Strasbourg, France

There are a few places in Europe that are incredibly special to me and Strasbourg, France, is undoubtably one of them. Located just on the border of where we lived in Karlsruhe, Germany, I still remember the very first time we drove across the border to Strasbourg on a Sunday morning. 'Bonjour!' The Husband cheerily announced thirty minutes into our drive, and just like that we were officially in France.

I didn't know much about Strasbourg then. It isn't an overly famous or popular city like Paris, London or Venice, and it certainly wasn't part of my experience or geographical knowledge, as a child growing up in Malaysia. Needless to say, I was awed from the very first visit. There is something so quintessentially charming about this city, with its combined German-French influences, without being in the least old-fashioned. It is picturesque, full of tradition and history, and paradoxically also incredibly modern.

Strasbourg was, and still is, the European Capital, although not many people know this. Just two hours from Paris and a mere three kilometers from the German border, Strasbourg was designated 'European capital' just after the Second World War, and today hosts numerous international institutions. 

Because it is so close to the border of these two countries, it has a unique blend of both French and German architectural and design styles and cuisine. This spectacular city is bursting at the seams with colorful buildings, canals, and interesting people and is likely one of the most fascinating, beautiful cities you’ll ever visit. It certainly was for me!

The ornate 15th century Gothic Notre-Dame Cathedral in Strasbourg dominates the city centre and is a sight to behold. The Strasbourg cathedral stands on a wide cobblestone square as in the Middle Ages. Built from pink sandstone, its tower was the tallest building in the world for over two hundred years.

You can climb the 332 steps to see the spectacular view from above and admire the medieval cityscape of black and white timber-framed buildings, particularly visible in the Petite-France district. On a clear day you can see both the Black Forest and the Vosges mountains. Legend has it that an underground lake exists beneath the cathedral. In addition to the cathedral, Strasbourg also houses several other medieval churches that have survived the many wars and destructions that have plagued the city.

A mere stone's throw away from this breathtaking cathedral, you'll find the three main museums in Strasbourg: the Museum of Fine Arts, the Museum of Decorative Arts and the Archeological Museum. From there, you can also explore the historic quarter, an area known as Petit France in Strasbourg, which you'll find on the Grande Ile (Grand Island). Strasbourg’s historic city centre, the Grande Ile, was classified as a World Heritage site by UNESCO in 1988, the first time such an honour was placed on an entire city centre.

The medieval town of Petit France was formerly the fishermen’s, millers’ and tanners’ district. Today, it is a peaceful tourist district and the narrow streets are dotted with original half-timbered houses dating from the 16th and 17th centuries, huge interior courtyards, and large sloping roofs opening out onto lofts where animal hides were once dried.

The Petite France district leads on to the Ponts Couverts (the covered bridges). They have kept this name despite the fact that their roofs disappeared during the 18th century. The Ponts Couverts is overlooked by four towers dating from the 14th century, remnants of the town’s former ramparts, which once guaranteed the independence of the Strasbourg Republic.

Strasbourg is of course famous for its fine food. Alsace is the home of choucroute, sausages, foie gras, cheeses, pain d'epices (gingerbread), smoked meat and fine pastries and breads from plum tarts to pretzels. It's the best of French and German cuisine. Head for a "winstub" (small taverns typically run by families) if you want an authentic experience offered by these traditional restaurants in Strasbourg.

Alsacian specialties include sauerkraut with knacke, pretzels, baeckoffe (meat and potatoes simmered in white wine), flammekueche (flambéed onion tart), kougelhopf (sweet or savoury brioche cake), and spaetzle (a variety of noodle). For dessert, the sampling of the full-flavoured Munster cheese is typically followed by a whole array of bilberry, plum and apple tarts. Not forgetting of course the special cheesecake as well as the famous kougelhopf (marble/bundt cake).

Wine lovers will not want to miss tasting some of the renowned Alsatian wines, mainly of the white variety. Contrary to other French wine regions, the wines of Alsace are not named after the villages or vineyards from which they come, but after the grape variety. Here you'll find both fruity and dry wines (Gewurztraminer, Muscat d’Alsace, Pinot Blanc, Tokay Pinot Gris, Pinot Noir, Riesling and Sylvaner) to tempt the palate.

Beer lovers need not feel left out either. With a rich tradition stretching back to 1260, Alsatian beer is universally recognized and it succeeded very early on in imposing its quality, allowing it to rival foreign beers. Kronenbourg is the most common beer in Strasbourg, as it is made in the area.

If you happen to be in Strasbourg in December, make sure you pay a visit to its immense Christmas market (not that you can really miss it if you're in the city), which has been in existence for 443 years. The oldest Christmas market in France, the Christmas Market itself spreads out into many streets and squares from the city centre, in particular Place Broglie and the Cathedral Square.

A giant Christmas tree is planted in Place Kleber close to the "Sharing Village, while an ice skating rink at the foot of the cathedral delights families and children. There are also many treats to feast on while you enjoy the sights, from sweets of all variety, to hot, delicious mulled wine, doughnuts and local crepes.

There's much to love about this gorgeous French city, and I consider myself very lucky to have lived so close by and been able to 'hop over' just for breakfast, some shopping, or to spend a leisurely day. Strasbourg will always have a special place in my heart, and I hope you've enjoyed my trip
down memory lane!


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