Things to Do in Alsace
Second only to Paris’ famous cathedral of the same name, the Strasbourg Cathedral de Notre-Dame (also known as the Cathedral of Our Lady of Strasbourg, or simply, Strasbourg Cathedral) is the second-most-visited cathedral in France, drawing up to 4 million annual visitors. With its 465-foot (142-meter) spire (the second-highest in France) and dramatic red façade sculpted from Vosges sandstone, the cathedral is Strasbourg’s most unmistakable landmark and was listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1988.
While the cathedral’s history dates back to 1015, the majority of the present-day structure dates from between the 12th and 15th centuries, blending a cornucopia of architectural styles from Romanesque to Late Gothic. Highlights include a series of 12th-century stained glass windows, a magnificent 18-meter-tall astronomical clock and the 66-meter high viewing platform, reached by a grand 300-step spiral staircase and offering unbeatable views over the city.
With its lattice of canal ways and assortment of half-timbered townhouses, La Petite France is one of Strasbourg’s most picturesque neighborhoods and an integral part of the city’s UNESCO World Heritage site. Set at the mouth of the River Ill on Strasbourg’s Grande Île, the historic district is the city’s oldest area, dating back to the 16th century, when it was mostly inhabited by fishermen, tanners and millers.
Today, the old tanning houses and water mills of La Petite France have been transformed into bijou hotels, waterfront restaurants and nostalgic souvenir shops, but it’s the district’s timeless charm that entices most visitors. Explore the warren of narrow cobblestone alleyways and you’ll find ample photo opportunities—exquisitely preserved medieval buildings, waterside promenades brimming with colorful flower baskets and views stretching down to the nearby Covered Bridges and Vauban Dam.
Built between 1732 and 1742 for the then-Bishop оf Strasbourg, Cardinal Armand Gaston Maximilien de Rohan, the Palais Rohan has played host to a series of impressive guests throughout its history—Louis XV, Marie Antoinette, Napoléon Bonaparte and Charles X have all spent time at the palace. Today, the remarkably preserved building is one of the city’s most celebrated works of Baroque architecture, designed by Joseph Massol and looking out onto the Ill riverfront.
Since 1870, the Palais Rohan has been home to three of Strasbourg’s most important museums, as well as the Robert Heitz Gallery. On the first floor, the Museum of Fine Art includes works by Rubens, Rembrandt, Renoir and Monet, among many others. The ground-floor Museum of Decorative Arts displays an array of 17th- to 19th-century furnishings, sculptures, jewelry and ceramics within the former Cardinal apartments.
The self-proclaimed capital of the Alsace wine region, Colmar is an undeniable highlight of the famous Alsace Wine Route and renowned for its beautifully preserved medieval center. Colmar is postcard-worthy from all angles, with its half-timbered buildings painted in a rainbow of colors, fishing boats bobbing along the flower-lined canal ways and maze of cobblestone lanes dotted with small cafés and artisan shops.
Colmar’s compact center makes it feel more like a village than a town, and the main sights can be easily explored on foot, including architectural gems like the dramatic Maison des Tetes (House of the Heads), the 16th-century wooden Maison Pfister (Pfister House) and the pink sandstone St Martin Church. Additional highlights of Colmar include Mathias Grünewald’s 16th-century Issenheim Altarpiece, on show at the Unterlinden Museum; the Bartholdi museum, dedicated to the Colmar-born architect and the aptly-named La Petite Venis.
Named after one-time Strasbourg resident Johannes Gutenberg, who famously invented the movable-type printing press in 1439, Gutenberg Square remains an important commercial and navigational center of Strasbourg’s Old Town, strategically located close to the landmark Cathedral of Notre Dame. Today the square is best known as a meeting place, lined with cafes and restaurants, but a statue of the square’s namesake still takes prize place at its heart—designed by David d'Angers in 1840.
With many of its half-timbered buildings dating back to medieval times, Gutenberg Square is also celebrated for its striking architecture, most notably the Renaissance-style Chambre de Commerce (Chamber of Commerce) and the 16th-century Hotel de Commerce, from where writer Arthur Young watched the destruction of the magistrates' records during the Revolution.
Built in 1690 by its namesake—legendary military engineer Sebastien Vauban—the Vauban Dam (Barrage Vauban) was designed not only as the city’s principal lock, but as an integral part of Strasbourg’s fortifications. Guarding the southwestern entrance to the Grande Île, the dam spans the width of the River Ill and has the capacity to flood the entire southern end of the town in case of attack.
Today the grand lock, with its 13 arches, magnificent sculptures and grass-topped terrace, is among the city’s most recognizable landmarks and makes a popular lookout point, offering panoramic views over the nearby Covered Bridges (Ponts Couverts), the Old Town canals and the distant Cathedral of Notre Dame.
One of Strasbourg’s oldest and most famous buildings, the Maison Kammerzell (Kammerzell House) is a remarkably preserved example of medieval architecture, and its traditional timber framing and ornate carvings make it a popular subject of tourist photographs. Although originally built in 1427, the house owes much of its modern-day appearance to renovations undertaken in the 16th. It also takes its name from its 19th-century owner, grocer Philippe Kammerzell.
Today, the Kammerzell House is home to a period-style hotel and restaurant, and makes an atmospheric dining venue, with its authentic décor including vaulted ceilings, arched stained-glass windows and a series of elaborate frescos by early 20th-century painter Leo Schnug.
Held in the city’s Old Town since 1570, the Strasbourg Christmas Market (Christkindelsmarik) is France’s oldest one and among the oldest in Europe, drawing up to 2 million annual visitors over the festive season. Strasbourg is renowned as one of the most atmospheric holiday destinations in France, as the Grande Île is adorned with dazzling illuminations, a giant Christmas tree is erected on Place Kléber and an open-air ice-skating rink opens on Place du Château. The historic market, however, is the focal point of the city’s seasonal entertainment.
Kicking off at the end of November each year, more than 300 traditional wooden chalets take over Place Broglie, selling an array of handcrafted gifts, Christmas decorations and seasonal produce. Enjoy live carolers, street bands and festive lightshows while sipping a steaming cup of Vin chaud (mulled wine), then take a break from Christmas shopping to tuck into local specialties like baeckeoffe stew.
The attention-grabbing, exuberant house on Rue des Marchands is a must in Colmar. Built in 1537 for wealthy hatter from nearby Besançon named Ludwig Scherer, the house boasts extravagantly ornate frescoes (representing Germanic emperors and Biblical scenes) and medallions with typical medieval features; it is, however, regarded as the finest example of Colmar’s architectural renaissance. Maison Pfister also boasts a beautifully carved balcony, long wooden galleries, octagonal turret, a two-story corner oriel, and ground-floor arcades. The house is named after the family that lived in it and restored it in the late 19th century. It was made a historic monument of France in 1927.
More Things to Do in Alsace
With such an evocative name, it’s not hard to imagine what Little Venice in Colmar looks like: a peaceful canal – the Lauch River, more precisely – flanked by colorful Alsatian half-timbered houses on either side of it. The canal really is at the center of Colmar’s history; on one left, the fish and vegetable historic market district, and, on the other, the equally significant tannery markets and slaughterhouses. All are, of course, incredibly picturesque. Little Venice offers what visitors often feel is the ultimate Alsace money shot. Scattered around the canal are traditional winstubs and uneven cobblestone streets – this is as close as one can possibly get to stepping back in time. Houses along the canal used to belong to powerful fishing and farming families, which explains their sometimes extravagant features. It is possible to book a gondola ride on the Lauch River in the summertime- it really is the best way to admire the magnificent houses.
Located at the intersection of Colmar’s two major roads back in the medieval days, the Koifhus always had a strategic mission. The former customs house was built in 1480 and was mainly used for two things: the ground floor was a massive warehouse used for storage, and the second floor served as a tax office for import/export and a meeting area for the magistrate and the emperors of Alsace, which later on became the Colmar Chamber of Commerce. Several buildings were added onto the existing one throughout the years, creating an amalgam of architectural styles and proving that the Koifhus was significant enough, both commercially and locally, to justify extensive renovation and expansion works. The roof, which consists of colorful varnished tiles, is particularly striking. Wondering which part is the oldest? Look for the two-headed eagle of the Empire, which surmounts the two main entrances. Koifhus was made a historic monument of France in 1974.
Stretching over 2,600 hectares, the Parc de l’Orangerie is Strasbourg’s largest and oldest public park and the principal attraction of the city’s northeastern Orangerie neighborhood, or European Quarter. The tranquil, flower-lined gardens were created in honor of Napoléon’s wife Joséphine (although the empress never visited the park) and were laid out in 1804 by André Le Nôtre, who was best known for designing the gardens of the Palace of Versailles.
One of the Orangerie’s principal landmarks is the Europe Parliament building, which fronts the northwest entrance to the park and has served as the seat of the Council of Europe since 1977. It’s an impressive sight, lined with flags from the EU’s 28 member states. Additional highlights of the park include the Joséphine Pavilion, a small zoo and stork sanctuary, a rowing lake and several playgrounds, as well as a network of walking and cycling trails.
A trio of bridges arching over the canal ways of the River Ill, the Strasbourg Covered Bridges are an iconic symbol of the city, marking the gateway to its central Grande Ile. Somewhat confusingly named, since none of the three bridges remain covered, the bridges once formed an important part of the city’s medieval fortifications and featured wooden canopies from where soldiers could protect the dam below.
Today the bridges are a lasting vestige of medieval Strasbourg, and while their ramparts were destroyed back in the 18th century, the remains of the 14th-century square towers that once linked the bridges together still stand. The historic bridges are best viewed from the grass-topped terrace of the nearby Vauban Dam (Barrage Vauban), which offers panoramic views of the surrounding La Petite France district, or on a boat cruise around the city’s canal ways, passing beneath the arches of the fabled bridges.
The striking Cathedral of Notre-Dame might be Strasbourg’s most famous religious building, but the comparatively modest St Thomas Church still stands out as one of the city’s most unique designs. Combining its 12th-century Romanesque façade with Gothic touches added in the 16th century, the protestant church appears more like a castle than a church and boasts five naves and a single tower.Inside the church, notable highlights include a 10-meter-tall fresco of Saint Michael; an 18th-century Silbermann organ, famously played by Mozart; and an impressive collection of 18th and 19th-century tombs, including the elaborate Marshal of Saxony mausoleum, the work of legendary sculptor J.B. Pigalle.
Towering a half-mile (757 meters) over the Alsace Plain, the striking pink sandstone towers of High Koenigsbourg Castle (Château du Haut-Koenigsbourg) are an unmissable sight, and the fairytale fortress is among the most popular attractions of the famous Alsace Wine Route. Although originally built in the 12th century for the German Hohenzollern family, the majority of the current castle dates back to the 19th century, when it was extensively renovated by Prussian Emperor William II.
As well as admiring the romantic spires and richly decorated façade from up close, the highlight of a visit to High Koenigsbourg Castle is the impressive view from the hilltop, spanning over the surrounding Vosges Mountains, Germany’s Black Forest region and as far as the Swiss Alps on a clear day. Tours of the castle interiors are also available, where visitors can explore the windmill, wine cellars, living quarters and medieval gardens.
At the heart of Strasbourg’s La Petite France district, tucked amid the half-timbered houses and snaking canals of the historic neighborhood, the Tanners House, or Maison des Tanneurs, is one of the area’s most famous landmarks. A lasting vestige of the old tanners district, the former tannery was built in 1572 and is known for its timbered galleries and slanted roofs, where dyed hides were once draped to dry in the sun.
Transformed into a restaurant in 1949, the Tanners House is now home to La Maison de la Choucroute, which serves up traditional Alsatian cuisine in authentic surroundings, with the original 16th-century beams complemented by antique furnishings and window boxes overflowing with geraniums. For the most atmospheric spot, book a table on the open-air terrace, from where the views stretch along the riverfront.
Encircled by the River Ill and the Canal du Faux Rempart, the Grande Île or “Big Island,” is the UNESCO–listed historic center of Strasbourg and home to the majority of the city’s top attractions. For most visitors to the city, the Grande Île serves as the prime focus of sightseeing tours. It also hosts Strasbourg’s world-famous Christmas market during the festive season.
Start your walking tour at the legendary Cathedral of Notre Dame, the city’s most iconic landmark, where you can take in views of the city from the 216-foot-high (66 meters) viewing platform. Next door, the Palais Rohan (Rohan Palace) is home to the Archaeological Museum, the Museum of Decorative Arts, the Museum of Fine Arts and the Galerie Robert Heitz, while the ornate Maison Kammerzell is a fine example of a half-timbered medieval townhouse. Additional highlights include the St Thomas Church and the picturesque La Petite France district.
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