At the end of September, I visited Strasbourg for a few days. It was my first trip there and I was excited to experience this ancient city which was designated as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1988. It is also the seat of the European Parliament, the Council of Europe and the International Institute of Human Rights, which I think has created a wonderful blend of the old and new both in culture and architecture. Situated in Eastern France near the German boarder, Strasbourg has been disputed by both countries for centuries and thus its culture and architecture are highly influenced by both. While the official language is French, German is spoken frequently throughout the city.
Surrounded by the River Ill the overall feel of the city is still medieval with narrow cobblestone streets and timber framed buildings all centered around the massive sandstone Gothic Cathedral of Notre-Dame. A walk along the river’s edge allows you to circle the entire city in a short period of time. Unlike the Seine in Paris, where the river is bordered by wide walkways which can accommodate vehicles, the Ill has narrow banks that are covered with grass and flowers. At first I was afraid of getting lost, but then I remembered that some of the best parts of traveling come from getting lost and the discoveries that then result. I allowed myself to just wander enjoying the ebb and flow of narrow alleys to wide streets and then large plazas. At the end of my first day I found a great restaurant not three doors down from were I was staying. Chez Yvonne. I was warmly greeted and they gave me a wonderful table in a small and comfortable room even though I was by myself. The dinner was delightful and I later discovered that this is quite a famous restaurant having entertained world leaders like French Presidents François Mitterrand and Jacques Chirac and Russian President Boris Yeltsin. Being the creature of habit that I am, I took the rest of my dinners there and was not at all disappointed. During my stay I found that walking was the best way of getting around. Wear comfortable shoes and let yourself see all there is to see from your own two feet.
The Batorama is a boat tour that I took (the only time I didn’t walk) that I highly recommend. They offer three different tours, short, medium and long. I chose the long tour which circles the city center and then moves up the river to the European Institute. It is an hour and 15 minutes and at €12.50 it is well worth it. Each seat on the open air boat has its own headset which offers the audio guide in 16 different languages. Along with seeing the city from the river, which is stunning, you will also be treated to the two lochs which was really cool.
At 466 feet, the Cathedral Notre-Dame has the distinction of having been the tallest building in the world from 1647 to 1874 and is still the highest extant structure still standing built entirely in the middle ages. It is a massive building with intricate designs both inside and out. Entrance to the interior is free but I also opted to pay the €5 to trek up the narrow spiral staircase that consists of 332 steps. With my fear of heights, I was pushed to my limit as I made my way up the tiny stone steps. The solid stone walls gave way to narrow openings providing a nauseating view of the city below. But I persevered and made it to the viewing platform which of course brought on more dizzying bouts of fear. I creeped my way to the edge and managed to take a few photos. Proud of myself, I started to the second staircase for what I thought would be an easy walk back down – WRONG! To my horror, it was even harder walking back down due to the windows that were cut into the walls. On the way up I could avoid looking out of them by focusing on the center of the staircase. This was more difficult to do on the return trip and I was forced to stop on several occasions to recover my senses. The things I will do to get a good picture.
The European Institute, Parc de l’Orangerie and Pavillon Joséphine are all a short 20 minute walk from the city center. If you follow the river path, it will take a little bit longer, but the view is incredible. Along the way you will see St. Paul Church, the Arte TV building, the European Parliament and the Counsel of Europe. They are all architectural marvels and worth the time to see. Pavillon Joséphine and Parc de l’Orangerie were built for Napoleon’s Joséphine, but according the the Batorama tour, she never visited. The Pavillon is nice, but the l’Orangerie is definitely worth the trip. Beautifully maintained, there is a large area with trees, grass and quiet paths. There is also a serene lake with duck, two grand swans and a grotto with waterfall. I spent about two hours just sitting and enjoying the view. In the afternoon they have small boats that you can rent and go out on the lake.
Petit France is not to be missed. Probably my favorite part of the city, it has some of the most amazing structures dating back to the 17th century. Also very popular with tourists, I was surprised to find it not crowded. It is packed with cafes, restaurants and specialty shops that are sure to delight even the most finicky tourist. Enjoy an afternoon drink at the cafe in the Place B. Zix with a view of the canal and see how time just seems to slow down. I bought some of the most delectable ginger bread at Mireille OSTER and found another year round Christmas ornament store that will blow your mind (no photos allowed unfortunately).
This just scratches the surface of what there is to do and see in Strasbourg. There are museums and shops that will satisfy all manner of desires from modern art to ancient artifacts and everything in-between. I will be returning in December, this time with Mitch and our friends Nicolas and Christophe for Strasbourg’s world famous Christmas Markets. In the meantime, enjoy the additional photos below from my trip.