48 Hours In: Strasbourg
Spring has come to France's Alsatian capital, whose mix of Germanic and Gallic charm is now easier to reach with new flights, says Margaret Campbell
Saturday 13 April 2013
Why go now?
Affordable flights have just restarted to the capital of France's Alsace region – a unique blend of Gallic style, Germanic influence and European enthusiasm. The long winter has finally given way to spring and the storks have returned to nest around the Orangerie park. The summer crowds have yet to arrive, making late April and May the perfect time to visit.
The easiest way to reach Strasbourg is on the restored Ryanair link (0871 246 0000; ryanair.com), with three weekly flights from Stansted. The train from Entzheim airport into the city's main station (1) departs four times an hour and takes only nine minutes, for a fare of €9 each way. A taxi costs about €40. Alternatively, a combination of Eurostar (08432 186 186; eurostar.com) from London St Pancras to Paris Gare du Nord plus a short walk to Gare de l'Est and an onward TGV will take about five hours, with returns from €135.
Get your bearings Strasbourg developed on a small island surrounded by the Ill River. It has since grown considerably with its homes and transport links expanding towards the neglected port district and the Rhine.
Yet the city's heart remains the Grande-Ile and the area around the cathedral (2), where narrow medieval streets sit alongside Renaissance and Baroque buildings. The Petite-France area, once home to tanners and millers, is to the south west, not far from the Krutenau quarter, centre of the city's nightlife. Further north is the Neustadt district, built during the German annexation of the region in 1870, with its distinctive Neoclassical buildings, the odd Art Nouveau gem, and the European district, home to several international institutions.
There are tourist offices in the station (1) (9am to 7pm daily, except Sunday: 9.30am to 12.30pm and 1.45-7pm) and adjacent to the cathedral (2) (00 33 3 88 52 28 28; www.otstrasbourg.fr; 9am to 7pm daily). Both sell the three-day €14 Strasbourg-Pass which gives free or reduced entry to various attractions.
The city's extensive network of buses and trams is one of France's best: tickets (available at tram stops, must be validated on board) cost €1.60 for a single, €4 for a 24-hour pass or €5.70 for a 24-hour pass for two or three people.
Hotel rooms fill up fast, especially when 750 MEPs and staff are in town for the Parliament's monthly sessions. However, they are more likely to stay at business hotels, rather than the historic four-star Cour du Corbeau (3) at 6-8 rue des Couples (00 33 3 90 00 26 26; cour-corbeau.com). Even if you don't stay here, take a peep at the half-timbered 16th-century cobbled courtyard. The luxurious and spacious doubles start at €160, excluding breakfast.
A few metres from the cathedral, the Hôtel Suisse (4) at 2‑4 rue de la Râpe (00 33 3 88 35 22 11; hotel-suisse.com) has friendly staff and doubles from €85 with a delicious breakfast.
Outside the central area, the Hôtel de l'Orangerie (5) at 58 allée de la Robertsau (00 33 3 88 35 10 69; hotel-orangerie-strasbourg.com) is comfortable, good value and accessible by bus number 6. Doubles start at €75, room only. Breakfast is €11; or cross the road to Pâtisserie Chez Patrick at No 53 instead.
Take a hike
Start at Place de la République (6), surrounded by imposing buildings commissioned after 1870, including the Palais du Rhin – described by a disgruntled German emperor as a "house for elephants". Cross to the opera house (7) on Place Broglie (00 33 3 88 75 48 23; operanationaldurhin.eu); head along rue de la Mésange to Place Kléber (8), the largest in the city and home to the renovated L'Aubette shopping centre with its 1920s De Stijl interior (00 33 3 88 10 19 00; laubette.com).
Turn left on to rue des Francs Bourgeois and right down pedestrianised Grand Rue (9), with quirky shops and 17th-century buildings. Follow rue des Dentelles to Place Benjamin Zix (10) and Petite-France, where geraniums flourish on the balconies of former tanneries. The canal leads to the medieval covered bridge, Ponts Couverts, and the Barrage Vauban (11), designed to protect the city from attack.
Lunch on the run
Bagel-mania swept through Strasbourg a couple of years ago, and they remain popular. Bagelstein (12) at 13 Rue des Francs Bourgeois (00 33 3 88 16 26 69; bagelstein.com) serves them with fillings for about €3.
A more traditional Alsatian snack is on offer at Flam's (13) at 29 Rue des Frères (00 33 3 88 36 36 90; flams.fr), where flamme- kueche (a pastry with sour cream and a range of toppings) disappear faster than the chefs can cook them.
The Printemps (14) department store on rue de la Mésange reopened last weekend after a major refurbishment. Its main rival, Galeries Lafayette at 34 rue du 22 Novembre (galerieslafayette.com) is on the other side of Place Kléber (8).
Pop into the shop/workshop of local designer Adeline Ziliox (15) at 44 rue du Jeu des Enfants (00 33 6 21 59 93 93; adeline-ziliox.com) for original one-off pieces from €35; find traditional souvenirs on rue Mercière, opposite the cathedral (2), or pick up cheese and wine in the speciality shops on rue des Orfèvres (16).
The stylish Bar de l'Opéra (7) on Place Broglie is ideal for a romantic drink. The rum-based house cocktail costs €5; beers start at €2.80.
The Vino Strada Stub (17) at 8 rue du Temple-Neuf (00 33 3 88 16 96 21; vinostrada.com) is newer but has won approval for its decor and atmosphere. A glass of wine starts at €5. For a less formal setting, try La Nouvelle Poste (18) at 12 rue du Parchemin (00 33 3 88 24 19 10; nouvelleposte.fr) for beer and snacks.
Dining with the locals
Umami (19) at 8 rue des Dentelles (00 33 3 88 32 80 53; restaurant-umami.com) is named for the savoury "fifth taste". This Michelin-starred restaurant in Petite-France has three-course menus (changed fortnightly) that blend French and Asian flavours. They are on offer from €48 (plus wine).
Le Piano 2 (20) at 18 rue Sainte-Hélène (00 33 3 88 32 85 41) has excellent meat dishes, vegetarian favourites such as mushroom risotto with truffles and set menus from €13.90. Or book a table at Le Clou (21) at 3 rue du Chaudron (00 33 3 88 32 11 67; le-clou.com) for hearty and tasty Alsatian fare – choucroute (sauerkraut) starts at €13.10.
Sunday morning: take a view
The 330 steps to the viewing platform of the cathedral (2) (9am to 7.45pm daily, €5) seem daunting, but the climb is broken up by balconies. The sight of the Black Forest, Vosges Mountains and Strasbourg's red rooftops 66m below is its own reward. The cathedral has an elaborate astronomical clock, which strikes "noon" at 12.30pm, a Gothic rose window and countless intriguing statues and gargoyles on its walls.
A walk in the park
The Orangerie park (accessible by tram Line E to the Droits de l'Homme stop) is big enough for a mini-zoo (22). It also has a lake, well-tended lawns and space to breathe as storks glide overhead.
Go to church
Admire the Eglise Saint-Thomas (23), and perhaps hear its renowned Silbermann organ. The church, frequently referred to as Alsace's Protestant cathedral, has a fascinating Baroque mausoleum and fine stained glass (00 33 3 88 32 14 46; saint-thomas-strasbourg.fr; sunday visits from noon-5pm).
Out to brunch The striking glass-fronted Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art (24) at 1 place Hans-Jean Arp (00 33 3 88 23 31 31; bit.ly/ArtStras; 10am to 6pm at weekends; noon to 6pm on Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday; noon to 9pm Thursday; €7) has works by Kandinsky, Max Ernst and Picasso, and temporary exhibitions. It is also home to the first-floor Art Café (00 33 3 88 22 18 88), with views across the canals, good food and cheerful service (brunch is €23.50).
Le Roi et son Fou (25) at 37 Rue du Vieil Hôpital (00 33 3 88 23 22 22; from 9am at weekends) offers excellent breakfasts , including coffee, orange juice, baguettes and other pastries.
All the city's museums are worth a visit but, if pressed, give priority to the Tomi Ungerer Museum (26) in Villa Greiner at 2 avenue de la Marseillaise (00 33 3 69 06 37 27; bit.ly/TomiUng; 10am to 6pm at weekends; noon to 6pm other days; closed Tuesday; €6). It houses the local artist's rich collection of darkly satirical illustrations, political and erotic graphics.
Take a ride
For a local's perspective, hop on a No 10 bus at the station (1): the circular route will eventually take you back to your starting point. Alternatively, a one-hour boat trip offers views of beautiful buildings and the recorded commentary is good. Board at the Batorama stage in front of the Palais Rohan (27) (00 33 3 88 84 13 13; batorama.com) from 9.30 to 9pm daily, priced €9.60 or free with a Strasbourg Pass.
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