We share the best things to do in Strasbourg, France in the Alsace region on a weekend escape, including the top Strasbourg points of interest, hotels, restaurants, and best day trips from Strasbourg along the Alsace Wine Route.
Picture white timber-framed buildings with contrasting black beams, crimson geraniums spilling out of window boxes; ancient trees shading restaurant terraces dotted along the riverside; a bustling town square dominated by a pink wedding-cake of a gothic cathedral. You’ve just conjured up the UNESCO World Heritage historic centre of Strasbourg. It’s all this and so much more.
The capital of the historic and cultural region of Alsace (now part of Grand Est, France), Strasbourg has been fought over throughout the ages. This turbulent history has led to a distinctive blend of cultures, traditions, flavours, and languages, which are now uniquely Alsatian. Strasbourg is a city of contrasts: German and French, historical and modern, political and touristic. These contrasts make it a fascinating place to visit.
Strasbourg is the perfect weekend getaway destination, with beautiful architecture, great food, delicious wines and a unique history and character unlike anywhere else in Europe. It’s also the perfect gateway to discovering Alsace and the rest of France’s Grand Est.
Table of Contents
- The Best Things to Do in Strasbourg, France
- Grande Île
- Cathédrale Notre-Dame
- Strasbourg Astronomical Clock
- Kammerzell House
- Petite France
- Barrage Vauban
- Musée d’Art Moderne et Contemporain de Strasbourg
- Museums in Strasbourg
- Boat trip on the River Ill
- Best Day Trips from Strasbourg
- What to Eat in Strasbourg and Alsace
- Best Restaurants in Strasbourg & Alsace
- Best Hotels in Strasbourg
- Getting to Strasbourg from Belgium
The Best Things to Do in Strasbourg, France
Any visit to Strasbourg should begin in the UNESCO designated historic city centre. The Grande Île (Grand Island) was the first city centre to get the nod from UNESCO, back in 1988, and is, as the name suggests, an island in the Ill River. You access the island via one of 22 bridges, each marked with a brass plate indicating the centre’s World Heritage status.
To get the most out of your trip, consider taking a guided tour of Strasbourg. Tours range from traditional guided walking tours to tours by bike, pedicab, and even Segway. Here are a few of the top tour options:
To the southeast of the Grand Île, Strasbourg’s Cathédrale Notre-Dame (Cathedral of Our Lady), dominates the square. It’s the world’s sixth tallest church and can be seen from the Vosges Mountains, in the distance. This enormous building stands out even more, because of the distinct pink colour of the sandstone used for its construction. The gothic architecture is ornate and includes dramatic arches and stunning stained glass windows.
Every July, the cathedral, as well as the rest of the historic centre, becomes even more magical, during Strasbourg’s L’Ill aux Lumieres (The city under the lights) festival. Each evening the cathedral’s facade is illuminated by a colourful light show, accompanied by music. We watched in awe as brilliant colour danced across the Cathedral’s rose window and up its spire. Magical.
Strasbourg Astronomical Clock
Inside Strasbourg Cathedral, is another of the city’s famous attractions, the 18-meter tall astronomical clock. The current clock, the church’s third, dates from 1843. More than just a timepiece, the clock includes a calendar, phases of the sun and moon, position of the planets and solar and lunar eclipses.
The most striking features, however, are the 18 inch high figures decorating the clock. They include Jesus, the apostles, cherubs, and representations of death, youth, and aging.
Facing the Cathedral, across the square, is Kammerzell House, one of Strasbourg’s most famous buildings. Its ornate and quirky facade is decorated with frescoes by Alsatian painter Léo Schnug, and the whole building seems to be leaning precariously onto its neighbours. No wonder… the Kammerzell House dates from 1427, although it was rebuilt twice, in 1467 and 1589. These days the house is a hotel and restaurant serving traditional Alsatian dishes. A stay here puts you right in the heart of Strasbourg and gives you a taste of Old-World charm. Check the latest rates here.
To admire more traditional architecture, stroll to the Petite France neighbourhood, found on a series of little islands, where the Ill River splits into multiple canals. Here, along the narrow, winding streets, you will find the highest concentration of medieval half-timbered houses. The black and white houses are set off by brilliant red geraniums and fuschia petunias, cascading out of window boxes, all summer long. It’s an area of town that will put your camera to the test, with its picture postcard views. Just don’t expect to be alone during the tourist season.
For all the picturesque scenes these days, Petite France wasn’t always as romantic as it seems now. In fact, it was once the slaughterhouse district, and many of those pretty buildings were tanneries. Even the neighbourhood’s name has much less poetic roots. It was once home to the Hospice des Vérolés, a hospital for syphilis, called Franzosenkrankheit, in German – the French Disease.
These days, the only thing you’re apt to catch in Petite France is sticker shock from some of the over-priced tourist menus. Never fear, there are still some tremendous, affordable, and tasty places to eat in the tucked away corners of the islands (see Where to Eat in Strasbourg below).
Besides the timber-framed buildings, the other main sight in Petite France is the Barrage Vauban, (Vauban Dam). This structure, part dam and lock system, part fortification, was built in 1682. The grassy roof of the barrage offers excellent views of the Ill River and its fortified bridges. Inside the dam, are temporary exhibitions (and public washrooms).
Musée d’Art Moderne et Contemporain de Strasbourg
Behind the Barrage Vauban, a glass and metal box sits amidst the historic architecture along the River Ill. The Musée d’Art Moderne et Contemporain de Strasbourg (MAMCS), is the city’s striking Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art. The museum’s collection, one of the largest of its kind in France, begins with the Impressionists of the late 1800s and continues to the present day.
Inside this bright and open space, you can view selected works from the collection of 18,000 pieces from artists such as Pissarro, Monet, Rodin, Picasso, Kandinsky, Klee, and Ernst. There is also an exclusive collection of Alsatian artists and contemporary German painters as well as an extensive library of photography.
Museums in Strasbourg
Our visit to Strasbourg was over a beautiful sunny, summer weekend, so we wanted to spend as much time outdoors as possible. If you are not so lucky with the weather, during your visit, here are a few more of the city’s museums you can investigate. NOTE: If you do plan to visit a number of Strasbourg attractions and museums, be sure to order your Strasbourg City Pass which gives you lots of free and discounted offers over three days.
The Alsatian Museum
A Museum of the region’s folk art and traditions, including clothing, furniture, toys and religious items, inside a collection of Strasbourg’s historic houses.
The Archaeological Museum
One of the richest collections of archaeological findings in France, from the Alsace region, dating from Prehistory to the Middle Ages.
The Museum of Decorative Arts
Found inside the Palace of Rohan, this museum has two distinct parts: the restored and luxuriously decorated apartments of the Cardinals of Rohan and the collections of decorative arts, including ceramics, gold, silver and other metalwork, paintings and furniture.
The Museum of Fine Arts
Also found inside the Palace of Rohan, the collection is an overview of European painting from its beginnings to the 19th century.
The Historical Museum
Located inside an old slaughterhouse, this museum examines Strasbourg’s social history from the Middle Ages to the French Revolution.
Found on Strasbourg’s University campus, this museum is one of France’s richest collections of natural history, from the Arctic to Antarctica and everything in between.
Boat trip on the River Ill
One of the highlights of our visit to Strasbourg was a boat trip down the River Ill. Several companies are operating on the river, with similar itineraries. We chose Batorama, for a 70-minute tour. The cruise gave us the opportunity to sit back and admire the beautiful architecture of the centre as we slowly passed. The trip also took us past the modern buildings of the European Quarter, including the European Parliament and the European Court of Human Rights. (NOTE: There is a boat tour included with the Strasbourg City Pass).
Strasbourg was stunning when we visited in the summer, but the city has plenty to offer year-round, particularly during the winter holiday season. In fact, December is the perfect time to experience the city as Strasbourg calls itself the Capital of Christmas. The highlight of the holiday celebrations is the immense Christmas Market, the oldest in France, which has been around for more than 440 years. The primary market centres around the Strasbourg Cathedral with smaller markets dotted around the city.
Best Day Trips from Strasbourg
If like us, you decide to drive from Belgium to Strasbourg, and you have a bit of time, there are some lovely, scenic places to stop along the way. One of our favourite accidental discoveries was the town of Bitche. Yes, we admit, we only went there because of the name. Bitche is located at the Northern edge of the Lorraine region of France and is dominated by La Citadelle de Bitche. Visitors are lead through the citadel via a dramatic multi-media tour ending with a walk around the ramparts that offers a sweeping view of the region.
If you prefer flowers to fortresses, Bitche is also one of France’s Villes Fleurie (Communities in Bloom), and flowers drip from hanging baskets and window boxes throughout town. The small but whimsical Jardin Pour La Paix (The Garden for Peace) was a beautiful place to explore and relax with a cup of tea in the cafe. For more about our visit to Bitche, read our article Exploring Bitche in Lorraine, France.
South of Strasbourg is a town so storybook pretty you might think it was dreamed up by Walt Disney. In a way, Colmar is the Alsatian version of Bruges – traditional architecture, in this case, timber-framed, painted in every colour of the rainbow, lots of little gift-shops and canal-side restaurants, and a healthy dose of tourists enjoying it all. But don’t let the hordes of tourists scare you off. Get off the main streets, and you can still find some quiet canal-side views of the quaint houses.
If it sounds a little too Disney-fied for you, Colmar is also the “Capital of Alsatian Wine,” and there are a number of shops offering tastings in the Old Town. The town is the second driest in France, due to a unique microclimate; good to remember, if the Belgian weather is getting you down. Read our article Visiting Colmar in Alsace, France, for even more information.
Route des Vins d’Alsace
Colmar certainly isn’t the only place to experience the wines of Alsace. In fact, if you have a vehicle at your disposal, why not do a tour of the Route des Vins d’Alsace (Wine route of Alsace). This 170km route winds along the eastern foothills of the Vosges Mountains, through 67 picturesque communes. Along the way, you can stop at one of the many vineyards, clinging to the mountainsides, or enjoy a bottle at a winstub, the local name for a cosy café. There are three AOC wines of Alsace (Appellations d’Origine Contrôlées) and 51 Grand Cru wines, so you’re bound to find a bottle you love.
There are loads of picture-perfect villages along the wine route. Read about 3 of our favourite fairytale villages in Alsace.
Alsace Wine Route Tours from Strasbourg
If you don’t want to drive yourself on the wine route (and it’s a wise choice if you plan to do lots of wine tastings) there are plenty of tour options from Strasbourg. Here are a few of our favourites:
What to Eat in Strasbourg and Alsace
The melding of French and German cultures that has so influenced the architecture and history of Strasbourg has resulted in a unique Alsatian cuisine. No visit to the region is complete without sampling a few of these tasty treats.
Flammekueche or flams are called tartes flambées in French and Flammkuchen in German. No matter how you say it, these thin crust pizza-like treats are unavoidable in Strasbourg. The name means ‘flame cake,’ and traditional flams are cooked in a wood-fired oven. Toppings vary as much as pizzas these days, but traditional flams are topped with fromage blanc or crème fraîche, thinly sliced onions and lardons (bacon).
Choucroute Garnie (Garnished Sauerkraut)
With so much German history in the region, sauerkraut is unavoidable, but in this dish, Alsatians take it to a whole other level. While pickled cabbage may be the base, the final dish is a hearty one-pot meal that can feed an entire family. There’s no real set recipe, but traditional Choucroute often includes three types of sausage: Frankfurt, Strasbourg, and Montbéliard; inexpensive or salted cuts of pork also, including ham hocks, pork knuckles, and shoulders and back bacon; and generous helpings of boiled potato.
Baeckeoffe (baker’s oven in English) is another hearty Alsatian menu staple consisting of sliced potatoes and onion, with lamb, beef and pork marinated in Alsatian white wine and juniper berries. The mixture is slow-cooked overnight in a casserole dish.
Strasbourg Food Tours
Want to sample the best Alsatian cuisine with a guide or on your own? Why not take a Strasbourg food tour? Here are some fun and tasty options:
Best Restaurants in Strasbourg & Alsace
Strasbourg and Alsace, in general, is home to some excellent restaurants, where you can enjoy these traditional dishes and wash them down with the beautiful wines of the region. These are a few we tried personally and enjoyed.
Cloche a Fromage
It probably comes as no surprise that an all cheese restaurant would be right up our alley, but La Cloche à Fromage exceeded even our high cheese standards. Featuring over 70 varieties of cheese, it’s listed in the Guinness Book of World Records for having the largest cheese board in the world. You can buy cheeses to go at their shop or dine in from a menu of cheesy-goodness, featuring cheese tasting plates and traditional gooey raclettes. For foodporn photos and our full review, La Cloche a Fromage – Cheese Restaurant in Strasbourg, France
À La Hache
If you’re on the hunt for some traditional Alsatian fare, away from the overly cute, touristy winstubs in the centre, head to À La Hache. With a name meaning ‘the axe,’ the menu features meat, meat, and more meat. Think classic entrecote, tartar, and traditional Choucroute as well as a Rotisserie menu. Accompaniments include spaetzle, traditional egg and flour dumplings common to the region. If you’re looking for something a bit lighter or, dare I say it, vegetarian, there are a selection of Flammekueches, including a few without meat.
Best Hotels in Strasbourg
La Cour Du Corbeau Hotel
If you’re prepared to splurge for a charming room in the city centre, this could be your place. Just steps from the cathedral you’ll find the collection of 16th-century post and beam houses making up this 4-star hotel. The hotel’s interior combines traditional elements with modern glamour. Service is a priority here, and the location could not be more convenient for sightseeing in the city. Check the latest prices here.
Comfort Hotel Strasbourg – Montagne Verte
If you’re on a tight budget, this 2-star hotel from the Comfort chain may fit the bill. The hotel is situated outside of the historic centre, but close to a tram stop for easy access. The rooms are basic but clean and up to date, and there is an on-site restaurant and free wifi. Check the latest prices here.
Life Renaissance – New Concept
For a stunning apartment rental in the heart of the Grand Ile, don’t miss the Life Rennaissance. The flat is perfect for couples or families and includes wifi and parking. Options range from open concept loft studios to larger units sleeping up to six people. You’ll have access to your own kitchen and balcony too. Check the latest prices here.
Getting to Strasbourg from Belgium
As mentioned above, we drove to Strasbourg from Brussels, taking the scenic route along part of the Route des Vins d’Alsace. However, if you’re pressed for time the direct, highway route, will take you about 4.5 hours (traffic permitting). You can choose the E411 and A4 highways (note there are some road tolls) or for a toll-free trip through Germany, follow the A61.
Brussels to Strasbourg via train is a busy route (Just ask anyone who works for the parliament), and there are several direct IC trains between the two cities each day. The trip takes about 5.5 hours. If you are pressed for time, you can shave off an hour by taking the TGV and changing trains in Paris. Both trips are around €70 one way.