A visit to Strasbourg will give you the feeling that you’ve been dropped into a fairy tale. This French city in Alsace combines the best of France and Germany.
Strasbourg offers quaint architecture with an abundance of German timber framing known as fachwerk. The winding cobblestone lanes date back to Roman times. Canals and rivers run through and around the old town, and an imposing cathedral with a single steeple towers over the main square. The entire center island of Strasbourg, known as the Grand Ile, is a UNESCO World Heritage site.
Strasbourg makes for a perfect day-trip destination, because it’s compact enough that you can easily explore it all on foot. The town is just a 2-hour train ride from Paris, so it’s easy to get there for a day of dining, shopping, and sightseeing.
Here are the best ways to spend a day in delightful Strasbourg.
Head For The Historic Center Of Strasbourg
Start your visit in the main market square of Strasbourg to get a feel for the vibe of this historic town. If you arrive by train, you can walk to the square in about 15 minutes. The square is lively and bordered by shops, eateries, and the iconic cathedral.
Nearby is the quieter Gutenberg Square, named for Johannes Gutenberg, inventor of the printing press. He lived here from 1434 to 1444, and his memorial dominates the square. This smaller square shows you the more residential side of Strasbourg. Look for a plaque denoting where writer Johann Wolfgang von Goethe lived in 1770.
Explore Petite France
Petite France is my favorite area of the Grand Ile. Be sure to make your way here, even if you don’t have much time. This western end of the island is full of half-timbered homes and shops that date to the 1500s. Strasbourg was once home to a thriving tanning industry, and you’ll see signs of this even today. Canals and hand-controlled locks, bridges, flower boxes full of red geraniums, and cafes make this a charming area. As you wander, look for the Ponts Couverts, the three towers on the canal that date to the 1300s.
Pro Tip: Enjoy Petite France early in the morning, before the crowds arrive. I first walked here right after an early breakfast, and so few people were out. The quiet of the water and centuries-old buildings were so peaceful.
Marvel At The Strasbourg Cathedral
This fine example of late Gothic architecture was the world’s tallest building from the mid-1600s to the mid-1800s. Author Victor Hugo visited and called it a “gigantic and delicate marvel.” Light filters through stained glass windows that are 700 to 900 years old.
Construction of the cathedral began in 1015, though the original structure ultimately burned. The cathedral you see today dates to the 12th century. Its history is intertwined with the tumultuous history of the region of Alsace. As Strasbourg went back and forth between German and French rule, the cathedral was briefly a Protestant church during the Reformation, but it returned to its Catholic roots in 1681. It suffered through three major wars but remained largely intact. During World War II, the Germans removed all the windows for safekeeping. The Allies found them in a salt mine at the end of the war and restored them to their proper places.
An interesting story about the cathedral involves how Goethe taught himself to overcome his fear of heights. He would often climb to the top of the dome of the cathedral and then step out onto a ledge that’s since been blocked off. He would look down and hope he could keep from falling to his death. Fortunately for us, he lived through this regimen to continue his writing.
This cathedral is also home to a fascinating astronomical clock that dates to the 1500s. It sounds each day at 12:30 p.m., solar noon.
Pro Tip: To see the once-a-day clock show, you must buy a ticket in the small gift shop (it costs about 6 euros). I didn’t see any signage indicating that, so you have to know to ask. A 20-minute video explains how the clock was designed. Then at 12:30 p.m., the clock chimes and the figures move in a circle. It’s well worth seeing.
Float Down The River
A boat ride on the River Ill in Strasbourg will take you in a circle around the old town. It’s a relaxing way to leisurely view the town’s main sights. Lasting 70 minutes, the boat tour goes through two locks. It’s fun to watch the driver run to the back of the boat and work the locks; you'll feel the water level changing. You can choose a covered or uncovered boat for your tour, depending on the weather and your preference.
You can buy your timed tickets at the tourist information building next to the cathedral in the main square. All cruises are run by Batorama.
Eating And Drinking In Strasbourg
Alsatian food is sure to please, since it blends the best of German and French cuisine. In Strasbourg, you are in the heart of the wine route of southern France, so you can count on the local wines to be wonderful, especially the Rieslings. Cheese is a specialty, too; the town of Munster is just a few miles away.
The Petite France area is a short walk from the cathedral, the shopping area, and the main square. I suggest eating in this picturesque area, at a restaurant with a view of the water if you’d like.
Here are two recommendations for a delicious lunch or dinner.
My most memorable meal in Strasbourg was at Le Lohkas. Built in 1676, the restaurant sits on a canal bank and was once used by tanners. And while I loved being in the middle of history, it was the food that won me over completely. The menu features fresh seafood and tasty sauces, and the service is top notch.
Maison Des Tanneurs
Once a tanner’s house, this structure dates to 1572. Now a popular restaurant, Maison des Tanneurs offers delicious food and charming ambience.
Shopping In Strasbourg
A car-free shopping street, the Rue des Hallebardes, lies between the main square and the train station. Here you’ll find elegant jewelry, clothing boutiques, leather goods, and perfume shops. For souvenirs, check out the small stores and pop-up stands around the cathedral.
I preferred to browse the little side streets that are full of local and specialty offerings. My favorite finds were a bakery -- the Woerle Boulangerie and Patisserie, founded in 1919 -- and the Terre d’Ours toy store. I walked by this store several times and finally went inside and adopted a small, adorable teddy that’s my favorite souvenir from this trip.
Where To Stay In Strasbourg
I stayed at Le Bouclier d’Or, which is on a side street off the main thoroughfare and very close to Petite France. It was close to all the sights while also allowing us to retreat to a quiet neighborhood where locals live. While the building dates to the 1500s, the interior is modern and welcoming.
The people who run the hotel went out of their way to help when I made a last-minute change to our dates. The buffet breakfast is elegant and delicious, too.
Pro Tip: Start early! Strasbourg is a major tourist destination, and the streets can get congested with large groups. I found that getting out early in the day allowed me to explore before the groups arrived. This was especially the case for the cathedral and Petite France.
If you are day-tripping and can’t arrive early, turn down the side lanes off the main streets. Any time of day, this is a great way to get a feel for Strasbourg without the crush of people.
Whether you come for a day or for a longer visit, you’ll find that Strasbourg is a medieval treasure that will steal your heart.