Travel: 48 hours in ... Strasbourg

With the European parliamentarians away, now's the time to visit France's charming sixth city.
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The Independent Culture
Why go now?

Europe's parliamentarians have retreated to their home nations to concentrate on an election campaign, leaving hotel rooms free for mere mortals - and the atmosphere less frenzied. Plus the Festival of Classical Music, dedicated this year to the memory of Yehudi Menuhin, is due to start on Friday: highlights include Barbara Hendricks on 18 June (information on 00 33 3 88 32 43 10). And you can take advantage of early summer to wander along the canals of this charming city.

Beam down

The only airline with direct services between the UK and Alsace is Air France (0845 0845 111), which has two daily flights from London City to Strasbourg. The lowest return fare is pounds 247. There are two options for covering the 12km to the centre: a taxi, which costs FF130 (pounds 13) during the day, FF190 at night, or an airport bus to Baggersee, then a tram to the town centre (FF25 for a one-way ticket). A much cheaper alternative is to travel by Eurostar (0990 186 186) to Paris, change trains in Paris from the Gare du Nord to the Gare de l'Est (a 10-minute walk apart) and connect there for Strasbourg. Through Rail Europe (0990 848 848) the lowest fare, if you book a week in advance, is pounds 109 return.

Get your bearings

The main tourist information office is next to the town's principal attraction, at 17a place de la Cathedrale (00 33 3 88 52 28 28). Since the main office is being repaired, it is currently housed in a small prefabricated building in the square, so you may prefer to pop into the small branch in the underground gallery at the railway station (place de la Gare, 00 33 3 88 32 51 49). Either is worth visiting for the Strasbourg Pass (FF58), which gives four free admissions to various museums/ excursions and half-price reductions for others. Consult the website at www.strasbourg.com.

Check in

Forward-planning is advised for your hotel: city-centre hotels are often booked up well in advance. The Hotel Gutenberg at 31 rue des Serruriers (00 33 3 88 32 17 15) is very central without being noisy: prices for an en-suite double room start at FF360. For something different, try the Hotel Hannong, just off Strasbourg's main square, the place Kleber (15, rue du 22 Novembre, 00 33 3 88 32 16 22). Housed in a former pottery warehouse, it is a little more expensive (a double room with bathroom is FF555), but the wide wooden staircase and historical feel make this a good place to come back to after a long day's sightseeing. The tourist office website has a good list of hotels, and should you arrive without a hotel room, there is an on-the-spot reservation service.

Take a ride

Most of the main sights can be visited on foot. However, considerable investment has gone into the excellent public transport network, particularly the modern trams that pass through the otherwise pedestrianised centre. (A second line is currently under construction.) Get a quick overview of the city's geography by taking the number 10 bus around the Grande le (the route begins and ends outside the railway station), then tram A south to place de l'Etoile. Single tickets cost FF7, but one-day tickets are better value: available for FF20 from the vending machines at tram stops, or the CTS offices at the station or place Kleber.

Take a hike

The tourist office offers a 90-minute walking tour around the town centre, at a cost of FF38 (regular departures throughout the day from the main tourist office). Alternatively, make your own tour: starting at the cathedral, go down rue aux Roses to the canals, crossing the bridge Ste Madeleine. Turn right and follow the Quai des Bateliers along to Quai Finkwiller, then through place des Moulins and along quai des Woerthel to the Terrasse Panoramique: climb the stairs inside the Terrasse for a great view of the cathedral, then retrace your steps to the Ponts Couverts and wander through the Petite France area, with its typically Alsatian houses, narrow streets and locks.

Lunch on the run

Head for Flams, at 29 rue des Freres, and try a tarte flambee, Alsace's answer to pizza: cream cheese and onions on a thin layer of pastry, with optional bacon, mushrooms or cheese - washed down with a glass of Alsatian wine. If it's a warm day, ask for it "a emporter" and take it away to a bench by the riverside. Or cross the street to Place du Marche Goyot, select one of the many restaurants and bars (La Korrygane - 00 33 3 88 37 07 34 - serves excellent Breton crepes), and watch the world go by.

Cultural afternoon

The long-awaited Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art (1, place Hans- Jean Harp; no 15 or 23 bus) opened its doors in November. Designed by the architect Adrien Fainsilber on the banks of the river Ill, this huge, glass-fronted building covers the period from 1860 to the present day, and houses works by Monet, Sisley, Picasso and Kandinsky. Entry costs FF30 for adults, and there's an excellent cafe upstairs.

Window shopping

Shopping-mall enthusiasts may wish to head to place des Halles on quai Kleber, but a slightly less claustrophobic shopping experience can be had around the cathedral: rue des Hallebardes, rue du Dume and the streets around them are full of smaller boutiques where window-shoppers can "faire du leche-vitrines" (literally, lick the windows) to their heart's content.

An aperitif

Any of the bars on place du Marche Goyot would be ideal for sitting out and enjoying a beer on a warm summer evening. For slightly more sophisticated pre-dinner drinks, however, sip a kir in the plush surroundings of the Bar de l'Opera, inside the opera building on place Broglie.

Demure dinner

There's something to suit everyone's palate on rue des Tonneliers: traditional Alsatian fare in atmospheric Weinstubes, vegetarian dishes in the cheese and potato restaurants, seafood, Indian, Lebanese and Chinese cuisine... Alternatively, book a table at Au Coin du Feu, 10 rue Rape (00 33 3 88 52 02 55), for excellent food (Alsatian specialities) at reasonable prices, and, who knows, a supermodel at the next table: the last time I ate there, a three-course meal, including wine, came to less than FF150 per person, and Carla Bruni was turning heads across the room.

Sunday morning: go to church

No trip to France's sixth city is complete without a visit to the Cathedrale Notre Dame, a red sandstone masterpiece dating from the 13th century. It's tempting to rush inside and watch as the figurines on the 16th-century astronomical clock strike the hour, or admire the magnificent stained- glass windows, but the exterior sculptures warrant more than a passing glance: grimacing gargoyles, Biblical characters and historical figures look down on the crowds. Some of the cathedral is closed to tourists during Mass, but anyone wanting a bird's-eye view across to the Vosges mountains can climb the 330 steps to the viewing platform (FF20 for adults).

Bracing brunch

Much of Strasbourg feels more German than French: Le Roi et son Fou, at 37 rue du Vieil Hopital, does its best to correct this impression. Fresh flowers, comfortable red leather seats, the day's newspapers (including the International Herald Tribune), and a quirky selection of cartoons on the walls give it the feel of a Parisian brasserie. Come here for breakfast (prices from FF28-FF50) or something from the daily lunch menu (from FF45), and you may be tempted to cancel plans for the afternoon.

A walk in the park

The well-tended Parc de l'Orangerie is in the north east of the city. Try your hand at rowing on the small lake, or just enjoy the beautiful gardens and make eye contact with the storks, flamingos and peacocks in the mini-zoo. The small stone building in the north-west corner (now a stopping-off point for police) marks the spot where local peasants used to have to pay a toll on entering the city boundaries before being entitled to sell their goods.

The icing on the cake

Take a boat-trip around the Ill and up towards the Palais de l'Europe and the breathtaking new European Parliament building. Open-topped boats leave every half-hour from the landing-stage behind the Palais de Rohan, rue de Devidot, 100m from the cathedral. You won't be able to miss the swans, but keep an eye out for the newly hatched cygnets, still finding their bearings round the canals.

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