19 things you absolutely have to do in Strasbourg

The last time someone told me about the Alsace region was once more all about the glorious food and a romantic houseboat trip. That sounds so fantastic, sitting on a boat, drinking white wine, eating cheese and baguette, and peach compote after … Anyway, I have yet to go on that houseboat trip, but for years I also wanted to visit Strasbourg and I eventually made it.

Not only is Strasbourg the heart of Europe, I also imagined it to be full of cute timbered houses with cafes where I will do nothing else than eat hearty home-style cooked food. And it is everything I expected it to be and more. Strasbourg is only seven kilometres from Kehl in Germany and 230 kilometres from Bern in Switzerland, and it feels so very French. I only spent one week in this town and left with a heavy heart, I really would have loved to stay longer. 

Travel France. 19 things you absolutely have to do in Strasbourg

I can't really say what the main attraction in France’s seventh biggest town is because there are so many equally interesting as well as charming places to visit. In the historical centre there is medieval architecture, there are more than 800 listed buildings in this UNESCO World Heritage Site. You'll also find neoclassical buildings from the French period and rather monumental properties stemming from the time of the German Emperor. And if one walks along the Ill, you will see modern architecture of European institutions.

I walked everywhere; there is no need to jump into a taxi or use public transport. It is a town that wants to be discovered by foot, not true, there came a point I jumped onto a boat, but first things first.

1. Cathédral Notre-Dame de Strasbourg

The Cathédral Notre-Dame de Strasbourg was built in the 15th century with pink sandstone. Go back in time and imagine how you would feel if you would have come to Strasbourg from one of the surrounding villages to find this. Magnificent. Today we are accustomed to be surrounded by high rises and skyscrapers, but for people in medieval times this must have been a genuine wonder. It is most impressive to stand in front of it on the Place de la Cathédrale. Walk away a bit, so you can only see a detail of the cathedral-entrance, framed by townhouses on both sides, you'll get a good sense of how massive it is.

During these days, churches represented not only the church, but also the community. And as I stand here, I can picture the massive sense of community in this town. The cathedral is gigantic. With 142 metres its size is almost overwhelming. I get slightly dizzy while looking-up.

Even if you aren’t religious, just go inside to look at all the beauty and architecture and think of how old everything is. They build this place without the help of computer programs and heavy machines. There is this super adorable dog at the entrance to the stone pulpit and legend has it that it belonged to the priest of the cathedral. Pet it and make a wish, and it will come true. My wish became true.

Tickets: Free.

Stone sculpture of a small dog below the window of a cathedral
Dog at the Cathédral Notre-Dame de Strasbourg

Colourful church window
Cathédral Notre-Dame de Strasbourg. Window

Church window with hundreds of small faces combined that result in one large one.
Cathédral Notre-Dame de Strasbourg. Detail of a window

Cupola decorated with stars and tall colourful church windows
Cathédral Notre-Dame de Strasbourg. Windows and cupola

Rose window in the facade of a giant cathedral lined on both sides of five-storey timbered houses.
Cathédral Notre-Dame de Strasbourg and facades in the old town

2. Bronze 3D model of the cathedral

Outside on Place du Château is a Bronze 3D model of the cathedral of Notre-Dame de Strasbourg. The little twin created by German sculptor Egbert Broerken is true to scale and shows in detail how massive the real property is. The model is also excellent for blind people to feel, touch, see and understand the dimensions of the church.

Bronze 3D model of the cathedral. Place du Château. Tickets: free.

A small bronze 3D model of a cathedral in front of a cathedral.
Bronze 3D model of the Cathédral Notre-Dame de Strasbourg

3. Viewing platform of the cathedral

Don’t miss to climb up the 332 stairs to the viewing platform below the spire of the cathedral. If you fear heights, it shouldn’t be a problem, since you are in a walled spiral staircase for most of the time. There will be (if I remember correctly) two occasions when you are going to be on a balcony in the fresh air, but that is easily manageable really. Once you reach the platform, rest assured the space is big enough to let you ignore that you are this high in the sky. Calculate one to one and a half hour to really enjoy the view (and the climb).

Place de la Cathédrale. Tickets EUR 5. Free for holders of the Strasbourg Pass. Hours April to December 9am to 8pm. Ocotober to March 10am to 6pm. Closed 1st January, 1st May, 24th December.

Red rooftops and timbered houses.
Viewing Platform Cathédral Notre-Dame de Strasbourg

4. The Castle Square in Strasbourg

The Place du Château was built in 1215 and is the home of the Palais Rohan and the Oeuvre Notre-Dame. This is the place, try to imagine this, where 40 stonemasons are permanently employed, to take care of the cathedral.

5. Palais Rohanin Strasbourg

This palace gives you a great insight of of how royal life in the 18th century looked. The design is inspired by the style of palaces in Paris. It houses three museums. That sounds pretty fantastic, but I recommend you visit each museum on a different day and not all three on one visit. You want to enjoy this, and not simply tick it off a list. I visited the Musee des Arts decoratifs and the Musee des Beaux Art.

Palais Rohan. 2 place du Chateâu. Hours: 10am to 6pm.

Red rooftops and timbered houses.
Strasbourg Palais Rohan on place du Chateâu

6. Musée des Arts decoratifs in Palais Rohan

This museum is on the ground floor of the Palais Rohan. As I stroll through the former residence of Bishop-Princes and the apartments of the Cardinals of Rohan, I get the impression that they lived a life of privilege. And all these rock stars of history stayed here for a period of time too. I walk the same paths as Louis IV, Marie Antoinette and Napoleon I have done before me.

There is the squeaking sound of the parquet flooring; literally every step I take, makes this sound. The apartments are stunning. Tapestry, gold, vases, paintings. It is so quiet; I can hear dust falling to the ground, soon after I saw it dancing in the rays of sunshine. There are no other visitors around, it is magical.

I’m most impressed when I reach the library and I'm thrilled to discover a globe without Australia on it, this is a seriously fascinating find. The room is so very beautiful; I can hardly bring myself to leave. I proceed my round, but decide to go back to see the room one more time.

Musee des Arts decoratifs. Palais Rohan. 2 place du Chateâu. Hours 10am to 6pm. Tickets EUR 6.50.

Dark brown wooden, gold ornamented bookshelves with four busts on top under a large tapestry
Strasbourg Palais Rohan. Tapestry, books and statues in the Library

A long table with twelve chairs and two globes on top in a massive room with tall windows and decorated with gold-ornamented paintings and tapestries.
Palais Rohan Strasbourg - The Library  - Musée des Arts decoratifs

Two white gold-ornamented porcelain urns on a mantel frame in front of a mirror.
Palais Rohan Strasbourg Musée des Arts decoratifs

Three open doors leading into high ceilinged gold-ornamented rooms
Palais Rohan Strasbourg Musée des Arts decoratifs

7. Musée des Beaux Art – Museum of Fine Art in Strasbourg

The museum is located on the first floor of the Palais Rohan. I visit as soon as the doors open, and I’m so lucky to be one of the only visitors. I look at European paintings from the last 500 years. Everything that fits between religious and historical topics is covered. The collection includes works by Italian painter Giotto, Cretan painter El Greco and Flemish painter Rubens.

It is here that I meet the Mona Lisa of Strasbourg. Parisian painter Nicolas de Largillière painted “La Belle Strasbourgeoise” in 1703 and to this day it is unclear who the lady in a hat, dressed in lace and satin, is.

Looking at art can be overwhelming, but here they want you to enjoy the collection. You will get a flyer that encourages you to think about the paintings. We all know about the transience of things. Here you can discover which painter used a half peeled lemon to show the passing of time ...

Musee des Beaux Art. 2, place du Château. Hours 10am to 6pm, closed on Tuesdays. Tickets EUR 6.50.

Oil painting of a woman dressed in elegant period clothes and hat, holding a white-brown lap dog.
Palais Rohan Strasbourg. Musee des Beaux Art. La Belle Strasbourgeoise by Nicolas de Largillière

8. Kammerzell House in Strasbourg

The Kammerzell House is a merchant’s house built in 1427 in Renaissance style, and a carved facade was added in 1589. It is not only a house, it a piece of art, all these carvings, colourful windows and the decorated timbered bars are simply beautiful. There is a restaurant in this house but I didn’t find the time to eat here.

Kammerzell House. Place de la cathédrale.

A waiter dressed in black and white at an open window of a five-storeyed dark brown timbered house.
Strasbourg Kammerzell House

9. Place du Marche-aux-Cochons-de-Lait

If I wouldn’t know for sure that I’m really alive I would believe to be an extra in a fairy tale. This is the cutest square, framed by timbered houses from medieval times. It is very busy, true, but oh so pretty.

10. Shopping in Strasbourg

All over town you find lovely specialty stores as well as all the well-known high street brands. Whenever I travel to France, I go and find the nearest pharmacy to buy Huile Prodigieuse. As the name says, it really is a prodigious product. It is excellent for face, body and hair, and it smells heavenly. How to best describe it? It smells like dancing on the beach, by night, under a starry sky. Ever since I tried it first, I take it with me on my travels. That way I save to pack a bottle of perfume and a container of body lotion into my suitcase.

11. Visit one of Strasbourg's many markets

On Saturdays browse through jewellery, antique furniture, silverware, china, vintage postcards as well as clothing on the flea market at Place de l'Etal from 7am till 4pm. You can also visit the Marché de Strasbourg on Place Broglie; a big market every Wednesday from 7am till 6pm with fruit and vegetables as well as clothing.

12. Sundowner on Place du Marche Gayot

I went here on several occasions for sundowners. There are lots of locals, who are meeting on this picturesque square after work or after a day of shopping. It looks like pretty much everybody is here in the early evening. The square is surrounded by cute timbered houses on all four sides.

13. Petite France – more than a name

We are in France, so why call this Petite France? In this part of town lived the millers, fishermen and tanners, and for a long time no one was really interested in it. Locals actually thought it is best to be avoided, for all its smell and dirt. The name stems from the fact that this was also the home of a hospital for people who suffered from syphilis. And in these days syphilis was colloquially referred to as “French disease.”

Start your walk by the Tanners’ House. 42 rue du Bain aux Plantes. Stroll through the narrow lanes, have a picnic by the canal, watch all the people that are here too. Whatever it is you do you can be sure you are going to do it in the most picturesque surroundings.

Facades of five different white and brown timbered houses.
Petite France Strasbourg

Wisteria grows on the railing over the entrance, which leads to a white and brown timbered house in the middle of a canal..
Wisteria Petite France Strasbourg

14. The Vauban Dam

The Vauban Dam is a covered flood gate built in 1690; after I walk up the staircase I reach a panoramic terrace. This is a place where you will have a great view of Petite France. Bring drinks and enjoy the view.

Vauban Dam. Ponts Couvert. Hours: 7am to 7pm. Tickets: free.

15. Strasbourg's Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art

The Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art designed by French architect Adrien Fainsilber sits on the banks of the Ill. It is an exhibition space with a permanent collection, with Graphic Arts and photography. The building is a through and through light filled space, and while I was there it was also very colourful. I will forever be grateful to Daniel Buren. The French conceptual artist placed coloured squares on the large window panes to create this effect.

Something unusual happened when I visited. As I wanted to buy a ticket the lady at the register told me that the register is broken. I offered “to pay the fee anyway,” but she declined “No, thank you, I wouldn’t be able to issue a ticket.” This is so very lovely of her, but I still feel bad for getting in the museum for free and not supporting the arts.

After my visit I browse the bookstore and have coffee and cake at the Art Café on the terrace from where I have the perfect view over the Ill. As I left the museum I came across a lot of skateboarders as they were doing their stunts.

Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art. 1, place Hans Jean Arp. Hours: 10am to 6pm. Closed on Tuesdays. Tickets EUR 6.50.

Colourfully decorated windows in a high ceilinged room.
Strasbourg Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art. Work by Daniel Buren

16. Historical wine cellar of the hospital

This is a definite must see for wine lovers as well as for history buffs and all curious travellers out there. It took me a great while to find this wine cellar at the hospital. Really, there is a wine cellar at the hospital in Strasbourg. Hard to believe.

I manage to get to this place only after I ask the hospital porter (and even than it wasn't all that straight forward). There is no sign that gives away that there is a wine cellar nearby.

The smiling porter sends me to the parking space of the hospital and asks me to walk down a narrow flight of stairs. After I eventually find it I enter the dark-ish ever so slightly musty smelling cellar. For crying out loud I found it, I expect at least fanfares, but the cordial “bonjour” from a member of staff is just as fantastic. There is a cash register and a long line of shopping trolleys next to countless crates of wine on long tables. This is like a, admittedly very unusual grocery store. You can chose from Pinot blanc, Sylvaner, Klevener de Heiligenstein, Grand Cru, Riesling, Pinot gris, Gewurztraminer, Pinot noir and Crémant. All the wines are from the Alsace region and carry the controlled designation of origin label (AOC).

From the store in the entrance room I walk to the next room where more darkness awaits me, and I chose to turn right and down, what feels like, a long stretched catacomb. There are a few cobwebs and more musty smell. This place is below ground and from 1395; it was used to store wine but also grain. I begin to speculate what else must have happened here over the centuries, and that makes me turn around fairly soon after I enter the tunnel. But wait, there is more. I walk over to the left, and reach a massive wine cellar with lots of huge wine barrels; there even is one from 1472 and supposedly the oldest wine barrel in the world. It is fascinating to read all the information on the barrels and to be in such a historical and unique wine cellar. Please note: This is not a bar nor is it some sort of show-performance venue; it is a wine cellar with a long history that sells wine.

Cave Historique Hospices Strasbourg. 1, place de l’Hopital. Finding this place is part of the little adventure. Hours: Monday to Friday 8.30am to 12pm and 1.30pm to 5.30pm. Saturday 9am to 12.20pm. Tickets: Free.

Red and brown wooden wine barrels line a cobbled path in a dimly lit cellar.
Barrels in the Historic Wine Cellar below a Hospital in Strasbourg

A narrow cobbled path in a dimly lit cellar.
Strasbourg Historic Wine Cellar below the Hospital

17. Drink, eat and dance at the Ill

There are four barges along the Ill where you can have drinks, a bite to eat and even dance on the top deck. This quayside location is a truly fun place to be, and the nightlife goes on well into the night on weekends.

Check out their websites for opening hours and to find your style. Barco Latino. Café Atlantico. Le Rafiot. Vino Strada Bar.

Info: Quai des pécheurs.

A light blue barge on a canal lined by chestnut trees in bloom.
Barges and Bars at Quai des pécheurs in Strasbourg

18. Visit the European Quarter

The motto of the European Union is: "United in diversity." How very wonderful is that? Strasbourg is secretly called the capital of Europe and it is the official seat of the European Parliament. Read all about my visit in Travel France. Strasbourg off the beaten track. The European Quarter –the spirit of Europe.

Europe - United in Diversity
Europe - United in Diversity

19. Batorama - Jump onto a boat

On my last night I jump onto a boat, I want to look at the town from a different angle. I love that I can recapitulate my week in Strasbourg. All these happy moments of the past week float through my head. Do the boat trip right at the beginning of your stay or at the very end. The tour starts at the Palais Rohan, cruises slowly along the Ancienne Douane, goes all the way to Petite France, through a lock, along the Ponts Couvert, where I get one more view of the colourful façade of the Museum of Modern Art. I don’t listen to the audio guide, I just dream. The boat than goes towards the European Quarter and later I see all the laughing people at Quai des pécheurs, only a few days ago I was one of them.

Batorama. 1 rue de Rohan. Duration Strasbourg: 20 centuries of history-tour: 1h15. Tickets. Full rate : EUR 12.50. Full rate age 13 to 18 EUR 12.50. Reduced rate age 4 to 12 : EUR 7.20. Free for under 4 year olds and for holders of the Strasbourg Pass. You can also buy tickets online.

A long boat with panoramic glass windows turns on a canal that runs through a medieval town.
Strasbourg Batorama Tour

Strasbourg – Even the loveliest fairy-tale ends

You remember the dog at the cathedral I told you about? While I petted the stony little creature, I begged for good weather for my visit in Strasbourg. That cute thing did the best job. For one week Strasbourg was bathed in sunshine and days were as bright as a glass of Crémant (from the Alsace region of course).

Before you visit Strasbourg

You reach Strasbourg if you drive 220 kilometres from Luxembourg City, 200 kilometres from Frankfurt, 200 kilometres from Zuerich, and 500 kilometres from Paris. Visit the website of the airport for more information if you would like to fly to Strasbourg. There are two tourist information offices in town. One is at 17 Place de la Cathedral and one at the central train station. Visit their website for more information. My research trip was supported by Strasbourg Tourism and I used the Strasbourg Pass during my stay. Info Strasbourg Pass: EUR 18.90 adults. EUR 9.45 to EUR 12.45 for children. It is valid for three consecutive days.

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