The discovery of Strasbourg old town and its picturesque atmosphere is a real enchantment. It is easy to understand the pride the Strasbourgeois feel for their city, given its considerable architectural heritage.
Strasbourg is unveiled in the lively medieval backstreets, the ancient district of Petite France, the banks of the Ill River where you can happily stroll, the lofty gothic cathedral, its museums and their rich collections, and the famous “winstubs” wine cellars, friendly settings for Alsatian gastronomy.
The panoramic view from the top of the cathedral’s terrace allows you to see the characteristic traits of Old Strasbourg. The roofs are often striking and very steep, with their many small “sitting dog” or “training” (“Schleppganten”) windows. The roofs shelter several storeys of attics, which are pierced by small dormer windows.
Rich in art and history, the old town stretches over the entire Grande Île, which itself was listed as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1988. Follow the guide to 9 landmarks of Strasbourg’s old town.
1. Place de la Cathédrale – Cathedral Square
Aside from the remarkable façade of the cathedral, also found here is the building of the old Cerf pharmacy, which was the longest-running active pharmacy in France until 2000. Documents dating from the 13th century attest to its existence. Its ground floor is made of stone, and its arcades are decorated with branches and snakes. The half-timbered upper levels date from 1567, which can be verified by the inscription on the support pillar.
Many visitors pass before the pillar without realising its unusual story! The pillar is set back slightly when compared to the rest of the building and this gap is known under the name of “büchmesser” (stomach measurer). According to ancient tradition, the artisan masons working on the construction of the cathedral used to have to measure their stoutness in order to show that they were capable of squeezing through the various crevasses of the cathedral.
But the real star of this place – apart from the cathedral – is without a doubt the famous Kammerzell House.
The Kammerzell House
This magnificent 15th and 16th century Renaissance house has the most richly decorated half-timbered panels in the city. Built by cheesemonger Martin Braun, its medieval ground floor is made of stone and its upper floors, of Renaissance style, are made of sculpted wood. Its façade features 65 bottle-bottom windows, whose sculpted frames depict both biblical and mythological scenes.
The corner post sculpted in wood represents the three virtues: on the first floor, Charity (surrounded by two children and a pelican), and on the second and third floors Hope (a phoenix) and Faith (a griffin).
Notice the pulley above the 3rd floor that served to lift the reserves to the attic.
Previously known by the name “Altes Haus” (Old House), it is currently named after a new owner, grocer Philippe-François Kammerzell, a native of Wurzburg in Germany.
Today, the house features a restaurant and a three-star hotel, in which the frescos on the ceiling were created by Leo Schnug (1878-1933), a painter who also worked on the decorating of the Haut-Kœnigsbourg Castle.
It is the oldest building in Strasbourg that is still used commercially.
To the left of the house stands the building of the Tourist Office of Strasbourg.
2. Palais des Rohan – Rohan Palace
All throughout the 18th century, four generations of cardinals belonging to the same family, the Rohans, reigned over the Diocese of Strasbourg. From its annexation to France in 1681 by Louis XIV, Protestant Strasbourg had to combine the city’s religious life with the Catholics. Armand de Rohan-Soubise, natural son of Louis XIV, was the first Prince-Bishop here and wanted to build a sumptuous palace beside the cathedral. Built between 1732 and 1742 in sandstone from the Vosges, the palace adopted a classical style, which was then popular in France.
The palace’s entry is located in Place du Château, opposite the portal of the cathedral’s South transept. To enter in the court of honour, you must pass by a monumental triumphal arch portal, surmounted by statues representing Clemency and Religion. The main body of the palace is over two levels; the ground floor being reserved for the bishop, and the second floor and the lofts for his personnel. To the left and right of the Court of Honour are the palace’s administrative buildings and dependences.
The palace’s façade along the Ill River seems much more harmonious with its large terrace. In its centre are four Corinthian columns which support a fronton and a roof in the shape of an imperial-style dome. If the side of the palace overlooking the cathedral shelters a statuary of predominantly religious connotation, the side overlooking the Ill River displays more secular motifs: the four seasons or the heroes and gods of the Antiquity.
The interior of the Rohan Palace is worth stopping at, with the decoration of its apartments having been influenced by those of Versailles. Thanks to their décor, ceremonial furniture, tapestries and paintings, the remarkable apartments are among the most beautiful French interiors of the 18th century. Particular attention must be given to the following rooms: the Synod room, the King’s bedroom, the meeting lounge, the Cardinals’ library, the morning lounge, and the Emperor’s bedroom. Louis XV, while passing through Strasbourg, was the palace’s first guest at its completion, and then later, it was Marie-Antoinette’s turn to stay there.
The Rohan Palace now houses three museums that allow its visitors to admire the apartments and the ceremonial rooms: the Museum of Decorative Arts, the Museum of Fine Arts, and the Archaeological Museum.
The boat piers of the cruise around the Grande Ile of Strasbourg are located in immediate proximity to the Rohan Palace.
The Musée de l’Œuvre Notre-Dame
Located in Place du Château, opposite the cathedral and to the left of Rohan Palace, the Musée de l’Œuvre Notre-Dame is worth the detour if you are interested in the cathedral and Alsatian art from the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. The first documented mention of the “Fondation de l’Œuvre Notre-Dame” dates back to 1246. L’Œuvre Notre-Dame owes its existence to the devotees who generously contributed to the construction of the cathedral. Once this was completed, L’Œuvre took responsibility for its maintenance and restoration.
The first of the two twin buildings which house the cathedral’s museum dates from the 14th century (with simple tiered gables) and the second building from the 16th century (with spiral gables). The remarkable screw stair tower which serves both buildings dates from the 17th century.
A series of four small courts (one of which – the Petit Cerf – has a small medieval garden) pleasantly punctuate the visit.
Even if the original goal was to house statues from the cathedral here, the museum has since displayed a wider choice of art objects of the Upper Rhine from the 11th to the 17th century: sculptures, paintings, tapestries and goldsmith’s art. As for the stained-glass windows that are exhibited here, they include a little treasure: the oldest known figurative stained glass window in the world: the “Romanesque Head of Wissembourg”, dating from around 1070.
3. Pont du Corbeau – L’Ancienne Boucherie et l’Ancienne Douane
It was not until 1890 that the structure of the Pont du Corbeau (Raven Bridge) in pink sandstone and dimension stone took on its current appearance. From the 12th century, the bridge was known by a sinister name: Schindbrücke (bridge of torture). It is in this part of the city that the public execution of thieves, infanticides and parricides took place, with the convicted parties being thrown into the Ill River in tied-up bags.
Metal cages were placed at each end of the bridge to publicly expose the “little crooks” that is, the minor offenders of the time: an innkeeper cutting his wine, a baker cheating on the weight of his bread, etc.
The bridge offers a beautiful view over the cathedral in the distance and, along the banks of the Ill River, the Old Butchers’ House. The U-shaped building of plain architecture was built in 1587, and has housed the city’s historic museum since 1920. In 2007, the museum reopened its doors after 20 years of being closed for repairs.
The museum’s mission is to present the city’s urban history: political, economic, social and cultural, through a collection of civilian and military objects, clothing, paintings, drawings and sculptures from the Middle Ages to the 18th century.
With a wealth of 200,000 objects, the museum only shows 1,650 of these to its visitors. Fans of scale models should have a look at the remarkable relief plan of almost 80m2in size, which dates from 1725 and represent the city and its countryside on a 1/600th scale.
Additional works are taking place in order to display the exhibition of the history of the city from the 19th century to present day.
Behind the building, the Place du Marché-aux-Cochons-de-Lait and Rue du Maroquin in the direction of the cathedral, are lined with several restaurants and winstubs and are particularly lively.
The half-timbered houses here are also superb by their size and their wooden galleries and contribute to giving the district a “post card” appearance.
Most are half-timbered and display oriel windows of wood or stone from the 16th and 17th centuries. The remarkable “Maison au cochon de lait” (House of the suckling pig) with its double gallery of wooden balusters and its sculpted windows carry the dates of 1477 and 1613. It is topped by a peculiar wind vane representing Emperor Sigismond’s sabot. The little story here is that while visiting Strasbourg in 1414, the Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire was in such a hurry to arrive at the ball that he ran there barefoot, forgetting his boots. The kind maids of Strasbourg, having witnessed the incident, hastened to provide the emperor with shoes on this very spot.
Opposite the museum, still along the Ill River is the Old Customs House, a building dating from 1358. Wanted by the Guild of Boatmen, the duty of the old customs house came down to monitoring, taxing and stocking merchandise (wine, tobacco and fish) passing through the Rhine.
Strasbourg’s prosperity during the Middle Ages relied in large part on its privileged position in the centre of the Upper Rhine region, between Basle and Mainz.
Destroyed during the Second World War, the fluvial commerce warehouse was rebuilt after the war and now houses a traditional brasserie and a temporary exhibition gallery.
From the other side of the bridge, in the direction of the pedestrian Rue d’Austerlitz and Quai St Nicolas, is a remarkable cobbled and tree-lined courtyard which has the same name as its neighbouring bridge. The Cour du corbeau (Raven Court) and its building are a magnificent example of Renaissance in Strasbourg with its richly decorated half-timbering, balustrades and beams. Construction of the town house commenced in 1528 and it has accommodated several famous figures, such as the King of Poland – John II Casmir, King Frederic II of Prussia, Emperor Joseph II of Austria, and even French writer Gérard de Nerval.
Since May 1st 2009, the complex houses a four-star hotel, after necessary and successful renovations which have enhances the architectural wealth of the old hotel.
4. Quai Saint Nicolas – Le Musée Alsacien
From the other side of the river, in the direction of Petite France, Quai Saint-Nicolas has held on to the memory of drying houses and possesses the most beautiful half-timbered houses in the city, which were built along the Ill River in a picturesque setting.
The district includes the Alsatian Museum, which welcomes 60,000 to 70,000 visitors each year. This museum of arts and popular tradition is spread across several 17th century residences of Strasbourg which are all linked together by stairs and wooden passageways. It presents thousands of objects that are witnesses of rural life in Alsace during the 18th and 19th centuries: costumes, furniture, ceramics, toys, religious and secular imagery, through reconstructions of interiors characteristic of the different “countries” of Alsace (agricultural plain, vineyards, Vosges mountains) and craftsmen workshops.
5. La Petite France – The Petite France district
This is perhaps the most romantic district in Strasbourg, especially at nightfall. You must take the time to stroll along the banks of the navigation channel and appreciate the reflections of the half-timbered houses in the water. The pretty medieval houses of the district date from the 16th and 17th centuries, and half-timbering is magnificently decorated. Their steep roofs are open over the attics where skins used to dry.
At the end of the Petite France district, the Ponts Couverts (Covered Bridges) depict another cherished postcard image of Strasbourg with its succession of three bridges linking arms of the Ill River and dominated by medieval towers.
Read more about the Petite France district and the Ponts Couverts.
You can return towards Place Gutenberg by walking along the Grand’Rue, a pleasant and pedestrian-friendly axis lined with small boutiques. Its houses date from the 16th and 18th centuries.
6. La Place Gutenberg – The Gutenberg Square
The peaceful Gutenberg Square is the dream location for those who are on the lookout for old books. In fact, every week, the booksellers set up their stalls at the foot of the statue of the famous printer.
Because even if we know that Johannes Gutenberg (circa 1400-1468) was a native of Mainz in Germany, we often forget that he invented the principle of printing with movable metal characters in Strasbourg.
When Gutenberg returned to Mainz, Strasbourg continued to house an important and flourishing printing centre throughout Europe and contributed to the propagation of ideas of the Reformation. The printing industry allowed the Alsatian city to once again experience a period of economic prosperity.
The erection of the statue of Gutenberg, created by David d’Angers, was greeted with three days of pomp and circumstance celebrations by Strasbourg’s population. Depicted on the statue’s four plinth panels are the benefits the world has gained thanks to the invention of modern printing.
The Chamber of Commerce building bordering the square is a masterpiece of Renaissance art in Alsace, assimilating several artistic movements of the time. Built in 1585 by Hans Schoch, it was considered among the most elegant Alsatian buildings of the 16th century with its vividly-coloured frescos which are no longer there.
The Rue des Hallebardes to the north of Gutenberg Square follows the ancient road that led to the Roman garrison of Argentorate, ancient site of Strasbourg. Effigies of halberds upright on the facades of the buildings evoke the times when the armourers used to here during the Middle Ages. At number 22 in this street, the inscription of the year of construction (1528) on a visible beam make this corbelled and half-timbered house one of the oldest Renaissance-style houses in Strasbourg.
Returning from Gutenberg Square, Rue des Arcades, with its many boutiques, leads to Kléber Square.
7. Place Kléber – The Kléber Square
Much more than the heart of the city, Kléber Square is also the rallying centre of the Strasbourgeois during great events and celebrations.
In the Middle Ages, a monastery of Franciscan monks was here, and naturally, the inhabitants gave it the name of Barfüsserplatz (barefoot square). In the 17th century, its name was changed to become “Waffenplatz” (weapons square).
In 1778, a large, remarkable and long Classical-style building was erected to the north of the square and named Aubette. Its name came from the time when the Garrison Corps came here seeking orders at dawn.
The square acquired its current name in 1840, in homage to General Kléber, a brilliant military strategist assassinated by a Syrian student in Cairo in 1800. Having won many important battles, his popularity was large in France and it was decided that his body would be laid to rest in his native city of Strasbourg.
The square has undergone many redevelopments over these last decades, most notably since the arrival of the new tram system.
Every Christmas, a giant and marvellously decorated Christmas tree from the Vosges illuminates the square.
La Place de l’Homme de Fer
Adjoining Kléber Square, the Iron Man Square has become Strasbourg’s nerve centre since the arrival of the modern tram system, assuring the connection of four important lines. It is in this place that, coming from the railway station or from the numerous Park and Ride Tram locations, passengers and tourists can get off to stroll around Strasbourg’s Old Town. Previously not of any particular interest, Iron Man Square is recognisable thanks to its 700m2 glass rotunda which houses the tram station. The effigy of the 17th century iron man is still visible on the façade of the pharmacy by the same name… except that this one is a 19th century copy, the original being displayed in the Historical Museum.
8. Église Saint-Pierre-le-Jeune
Not far from Iron Man Square and bordering a charming little square of the same name, the Protestant church Saint-Pierre-le-Jeune was built on the site of three successive buildings, the first dating from the 7th century dedicated to Saint Columbanus, an Irish evangelist. Of this remains a small 7th century crypt with five funerary niches, which are claimed to be from the 4th century. The church features a pretty little cloister, which was renovated in 2005, with four arcade galleries, three of which date back to 1031 and one to the 14th century. The church’s interior is of gothic style with its magnificent archway over a 14th century ribbed nose cone and its lateral chapels, its medieval frescos and – something rare in France’s churches – a superb rood screen covered in paintings from 1620 and a Silbermann organ, claimed to be from 1780. In pitiful condition, the building was greatly restored from 1897 to 1901 by Carl Schäfer, native of Karlsruhe.
To the right of the Saint-Pierre-le-Jeune square, Rue de la Nuée Bleue leads to Broglie Square.
9. Place Broglie – The Broglie Square
Isolated from most of the major tourist attractions of the Old Town, Broglie Square is however no less charged with history.
Its long, rectangular appearance evokes medieval times when it was the theatre of knights’ tournaments. Abandoned, the district was redeveloped in the 18th century by a marshal of Louis XV, François-Marie – Duke of Broglie and Governor of Alsace.
The marshal built Strasbourg’s City Hall in 1730 in Regency style. It was in one of the living rooms of the square’s pavilion (now destroyed) that the Marseillaise rang out for the first time. Rouget de Lisle began singing along to it in front of the Mayor of Strasbourg, Frédéric de Dietrich, on 26 April 1792, following the declaration of war by the Austrian Emperor. Entitled “War song for the Rhine Army”, the patriotic song was immediately adopted by volunteers in Marseille and spread across France under the name “la Marseillaise”.
The famous painting by Isidore Pils immortalising the event “Rouget de Lisle singing the Marseillaise” is on display in the Museum of Fine Arts (Rohan Palace).
The Strasbourg Opera House was built in the square’s extreme north in 1820. Today, it hosts concerts by the Rhine Opera. In the square’s extreme north, the Strasbourg Opera House was built in 1820, which today hosts concerts by the Rhine Opera, was built. Constructed in a Neo-Classic style in sandstone from the Vosges, its façade is decorated with a colossal peristyle with ionic columns and surmounted by six muses (and not nine as tradition dictates).
Today, the square is a must-see destination in December for its Christmas market, locally known as Christkindmärik (Baby Jesus market).
The Pont du Théâtre crosses the ditch of the Rampart and leads to another district of Strasbourg with a resolutely different atmosphere: the German Imperial district of monumental architecture.
Visit the Strasbourg Tourist Board website for more info!