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.
38 thoughts on “Strasbourg: The Crossroad of Two Cultures”
Great summation of the city and excellent photos! I’ve added this city to my must see list especially after recently discovering my family originates from there.
Wow that is cool! Then I suggest you visiting them during Christmas 😉 They have one of the best Christmas markets in the world.
I would love to see the Christmas markets. We don’t have the best Christmas ambience here in Florida, so I’d love to spend my Christmas exploring the markets.
I think you will love it 🙂 I didn’t have the chance to see the Strasbourg’s Christmas market in person. But I am sure it looks stunning, with all those beautiful houses and shops.
Sounds like a really interesting place to visit! A real intersection of two great cultures and places to visit. What was your favourite thing about the city? I think I’ll stick it on my list of places to visit
The cathedral and the coconut biscuits are my absolute favourites 🙂 Even now, I can still imagine their heavenly taste. Sadly, they don’t deliver worldwide 🙁
Ah that’s a shame, they sound delicious 😋
This reminds me of a guy I met in a French class in the city where I went to college. He was from Strasbourg and he explained to me that the distance from the city center to the French-German border was only 5 km. Speaking of the cathedral, it never ceases to amaze me thinking of the amount of time spent for completing a single structure. Your photo of the cathedral really makes me want to go back to Europe!
Thank you, Bama! Indeed. Strasbourg is very close to Germany. A friend of mine is living near Karlsruhe and she only needs maximum 30 min to drive to Strasbourg. She often goes there for the farmer market. They offer cheaper, more flavourful food and you have more choice than in Germany 🙂
An informative and interesting post with great photos!
Thank you! Thank you 🙂
Such beautiful pictures!
Many thanks! 🙂
I’ve never been France! Did you find the French snobby? One of my friends bought a small hostel in the French countryside and now lives there permanently…
I love the tinted glass in the cathedral. And that pizza looks yummy!! 👍😊
Well… Parisian might be a bit snobby, but if you need help you can still ask them. For the rest of French, I can confirm you they are really kind. They are willing to help you, even though they can barely speak English. I remember a lady in Nantes who walked me to my destination because she was afraid I didn’t understand her instructions 🙂
It’s also easier to start a conversation with a French than, for example, a German. A German might annoyingly stare at you, if you say “hallo” or simply smile at him/her. They are too serious 😉
Oh that’s so nice to hear you’ve had a good experience. The French lady sounds like something my mum would do, while I would be the German you just referred to…. (not because I’m snobby, just because I’m suspicious of random strangers) 🙄
Happy Christmas to you and family! Safe travels if you are traveling during the break! 🍻🎉🙂
Thank you, Jolene! Best wishes to you and your family as well! And no, I don’t travel during festive season. Crazy traffic and exorbitant price 🙂
What a wonderful photo guide you have shared. It sounds like a wonderful location to visit.
So beautiful! I definitely wat to visit Strasbourg in the nearest future possible ^^
Thank you! 🙂
Many thanks! 🙂
A lovely peek at a lovely part of France. Surely Rue des Serruriers was populated with locksmiths at one time … are there any still there?
Hm… I don’t recall seeing any locksmith there. As far as I can remember, the street is filled with restaurants and souvenir shops. Thanks for your comment, Osyth! 🙂
I imagine they are all long gone but the name of the road does mean ‘Locksmith Street’ so maybe in the past there were some or just one of note – I imagine locksmiths in the dark ages were of the utmost importance. One would keep all one’s treasures under lock and key and often wear the keys on a belt or a chain. Anyway – I loved the post. I have a very good friend who was born and raised in the city and a cousin who lived there for several years but have never visited. Your writing and marvellous pictures mind me that I should go some day not too long away 🙂
Many thanks! If you really want to enjoy Strasbourg, Christmas season would be the best time to do so. Its Christmas Market is crowned as one of the oldest and most atmospheric markets in the world. Too bad for me, I was there a few months too early 🙂
So I hear. Plans for the future, I guess.
Lovely photos, I now really want to visit Strasbourg… it looks like I could be travelling in time!
The town is indeed magical! Thanks for your compliment, Nic 🙂
My favourite city and you have done a masterful job capturing its essence and beauty. Being there for Christmas Market is high on my list.
Same here! Thanks for your compliment, Caroline 🙂