Known for its beautiful Christmas markets, the French German style city of Strasbourg is always popular in wintertime. The season shows off the city at its best, with beautiful lighting and festive decorations adding extra magic to the already picturesque city. Besides the markets however, there is still plenty to see and do here in the winter months.
1. Strasbourg Cathedral
The highest surviving structure to have been built entirely during the medieval period, la Cathedrale Notre Dame de Strasbourg was in fact the tallest building in the world for 227 years, until 1874. The beautiful sandstone cathedral is worth a look, and if you are not afraid of heights, a trip to the top of the north tower offers views as far as the Black Forest a whole 30km away.
2. Ponts Couverts and La Petite France
The iconic La Petite France of Strasbourg is a district of waterways crowded with black and white timber-frame buildings, where millers, fishermen and tanners once traded. The quaint buildings date back to the 1500s and 1600s, and walking along the cobbled streets of this neighbourhood is arguably the best part of the city. At Christmas the streets are covered with decorations, both inside and outside the buildings. Nowadays many of these are gift shops and restaurants. Upon entry to La Petite France you will see four tall square towers forming a set of three fortified bridges, built in the 1300s as part of the city’s original line of ramparts. These are Les Pont Couverts, and although they are no longer covered as their name suggests, up until 1700s these crossings were protected by long roofs, which would have offered cover during sieges.
3. Alsatian Food
Within the neighbourhood of La Petite France there are plenty of traditional restaurants serving Alsatian specialties. The influence of both German and French traditions is clear in the cuisine, with dishes like Choucroute garnie, a luxury sauerkraut, made with shredded cabbage which is pickled in wine, before being stewed with hardy, fortifying vegetables and several smoked meats, until the constituents of the stew break down and the flavours mingle. Tarte flambée, bread dough rolled out, covered with fromage frais and topped with onion and lardons, is also a staple of the city. Take a well deserved lunch break and fill up on Alsatian treats.
4. Musée Historique de Strasbourg and Musée Alsacien
To learn about the Alsatian culture or more of the history behind the city of Strasbourg, head to one of the city’s fascinating museums. Musée Historique de Strasbourg showcases information on the period between the middle ages and the 18th century. Here you’ll find old-fashioned weapons, maps, clothing, sketches and sculptures that show the complicated history of the city. The museum is also interactive, and you can try on models of ancient armour and dress which is always entertaining. There is also a highly detailed 1/600 scale model of Strasbourg and its outskirts dating to 1727, covering almost 80 square metres. Additionally, the Musée Alsacien teaches you about local traditions and art in Strasbourg, with several reconstructions of historic home scenes and workshops, all presented with original ceramics, costume, furniture, tools, toys and everyday utensils. The museum also illustrates the skills of the region, such as how wine was pressed in the 1700s, talking you through the Roman origins of wine-growing.
5. European Parliament
Strasbourg is a city where over history different cultures, faiths and languages have been reconciled, and is aptly home to the European Parliament. It is one of three non-capital cities around the world to have an international institution, and although you may have to call ahead to get a tour, this modern cylindrical structure housing the 750-seat debating chamber and three ‘internal streets’, one of which has a winter garden with a philodendron forest, is worth it.
6. Beverages in Strasbourg
Take a break from you wanderings round the city and enjoy a beverage, Strasbourg style. Alsace is the only French wine region where most of the wines produced are varietal (made only with the grapes that give them their name), the two most famous being Gewürtztraminer, usually spicy and sweet, often consumed with dessert or as an aperitif, and Riesling, dry and complex and accompanies Alsatian classics like choucroute. The city is also in the centre of France’s most productive beer region, as hops are grown both to the west and north. Popular brands are Fischer, Karlsbräu and Kronenbourg, but there are also plenty of independent brewers to try. Of course in winter vin chaud or mulled wine is popular, and there are also plenty of cosy bars for hot chocolates and other warm drinks.
7. La Petite France by night
Strasbourg is a beautiful city, and La Petite France and its surroundings are worth an evening walk. Soak up the atmosphere, spot the craziest Christmas decorations, and marvel at the streets lined with lights. If that doesn’t put you in the festive mood, I don’t know what will!