Just an 80-minute train ride from Paris brings you to the gateway city of Normandy, Rouen. Steeped in fascinating history, Rouen is where French and English history intersected in medieval times when Richard the Lionheart was crowned the Duke of Normandy and William the Conqueror established his court. Rouen is also where Joan of Arc was burned at the stake in 1431 at the age of only 19. The compact old quarter of Rouen is where you want to spend your time to take in the history, architecture, historic sites and buildings, boutiques, and restaurants.
1. Rouen Cathedral
One of the great gothic cathedrals of France, Rouen Cathedral was commissioned by Archbishop of Rouen, Hugues of Amiens, in 1145. Another church from the 4th century stood on the site until it was demolished to make room for the grand, new cathedral. The cathedral withstood fires and partial destruction over the centuries during the Viking invasion in the 1200s, French Wars of Religion in the 16th century, and WWII. The Rouen Cathedral is one of the finest and most well-maintained examples of classic gothic architecture in all of Europe, and the spire, erected in 1876, standing at almost 500 feet, is the tallest in all of France.
Artists were enamored with the cathedral, and Monet painted a series of 30 canvases depicting the cathedral in the four seasons and at different angles and times of the day. In 1898, Impressionist artist Camille Pissarro painted Rue de l’Epicerie, Rouen (Effect of Sunlight), a streetscape of Rouen with the cathedral in the foreground.
From June to September, there’s a fantastic laser illumination show projected on the cathedral’s facade. The show also features dramatic music along with a theme. The former show had two themes — Joan of Arc and the Vikings. The show runs every night right after nightfall.
2. Butter Tower
There are three distinctive towers of the Rouen Cathedral, and the most extravagant one is the Butter Tower. The tower started construction in 1485 but was not completed until 1506 and consecrated in 1507 by the archbishop of Rouen, Georges d’Amboise. The ornate design is decorated with dozens of statues, gargoyles, and pinnacles. The name is derived from a story from the Middle Ages. Back then, it was forbidden for butter to be eaten during Lent, but in exchange for large donations to the cathedral to help build the costly tower, Pope Innocent VIII would grant the parishioners permission to eat butter.
3. Architecture: Half-Timber Houses
Just about all of the old quarter is carless, so you can freely walk to and fro to explore the architecture. Most of the buildings, which were constructed in the 12th and 13th century, were designed in the half-timber style of petrified wood beams with slabs of plaster inserted in between in shades of periwinkle, mustard, mint green, orange, and seafoam blue.
4. Joan Of Arc Church
You may be surprised to find that the Joan Of Arc Church is not a medieval relic. Instead, it’s a building from the 20th century. Completed in 1979, the Joan Of Arc Church was designed by Louis Arretche and stands on the historic Place de Vieux, the original market square of Rouen. It is also the site where Joan of Arc was burnt at the stake for committing heresy.
The curves of the church’s design represent the sweeping flames, along with resembling an overturned boat, the same type of design as numerous early Christian churches. The vivid stained-glass windows in the Joan Of Arc Church are from a nearby church destroyed during WWII. Luckily, the windows were buried underground. Thirteen of the windows from the early 1500s depict Christ’s childhood, Crucifixion, Passion, and Resurrection, plus the life events of St. Peter, St. Anne, and Saint Anthony of Padua.
5. Joan Of Arc Museum
The spectacular archbishop’s palace, built in the medieval period, is now home to the Joan of Arc Museum. The building is also the site of the official room where Joan of Arc’s death sentence was declared in 1431. Opened in 2015, the museum is a mix of the fascinating history of France’s most beloved saint and modern-day technology. Two themes run throughout the exhibitions, The Epic of Joan of Arc and the legend. The multi-media exhibition is divided into seven segments with a 45-minute duration with 20 live actors reenacting the trial from authentic transcripts. There are also electronic interactive devices, projections, and 3D mapping, plus translation into English.
6. Musee Secq Des Tournelles
Musee Secq des Tournelles is a quirky museum that houses an extensive collection of wrought iron artifacts. Jean-Louis-Henri Le Secq Destournelles trained to be an artist but became one of France’s first photographers in the late 1800s. He was assigned to take photos of various historical structures across France, and during his travels, he started to purchase wrought iron pieces. His passion led him to build a massive collection of thousands of pieces of wrought iron. His son continued his legacy and eventually donated the collection to the city of Rouen. Inaugurated in 1921, the museum now contains over 14,000 works and includes pieces gifted by other collectors.
In the middle of a Renaissance arch is the Gros-Horloge, the oldest timepiece in France, dating back to 1389. The 24 rays shooting out against a blue background crowded with stars on the facade, measuring 2.5 meters in diameter, represent a golden sun. In 1832 on a trip to France, British painter J.M. W. Turner painted an iconic painting of the Gros Horloge.
8. La Maison Auzou
A multi-generational, family-owned small chain of shops, La Maison Auzou, produces irresistible chocolates, macarons, and a large range of other sweet treats. Highlights include grilled almonds covered in chocolate and dusted with cocoa, chocolate-covered pralines, a pastry made with apple jelly, chocolate ganache and Calvados, a local apple liqueur, and a special macaron made with salted butter caramel and apple, from an old Normandy recipe.
For one of the best meals in Rouen, make a reservation at Gill. A two-star Michelin restaurant, Gill is run by chef Gilles Tournadre, a native Norman, and he focuses on the fresh seafood from the waters of the local Normandy coast. Preparing fish in many ways, including searing, raw, cooked, and roasted, Tournadre is also inspired by Japan, which he visits every year to re-inspire him. Specialties include turbot fish cooked in apple cider, roasted lobster Brittany-style, and local oysters prepared in two different styles. Menus start at 45 euros for lunch, and at dinner, there are two tasting menu options, one for 75 euros and 115 euros.
10. La Cornaelle
Inexpensive and delicious, La Cornaelle serves up some of the best crepes in Rouen. Simple savory crepes have cheese, ham, egg, and chorizo sausage for 6 euros each, and for dessert, you can indulge in a crepe flambe with either Grand Marnier, rum, or Calvados.
Rouen is an easy day trip from Paris. Trains leave frequently from the Gare Saint Lazare train station in Paris, and the trip takes 80 minutes each way. Rouen is pretty flat but there are mostly cobblestone streets in the old quarter, so wear the appropriate footwear.