbourg?

The pedestrian area in Strasbourg is quite walkable, so anywhere around there is quite accessible. The city is usually considered quite safe to walk around at night, but as in all things, common sense applies!
I would recommend staying somewhere between Strasbourg Cathedral and the train station, such as:

Booking.com
10 Best Things to do in Strasbourg: History, Culture, and Food 1

Insiders’ Tips for Strasbourg, France

If you do happen to be in Strasbourg in December for the Christmas markets, be sure to make a stop in Lyon as well. Lyon has an excellent light festival running the 2nd week of December, so I definitely recommend making a stop there as well.

So have you been inspired to travel to Strasbourg? What are you looking forward to the most? Comment below and let me know!

A bientôt !

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