Strasbourg has a unique beauty all its own. Looking as if it should be tucked away deep in the Black Forest—rather than along France’s border with Germany—this elegant city is a riot of medieval half-timbered houses smothered in colorful flowers. Cobbled squares and lanes squeeze into a patchwork of canals, locks and rivers, instantly adding that feeling of bliss that waterways bring to a place. But it’s not all chocolate-box tweeness—the French home of the European Parliament has a cosmopolitan, sophisticated air that shows a city at ease with itself. And part of the fun of a city break in Strasbourg is spotting all of the architectural quirks of this Alsatian city.
Wander through Strasbourg’s UNESCO-listed center, Grande-Île, which is ringed by the River Ill and the Canal du Faux-Rempart and full of impossibly pretty houses dating from the 16th and 17th centuries. Head to the old riverside tanners’ district in Petite France if you want to be in half-timbered heaven and get classic waterside shots of the city. Along the way, you’ll pass handsome townhouses and palaces built by the French from the 18th century onwards. Then follow cobbled Rue Mercière to the jaw-dropping Romanesque-Gothic cathedral, where you can hike up 332 steps to the top and take in views as far as the Black Forest. It’s one of the most satisfying things to do in Strasbourg, and definitely worth the effort. The cathedral square is also the focus of the Christmas market, one of the biggest and most popular in Europe.
To get the true flavor of Strasbourg—and the region of Alsace in general—have lunch or dinner at a winstub. These cosy warrens typically decked out in dark wood and cheerful red gingham serve hearty, meat-heavy Alsatian cuisine, the most classic being choucroute. Bring a big appetite to do justice to this rib-sticking dish of potatoes, sauerkraut and smoked meats including pork knuckle, bacon and sausage. Try it in warm wood-panelled Chez Yvonne, where you might need to pass on dessert afterwards.
Wherever you walk in Strasbourg you’ll see cafés and restaurants offering flammekueche—or tarte flambée, as the French call it. Think a thin rectangular pizza, typically covered with fromage blanc, bacon and onions. You can add a few other toppings such as mushrooms and emmental, or go the whole hog and have one with a mini version of choucroute on top. Combine flammekueche with another of Strasbourg’s iconic exports—beer—in the industrial chic setting of Au Brasseur, a microbrewery that has a full range of blond, amber and dark beers brewed on the premises.
Cheese lovers won’t be able to resist the temple of cheese that is La Cloche à Fromage. For a start, it has the world’s largest glass cheese dome, under which is a huge selection of farmhouse cheeses. Keep up the cheese frenzy with a dinner of melting raclette or a seriously gooey fondue.
Alsace is the only region in France that produces both beer and wine, which adds to an already lively bar scene. One of the buzziest streets is narrow little Rue des Tonneliers, which is home not only to La Cloche à Fromage but also the huge selection of craft beer on offer at Les BerThoM. On the same street you’ll also find funky Jeannette et les Cycleux, the place to come for cocktails, especially during happy hour.
Hiding in plain sight—but easily missed—is Place du Marché Gayot. This attractive little square of half-timbered buildings hums with bars and cafés, whose tables spill out onto the cobbles as soon as spring arrives. Pull up a stool at Bar Le QG for a glass of the local sparkling wine, crémant d’Alsace.
Strasbourg’s towering cathedral is justifiably at the top of most visitors’ list, including its astronomical clock that puts on an entertaining display every day at 12.30 p.m. Just next door is Palais Rohan, a sprawling 18th-century palace where there are several must-see museums all under one roof. Start with the Musée des Beaux-Arts, which has a compelling collection of art covering the 14th to the 20th centuries. Check out works by artists including Rubens, Botticelli and Canaletto.
The Museum of Decorative Arts takes over the Palais Rohan’s ground floor and transports you back to the 18th century with its elegant collection of furnishings and works of art. There’s even a fun assortment of antique mechanical toys. In the palace’s basement, the Archaeological Museum allows you to go back even further in time. Its artefacts show the history of the region from the prehistoric era to the Middle Ages.
For sheer charm, it’s hard to beat a visit to Musée Alsacien, one of the delightful things to do in Strasbourg. Set in three attached houses from the 16th and 17th centuries, the museum lets you explore Alsatian life and history through its beautifully recreated interiors. Everyday life is here, from the grand to the humble.
You can take in some of the most photogenic views of Strasbourg from the clever panoramic terrace that runs along the top of Barrage Vauban. This 17th-century dam is in an excellent spot to look out over Petite France and its 19th-century stone bridges. While you’re there, pop into the Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art that’s just a couple of hundred yards away. Inside this cavernous glass building are works by Kandinsky, Picasso and Monet, among others. You’ll also see a gallery devoted to the works of Strasbourg artist Gustave Doré.
Just south of the Ill River near the cathedral is the 16th-century Hotel Cour du Corbeau, one of the oldest hotels in Europe. Although its 63 rooms are spread across 10 half-timbered buildings, it has an intimate, cosseting atmosphere that’s more in keeping with a tiny boutique hotel. You won’t find boring uniformity here: all the rooms have their own character, and many have their original beams. Some hark back to the days of Louis XIV, while others have more modern touches such as leather headboards.
Hotel du Dragon is also south of the river, with 32 modern rooms set in a 14th-century townhouse. While the furnishings are sleek and contemporary, they go well in this venerable building that has kept many of its exposed ceiling beams. The courtyard garden is a bonus, and a chilled-out place to relax.