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Exploring Strasbourg: Canals and cathedrals

Strasbourg's Petite-France

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.

Strasbourg's historic Petite-France district

Half-timbered houses in Strasbourg’s historic Petite-France district

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.

Strasbourg's canals and convered bridges

The covered bridges from the top of Barrage Vaubin

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).

Boat trip on the canals of Strasbourg, France

Boat trip on the canals

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).

Views across Strasbourg from the cathedral

Looking down on Strasbourg from the cathedral

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).

Strasbourg light show in summer

Illuminations transforming Barrage Vaubin

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.

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63 Comments Post a comment
  1. Great post and such beautiful photos!

    August 11, 2014
    • Thanks so much, it was a really beautiful place!

      August 12, 2014
  2. Ah, lovely Strasbourg! I used to live just an hour from Strasbourg, so made regular weekend pilgrimages there, and to villages throughout Alsace, to buy wine and cheese. Though I’ve made a few ascents of Strasbourg’s cathedral, I never did make it to a light show. Suppose that’s reason to return. 🙂

    August 11, 2014
    • It’s always good to have a reason to go back! The light shows were so impressive, I was in awe of how they were created. Would love to go and explore more of the Alsace region sometime too.

      August 12, 2014
  3. Reblogged this on balaiberita.

    August 11, 2014
  4. this is so wonderful :O 🙂 wanna go here someday. haha

    August 11, 2014
    • Thanks – hope you do get to visit sometime!

      August 12, 2014
  5. I changed trains a few years ago in Strasbourg and was sad I didn’t have time to explore the city – and now I’m even sadder after looking at your beautiful photos! Looks like a lovely city.

    August 11, 2014
    • It’s definitely worth a visit sometime – it had such a nice feel to it and a good combination of a walkable size and enough to see and do.

      August 12, 2014
  6. Very nice post. I’ve been in France several times and I really can’t decide which region or town I prefer. France is wonderful. You can’t miss going trough Loira Castle or Alsace (http://viaggiandoconbea.wordpress.com/2013/04/20/in-giro-per-lalsazia/), you can’t loose town like La Rochelle or Ile de Noirmoutieur (http://viaggiandoconbea.wordpress.com/2013/03/24/verso-la-loira-atlantica/).
    Just make a little tour 🙂 trough my blog and perhaps you can discover places you’ve never seen. Bye Bea

    August 11, 2014
    • Thanks for the tips Bea, I can’t believe there are so many parts of France that I still haven’t visited – enough to keep me going for a while yet!

      August 12, 2014
    • I suggest you “Loira Atlantca”. When I saw Bayonne, Dune du Pilar, La Rochelle or Ile de Re I couldn’t have ever immagined how much beautiful it was. Sorry for my English, probably I would have been able to transfer my feeling with my language. Ciaoo Bea

      August 12, 2014
  7. Gloria Espinoza #

    This post gave me a new travel destination 🙂 i love your blog!

    August 11, 2014
    • Thanks so much – and really glad to have introduced you to Strasbourg!

      August 12, 2014
  8. Good description and so are the pics. Must say angles of pictures are great, providing perspective of the place. Thanks for sharing.
    ‘dod’ Rangers

    August 11, 2014
    • Thanks, it’s a great place to photograph – so many different things to see!

      August 12, 2014
  9. Reblogged this on Abby's Corner and commented:
    All I want to do is travel. I should be a travel journalist.

    August 11, 2014
  10. I’d love to go. You convinced me. Especially after watching The Hundred-Foot Journey at the movie theater yesterday. I highly recommend it.

    August 11, 2014
    • Glad to have convinced you! Thanks for the tip about the film too, I’d not heard of it but looks really interesting.

      August 12, 2014
  11. I did a Christmas-time river cruise a few years back and Strausbourg was definitely one of my favorite stops. They definitely do go all out for the holidays and I felt like a delighted fairy tale character walking around the snowy town, snapping photos and sipping glüwein. Absolutely wonderful and I’m so glad you made this town a part of your trip!

    August 11, 2014
    • I would love to see it at Christmas – I’m planning a long weekend in December so will have to see if I can squeeze in a return to Strasbourg as glüwein in the snow sounds like my type of thing for sure!

      August 12, 2014
  12. So incredible that there are such beautiful cities in the world I have never even heard of! Thanks for this post, it added yet another place for me to explore. 🙂

    August 11, 2014
    • Thanks – I’m always coming across new places I’d never heard about too – the travel list always gets longer rather than shorter!

      August 13, 2014
  13. Strasbourg is high on my list – I believe there is a statue of a great, great relative somewhere in the town square. Your comment about Christmas has me leaning towards planning a trip at that time of year but the light show on the cathedral looks amazing! It looks very similar to the show on the cathedral in Chartres.

    August 11, 2014
    • How funny – you will definitely have to go and find it then! It was lovely in summer but the photos from Christmas look so beautiful too – I will have to go and try it out to properly compare them!

      August 12, 2014
  14. Nice pictures and report. I have been to Strasbourg twice and it is really a beautiful city, very inspiring and romantic. I also recommend to all travellers there to visit the region around, the little town of Colmar for instance, it’s picture perfect.

    August 12, 2014
    • Thanks, I would love to go and see more of the Alsace region too – I have heard Colmar is lovely so that might be my next stop!

      August 12, 2014
  15. I love Strasbourg! I just completed over four months of studying abroad there. The picture you used in the section about the canal boat tours- that was a high school where I was working to help students develop English skills. It was lovely to hear the perspective of a fresh visitor to my favorite city!

    August 12, 2014
    • What a great place to study abroad – and how funny that I used a photo of your school! I can see why it’s your favourite city, I really fell for it too in only a few days there.

      August 12, 2014
  16. Ohh I love Strasbourg, its a very pretty city! I went there in 2008. The only thing I haven’t done was watching this light show. Great post and pictures 😀

    August 12, 2014
    • The light show was really impressive – I’ve seen them before but this was a whole different level!

      August 13, 2014
    • Yes!!! It looks amazing, I can tell by the picture, and Im sure that in person was even more! 🙂

      August 14, 2014
  17. The illuminations look amazing!

    I’ve been to Strasbourg so many times (it’s just down the road from where I live) and it never seems to get old. I definitely like it better than Paris 🙂

    August 12, 2014
    • What a great place to have almost on your doorstep! I really loved it there and hope to go back and see it in the winter sometime too.

      August 13, 2014
  18. I always thought I’d love Strasbourg, and now I’m convinced! I’m a sucker for canals and those buildings do look like something out of a fairy tale. Nicely done!

    August 12, 2014
    • It does have that fairytale look – you almost expect Hansel and Gretal or the Seven Dwarves to come out of one of the houses in Petite France!

      August 13, 2014
  19. You find the best of things in the little places. I have never heard of this place before but now I only wish I had gone there during my trip to France.
    Sometimes you just have to close your eyes and choose a place in the map. Maybe that works!

    August 13, 2014
    • There’s definitely something to be said for trying the lesser-known places out, there are some real gems around!

      August 13, 2014
  20. Great post and captivating pictures. Makes me want to go there!!

    August 13, 2014
    • Thanks Ellen, it’s a lovely place and hope you get to visit someday!

      August 14, 2014
  21. What an enchanting place. I really must visit there sometime soon. A perfect place to spend your birthday.

    August 14, 2014
    • It was great – there was a huge firework display on July 14th and live music and dancing in the park, so couldn’t think of a better birthday venue!

      August 14, 2014
  22. I love Strasbourg! I have family that live there so always try to stop in there at least for a couple of days. It’s such a beautiful little city – I love all of the canals that snake around it all, and the gorgeous blend of French & German architecture.

    August 15, 2014
    • Lucky you having family to visit there! I thought it was a lovely city, totally agree about the mix of French and German influences, it makes it such a unique place.

      August 15, 2014
  23. Nice photos! As much as I love Paris, I really should see more of France. Strasbourg looks beautiful and I’d gladly jump on one of those canal tours.

    August 15, 2014
    • It’s only a couple of hours on the train from Paris so easy to combine the two (I can never stay away from Paris either!).

      August 15, 2014
  24. That place looks stunning, love to go there one day.

    August 15, 2014
    • It is a really pretty place – especially around Petite-France with all the half-timbered buildings and baskets of flowers!

      August 18, 2014
  25. Great post Lucy. Surprisingly, I have never been to Strausberg (head bowed in shame), but I certainly want to. I love cities that border countries. So intriguing!

    August 18, 2014
    • It’s not too far from you in Berlin either! I agree with you on the border cities, they always have a unique mixture from the two different countries.

      August 18, 2014
  26. Now, how the heck do I get there from here Lucy? 🙂 It’s been on my radar for a while but never in a serious way, but you make it look exquisite and absolutely my kind of place. I’ll have to investigate. Lovely place for your birthday and I hope it was wonderful.

    August 18, 2014
    • It’s about two hours on the train from Paris Jo so you can easily do a two-centre trip (or even a daytrip, though it warrants a couple of days to explore I’d say!). Had a lovely birthday thanks – the fireworks were amazing and always nice to celebrate with some fab French food and wine.

      August 19, 2014
  27. Hey Lucy, I like your blog, I can see you are dedicated to your travels! Which parts of the world do you like most? I see you write about a whole range of countries, cold ones like the Scandinavian countries but also way up there in the Middle East. I personally like the countries in Asia a lot. China, Thailand, Mongolia etc. I’ve just returned from a trip to North Korea. If you want you can check it out at my own blog 🙂

    August 21, 2014
    • I’m not sure I could really pick a favourite – it changes all the time! I’ve really been loving the mountains this year with trips to Austria and Norway, but I think it might change and be back to the coast next year! It been a while since I was in Asia too so am overdue a return visit – North Korea sounds fascinating, will check out your stories!

      August 23, 2014
  28. Reblogged this on juanalirojasderechoenlinea and commented:
    Some day…

    August 21, 2014
  29. As if I needed another reason to pack up and move to France :). Beautiful.

    August 22, 2014
    • I’ve always had a read soft spot for France too – it has such a huge range of places to visit!

      August 23, 2014
  30. What a stunning view of the town from the Cathedral! Strasbourg looks like a lovely place to visit – I’d love to see the light show it sounds excellent.

    August 24, 2014
    • The light show was fantastic! It’s a really pretty little city, great for a weekend trip.

      August 25, 2014
  31. marinabgreviews #

    I really love the way you explain Strasbourg and now i think i definately have to see it 🙂 Will put ont the waiting list for the next year.

    September 12, 2014
    • That’s great – hope you have a great trip when you do make it out there!

      September 14, 2014

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