As the capital of the historical region of Alsace, which has belonged alternately to both France and Germany over the centuries, Strasbourg has developed a distinct identity all of its own. The heart of local life is the Grande Île, an island on the River Ill in the historic centre of the city. Here, narrow, cobbled streets are overlooked by signature timber-framed architecture and the 466ft, 15th-century spire of the gothic Strasbourg Cathedral.
Start by immersing yourself in the local crafts, clothes, traditions and dialect by visiting the cleverly curated Alsatian Museum, set in creaking medieval houses connected by wooden staircases and old passageways. Inside, over 5,000 artefacts — clothes and furniture, toys and religious artworks — paint a picture of rural life in Alsace between the 18th and 19th centuries. In contrast are the broad, pillared galleries of the Fine Arts Museum, located on the first and second floors of the Rohan Palace. Works on show include Nicolas de Largillière’s La Belle Strasbourgeoise, arguably the painter’s most famous work, and Cornelis Engelsz’s St Adrian Civic Guard. One of the largest paintings in the collection, it depicts more than 40 soldiers, whose eyes seem to eerily follow visitors as they walk down the hall.
Lunch is on the hearty side. The city’s most famous dish is choucroute garnie, a local take on sauerkraut with pork cuts and sausages. The most renowned address for this is Maison Kammerzell, a striking 15th-century restaurant next to the cathedral. For something lighter, head to Mama Bubbele, just outside the Grand Île, and tuck into a tarte flambée. Known as Alsatian pizza for its fine pastry base, it’s served with creme fraiche, bacon and onions, among other toppings.
But it’s one-Michelin-starred Au Crocodile that takes the city’s culinary crown. This fine-dining institution is named after a stuffed crocodile that hangs inside, brought back from Egypt by a captain in Napoleon’s army who lived in the building. Chef Romain Brillat’s seasonal menus are delicate and refined, in contrast to the city’s heavier traditional cuisine — think roasted monkfish with wild garlic and green asparagus or Jersey beef sirloin with lemongrass jus.
Afterwards, take the five-minute walk to the Büchmesser (‘stomach measurer’) opposite the cathedral facade. This narrow arch, set out from the wall on the corner of Rue Mercière, has measured the girth of hungry locals since the Middle Ages. After your rich Alsatian meal, you might just struggle to shimmy through sideways.
The city’s most loved artist of the modern era was cartoonist and illustrator Tomi Ungerer, and a namesake museum dedicated to his work shows his colourful children’s illustrations and satirical work. It sits on the edge of the Neustadt district, whose UNESCO-listed architecture was built in the late 19th century when the city was German. It’s markedly different from the medieval jumble of the Grande Île, with stately palaces, broad boulevards and an impressive mix of styles — Italian neo-Renaissance, neo-gothic and art nouveau — covering five centuries of European architecture.
At the heart of the neighbourhood you’ll find the circular and immaculate Jardin de la Place de la République, but for some wider green space, rent a bike from one of many Velhop stations, the local bike-sharing service. Strasbourg has 373 miles of cycling routes — more than any other city in the country — giving it the title of France’s cycling capital. Pedal on to Parc de l’Orangerie, the oldest in the city, where you can canoe around a lake. Keep an eye out for storks, the symbol of Alsace: in 1960, this park opened the first reintroduction centre for the bird in the region.
For a comfortable stay, check into Okko in the newly developed Presqu’île Malraux district, with doubles from €85 (£74), room only.
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