Walking a fine tightrope between France and Germany, Strasbourg is undoubtedly a cultural one-off. The capital of the Alsace region looks like something out of a fairy tale, with half-timbered houses à la Grimms covered in flowers and Parisian-style mansions set in cobbled squares. Here and there, you can hear Germanic dialect in a delicatessen specializing in foie gras, and beer lovers sitting together with wine connoisseurs.
Standing at the crossroad between France and Germany, Strasbourg was long a major commercial center. It was governed by the Bishop of Strasbourg until the 12th century when citizens rebelled against the bishop’s rule. Thus, Strasbourg became a free imperial city. Over the ensuing centuries, the control of Alsace’s capital shifted between France and its rival to the East. The city only became a part of France at the end of 1944. In 1992 Strasbourg became the de facto capital of the European Union (alongside Brussels and Luxembourg), cementing its prominent place in the continent’s heart.
Ping-ponged between France and Germany, Strasbourg is influenced by both cultures. The city’s historic core, Grande Île, is a peculiar mixture of Black Forest half-timbered houses and French-styled mansions. At its center, Cathédrale Notre-Dame, the masterpiece of medieval times, soars up to the sky. In terms of local cuisine, the people of Strasbourg love sauerkraut and beer as much as they love foie gras and fine wine. Additionally, Strasbourg is also home to one of the earliest and most charming Christmas markets in Europe.
1. Cathédrale Notre Dame
When stepping into Strasbourg’s old town, the first thing you notice is perhaps the soaring spire of Strasbourg Cathédral Notre Dame (in short: Strasbourg Cathedral). After more than 400 years of construction, the Gothic grandeur was completed in 1439. At the height of 142 meters, it was once the highest edifice in Christendom. The cathedral was made of sandstone from the nearby mountains, granting it a characteristic pink hue.
Despite its massive scale, Strasbourg Cathedral looks incredibly lightweight and intricate thanks to its lace-fine facade and flying buttresses. Hundreds of sculptures carved out of stone also accentuate the effects of shadow and light. Inside, the long aisle inspires peace and the exquisite stainless-glass windows bring delight to the sandstone monolith. No wonder Victor Hugo once claimed Strasbourg Cathedral as a “gigantic and delicate marvel”.
2. Grande Île
Encircled by the River Ill and Canal des Faux Remparts, Grande-Île is the city’s most picturesque district. This UNESCO World Heritage-listed island looks like it was plucked out from a Grimms’ fairy tale, with cobbled alleys curving around timber-framed houses in chalk color. Stately Gallic elegance is also visible in the area, especially at Palais Rohan. This Parisian-style palace is home to several collections of fine arts, decorative arts, and archaeology.
As you carry on down Rue des Serruriers, the style becomes decidedly French until you reach Petite France, where, contrary to the name, dominated by the German culture. This part of the town was the living and workplaces of fishermen, millers, and tanners in the Middle Ages. It is half-timbered heaven, with beautiful houses covered in flowers and overlooking the locks of the river.
The influence of German culture can also be seen on the dinner table. Aside from traditional French dishes such as foie gras or cheese, you will often see flammekueche on the table. It’s some sort of thin-crust pizza topped with crème fraîche, onions, and lardons. Fleischnacka which is made of seasoned minced meat and egg pasta rolls shaped like schnacka (snails) is also an Alsatian specialty.
Or the classic chocroute – fermented cabbages. These dishes incorporate Germanic culinary traditions and emphasize the use of pork in various forms. The city of Strasbourg is also known for its beer. There are many breweries in and near the city, making it the main beer-producing region in France.
Tips for visiting Strasbourg
- The cathedral looks most impressive if approached from Rue Mercière.
- There is a spiral staircase that twists up to the 66m-high viewing platform. From there, you can have a panoramic view of the old town. The entrance is on the right side of the main facade.
- For a fabulous view of Petit France and the old town, look west for the Barrage Vauban. This 17-century dam is opened until 9pm in summer and there is no admission fee.