City Guides: Strasbourg
A bit of history:
Strasbourg, France lies in the North-Eastern portion of France in a region known as Alsace. Historically, the people of the Alsace region spoke a Germanic dialect; hence, the Germanic name of the fairytale-like city. Today, people that reside in Strasbourg and its surrounding areas commonly speak both German and French, although French is becoming increasingly predominant. With nearly 760, 000 people residing within Strasbourg’s metropolitan area, Strasbourg is the ninth largest city in France.
Strasbourg’s history dates back as early as 1300 BC. Neolithic (i.e., 10, 200 BC to 2, 000 BC), Bronze Age (i.e., 3, 200 BC to 600 BC), and Iron Age (i.e., 1200 BC to 1 BC) artifacts have been found in the area, proving the region was inhabited for thousands of years.
Strasbourg, like most other European cities and regions, was once under control of the Roman Empire. As early as 12 BC, there is evidence to support that the Romans had military out postings in the area that is now known as Strasbourg; however, back then, they’d named the area “Argentoratum”. During this time, the main area of the village was situated along the Grande Ile or the “Grand Island” in English, which is where the historical center of Strasbourg still lies today. These Roman camps were destroyed by fires and were rebuilt six times between the first and fifth centuries. This must really have been a tenacious bunch to keep rebuilding this city!
Basically, this city was inhabited by a bunch of different people starting in the fifth century. First, there was Alemanni (a German tribe), then there were the Huns (nomads), then there were the Franks (another Germanic tribe). It was first documented in 842 that the region was now known as “Strazburg” (local language at the time).
Because Strasbourg was a commercial center, the city came under the control of the Roman Empire in 923. Back then, there was a long conflict between Strasbourg’s bishop and the citizens of Strasbourg. There was a big, bloody battle in 1262 between the citizens and the bishop, and the citizens WON! Shortly thereafter, Strasbourg was declared an “Imperial Free City” (i.e., a self-ruling, autonomous city).
YAY! Until…. The 1300s rolled around and that blasted plague decided to attack. Between 1348 and 1349, thousands of people died. Like many other areas of Europe affected by the plague, the people of Strasbourg blamed the Jews for the plague; they publically burnt over one thousand Jewish people. The living Jews were banished from the city and were not allowed to be present in the city after 10 PM at all until the end of the 1700s. That’s some seriously hateful stuff.
Let’s shift a little bit to a happier note. The 1400s roll around. The famous Strasbourg Cathedral (i.e., “Petite Notre Dame”) was built. FINALLY. They started it back in the 1100s. Anyway. It still stands today and is quite breathtaking if you have the chance to visit.
In the 1500s (1520, to be exact), the people of Strasbourg embraced the religious teachings of Martin Luther. This was when the Protestant Reformation was occurring in Europe. This probably caused a lot of tension, considering the vast change from the then-predominant Catholicism. Seeings Strasbourg was a center of humanist scholarship (and for early book-printing) in the Roman Empire, a lot of the city’s beliefs influenced and helped to establish the Protestant religion. This religion is still highly common in the region.
OK, you know how I just told you about Strasbourg and early book-printing? Well, get this. The first EVER modern newspaper was published in Strasbourg in 1605. They were also the first to print and distribute weekly journals that were written in German by local reporters to many central European cities. Crazy, right?!
Ok, now… onto the 1600s. SO, earlier I mentioned that Strasbourg was a free imperial city, meaning it was autonomous and self-governing, etc. etc. There was this very famous war between 1618-1648 which was creatively named the “thirty years’ war”. It was super destructive and originally started as a war between the Protestants and the Catholics, but turned into a power struggle over Europe. So, Strasbourg stayed relatively neutral during this time, until Louis XIV of France demanded the city be annexed, as his extending borders of his kingdom (in the Alsace region) could be put in jeopardy as a result of Strasbourg’s status. This Mr. Louis thought that in order to defend his newly claimed regions, there needed to be a group of troops to defend his land in all major areas, including Strasbourg. Talk about panic for Strasbourg – this powerful guy with a large military force at this fingertips wanted to overtake their established, free, autonomous city. Scary.
Well, in 1681 Mr. Louis XIV had his way. He didn’t have a great reason to justify his invasion. None-the-less, he sent in his troops who totally surrounded and overwhelmed Strasbourg. On September 30th of that year, Mr. Louis had officially conquered Strasbourg.
Partially because of this invasion, there was a super bloody (but quick) “War of the Reunions” that actually left the French in possession of Strasbourg. The French, at the time, decided to kick all Protestants out of France. Those living in Strasbourg, however, could do as they pleased because of a previously negotiated treaty. That being said, the French still decided to take the Strasbourg Cathedral (that still stands, and is totally beautiful) away from the Lutherans and give it to the Catholics to promote Catholicism as much as possible. What control freaks.
Technically, in many ways, Strasbourg was still a “free” city until the French Revolution rolled around. There was this political group called the “enrages” who were known for defending the lower class in a somewhat destructive way. They ruled the city of Strasbourg during the late 1700s and destroyed many churches and monasteries during this time. They ruined much of the cathedral that still stands; thankfully, it was repaired as much as possible in the 1800s.
In the early 1800s, a man named Napoleon Bonaparte (infamous political and military leader) visited Strasbourg with his first wife. Then a couple years late, he visited with his second wife. He got around. Anyway, between him and another very famous king (King Charles X of France) visiting Strasbourg, the city began to gain some notoriety. During the 19th century, the city’s population tripled from 50, 000 to 150, 000 people.
Sounds good, right? Not quite. In 1870, there was another war called the “Franco-Prussian War” and the “Siege of Strasbourg”. Strasbourg was known to be a strong fortress, and French leadership knew the value of conquering the city. So, they tried. Using army forces, they attempted to destroy the city, lighting the Museum of Fine Arts and the Library on fire, and damaging the gothic cathedral and the medieval church (i.e., Temple Neuf), as well as many other popular sites. They killed over 600 people, injured thousands more, and left 10, 000 people without any shelter. Terrible stuff.
1871 rolled around and the city was then conquered by the German Empire. Germany was also considered to be autonomous, and they helped to rebuild Strasbourg, reconstructing and adding to the city.
You’d hope that’s how things ended, because it sounds happy, right? Nope. World War 1 happened in 1918, of course – which was terrible, but necessary. The German empire was defeated during this time and the Alsace region became an independent Republic. The Germans and French basically fought over the city until the French took over. In 1919, the Treaty of Versailles (a peace treaty that ended the state of war between Germany and the allied powers) was passed, and the city was taken over by France once again. After the war, many of the Germans residing in Strasbourg left to return to Germany.
Again, it seems that things had gotten better. Until a very terribly famous World War II happened. In 1940, The Fall of France occurred (the Germans invaded France), and the city came under German rule, again. This was a terrible time. All Jews in the area were deported to one of the main synagogues of the city where it was lit on fire and they were left to perish.
There was a group of young men from the Alsace region that decided they would resist the German invasion. This group was led by a 17-year-old boy named Marcel Weinum; and when I say the group members were young, they were. They were between 14 and 18 years of age. They decided to attack a man named Robert Wagner, the highest commander of the Alsace region, directly under the order of Hitler. As a result of this attack, Marcel Weinum (the leader) was prosecuted by the Gestapo and was sentenced to be beheaded in April, 1942, in Stuttgart… At the age of 18.
Whilst the First World War didn’t leave any (relatively) terribly lasting damage on Strasbourg, the Second World War did. Aircrafts bombarded the city, and bombs caused terrible damage in Strasbourg.
In 1944, the city was once again liberated by the French against Germany. Sadly, many of the residents of Strasbourg were incorporated into the Germany Army. The Germans would not allow them to return to France, threatening their lives or the lives of their loved ones. Most were killed. The ones that survived were outcast once they returned to France, accused of being traitors or of committing treason. Only recently have these individuals been acknowledged.
After the war, the city suffered from a lack of housing and accommodation for the increasing influx of people moving to Strasbourg. The city was forced to expand as populations continued to grow.
Strasbourg’s historic city center, known as “Grande Ile” or “Grand Island” in English, was classified in its entirety to be a World Heritage site by UNESCO in 1988. This was the very first time an entire city was declared a Word Heritage site. Strasbourg is home to the second largest University in France, the University of Strasbourg. The university unites France and Germany, as Strasbourg is seated on the border of France and Germany. Today, Strasbourg is a charming and thriving city that has overcome a plethora of obstacles, remaining strong, beautiful, and lively.
I’m going to start by saying that I wish I had more time in Strasbourg. This insanely charming city of approximately 272, 000 (in Strasbourg proper) was an instant favorite. Our trip was a very impromptu stop-over on our way to Germany. Sadly, we hadn’t done our research in advance and decided to spend a mere three hours in the city before heading on to our final destination in Germany. We knew instantly that this had been a mistake, and that Strasbourg was worthy of much more time. I’m sure one could do and see everything he or she wanted within one or two full days, but I would suggest one should consider staying in Strasbourg for upwards of a week, if possible.
Because we knew we wanted to get to the “cut-straight-to-the-chase, good stuff” (i.e., the city center and sites), we drove straight to the center with the Cathedrale Notre Dame de Strasbourg (a.k.a., “Petite Notre Dame”) as our initial target. Parking on the opposite side of the River Ill, we were treated to a short walk amongst Germanic buildings and cobblestone streets lined with adorable cafes, shops, and restaurants. Approaching the River Ill was a sight for sore eyes. The buildings along the river were delightful and quaint. It was a perfect day for walking in the city. With it being early November, there was not yet snow on the ground; there was a slight chill in the air, and the city was encompassed by shades of orange, red, and yellow from the falling autumn leaves.
Once we were clearly in the heart of the old city center, we walked with a quasi-focus of reaching the Cathedral and its surrounding square. Because it was only ten in the morning, many of the restaurants had yet to open and it seemed that many locals and tourists alike were still enjoying their rest. It felt nice to have the pedestrian streets almost to ourselves. The city felt more authentic this way, and we could at least pretend in our minds that we weren’t simple tourists.
Ryan and I found ourselves walking slower and slower down the streets, admiring all of the charming buildings with pubs, restaurants, and shops inside. We both agreed we would have loved to spend more time in this city; however, it was not an option on this trip because we needed to be somewhere in Germany that night.
After meandering through the winding streets of Strasbourg for an hour or so, we walked directly into a large square. And what was in the center of the square, you ask? Oh, you didn’t ask? That’s okay. I will tell you anyway. Ta-da! It was the Cathedrale Notre Dame de Strasbourg. Interestingly, this cathedral was nicknamed “Petite Notre Dame”. Now, it’s interesting because of how relative it all is. Petite was in fact not an accurate adjective to describe this gigantic, intricate, mammoth of a building; however, I suppose if one is to compare the Cathedrale Notre Dame de Strasbourg to the Notre Dame in Paris, then it’s relatively petite. Petite relative to the famous cathedral in Paris. Just wanted to make that clear.
It was 10:55 AM by this point. As our luck would have it, the cathedral was open to the public until 11:15 AM when it would shut down for a few hours. We were allowed to walk right into the cathedral and marvel at the intricacies and art contained as a part of the church. The ceilings felt 100 feet high with ornate embellishments over the walls. High on the ceiling was the largest organ I’ve ever seen, decorated in shades of red, gold, and blue. We wandered around the church, admiring the art work and intricacies in silence. Making our way to the back corner of the church, we noticed a gathering of people admiring a large astronomical clock. Realizing it was nearly 11 AM, we joined the group to watch the ornate clock strike on the hour. Rather underwhelmed by the five second showing, we finished looking around before departing out of the Cathedral and back into its surrounding square.
In the square and alleys surrounding the cathedral, we found locals beginning to set up for their Christmas markets. While Christmas markets are popular all around Europe, Strasbourg’s Christmas market is one of the most famous. Visiting Strasbourg between late November and the end of December would be a wonderful time to visit the city. The markets were filled with great souvenirs, foods, Christmas decorations, gifts, and wines. Stalls were set up selling local Strasbourg fare and gluhwein (a spiced, hot, red wine).
After looking around the Cathedral and its surrounding square, we decided to meander around an area nearby called “La Petite France”. This beautiful area consisted of many unbroken blocks where we wandered the streets and felt like we were in the 16th century. Full of well-preserved buildings and homes, small shops, restaurants, and cafes, La Petite France had much to offer. Other than the quaint buildings and the cobbled streets, we couldn’t help but notice the plethora of delicious take-away food options. There were numerous options for coffee, pastries, gyros, Italian food, sandwiches, and Asian cuisines, amongst many others. For this reason, Strasbourg is an easy city to grab a quick lunch and a walk-around. Because we were limited on time and watching our waist lines, we did not grab any take-away grub (much to my inner fat-child’s dismay).
Whilst walking amongst the charm, Ryan and I sought out one shop in particular. Being beer-obsessed homebrewers and professional tasters (not really, we’re just very experienced in consuming tons of different beers), we unsurprisingly found the one specialty beer shop in town and b-lined straight for it. Being a Monday in Europe, we found the store closed. Mondays in Europe tend to be a lot like Sundays back in North America. You will often find shops and museums closed on this day.
We were obviously disappointed that we couldn’t make our way into the store, but we spent some time window shopping, anyway. This particular beer store carried a ton of Belgian beers and other specialty items (e.g., glassware, bottle openers, hard-to-find beers). For anyone out there that is a fellow beer-lover, I would highly recommend paying a visit to this store, as it’s in the heart of La Petite France and near the cathedral. It’s called “Strasbourg Biere Import”. You can find a link to their website on my list of favorite spots below.
After peering into the windows of our would-be favorite beer shop in Strasbourg, we decided that staring and pointing for inappropriate amounts of time would not result in the store magically opening up for us. Slightly disappointed but still impressed, we decided to slowly make our way back to our car, as we had to continue our journey that day. We slowly strolled back towards the Cathedral, stopping to look at food menus periodically. Although we had limited time and were trying to tame our inner fat kids, we couldn’t help but read about Strasbourg’s tasty cuisines. This walk was a major test of our will powers.
Although we didn’t partake, I can’t help but tell you about some of the menus we saw. First, the menu prices were surprisingly reasonable, even if the most touristy areas of Strasbourg. This is always a bonus when traveling. Not only were the dishes reasonably priced, but offered quality ingredients, both traditional and creative plates, and an excellent selection of beer and wine to complement each dish.
Being in the Alsace region, many of the restaurants had menu items influenced by French and German cuisines. This region, also being known for its wine and beer, offered many pleasing options to compliment the various, scrumptious dishes offered. Whilst gawking at menus and “creeping on” people’s food, I made a few observations. First, the dishes that were being served were generous in their portion sizes. The restaurants offered an abundance of pork dishes in various forms (e.g., sausages, chops, schnitzel). There was also a notable French influence with many restaurants offering escargot, duck, seafood, and foie gras. There were two dishes in particular that stood out to me as being common amongst menus. One was called “choucroute”, which is the French word for “sauerkraut”. It was often garnished with various meats and served with potatoes. Another common dish was called “tarte a l’oignan”, a quiche-like dish, usually served with salad.
My inner fat kid was officially crying in a corner, eating an entire chocolate cake (and a plateful of escargot). However, my outer demeanor suggested I was keeping myself together, only salivating slightly. Ryan and I decided we needed to grab some coffees for the road. We headed to a cute Italian coffee shop called “Amorino”, very close to the Cathedral. This cute little shop had wonderful coffee and offered many tasty treats (a.g., macaroons in various colors and flavors, chocolates, waffles, and a decadent, thick, hot chocolate). We each grabbed a coffee and shared two specialty chocolates, just to try (will power only goes so far).
*Sigh*. It was time to depart. We were not ready to leave this wonderful city, but we knew we had to carry on. We experienced only the “litmus test” of Strasbourg; and what did the metaphorical litmus paper tell us?
It told us that Strasbourg was amazing, charming, friendly, and full of great food and drinks; it told us that we could spend a lot more time here, and that our time would be well-spent; it told us that Strasbourg is full of important history and that we should come back to delve more into its past as well as its present and; our litmus test also told us to tell you that Strasbourg is a MUST visit city in a convenient and picturesque area.
My favorite things about Strasbourg were:
- Walking through the streets in La Petite France allowed me to feel like I was time traveling back to the 1500s.
- The cathedral was stunning and not-so-petite. I also appreciated that it was free to enter.
- All of the pastry shops and takeaway food options were great.
- The Christmas Market area was beautiful. I am definitely coming back once they are all set up.
Favorite Local Spots:
Cathedrale Notre Dame de Strasbourg: This “Petite Notre Dame” is not so petite. It’s at the heart of “La Petite France” and is well worth the visit. Free entry.
La Petite France: This is a very charming area of town, perfect for walking around the cobblestone streets and admiring the well-kept buildings. Time travel whilst walking the streets in the La Petite France area.
Christmas Markets: A charming area year-round, the actual Christmas Markets run from the end of November to the 31st of December.
Amorino: This is a great place to grab some quality coffee and chocolates or macaroons to go. On a chilly day, a nice, hot cup of coffee would be great to sip on while people watching in a superb location.
Strasbourg Biere Import: This beer store carries a wide selection of Belgian and specialty beers and is conveniently located near the cathedral. View their website here: http://www.strasbourg-biere-import.com/
- Choucroute: also known as sauerkraut, this dish is very common in Strasbourg and is usually served alongside various meats and potatoes.
- Tarte a L’oignan: a quiche-like dish, usually served with salad.
- Tarte Flambee (i.e., flammekueche): a flatbread with various toppings; traditionally topped with crème fraiche, onions, and lardons (bacon)
- Baeckeoffe: a very flavorful meat stew with potatoes
- Jarrett de Porc: a tasty pork knuckle, usually served with potatoes, with or without gravy
- Sausages: Because of the German influence, sausage is very common in this region
- Foie Gras: duck liver pate
- Beer and wine: make sure you try some products from the Alsace region – they will not disappoint
- You will see the word “Alsace” everywhere. Before visiting Strasbourg, I didn’t know what this was. See the “A Bit of History” section and study up! Strasbourg locals are very proud to be a part of the Alsace region.
- This is a very reasonably-priced city with a ton of places to see, eat, and drink. Consider staying here for a few days.
- The cathedral is free to enter. Be aware that it is open from 7:00 AM-11:15 AM, and 12:45-7:00 PM.
- Strasbourg has the longest tram network in all of France and is a very convenient way to travel around the city. Busses are also available.
- Parking near the city center can be difficult in Strasbourg, especially in peak seasons (June, July, August, and during the Christmas Markets). Take advantage of the “Park and Ride” car parks that have trams and busses running from the lots to the city center. Hours and prices can be found here: http://noel.strasbourg.eu/web/noel/infos-pratiques/comment-se-garer-a-Strasbourg