Ah, Strasbourg, city of my heart. Since I started to write posts for Culturaal, I have had this topic in mind with many ideas and tips constantly popping up in my head. Then I thought my opinion would be somehow biased and not expressing enough the exciting feeling of discovering a new city. I have indeed lived there for my studies for over a year and a half. Choosing this city was a natural and logical shift for me: I could attend a renowned school in the field of European studies, and live in a town I fell in love with after a few visits. The capital of the newly established “Grand-Est” French region has a lot to offer not only to its tourists, but also to its residents.
Here is a non-exhaustive glimpse of why you should consider visiting Strasbourg, an international, multicultural and multireligious town, and the things not to miss.
Strasbourg, historical city
First of all, Strasbourg is a historical city of utmost importance, lying at the crossroads of French and German cultures. Standing on the border, it’s been disputed by the two countries between 1871 and 1944, the inhabitants having to change nationality 4 times in total. Strolling around the Grande Île (inscribed on the UNESCO’s World Heritage List in 1988), you cannot miss the Germanic atmosphere: the typical half-timbered houses, the Gothic architecture or the names of the street translated into the regional Alsatian dialect (which is the same as the dialect in Southern Germany, bearing witness to French-German historic ties). This aptly named historical part of the city is an island surrounded by lovely canals and romantic little bridges, giving it an Amsterdam-like charm. Having the peaceful feeling of a small and friendly village while providing at the same time all the inherent benefits of the 7th biggest French city is to me the biggest asset of Strasbourg.
Although being a source of conflict in the past, Strasbourg is today a true driver of unity between France and Germany, symbolised by the beautiful “ Jardin des Deux Rives” and its bridge allowing pedestrians and cyclists to cross the border easily and without even noticing it. Strasbourg is also the seat of Arte headquarters, a renowned French-German TV channel.
Things not to miss: the gothic Cathedral, the Barrage Vauban (to watch from the roof of the opposite bridge), Strasbourg Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art, the Palais Rohan, the Kléber Square, Petite France district, the Broglie Square, going on a boat cruise on the Isle.
Strasbourg, European city
Strasbourg is the city where Europe’s construction all started with the first European organisation, the Council of Europe, established in 1949. Covering the “large Europe”, with its 47 member States, this organisation is a true symbol of European cooperation in the field of Human Rights. The imposing headquarters building was constructed in the seventies (evidenced by the interior style and flashy colours) in a district, which is now home to many other European institutions. Later on the European Court of Human Rights, the famous European Parliament, the European Pharmacopoeia or Eurocorps were also established there . I highly recommend visiting the institutions, either upon prior booking or during a parliamentary week. Despite the invasion of office buildings, the district has not lost its beauty and natural part. The imposing Orangerie Park, the biggest in Strasbourg, is a real hidden treasure and attracts many European civil servants for their lunch break and runners for their Sunday jog.
It feels invigorating to live in a city that breathes European and contributes to making its residents and tourists, especially the newest generation, more familiar with Europe’s history and new developments. Innovative and ludic activities are organised in the frame of the Eurometropole or the Eurodistrict Strasbourg-Ortenau, symbolising cross-border cooperation. Good examples are the many activities carried out on the occasion of Europe Day (open days at the EP, guided bike tours in the European district, etc), or the French-German marathon.
Taking all these features into account, Strasbourg’s European district received in 2016 a European Heritage Label by the European Commission as “It bears witness to European integration, the defence of human rights, democracy and the rule of law.”
Strasbourg, gourmet city
The importance of regional gastronomy in France is no secret. Strasbourg and its many places to eat set a perfect example. One can savour the finest Alsatian specialties all year long, and I must admit that despite the well-known flammekueche (thin crust covered with crème fraiche, onions and bacon) or choucroute (sauerkraut with sausages, salty meats and potatoes), I also discovered must-taste dishes: bibeleskäs (creamy mix of fromage blanc and crème fraiche with fresh herbs and spices), spätzle (the Alsatian noodle), bretzels (especially during Christmas time), or this strong, melting and smelly Munster cheese (make sure to have a mint gum in your pocket before devouring it!).
Let’s talk serious now. Alsace is famous for its wine: Riesling, Gewurtzraminer, pinot gris, noir, blanc, and the regional champagne Crémant. As a huge fan of white wine, I always find ways to take a few of these bottles with me. A good way of discovering about wine making and tasting the result is to drive the wine route throughout the lovely Alsatian villages and fields. The guided tour of the wineries and tasting are normally for free. However, pay attention to the number of glasses if you have to drive, as bottles are not spared!
Strasbourg, Christmas city
As a grown-up kid, Christmas is my favourite period of the year. People in Strasbourg are really spoiled for Christmas, since it is known and proud to be the European capital of Christmas, its famous Christmas market (Christkindelsmärik) displaying 300 stalls. It simply is fascinating and magical to see the lights and traditional decorations hanging on the facades, smelling mulled wine and roasted chestnuts at every corner, and (try) to walk around the 12 themed Christmas markets. Children, teenagers, young adults, elderly, everybody is just enchanted. What is really specific to Strasbourg and definitely a big asset is that not only the city center plays the Christmas game. Although this latter district remains the must-see, the city as a whole embraces a Christmas spirit. An absolute highlight is the inauguration night, when the Great Christmas Tree installed on the Kléber Square is illuminated and an invited French artist gives a concert. A hidden gem is the “Carré d’Or”: a few narrow streets forming a square with prestigious decorations, to see rather at night.
If you wish to visit Strasbourg during this period, get prepared to be surrounded by the nearly 2 millions visitors per year and the resulting accommodation shortage.
Photos: Manon Richard CC BY-SA