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The capital of Alsace, France's smallest region, is also known as the principal city of Europe because it's the official seat of European Parliament and home to important institutions like the European Court of Human Rights, but there's much more to Strasbourg than politics and officials in gray suits. While the city reigns as a political powerhouse, it also represents a perfect blend of cultures.
Built along the Rhine and located close to trading routes, Strasbourg borders Germany and Switzerland in the northeast of France and possesses a unique cultural and architectural heritage. Even dedicated Francophiles are often surprised how different the city is from the rest of the France. Once part of Germany, it offers the "best of both worlds," a combination that's most deliciously illustrated in its cuisine, which reflects a happy marriage of French flair and German heartiness.
With a history stretching back over 2,000 years, an obvious first stop for cruisers is Grande-Ile, the city's UNESCO-listed Old Town center. Visitors can admire Strasbourg's landmark lopsided cathedral, the beautiful Petite France neighborhood and the gateway to river cruises and streets chock-a-block with half-timbered Renaissance buildings. Many churches also went up in the Middle Ages, including Saint-Etienne, dating to the 12th century, and Saint-Thomas, which was built between the 12th and 14th centuries and ranks as the largest in size after the Strasbourg Cathedral.
Strasbourg is a town made for walking, but energetic visitors can also turn to pedal power and hop on a bike like the locals. Even the most haphazard stroll will take you past a wealth of well-preserved buildings, luxury shops and designer boutiques. More affordable buys can be found in Rue des Grandes Arcades, which is Strasbourg's main shopping area and features a variety of clothing stores.
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Other Europe River Cruise Ports:
Antwerp • Arnhem • Berlin • Brugge (Bruges) • Brussels • Bucharest • Budapest • Cologne • Dresden • Ghent • Heidelberg • Honfleur • Koblenz • Lyon • Passau • Porto • Prague • Rotterdam • Rudesheim • Strasbourg • Vienna
Locally made glasses and pottery -- packed carefully to take home -- loom large in many shops. Or you can choose from tablecloths, decorative items and linen goods with the distinctive kelsch, the regional pattern featuring checks or blue and red stripes. On the gourmet front, crisp Alsatian white wines, tangy Muenster cheese and pate de foie gras are typical flavors of the region and make popular edible mementos.
When out and about in this cosmopolitan city, you can tune in to more than 20 languages spoken by citizens of the member states of the European Parliament. French is the official language, but English is spoken virtually everywhere.
Currency & Best Way to Get Money
The currency in France is the euro. For current currency-conversion figures visit www.oanda.com or www.xe.com. ATM's are plentiful within the city center and close to Gutenberg Square. All major credit cards are accepted in shops, restaurants and cafes. Many taxis also take payment by credit card, but check first.
Where You're Docked
River cruise vessels dock at Quai des Belges, about 1.8 miles from the city center.
The docking area is adjacent to an industrial park and main road, and there are no ATM's, restaurants or shops close by. Cruisers who prefer to stay onboard their vessels can stretch their legs with a stroll along the riverbank that serves as a mooring place for large ships and pleasure crafts.
On Foot: Almost the entire center of Strasbourg is vehicle-free, and it's a city made for walking. The three-day Strasbourg Pass, priced around 14 euros, includes a guided walking tour, bike hire, boat trip and free and discounted entry to selected museums.
By Bus and Tram: The city has 29 bus routes and five tram lines serving Strasbourg and the surrounding area. A leaflet for visitors showing the different lines and the buses and trams to take to reach all the main sights and attractions is available from the tourist office. One ticket can be used for both forms of transport and it can be cost effective to buy a 24-hour pass offering unlimited travel. The tourist minitram runs on a 40-minute roundtrip through the historic district and Petite France from Place du Chateau by the cathedral. It operates daily from March 17 to November 6.
By Bike: Join the locals and explore France's largest bike trail network, which stretches nearly 310 miles. The marked trails run through the historic town center, along canals and through parks and gardens. Velhop offers bikes for rent that can be picked up and returned at 11 automatic stations around the city. Visitors must be at least 16 years old to use the bike rental service.
By Taxi: Numerous taxi companies operate in Strasbourg. One of the largest is Taxi 13, which operates round the clock. Taxis can be found at the train station, airport and Place de l'Homme de Fer. Many taxis accept payment by credit card, and tipping is not expected.
Watch Out For
The city has a comprehensive network of flat, well-marked cycle paths, but jay-walking visitors distracted by the surrounding sights can pose a hazard when they meander in front of oncoming cyclists. So look carefully before you cross.
French writer Victor Hugo described the Notre Dame Cathedral, the symbol of Strasbourg, as "a prodigy of the gigantic and of the delicate." Towering over the Old Town, it boasts an array of architectural styles as it was built over several centuries. Its standout feature is that it only has one tower. (Money ran out to build the second one.) Inside, there is an amazing astronomical clock. The best time to see it is 12:30 p.m. when all the figures move around, including the 12 apostles filing in front of Christ, a cock crowing and a child, teenager, adult and old man representing the four stages of life passing in front of a representation of death.
La Petite France is the most photographed area of Strasbourg. With half-timbered houses dating from the 16th and 17th centuries, it once served as district of fishermen, millers and tanners. The name might sound idyllic, but it actually comes from the hospital where people suffering from mal Francais, or syphilis, were once treated. The district leads to the distinctive ponts couverts, or covered bridges, that have kept the name even though the roofs disappeared during the 18th century.
River cruises through the historic heart of Strasbourg provide a fascinating glimpse of ancient buildings and the modern European Parliament. In such a multicultural city, it's probably not surprising to find headset tour commentaries available in 12 languages, including the invented world language Esperanto. There are also special commentaries for children. Starting from the pier outside the Palais Rohan, trips run throughout the year at half-hour intervals starting at 9:30 a.m.
The riverside grand Palace Rohan is a paradise for cultural enthusiasts. The Decorative Arts Museum, Fine Arts Museum and Archaeology Museum are located there. (2 Place du Cheteau; all three museums are open from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., except on Tuesdays.)
Gutenberg Square used to be the center of political and social life in the city and now it's a pleasant place to stop for a coffee and watch the world go by. The most impressive building is the former city hall that dates to 1585. The square takes its name from inventor Johannes Gutenberg, immortalized with a statue, who developed his famous printing press in Strasbourg.
Arguably the most beautiful medieval building in Strasbourg, Maison Kammerzell is next to the tourist office in Place de la Cathedrale. Dating to 1427, the richly carved black timber-framed building belonged to a series of rich merchants over the centuries. The interior is decorated with frescoes by 19th-century Alsatian painter Leo Schnug. It is now a restaurant.
Been There, Done That
To discover another fascinating side of Strasbourg, visit the old Jewish quarter around Rue des Juifs, one of the city's oldest streets. More than 1,600 years old, it was originally a Roman road. At the end of the street farthest from the cathedral, number 30, between Rue des Pucelles and Rue de la Faisan, was the site of the 12th-century synagogue, the mikvah baths at the corner of Rue des Charpentiers and the cemetery at the Place de la Republique. Two rooms in the Alsatian Museum are also devoted to Jewish history. The museum is open daily from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. but is closed on Tuesdays.
The exotic Egyptian House is in striking contrast with the rest of the city's architecture. The 1905 facade combines art nouveau with oriental influences and includes a fresco featuring a pharaoh and papyrus. (10 Rue du General Rapp.)
Take a tropical walk in the heart of the city at the Botanical Gardens next to the University Palace. Established in 1884, the gardens at 28 Rue Goethe contain 6,000 plant species, and the highlight is the two-story greenhouse with palms, banana trees and huge ferns. The garden is open daily, and admission is free.
If you fancy visiting the European Parliament, you'll need to plan ahead. Each month, members of parliament gather for four days to vote and debate during a series of meetings called plenary sessions. Guided tours for 20 to 45 people take place during plenary sessions, and requests for visits are subject to availability. Group visits are also hosted at other times but do not include individual visits. Anyone wanting to find out what makes the parliament tick is advised to apply for a place two to three months in advance using the application form on the Web site.
Considered one of the best collections in France, the Zoological Museum features specimens of mammals, birds, fish, reptiles and insects from around the world. The displays are mainly derived from the exhaustive collection of Jean Hermann, a 19th-century French physician and naturalist who was a professor of medicine at Strasbourg University. (29 Boulevard de la Victoire; open daily from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., closed on Tuesdays.)
The mountain fortress Haut-Koenigsbourg, 34 miles south of Strasbourg, has witnessed eight centuries of colorful and often bloody history. Restored in 1900 by Emperor William II to appear as it was in the 15th century, the imposing castle includes furnished living quarters and grisly collections of medieval weapons. It also offers fantastic views of the Alsace plain, Vosges Mountains, Black Forest and, on clear days, even the Alps. Excursions can be booked in Passau, and they take about four hours.
Strasbourg features plenty of international restaurants and familiar chains. But to get a real flavour of Alsace, head to a "winstub," Strasbourg's small family owned restaurants. Make sure you're hungry because the local cuisine combines the best of France's world famous gastronomy coupled with the robustness of German food. Don't forget the excellent local wine and beer.
Sauerkraut is a specialty. Not simply the "sour cabbage" dish typically associated with the name, this regional version is a carnivorous feast piled high with assorted meats like local sausage, ham hock and pork chops. In fact, many meals feature at least three types of meat, poultry or fish. A culinary institution not to be missed is tarte flambee, the northern French equivalent of pizza. With various cheese, meat and vegetable toppings on a thin dough base, it's an ideal meal for sharing. And try to leave room for kougelhopf, sweet bread pudding laced with raspberry brandy.
Once the city's custom house, the central and cavernous L'Ancienne Douane restaurant along the Ill river is an atmospheric and scenic place to enjoy a meal. Browse through the extensive menu over an aperitif and giant pretzel, and then take your pick from specialities such as sauerkraut, a casserole with three types of meat, ham served with Muenster cheese and savory or sweet tarte flambee. This family-friendly restaurant offers a children's menu. (6 Rue de la Douane; open noon to 2 p.m., dinner from 5 p.m.)
Situated between the cathedral and the river pier, The Pfifferbriader -- known locally as Pfiffes -- is a typical winstub. Spread over two floors and with a terrace with views of the cathedral, the restaurant dishes up filling local food such as sauerkraut with three types of fish; beef with wine sauce and dumplings; and assorted cold meats. (14 Place du Marche aux Cochons de Lai; open daily from noon.)
Diners can take in serene surroundings and sublime food at the Michelin starred restaurant Le Crocodile. The fine-dining experience combines classic and contemporary style with huge paintings adorning the walls and a namesake full-size reptile overlooking the entrance. A full tasting menu will set you back more than 100 euros, but fixed-price lunches are available from around 40 euros. (10 Rue de L'Outre; open from noon.)
Staying in Touch
Visitors with laptops will be able to find free Wi-Fi hot spots in many of Strasbourg's cafes, bars and restaurants. One of the most central cyber cafes is Linky's Cathedrale, which, as the name implies, is close to the cathedral. (22 Rue des Freres; open daily from 9:30 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday to Saturday and midday to 9 p.m. on Sundays)
Best for First-Timers: Leaving plenty of time for shopping in the afternoon, a post-breakfast tour covers the highlights of Strasbourg's compact Old Town. The coach ride from the ship will pass Palais de L'Europe, where the European Parliament meets, before a walking tour of the Old Town to see Petite France, the cathedral, old customs house and quaint bridges. After this three-hour tour, you can choose to stay in town for lunch or take the shuttle back to the ship.
Best for Relaxation: Cruise through centuries of history onboard a glass-bottom boat. Offered as a daytime or evening excursion depending on the cruise line, the trips along the Ill pass through Petite France and Strasbourg's Old Town, a UNESCO Heritage Site. Part of the fun of this 70-minute excursion is going through a lock and waving at passersby who gather to watch.
Best for Foodies: Take a scenic drive along the Alsace Wine Route to discover a region renowned for its wines and gastronomy. The tours include a winery visit to meet the owner and learn about the history of wine-growing in the region before sampling local cheese and wine and maybe picking up a bottle or two to take home. Then, join a guided walk through the picture postcard town of Obernai, tucked at the foot of the Vosges Mountains and Mont Sainte-Odile. Famous for its half-timbered houses, many converted into restaurants and wine cellars, this half-day tour is usually offered as an optional excursion costing approximately 50 euros.
For More Information
On the Web:
Strasbourg Tourist Office
French Government Tourist Office
The Independent Traveler Message Boards
--by Jeannine Williamson, Cruise Critic contributor