Strasbourg, France is the capital and largest city of the Alsace region of France. It's very close to Germany's border (only a 2 1/2 hour drive from Frankfurt), and is the official seat of the European Parliament, as well as several other European institutions. It is a beautiful city that melds French and German architecture - and is so beautiful that the entire old part of the city is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It has so much charm, and lots to do. We only spent two nights in Strasbourg, but one could easily spend a week or more fully exploring the Alsace region of France. Here are our tips for having a spectacular and memorable weekend in and around Strasbourg.
How to get there? What about parking?
We chose to drive (in our new-to-us Volkswagen Touran), The drive from Frankfurt took between 2 1/2 and 3 hours. There is also a train from Frankfurt which takes 2 hours and 15 minutes. We visited Strasbourg in early October. From what I understand the "high" season of Strasbourg tourism is during the spring and summer, and the Christmas market. I would warn any potential visitors that parking may be an issue during a high season. Many hotels have no parking, or advertise that they have parking when really they mean they only have a few spots, or that there is a garage nearby. The garages are not huge, and get filled up really quickly. Cars line up around the block waiting for parking spots. So be careful, it may be better to take the train or plan for out-of-the-way parking if you visit during a high season.
What is there to do in Strasbourg?
There is so much to do in Strasbourg! Firstly, it beautiful, picturesque, and so charming. One could easily wander along the river banks and eat bread and cheese on a bench all day long. There are many courtyards and parks, it is easy to explore and enjoy. However, some actual activities that are very kid-friendly include....
Notre Dame Cathedral, Strasbourg
Strasbourg's architectural gem is the Cathedral of Our Lady, which is widely considered the pinnacle of Gothic architecture. It dates back to 1176, and is breathtaking, and right in the middle of the historic city center. You cannot miss it. The interior is peaceful and cool, and contains an absolutely amazing astronomical clock. We missed the clock's mechanical procession and cock crowing at 12:30pm daily, but just seeing the clock is incredible. It is a perpetual clock and contains the positions of the sun and moon, eclipses, and various other measurements; it looks literally magical.
Near to the clock is a grate in the floor in which children (and adults) drop coins. This was more fascinating to our younger kids than the clock.
And, like all good Cathedrals, Notre Dame of Strasbourg contains a tower with a windey staircase that one can climb. The viewing platform on this cathedral betters any we have seen on our travels. It is huge and flat and very picturesque. It is also a bonus that it has two staircases, one of which takes people up, and one which takes people down (unlike the Cologne Dom). This, coupled with the large viewing platform, makes visiting the cathedral a good activity for any time of day regardless of crowds.
Boat Tour of the City
I highly recommend taking the Batorama (http://www.batorama.fr), a 70 minute long tour of Strasbourg from the Ill River. These boat cruises are really fun and informative. Each seat has a headset and the tour can be listened to in many languages, and they even have kid's audio programs. Our five and seven-year-olds were completely engaged in the audio tour and learned a lot about the history of Strasbourg. Book early in the day, as they tend to sell out!
Carousel at the Place de Gutemberg
Tucked away in a beautiful square in the city center is a gorgeous two-decker carousel. On certain days, there is a wine, cheese and bread market in this square. It is worth asking at your hotel if the wine and cheese market is happening during your visit, as it can make a delicious, and authentic meal.
Petite France, Gingerbread, and Walking Alongside the River
Like many places in France, Strasbourg is a wonderful city for exploring on foot. Take the time to wander around the Petite France section of Strasbourg, explore the river banks, and buy some local, freshly made gingerbread, a Strasbourg speciality.
Haut Konenigsbourg Castle
About a 40 minute drive from Strasbourg is Haut Koenigsbourg Castle (http://www.haut-koenigsbourg.fr/en/). This castle has existed since before 1150. It was a ruin, and was refurbished by the German Emperor Willhem II over 100 years ago. It is now one of the major tourist attractions in France. The castle is located on a high crest, and has spectacular views. We purchased audio tours with our headsets, and enjoyed listening to the history of the castle and the importance of certain areas. As we were with kids, we skipped the guided tours so we could explore at a child-friendly pace. Getting the kids each their own headsets was worth the extra money as they enjoyed listening and were less bored than they would have been otherwise!
The castle is beautiful and enormous! It is beautifully refurbished but does not seem like a reconstruction, it really allows one to envision how castle life was centuries ago. The castle also has a small cafeteria where we had a delicious lunch.
La Montagne des Singes - Monkey Reserve
On the same forested hill as Koenigsbourg Castle is La Montagne des Singes (http://www.montagnedessinges.com/en/parc.php?id_cat=1), a 60-acre forested reserve for Barbary Macaques, a furry, medium sized monkey. Over 200 of them roam free in the forest, and enjoy eating the popcorn that the staff gives to visitors upon admission. The monkeys do not care for human contact, so will not climb on you or initiate any kind of touching, but will gladly take popcorn from your hand. It's amazing to watch them interact with eachother and play together. The babies are especially sweet! Staff members are on hand to ensure all visitors are behaving appropriately. Visiting La Montagne des Singes was one of the most special things we have ever done, and I would highly recommend it. It was truly magical to get to observe and interact with uncaged monkeys.
There are so many other things to do in and around Strasbourg. I would really like to go back and experience the Christmas market, as well as L'Orangerie (http://www.jds.fr/strasbourg/parc-avec-aire-de-jeux/parc-orangerie-strasbourg-4673_L), which is the largest park in Strasbourg and contains a mini-zoo. I would also like to check out some of the museums in Strasbourg, such as those listed here
http://www.musees.strasbourg.eu, and explore the Alsace countryside, villages, and other castles.
Where to stay?
As always, we booked a hotel with booking.com, and stayed in the city-center. We stayed (with my in-laws) at the Hotel Restaurant Au Cerf d'Or (http://www.cerf-dor-strasbourg.fr/en/). This hotel was great, it's in a very central location and has a friendly reception desk that was very accommodating. It felt very French and was quite charming. It has an indoor pool and a restaurant, but we did not get a chance to visit either!
I would think that any hotel in the old area or city center would be a good pick for Strasbourg.
Where to eat?
Strasbourg, being in France, operates on a generally later eating schedule than places such as America. Many restaurants do not even open until after 7:00pm. However, there are a few spots that one can find if an earlier dinner is required due to the presence of young children. There are also various bakeries that are great for breakfast or snacks of croissants or pain au chocolate (chocolate croissant). Here are some extra special places we found that are worth a visit...
Cafe Rohan is located around the corner from the Cathedral, and is very centrally located. It is open early, is very child-friendly, and serves a perfect mix of Alsace specialities and child-friendly food. We really enjoyed our meal here.
Strasbourg is so beautiful - it's nice to wander around at night after dinner. Both nights in Strasbourg we ventured to Amorino for gelato. The kids were delighted with the beautiful flowers that are made out of the gelato. This is a great dessert spot and is worth a stop.
We were so impressed with Strasbourg. We loved it, and would like to go back. It was a great spot for a family weekend getaway!