In this post, I’ll focus on the audio-guided tour of the historic center of Strasbourg and the boat cruise around the Grande-Île. In my opinion, a combination of these two tours provides the best opportunity to learn about the city’s history, and in particular, its cultural heritage. If you have read my previous posts about Strasbourg, please click here to skip the Introduction and Practical Information chapters and jump directly to the main content of this one. If not, the following two chapters will be about (1) the reason why the Grande-Île and Neustadt of Strasbourg are inscribed as UNESCO World Heritage and (2) some practical information such as how to use the Strasbourg Pass to visit the major attractions and how to use the pubic transport in the city. Now, let’s start exploring France’s 7th largest city, a city of art, history and humanism.
As the UNESCO comments:
The initial property, inscribed in 1988 on the World Heritage List, was formed by the Grande-Île, the historic centre of Strasbourg, structured around the cathedral. The extension concerns the Neustadt, new town, designed and built under the German administration (1871-1918). The Neustadt draws the inspiration for its urban layout partially from the Haussmannian model, while adopting an architectural idiom of Germanic inspiration. This dual influence has enabled the creation of an urban space that is specific to Strasbourg, where the perspectives created around the cathedral open to a unified landscape around the rivers and canals.
Originally I planned to visit Strasbourg in October 2017 but unfortunately the trip was postponed until early March 2018. When I was chatting with the staff from the tourism office, they informed me that currently, not only the historic center, the Grande-Île, but also the Neustadt are inscribed in the UNESCO World Heritage list. I was surprised and a bit skeptical because I remember clearly that I checked the official website of the UNESCO World Heritage Convention (in 2017) and only the Grande-Île was on the list. After returning home, I checked the website again and I see that now the title of this property has become “Strasbourg, Grande-Île and Neustadt”. Why, after the first inscription in 1988, is the Neustadt added as an extension to this property? In my third post about Strasbourg which focuses on a guided tour and a boat cruise, you will find out the reason.
I total, I’ll write four posts about Strasbourg with the first one focusing on the magnificent cathedral, the second one on the city’s role as the European capital, the third one on a guided tour and a boat cruise and the fourth one on various museums in the historic center. Except the second post, which will be talking about the European Parliament and some other international organizations, all the other three posts will be dedicated to elaborating Strasbourg’s historical and cultural heritage. Now let’s take a brief look at the reason why the Grande-Île and the Neustadt are protected by the UNESCO as a World Heritage Site.
1. UNESCO World Heritage
Do you know that Strasbourg is the first French city whose inscription concerns not a single monument but an entire historic center? Even earlier than Paris! In 1988, “Strasbourg – Grande-Île” was inscribed in the UNESCO World Heritage list for its cultural and historical heritage and outstanding value. Enclosed by the Ill River and Canal du Faux-Rempart, the historic center, the Grande-Île island, is connected with other parts of the city by 21 bridges. It features a remarkably high-quality collection of monuments including the cathedral, the steep roofs with their beautiful dormer windows on several levels, the churches of St. Thomas, St. Pierre-le-Vieux, St. Pierre-le-Jeune, and St. Etienne, the buildings of Œuvre Notre-Dame, the former Grande Boucherie, the Neue Bau, the Rohan Palace, Aubette and many more. Instead of being isolated monuments, these buildings create an original and unique urban fabric, which reflects the city’s revolution from the Middle Ages to the present day.
If you think Strasbourg is only about half-timbered houses, then I’m afraid you are mistaken. As you can see from the two groups of pictures I attached above, the newly inscribed Neustadt, which is also called the German Imperial Quarter, is rather different from the Grande-Île. Does it give you a feeling of Paris, Berlin or Vienna? After the 1870 Prussian siege and French defeat, the city center was severely damaged and three of the four large avenues were destroyed. Though the reconstruction was completed within five years, the extension of the city took much more time because the business circles desired efficient infrastructures and the political authorities wanted a capital for “Alsace-Lorraine Reichsland” that would be “exemplary, grandiose and entirely dedicated to the glory of the Empire and ‘Germanity’“. The plan of the New City was approved in 1880 and the designer was Jean Geoffroy Conrath, the city’s architect since 1849. He gave priority to the development of a prestigious area reserved for official buildings such as the imperial palace, ministries, regional assembly headquarters, library and university, which were completed around 1900. The development of the residential areas progressed at a lower speed and continued after 1920.
Compared with the narrow streets in the Grande-Île, the Neustadt is occupied with large open squares and broad tree-embellished avenues. Particularly noteworthy is the feature that the monuments blend harmoniously with the landscape, for example, the banks of the Ill River and the Church of St. Paul. Both public buildings and private homes in this district to certain degree testify to eclecticism, a 19th- and 20th-century architectural style in which a single piece of work incorporates a mixture of elements from previous historical styles to create something new and original. Some beautiful Art Nouveau constructions such as the Egyptian House and the buildings on 22 rue Sleidan and 56 allée de la Robertsau can also be found here.
In order to be inscribed as a UNESCO World Heritage site, the property must meet at least one or two of the ten Selection Criteria proposed by the World Heritage Convention. The Grande-Île and Neustadt of Strasbourg meet Criterion (ii), “to exhibit an important interchange of human values, over a span of time or within a cultural area of the world, on developments in architecture or technology, monumental arts, town-planning or landscape design” and Criterion (iv), “to be an outstanding example of a type of building, architectural or technological ensemble or landscape which illustrates (a) significant stage(s) in human history”.
The French and Germanic cultures have influenced the composition of a unique space in which both the architecture and urbanism reflect major significant periods of European history. As I read from the UNESCO World Heritage Center official website, “integrated into a Medieval urban fabric in a way which respects the ancient original fabric, the Renaissance-style private residences built between the 15th century and the late 17th century form a unique ensemble of domestic Rhineland architecture, which is indissociable from the outstanding Gothic cathedral. In the 18th century, French classical architecture became dominant, as exemplified by the Palais Rohan, built by the king’s architect, Robert de Cotte. From 1871 onwards, the face of the town was profoundly modified by the construction of an ambitious urbanistic project, leading to the emergence of a modern, functional city, emblematic of the technical advances and hygienistic policies that were emerging at the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries.” Imagine, in one single city, you can see architecture and urban planning of the classical antiquity, the Middle Ages and the Rhineland Renaissance, the French 18th-century classicism, and then of the 19th and early 20th centuries which saw the emergence of modernism. No wonder Le Corbusier said that “in Strasbourg, the eye is never bored!” Better than any history books, these buildings and city plans are true witnesses to Strasbourg’s political, social and cultural changes.
2. Practical information
2.1 Strasbourg Pass
If you wanna ask me if there’s any good deal for visiting the attractions in Strasbourg, I would recommend the Strasbourg Pass. Basically the advantages are:
- Visit to one of the museums
- Ascent to the cathedral platform
- Boat-tour through Strasbourg (including the Grande-Île, the Neustadt and the European quarter)
- Astronomical clock of the cathedral
- Half day bicycle rental for free
- Visit to a second museum
- Tour with the mini-train (April to October)
- Guided tour
- Visit to the Vaisseau (science museum)
- Audio-guided tour in the old town
For information about some other offers, please click here and click the pass.
In my opinion, climbing to the platform of the cathedral, the boat cruise and the audio-guided tour in the old town are three must-take activities in Strasbourg. Therefore, including free entry to one of the museums and half-price entry to a second museum, the pass is absolutely worth your money.
2.2 Museum Pass
Nevertheless, if you are a fan of museums like me, visiting only two museums in Strasbourg is certainly not enough. In this case you can consider buying the 1-day museum pass or 3-day museum pass which costs 12 € (6 € for discounted price) and 18 € (12 € for discounted price) respectively. These passes give free access to all the museums in Strasbourg including L’Aubette 1928 (free), Alsatian Museum, Archeological Museum, Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art, Museum of Decorative Arts, Museum of fine Arts, Historical Museum, Museum Œuvre Notre-Dame, Museum Tomi Ungerer, Zoological Museum and so on and one single entry to any of them costs at least 6.5 €. Please note, all the museums offer free admission to all visitors on the first Sunday of each month.
- For more information about the entrance fee for each of the museums as well as conditions for discounted prices and free admission please click here.
- For information about the opening hours of the museums please click here.
- For brief introductions to each of the museums please click here, move your mouse to “Museums” and click the museum that you want to know about.
2.3 Public transport
In general, I would say that public transport in Strasbourg, including various bus, tram and train lines, is very convenient. Depending on where you live and where you want to go, different types of tickets are available. If you live in or close to the city center and just want to explore the center, I think all the attractions can be reached within 20 mins by foot. However, if you wanna to explore the Neustadt (German Imperial Quarter), the European Quarter (such as European Parliament, European Council, European Court of Human Rights etc.), Le Jardin des Deux Rives (a large riverfront garden with a pedestrian bridge connecting French & German sides), and so on, I suggest you take public transport to save some time.
A single ticket costs 1.7 € (2 € if you buy it on board) and you can buy a bundle of 10, which costs 14 € or a bundle of 30, which costs 40.5 €.
Some other types of ticket include:
- round-trip ticket (valid for 2 rides within the same day, with or without connection): 3.3 €
- 24H ALSA + CUS (valid for 24h for unlimited rides on all the bus-tram-coach lines and the TER Train within the EMS and in direction of Kehl): 4.3 €
- 24H TRIO (valid for 2 to 3 people for unlimited rides for 24 hours after validation): 6.8 €
- ALSA+ EMS DAILY GROUP TICKET Bus-Tram-Coach and TER Train (valid for one day on Saturdays, Sundays or holidays for a group of 2 to 5 people for unlimited rides on all the Bus-Tram-Coach and TER Train lines within the EMS and in direction of Kehl): 6.8 €
I think the options above should be adequate for your trip in Strasbourg but if you need special connections to the airport or to other regions in Alsace, please click here for more information.
3. Audio-guided tour of the historic center
As I mentioned above, the initial property, inscribed in 1988 on the World Heritage List, was formed by the Grande-Île, the historic centre of Strasbourg. This audio-guided tour is a round tour, which starts and ends at the tourism office, and it will take you to go through the old streets of the historic centre. During the tour, you will visit various buildings, bridges, churches, districts and so on and learn about the history of them. How does it work? First of all, you need to go to the tourism office and rent the equipment, that is to say, the audio guide.
- The tourism office of Strasbourg is open every day from 9:00 – 19:00
- Full price: 5.5 euros
- Discounted price: 2.75 euros (teenagers from 12-18 years old, students and holders of the Strasbourg Pass)
Please note, while you rent the audio guide, a deposit of 100 euros or an ID document is required. The suggested duration of the tour is 1.5 hours but if you want to take some nice pictures along the way or take some detours like I did to some nearby attractions, you might spend up to three hours. Just remember to return the equipment 15 – 30 mins before the tourism office closes.
From the tourism office, together with your audio guide, you will get a map, in which the route is shown with 28 stops. Each of them has a number which refers to a corresponding recorded commentary. After arriving at each of the stops, you just need to enter the chosen number on the keyboard and press play. Now, I’ll show you some of the buildings that impressed or interested me. As I mentioned before, I took some detours to visit some nearby attractions and I’ll introduce them here as well. Let’s start with Maison Kammerzell.
3.1 Maison Kammerzell
As you can see from the first picture above, Maison Kammerzell is located right next to the tourism office, on the Place de la Cathédral. As one of the most famous and charming buildings in Strasbourg and one of the most ornate and well-preserved medieval civil housing buildings in late Gothic style in the areas formerly belonging to the Holy Roman Empire, even Patricia Schulz, author of the famous “1000 Places to See Before You Die”, mentions it in her book.
Maison Kammerzell is an authentic and traditional symbol of the city’s golden age and its wooden sculptures, frescoes and spiral staircases testify to the wealth of its owners, for example, merchants Pillipe Kammerzell and Martin Braun. The late Gothic foundations date back to 1427 and later, in 1467 and 1589, three upper floors of wooden panelling were added. The rich decorations on the façade, both secular and sacred, combine styles of Roman Antiquity, the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. As you might have noticed and find curious, the 75 stained glass windows are made with bottle bottoms and they give extraordinary lighting to the rooms. Nowadays it’s a restaurant and you can enjoy traditional French cuisine on different floors.
3.2 Strasbourg Cathedral
As commented by the UNESCO, “the cathedral, influenced by the Romanesque art of the East and the Gothic art of the kingdom of France, is also inspired by Prague, particularly for the construction of the spire. It is a model that acted as a vector of Gothic art to the east.” What’s more, once being the world’s tallest building from 1647 to 1874 (227 years), it was called by Victor Hugo as a “gigantic and delicate marvel” and by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe as a “sublimely towering, wide-spreading tree of God“. Undeniably as the top one landmark in Strasbourg, it can even be seen from the Vosges Mountains or the Black Forest on the other side of the Rhine.
In my first post about Strasbourg, I introduced in detail the exterior of the cathedral, including the façade, the portals and their ornaments, the interior of the cathedral including the stained glass windows, the Great Organ, the pulpit, the Pillar of Angels and the astronomical clock, as well as the platform where you can have a marvelous view over the entire city and see as far as the Vosges Mountains and the Black Forest. If you are interested, please click here to read more and I’ll move on to the next stop of the tour.
3.3 Rohan Palace (Palais Rohan)
Only a few minutes away by foot from the cathedral, Palais Rohan is the former residence of the prince-bishops and cardinals of the House of Rohan, an ancient French noble family originally from Brittany. Built in the 1730s based on the design by Robert de Cotte, it is considered a masterpiece of French Baroque architecture. Since its completion in 1742, the palace has hosted a number of French monarchs such as Louis XV, Marie Antoinette, Napoleon and Joséphine, and Charles X. In December 1989, Palais Rohan hosted the dinner parties of the heads of state or government of the European Council, including François Mitterrand, Helmut Kohl, Margaret Thatcher, Giulio Andreotti and Felipe González. Twenty years later, before the 2009 Strasbourg–Kehl summit, it was the site of a meeting between French President Nicolas Sarkozy and American President Barack Obama as well as their wives Carla Bruni and Michelle Obama.
As I learnt from Wikipedia, “reflecting the history of Strasbourg, the palace has been owned successively by the nobility, the municipality, the monarchy, the state, the university, and the municipality again.” It is a major architectural, historical, and cultural landmark in the city and since the end of the 19th century the palace has been home to three of Strasbourg’s important museums, that is to say, the Archaeological Museum (Musée archéologique) in the basement, the Museum of Decorative Arts plus the apartments of the cardinals (Musée des arts décoratifs) on the ground floor and the Museum of Fine Arts (Musée des beaux-arts ) on the first and second floors. In my next post, which is going to be about various museums in Strasbourg, I’ll introduce them to you in detail.
3.4 Museum Œuvre Notre-Dame
The Œuvre Notre-Dame Museum was created between 1931 and 1939 by Hans Haug, director of the Strasbourg Museums, and it presents a view of the evolution of art in Strasbourg and the Upper Rhine region between the 11th and 17th centuries. It is situated within Gothic, Renaissance and 17th-century buildings and mostly importantly, the core of them is the Foundation of Notre-Dame. Since the 13th century, this institution has been responsible for the administration of the construction of the cathedral.
In my first post about Strasbourg, I gave a detailed introduction to the museum and its collections including the meeting room of the cathedral stonemason’s guild, which was active in the Middle Ages, the original statues of The Church and The Synagogue and The Tempter, Wise and Foolish Virgins from Strasbourg Cathedral, the original sculptures, glass windows and architectural fragments and works by Peter Hemmel von Andlau, Niclas Gerhaert van Leyden, Konrad Witz, Hans Baldung and Sebastian Stoskopff. If you are interested please click here to read more. By the way, don’t forget to check out its relaxing and peaceful Gothic Herbal Garden.
3.5 Musée historique de Strasbourg
Started in 1587 on the bank of the Ill to replace the old slaughterhouse which had been in use since the 13th century, the construction of the Grande boucherie (Butchers’ House) is attributed to Hans Schoch, the municipal architect who was also responsible for the Neubau. Completed in 1588 as an outstanding example of Renaissance architecture, the ground floor was occupied on the north side by butchers’ stalls, while the vaulted east and west wings were used as cold stores. The first floor was used for theatrical performances and during special periods of time, it provided space for trade fairs. In the 19th century, the building had a variety of uses and since 1919 it has been housing the Musée Historique de la Ville de Strasbourg (History Museum of the City of Strasbourg), dedicated to the turbulent history of the city from the early Middle Ages to the contemporary period.
3.6 Ancienne Douane (the old Customs House)
The Rhine, an important channel of communication between the north and the south and one of the most important shipping routes in Europe, has undoubtedly been attributing to the prosperity of Strasbourg since the Middle Ages. The first port, the Kaufhaus (Ancienne Douane in French and the old Customs House in English) was established in 1358 and was once a warehouse, river customs point and trading point. Untill the end of the 18th century, it was enlarged several times. During the Second World War, or to be more precise, in 1944, it was destroyed in a bombing and at the beginning of the 1960s it was rebuilt. The reconstruction, which aimed at giving back the building’s original medieval appearance, eliminated all the parts which were added over the later centuries. I strongly recommend you taking a walk on the river bank to not only get closer to this marvelous building but also enjoy the peace and harmony brought by the Rhine river.
3.7 Musée Alsacien (Alsatian museum)
Musée Alsacien (Alsatian museum) is housed in several Renaissance timber framed residences and is dedicated to all aspects of daily life in pre-industrial and early industrial Alsace. It contains over 5000 exhibits including painted furniture, dresses, ceramics, pottery, toys, religious and secular prints, etc. and is notable for the reconstruction of the interiors of several houses characteristic of different regions in Alsace. I have to say it was nice experience going through the traditional rooms and in particular the inner courtyard. In my next post, I’ll give you a detailed introduction to this museum.
3.8 St. Nicolas’ Church
Though a simple, small Gothic church in Strasbourg, its past is marked by some of the greatest figures in history. For example, Jean Calvin led services and preached at this church in 1538 and Albert Schweitzer was the pastor of the church from 1900 to 1913 (though on the info board on site it says “to 1912”). He was a French-German theologian, organist, writer, humanitarian, philosopher, and physician and received the 1952 Nobel Peace Prize for his philosophy of “Reverence for Life”, realized most famously in founding and sustaining the Albert Schweitzer Hospital in Lambaréné, a town and the capital of Moyen-Ogooué in Gabon in West-central Africa. As a music scholar and organist, he studied the music of German composer Johann Sebastian Bach and influenced the Organ Reform Movement (Orgelbewegung). He used to play the organ here in this church but unfortunately, the inside is not accessible to tourists so we can not see it.
While Schweitzer was the pastor at the Church, on 11th April 1908, he celebrated the wedding of Elly Knapp and Theodor Heuss, who later became the first President of the Federal Republic of Germany.
3.9 St. Thomas’ Church
St. Thomas’ Church is the main Lutheran church of the city since the Cathedral became Catholic again after the annexation of the town by France in 1681. Its nickname is the “Protestant Cathedral” and in the Alsace region, it is the only example of a hall church, a church with the central nave and side aisles of approximately equal height, often united under a single enormous roof. It is said that the site where the current church stands was used by the Scottish monks as a place of worship who arrived at this country in the 6th century but historical records only show the building of a Carolingian church by Bishop Adeloch (786-833). The present form of the church is from 1230-1250. The Reformation concepts were introduced to the church in as early as 1524 and were developed and strengthened by Martin Bucer, pastor of the church from 1524 to 1540 and the Reformer of Strasbourg.
The Grand Organ (as you can see from the picture above), built by J. A. Silbermann, dates back to 1740. It is on this instrument that in 1909 Dr. Albert Schweitzer started the tradition of hosting concerts every year on 28th July in remembrance of the death of Johann Sebastian Bach, whose music he studied a lot and influenced greatly his musical career.
Another absolute highlight in this church is the Mausoleum of Marshal Maurice of Saxony, who was a German soldier and officer of the Army of the Holy Roman Empire, the Imperial Army, and at last in French service who became a marshal and later also Marshal General of France. He is best known for his decisive victory at the Battle of Fontenoy. This monument was erected by the order of King Louis XV as a symbol of the nation’s mourning and gratitude to the great soldier. As one of the finest examples of 18th-century art, it was built in Paris based on the design by Jean-Baptiste Pigalle and completed 26 years after the marshal’s death. The transfer of the body and the inauguration of the monument took place on 20th August 1777.
The central figure is the marble statue of Maurice, in full dress with his marshal’s baton in the right hand. Agreeing to Death’s decree, he is courageously stepping down into the tomb. A distressed woman, representing France, is trying in vain to hold back her loyal servant and fight off Death. The latter, a shrouded figure holding his hourglass, has already half opened the lid of the sarcophagus. To the left, Hercules, depicted in a mournful pose, represents the hero’s strength of both his body and mind. Above him, we see three animals, an eagle, a leopard and a lion, lying on the destroyed banners, which represent the defeated nations of Austria, Flanders and England. On the right, the putto of love is bidding farewell to his master, weeping and lowering his torch.
Some other sites inside the church include the sarcophagus of Bishop Adeloch (as you can see in the first picture above), fresco of St. Michael, choir organ built based on the plans of Albert Schweitzer and so on.
3.10 La Petite France
Probably the most picturesque part of the city and where most people know Strasbourg from, La Petite France, also known as the Quartier des Tanneurs (Tanner’s Quarter), is located at the west end of the Grande-Île. Why is it called the Tanner’s Quarter? In the Middle Ages, this district was home to the city’s tanners, millers and fishermen, and now it is one, if not the top one, of Strasbourg’s main tourist attractions. It is surrounded by four canals, three of which took their names from the mills they served until around 1830 while the fourth one was used for navigational purposes.
Can you guess why this quarter is called La Petite France? Is it because of patriotic or architectural reasons? Actually, no. The reason is rather surprising. As I learnt from Wikipedia, the name comes from the “hospice of the syphilitic” (Hospice des Vérolés), which was built in the late 15th century on this island to take care of the mercenaries of the Kings of France with syphilis. The disease was called Franzosenkrankheit (“French disease”) in German at that time. However, as I read from the info kit provided by the tourism office, the hospital dates from the 16th century and the quarter is called La Petite France because the mercenaries treated here were called “the little French” by the residents. Anyway, the name is related to the hospital, the disease and the French soldiers.
If you ask me how to explore this amazing quarter, I would say a wander plus a cup of coffee is a must. By walking on the narrow streets and along the canals, you will see a lot of colorful half-timbered houses, as well as their reflection. Though among the favorites of tourists, in La Petite France, you can always find some peaceful corners and moments of your own. Some noteworthy buildings or monuments include the ancient washhouse, Ponts Couverts (the Covered Bridges), Barrage Vauban (Vauban Dam) and the Tanner’s House at Place Benjamin Zix, heart of this district.
3.10.1 the ancient washhouse
3.10.2 Ponts Couverts (the Covered Bridges)
The Ponts Couverts are a set of three bridges and four towers that made up a defensive system on the River Ill. As a defensive mechanism, they were replaced by Barrage Vauban in 1690, but remained in use as bridges. You must be wondering why the bridges are called covered bridges even though they are not covered at all. In fact, when they were first built in the 13th or 14th century, each of the bridges was covered by a wooden roof that served to protect the defenders who would have been stationed on them in time of war. These roofs were removed in the 18th century, but the name, Ponts Couverts (covered bridges) has been kept. According to my experience, the best viewpoint to appreciate the towers and bridges is the panorama terrace at the top of the Barrage Vauban (Vauban Dam), where you can also enjoy an impressive view over the town and its canals. Please note, the terrace is closed at night and during winter time, it closes at 16:00. If you want to take some night photos of the bridges (as you can see in the last picture above), the entrance to the dam can be a nice spot.
3.10.3 Barrage Vauban (Vauban Dam)
Unfortunately, I don’t have a nice photo of the dam so above I just attached a photo of the view from it. The dam is just a few minutes away by foot from the Covered Bridges and as I mentioned above, its roof terrace is absolutely worth visiting. Within the structure, an enclosed corridor links the two banks and a lapidarium exhibits ancient plaster casts and copies of statues and gargoyles from Strasbourg Cathedral and Palais Rohan. The panorama terrace can be accessed free of charge but you need to buy a ticket to visit the lapidarium.
The barrage was constructed from 1686 to 1690 in pink Vosges sandstone by the French Engineer Jacques Tarade according to plans by Vauban. At that time, it was known as the Great Lock (grande écluse). Why was it called the Great Lock? The nickname came from the defensive function of the barrage, which was to enable, in the event of an attack, the raising of the level of the River Ill and consequently the flooding of all the lands south of the city, making them impassable to the enemy. As I learnt from Wikipedia, this defensive measure was actually deployed in 1870, when Strasbourg was besieged by Prussian forces during the Franco-Prussian War.
Just a reminder, if you are interested in contemporary and modern art, the Strasbourg Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art is located nearby and you can see it easily from the roof of the dam. Being one of the largest of its kind in France, the museum houses extensive collections of paintings, sculpture, graphic arts, multimedia and design from the period between Impressionism and today. Works of some of the biggest names in modern and contemporary art history including Claude Monet, Alfred Sisley, Paul Signac, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Max Liebermann, Pablo Picasso, Paul Klee, Wassily Kandinsky and Auguste Rodin, are on display here.
Now let’s turn back to La Petite France and visit the heart of this quarter, Place Benjamin Zix.
3.10.4 Place Benjamin Zix and the Tanner’s House
The Place Benjamin Zix is located at the heart of La Petite France, where the tanners’ “ditch” was situated. The “ditch” wasn’t covered until the 19th century and later it became the Tanners’ Ditch Street. Most of the houses here date back to the 16th and 17th centuries and are in general constructed in the same way. One of the best examples and most famous houses is the “Maison des Tanneurs” (the Tanner’s House), which was erected in 1572. As you can see from the first picture above, above the ground floor are two half-timbered floors, which are topped by a large sloping roof. The area beneath the roof was left open to allow air to circulate and dry the hides (animal skin for human use) hung by the tanners who occupied the building.
It was here that I felt the “stereotype” of France, or of the French people. Romance, elegance and beauty are in the air. Obviously, this is a popular place not only among tourists but also among the locals. Surrounded by these lovely houses, some people just cycled here, parked their bikes against the fence along the canal and started chatting about their daily life. Though there might always be a few people chatting around you, you can find peace and harmony when you are connected with the surroundings.
3.11 Old St. Peter’s Church
By taking a detour, you will have the opportunity to visit a simultaneum, or in other words, a shared church, which refers to a church in which public worship is conducted by adherents of two or more religious groups. Such churches became common in the German-speaking lands of Europe following the Protestant Reformation. Only 5 minutes away by foot from the Place Benjamin Zix, Église Saint-Pierre-le-Vieux, or the Old St. Peter’s Church, comprises two perpendicular buildings, one being used as a place of worship for Roman Catholics while the other one for Protestants. The Protestant church was built between the 12th and 15th centuries and in 1683, King Louis XIV gave the choir to the Catholics while leaving the nave for the Protestants. In the 19th century, the Catholic part of the Church was extended. Designed by the architect Conrath in Neo-Gothic style for the Catholic congregation, it was opened in 1867.
Upon entering the Catholic church, I recommend you obtaining an info brochure which includes a map of the church’s layout and an introduction to the church’s history, stained glass windows and works of art. Inside, you can see important works classified as monuments historiques such as a series of ten Gothic paintings (late 15th-century) by Heinrich Lutzelmann depicting the Passion of Christ (as you can see in the 3rd and 4th pictures above), an (incomplete) series of four wooden early Renaissance or late Gothic reliefs depicting scenes from the life of St. Peter, and a series of four 15th-century paintings depicting scenes from the life of Christ after the resurrection (as you can see in the 5th picture in the gallery above). If you are interested, you can read about them in detail in the brochure.
It was a pity that I didn’t visit the Protestant church “next door” because otherwise I could have made a comparison between the different views of the Catholics and Protestants on the nature of the church. As I read from the info board on site, in October 2012, a door was built in the diving wall between the two parts of the church, which had been separated for 329 years, as a symbol of the ecumenical movement.
3.12 Young St. Peter’s Protestant Church
Another detour which I took from the audio-guided tour was to visit the Young St. Peter’s Protestant Church (Église protestante Saint-Pierre-le-Jeune), one of the most important church buildings of the city no matter from the artistic, historical or architectural viewpoint. It got its name because of the existence of three other St. Peter’s churches in the same city, that is to say, Église Saint-Pierre-le-Vieux (the Old St. Peter’s Church), which is divided into a Catholic and a Lutheran church, and Église Saint-Pierre-le-Jeune catholique, the Young St. Peter’s Catholic Church.
Upon entering the church I recommend you obtaining an info sheet which is available in various languages. It gives a rather detailed introduction to the church including its history, organ, screen, frescoes, chapels, cloister, choir and so on and my presentation below will also be based on it. Now let’s first take a look at the church’s history.
Three churches have been built in succession on the same site. In the early Middle Ages, a small church was dedicated to St. Colomban. In 1031, construction began on a Romanesque church and it was consecrated in 1053 by the Alsatian Pope Leon IX. Nowadays, remains of it can be seen in the cloister as well as in the lower parts of the bell tower. The present church, whose construction began in the second half of the 13th century with the choir, was consecrated in 1320. The chapels were added gradually in the 14th and 15th centuries. From 1524, Protestant worship had been authorized but in 1682, King Louis XIV gave the choir to the Roman Catholics and a wall was built to separate the choir from the nave. It was not removed until 1898 when the Young St. Peter’s Catholic Church was built and from then on, this church became Protestant again.
Inside the church, I’d like to introduce to you in detail the Rood Screen and the Silbermann Organ, the cloister and the choir.
Once you enter the church I’m sure your attention will be drawn towards the Rood Screen and the organ. For me, the position of them is rather curious. It seems they are standing right in the middle of the church, dividing it into two. In fact, as I mentioned above, the dividing wall, which served to separate the choir for the Catholics from the nave for the Protestants, was supported by the five-arch rood screen. As you can see from the picture above, the organ above it is called the Silbermann Organ, built in 1780 by Johann Andreas Silbermann and restored in 1948 and 1966 according to the rules of the Organ reform movement. Helmut Walcha recorded a large part of his performances of Bach’s organ works here. On the rood screen, the oil paintings depicting the four evangelist are works by Engelhardt. Below the rood screen to the left, the statue of a monk holding a cup is from the 13th century. Now, let’s walk through the arches and visit the choir behind.
The choir dates from the 13th century and the baroque panelling and the pulpit were added in the middle of the 18th century. The central panel of the altarpiece dates from 1518 and behind it is the apse chapel, rebuilt in around 1900 and used today as a baptistery. The statue of an angel, as you can see in the second picture above, is the work of the sculptor Ferdinand Riedel.
Another highlight of visiting this church is the cloister, which is made up of three 11th-century Romanesque galleries and one 14th-century Gothic gallery. Despite of considerable restoration works, it can be considered the oldest surviving cloister north of the Alps. You can walking around the cloister in the galleries but remember not to step on the tombstones.
3.13 Place Gutenberg
Now let’s come back to the official route of the audio-guided tour and the last stop will be the Place Gutenberg. On the Gutenberg Square, one building is particularly eye-catching. It is called the Neubau, which was built in 1585 to house the city’s administrative services. Nowadays, it houses the Strasbourg and Lower Rhine Chamber of Commerce and Industry. It is the oldest Renaissance building in the city and apart from the cathedral, is the first building in the city to have been built in dressed stone, which was a daring choice at that time because it stood out from the traditional architectural style (half-timbered) and caused much controversy.
Besides the attractions I introduced to you above, there are more stops you can visit and recordings you can listen to. I believe I have listed most of the most famous and popular sites in the tour and as for the rest, they are mostly houses with legends and flats with important history or where famous people have lived. As I mentioned at the beginning of this post, this tour only helps you to learn about the historic center of Strasbourg, that is to say, the Grande-Île. Since 2017, the Neustadt has also been inscribed in the UNESCO World Heritage list and I hope soon a similar program could be arranged to visit and learn about this part of the city as well. In the next chapter, I’ll focus on the boat cruise which I took surrounding the Grande-Île and going to the European quarter. Now, let’s get on board and revisit the historic center from a different angle and explore an important part of the Neustadt.
4. BATORAMA boat cruise
In my opinion, the difference between the boat tour and the audio-guided tour is that the former is more general while the latter is more detailed. I would call the boat cruise an orientation tour because it doesn’t actually take you to visit the sites but gives you an introduction to them. Which one did I like more? It’s really difficult to say. The thing I will never forget is that during my visit in Strasbourg, the cold air from the north was “attacking” the city and I was almost frozen during the audio-guided tour. I was so worried that the boat cruise would be in the open air and I would be frozen again… Fortunately, as you can see from the pictures above, the boat was covered in glass both on the sides and at the top and there was heating inside. It was so warm and comfortable during the cruise that my friend fell asleep a few times. I learnt from the official website of the boat trip company that in summer (or warm seasons), there are also boats in operation without glass and I believe they are better for taking nice photos. As you will see from the pictures below, it’s not very easy to capture the beauty of Strasbourg through glass. Nevertheless, I’m still thankful that it kept me away from the coldness.
Depending on your interest, various circuits are available. Here I’ll talk about the one that I took and it’s probably also the most popular one among tourists. In this particular circuit, which is called “Strasbourg, over 20 centuries of history“, the boat goes around the Grande-Île and reaches as far as the European quarter. Sitting comfortably on it, you can see and listen to introductions of the Grande-Île, the Big Island with architecture of exceptional values such as the half-timbered houses in La Petite France, the canals, churches, locks and the Covered Bridges and the Vauban dam, witnesses of the city’s fortification in the Middle Ages and under Louis XIV; the imperial district of the Neustadt, built during the annexation of most of Alsace and the Moselle department of Lorraine by Germany between 1871 and 1918 with the Palace of the Rhine, the Opera House, the Strasbourg National Theatre, the Strasbourg University Library and the University Palace bearing witness to the imperial German town planning; and the European quarter, made up of symbols of unity and integration including the ARTE (a public Franco-German TV network) building, the European Parliament, and buildings of the European Court of Human Rights and the Council of Europe.
4.1 Practical information
The boat cruise is operated every day all the year round including winter time. From January to March and in November, there are 8 or 12 departures every day and from April to October and in December, there are more than 20 departures everyday. In July and August, probably the high season of tourism in the city, there are 37 departures every day. If you want to know the accurate schedule of departures or book your tickets in advance online, please click here and choose your preferred date.
- full rate: 13 euros
- reduced rate (children from 4-12 years old): 7.5 euros
- children younger than 4 years old: free
- Strasbourg Pass holders: free
The particular circuit “Strasbourg, over 20 centuries of history” lasts around 1 hour and 10 mins and while onboard, you can listen to the commentaries which are available in 12 languages (French, German, English, Italian, Spanish, Dutch, Japanese, Chinese, Russian, Alsatian, Portuguese and Korean). Please note, special commentaries are available for children in French, German, English and Italian to keep the little ones entertained.
Ticket office and boarding pier
If you want to buy the ticket on site or exchange the voucher in your Strasbourg Pass, the ticket office is located in the building next to the tourism office (not Maison Kammerzell). There are actually three departure piers, which are located next to each other in front of the Musée historique de Strasbourg (150m from the cathedral). While you are purchasing the ticket for a specific time slot, the staff will tell you from which pier (A, B or C) you should board the boat. If not, just simply ask any of the staff at the piers.
Now let’s start our adventure on the Ill River.
I’ve already given you a rather detailed introduction to the Grande-Île in the previous chapter so here I won’t repeat it. However, it was interesting to see the historic center from a different angle. On the way, you will see and learn about Musée Historique, the Old Customs House, St. Nicolas’ Church, Old Hotel du Dragon, St. Thomas’ Church, the Tanner’s House, the Covered Bridges, the Vauban Dam, the National Administration School, St. Pierre-le-Vieux Church, St. Jean’s Church, St. Pierre-le-Jeune Protestant Church, Palais Rohan and so on. What I’d like to emphasize here is a unique experience, that is to say, to follow the boat to go upstream and downstream using the lock on the waterways.
A lock is a device used for raising and lowering boats, ships and other watercraft between stretches of water of different levels on river and canal waterways. The distinguishing feature of a lock is a fixed chamber in which the water level can be varied. I have seen locks in Edinburgh when I was living there but I’ve never seen how it works. This time, in Strasbourg, I not only saw but also experienced how the boat was raised and lowered to reach the waterways of different levels (as you can see from the picture above). One of them is located close to the heart of La Petite France, Place Benjamin Zix while the other one is located close to the National Administration School.
Normally, locks are used to make rivers or canals more easily navigable and now I’ll explain to you how they work.
- For a boat going upstream: the boat enters the lock -> the lower gates are closed -> the lock is filled with water from upstream -> the upper gates are opened -> the boat exits the lock.
- For a boat going downstream: the boat enters the lock -> the upper gates are closed -> the lock is emptied by draining its water downstream -> the lower gates are opened -> the boat exits the lock.
A rather ingenious system, isn’t it? After learning its principle, the system seems rather simple, but I really admire the person who first thought of it.
4.3 Imperial district of the Neustadt
When your boat drives along the imperial district of the Neustadt, you should be able to see the High Court, St. Pierre-le-Jeune Catholic Church, Palais du Rhin, Strasbourg National Theatre, the Opera House, St. Paul’s Church and so on. As I mentioned in the introduction chapter, different from the historic center, the Neustadt gave me a feeling of Paris, Berlin or Vienna. After the 1870 Prussian siege and French defeat, the city center was severely damaged and three of the four large avenues were destroyed. Though the reconstruction was completed within five years, the extension of the city took much more time. The plan of the New City was approved in 1880 and the designer was Jean Geoffroy Conrath, the city’s architect since 1849. He gave priority to the development of a prestigious area reserved for official buildings such as the imperial palace, ministries, regional assembly headquarters, library and university, which were completed around 1900. The development of the residential areas progressed at a lower speed and continued after 1920. Now I’ll give you a brief introduction to some of the most important buildings that you can see from the boat.
St. Pierre-le-Jeune Catholic Church
This church was built in 1893 in Neo-Romanesque style and was designed by architects August Hartel and Skjold Neckelmann. It comprises two rectangular towers reminiscent of traditional Rhenish churches and a large cupola inspired by latin churches.
Palais de Justice (High Court)
This courthouse was designed by architect Skjold Neckelmann between 1894 and 1897 in Neoclassical style. Free of imperial references, it stands out from other administrative buildings in Strasbourg.
Opéra National du Rhin
The current Opera House was built in 1821 in Neoclassical style. Its extension to the rear was designed by Johann-Carl Ott in 1888 and helped link the historic center to the Neustadt.
Place de la République
Connected by a broad avenue to Place Broglie, Place de la République was built during the German period. With a number of official buildings, it played the role of the new political and administrative center of the city. One of the buildings is Palais du Rhin, Palace of the Rhine.
Palais du Rhin
Please note, the picture above wasn’t taken from the boat.
The Palace of the Rhine, dominating the Place de la République, is featured by its massive dome. Together with the surrounding gardens, it is an outstanding example of 19th-century Prussian architecture. After the Franco-Prussian War, Strasbourg was faced with the problem of an official residence for the kaiser. After much debate, a square Neo-Renaissance design was chosen, symbolizing the imperial power. The architect was Hermann Eggert, who had already built, among other things, the Observatory of Strasbourg.
St. Paul’s Church
Please note, the second picture above wasn’t taken from the boat.
In the Neustadt, a particularly noteworthy feature is that the monuments blend harmoniously with the landscape, for example, the banks of the Ill River and the Church of St. Paul. Built between 1892 and 1897 by the architect Louis Moller, the church’s Neo-Gothic design was influenced by the 13th-century St. Elizabeth’s Church in Marburg, Germany. The church was designed for the Lutheran members of the Imperial German garrison stationed in Strasbourg and several of its most striking features include its great width relative to its not so great length and the unususally high number of portals and entrances (19 in all, compared to Strasbourg Cathedral’s 7), resulting from the need to accommodate military personnel. In 1919, after the return of Alsace to France, the church was handed over to the Protestant Reformed Church of Alsace and Lorraine.
After passing this church, we will soon arrive at the European quarter.
4.4 European quarter
New York, Geneva and Strasbourg are the only cities in the world that are home to international organizations without being national capitals. As a symbol of reconciliation between the people of Europe and of their future together, Strasbourg is home to the headquarters of many international organizations including the European Parliament and the Council of Europe.
The European Parliament is based in Strasbourg, Luxembourg and Brussels. Most of the plenary sessions are held in Strasbourg, although the Members of the European Parliament have their main offices in Brussels, while Luxembourg hosts parts of the administration. Visiting the European Parliament, the world’s largest transnational parliament, is a great way to find out about its powers, role, work as the voice of European Union citizens, and the impact it makes across both Europe and the world.
In my second post about Strasbourg, I focused on the guided tour that I took in the European Parliament and provided a brief introduction to the Council of Europe including the European Court of Human Rights. If you are interested, please click here to read more.
By now, I have finished introducing to you the audio-guided tour on the Grande-Île and the boat cruise around it. I hope I have provided you with some practical information and it will make your visit to Strasbourg more smooth and meaningful. If you can’t get the opportunity to visit the city soon, I hope I have shown you the most amazing side of it. In my next post, which is also the last post about Strasbourg, I’ll introduce to you some of the most important museums such as the the Palais Rohan, which hosts the Archaeological Museum (Musée archéologique), the Museum of Decorative Arts plus the apartments of the cardinals (Musée des arts décoratifs) and the Museum of Fine Arts (Musée des beaux-arts ), the Alsatian Museum (Musée Alsacien), which is located in 3 former residences and displays over 5,000 artefacts demonstrating the daily life of Alsatians in the 18th and 19th centuries, and Aubette 1928, an avant-garde leisure complex including a cinema/dance hall, an events room and a café-bar created by Theo Van Doesburg, Hans Jean Arp and Sophie Taeuber-Arp in 1928. To be honest, as a fan of paintings, I didn’t expect to see so many marvelous works in the Museum of Fine Arts.