Exploring Strasbourg: Canals and cathedrals
I’ve been to France more times than I can count – everything from childhood holidays to Normandy to ski trips to the Alps and house-sitting in Paris. What I love about the country (as well as the cheese and wine) is that it is so diverse and there’s always something new to see. Top of my list for the last few years has been the city of Strasbourg, in the country’s Alsace region near the border with Germany. So when I was planning my rail trip route, it seemed like the perfect place to start off the trip and celebrate my birthday. And I think I might have found a new contender to battle it out with Paris as my favourite French city. Strasbourg has a beautiful riverside setting, buildings that are straight out of a fairy story and a unique combination of French and German influences. It’s small enough to walk around but big enough to have plenty of places to eat and drink – and come winter it goes totally over-the-top as a Christmas wonderland. So in case I haven’t convinced you yet, here are some of my favourite things to do in Strasbourg.
Wander around the streets of Petite-France
The Petite-France district is the old heart of Strasbourg – with its narrow streets of half-timbered houses lining the canalside, decked out with colourful baskets of flowers. Originally the houses here were built for tanners, fishermen and millers, but today you’re more likely to find restaurants, hotels and gift shops. Despite being busy it’s a really charming place to wander around the backstreets or stop for a drink along the waterfront. One of the best views out across Peitite-France is from the panoramic terrace on top of the Barrage Vaubin, a 17th century weir. From there you get a great view of the covered bridges – which slightly confusingly haven’t been covered for at least the last 300 years. There are also four square stone towers, which are all that’s left of the 14th century ramparts that were built to protect the city.
Take a boat trip around the canals
The old city of Strasbourg is an island – the Grande Ile – encircled by canals and the River Ill. So one of the best ways to get an overview of the city is out on the water on a boat trip. The tours have a commentary in 12 different languages so you know what you’re looking at, and on a sunny day the boats are open-top. The route heads into Petite-France first, stopping at two locks because this area has a higher water level, then carries on through the tanners’ quarter, under the covered bridges, past the Barrage Vauban and the Neustadt Imperial Quarter. It also breaks out of the circle around the city to travel up the river to the European institutions. This area is a complete contrast to Petite-France – with its ultra-modern glass buildings housing the European Parliament, European Court of Human Rights and Council of Europe.
Boat trips start from near Palace Rohan and take 1 hour 10 mins. They run all year, up to 35 times a day and cost €12,50 for adults (free with a Strasbourg Pass, except early afternoon).
Look out from the cathedral
Strasbourg’s Gothic cathedral towers over the city – and for over 200 years until 1874 it was the world’s tallest building. It was supposed to have two spires but only one was ever built, which you can see from over 30 miles away. You can’t climb to the top of the spire, but you can climb up 320 steps to the cathedral’s viewing platform. You need a head for heights though as the spiral staircases run up the corners of the building so you can see right back down to the ground. From the top you can see as far as the Black Forest across the border in Germany on a clear day as well as having a bird’s eye view onto the red roofs of the old city below. Back on ground level it’s worth popping inside the cathedral, especially on a sunny day when the light shines through the stained-glass windows. It also has one of the world’s largest astronomical clocks which strikes “noon” (at 12.30pm!) with animated figures of the 12 Apostles parading in front of Jesus.
Entry to the cathedral is free but the viewing platform costs €5 per adult and the astronomical clock €2 (both are free with a Strasbourg Pass).
Watch a light show
Over the summer months, each night the front of the cathedral and the Barrage Vaubin are transformed into huge canvases for a sound and light show that’s projected onto them. Each year the show is slightly different. This year the barrage transformed into everything from a train to a sea monster, all reflected in the water below. Lights above, inside and under the arches help make it seem like the building has come to life. And at the cathedral the architecture was used really cleverly to make it seem like it was on fire or had demons crawling through the stained glass windows. I’d never seen anything like it – but you can get an idea from these videos of this year’s shows at the Barrage and cathedral.
The illuminations are free and run from 5 July to 31 August 2014 from 10.15pm every night and shows last 10 minutes. If you want to go and see both it’s a 15 minute walk between them (the route is signposted).
Thanks to the Tourist Board of Strasbourg for supplying me with a complimentary Strasbourg Pass, (normally €16,90 per adult or €8,45 for children). All views and opinions are, as always, my own.