A unique cross-border location gives the capital of Alsace a blend of French and German flavours and culture, with a decidedly cosmopolitan flair as one of the main nerve centres of Europe. Here’s how to spend 48 hours in Strasbourg.
The entire central island of the old town surrounded by the river Ill is a World Heritage Site and has the feel of a village. At the western end of this Grande Île is the district of the Petite France, a charming warren of narrow streets speckled by bridges, locks and half-timbered houses.
Wind along towards the charming streets to the unmissable landmark of the gothic Cathédrale Notre Dame de Strasbourg, with its gargoyles, sculpted figures, imposing stained glass windows and a magnificent bird’s-eye view of Strasbourg from the top.
At 12:30pm, as the rooster crows three times, the hypnotic automatons of the renowned astronomical clock in the cathedral begin their daily procession to remind us that it is, indeed, time for lunch at a local winstub (literally, a wine room), and there isn’t far to go for an authentic local speciality at Au Pont Corbeau just on the opposite side of the river.
A 70-minute boat trip is a relaxed way to cover a lot of territory and venture beyond the old district north to the German Quarter, built between the two World Wars when Alsace was annexed to Germany. Further north, the European Quarter is home to several illustrious institutions and stunning contemporary architecture, such as the European Parliament, the Council of Europe, with its European Court of Human Rights, and the International Institute of Human Rights.
Where the boat circles back to the old town there are three museums in one, a fascinating excuse to spend the rest of the afternoon casually discovering the treasures within the 18th-century Rohan Palace, home to the Archeological Museum, the Museum of Decorative Arts and the Fine Arts Museum.
Here’s an occasion to push the boat out as just across the bridge from the Palais Rohan is the celebrated Michelin-starred Restaurant 1741 (reservations recommended), where you will be transported to a world of high-gastronomy anchored by seasonal selections and the best produce of the terroir.
The required spot of souvenir shopping can be fitted in on the way to visit to the Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art followed by a light lunch at the museum’s Art Café, one of the best deals for weekend brunch in Strasbourg. The museum hosts rotating temporary exhibitions that add to the interest of its permanent art collection, spanning the period from 1870 to the present day.
It is time to delve into local wine culture and none better venue for this purpose that the Caves Historiques des Hospices de Strasbourg. Situated in the medieval basements of the city hospital founded in 1395, the wine cellars hark back to a time when medical services were sometimes paid for in kind – in the form of parcels of vineyards. The winery still functions to this day under the purview of the national healthcare system. It houses closely selected Alsatian wines which are allowed to mature in its priceless barrels and then bottled on the spot. À votre santé!
To end the visit on a high note – and to better understand the role of Strasbourg as a bridge between old and new – the dinner venue of choice is the elegant Brasserie Les Haras, where the historical blends with the contemporary in impeccable style. A renovated stud farm offers a handsome bar and a refined but informal restaurant with fresh young cuisine and carefully selected local specialities. As added entertainment, the kitchen opens onto the dining room so you can see the chef at work.
As museums are closed on certain days it may be necessary to switch your two days around, and the visit would be just as enjoyable. If you happen to visit around the holiday season, do not miss the Christmas markets. Strasbourg has deservedly earned the title of the French Capital of Christmas.