Founded by the Romans on an island between two branches of the Ill river, Strasbourg now prides itself on its status as a World Heritage site and on its European vocation as home to the European Parliament and the Council of Europe. Like the Alsace region, the city has been shunted over the centuries between French and German control: its architecture and cultural life are an intriguing mix of Gallic sophistication, traditional Alsatian roots and modern cosmopolitan influences. Gastronomically, its hearty dishes make a distinctive contribution to the patchwork of French regional cuisine.
There are regular rail connections from Paris. The current journey time is four hours. That is due to drop to two hours 20 minutes when a brand new TGV line is inaugurated in 2007. The train brings you right to the centre of the city. Rail Europe (see below) are currently offering return fares from London via Paris from £89. Air France (08701424343; www.airfrance.com/uk) offers the only direct flights to Strasbourg's Entzheim airport from London, departing from Gatwick. Return flights start at £115, but the average price for a weekend return is £160. To reach the centre from Entzheim airport, take the shuttle bus to Baggersee then transfer to the efficient tram network. The total fare is €4.90 one-way, €9 for a return (£3.35/£6.20). Taxis cost around €40 (£28).
Hotels fill up fast, especially on weeks when the European Parliament holds its monthly sessions, so advance reservations are recommended.
In the heart of the old town's most photogenic district, the four-star Régent Petite France (5 Rue des Moulins, 00 33 3 88 76 43 43; www.regent-hotels.com) is housed within the thick walls of a former ice-factory, and offers wonderful views over the water. Doubles from €250 (£172), suites at €380 (£262), but it is worth asking if there are any special offers. Breakfast is an extra €19 (£13).
The Romantik Hôtel Beaucour is located in an 18th-century private residence (5 Rue des Bouchers, 00 33 3 88 76 72 00; www.hotel-beaucour.com), many of its bright rooms are arranged around an interior courtyard. Doubles from €91.50 (£63), suites from €157.50 (£108); breakfast an extra €11 (£7.50).
More modestly, the Hôtel du Rhin (7 Place de la Gare, 00 33 3 88 32 35 00; www.hotel-du-rhin.com) is conveniently located for the Museum of Modern Art and is only a short walk from the shopping streets. Doubles from €61 (£42) and breakfast is €6 (£4).
Right now, the city is emerging from the winter chill - and what better way to kick-start spring than with a Carnival procession? Tomorrow afternoon (13 March) Place Kléber will be taken over by decorated floats, with music and more. Elsewhere, the streets are still largely free of tourists, as are the fantastic museums. The town is also an excellent base for exploring the neighbouring Vosges mountains and sampling white wine along the Route des Vins
The Cathédrale Notre-Dame, its unmistakable single spire towering over the roofs of the Old Town, is a red-stone Gothic masterpiece. Its stark silhouette is softened by leering gargoyles and dozens of statues depicting historical and Biblical figures. On sunny days, the stained-glass windows gleam with colour. The 330 steps to the platform are not for the faint-hearted, but the views across to the Black Forest and Vosges are their own reward.
The Petite France district is largely pedestrianised, a picturesque labyrinth of half-timbered houses, canals, bridges and geranium-filled balconies. Meander along to the Ponts Couverts and the Barrage Vauban for a view across the stone ramparts to the Cathedral and beyond.
All of the city's museums are worth a visit, but the Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art stands out (1 Place Hans Jean Arp, 00 33 3 88 23 31 31, open Tuesday- Saturday 11 am-7pm, Thursday noon-10pm, Sunday 10 am-6 pm, €5 (£3.40)).
The best way to get a feel for Strasbourg's past glories and current charms is to take a boat trip from behind the Palais Rohan, once the bishop's palace, now the Fine Arts Museum. The excursion (00 33 3 88 84 13 13), which lasts about an hour, cost €6.80 (£4.70) and pass Petite France and the former Sainte Madeleine Marguerite prison before heading to the European district, home to the grandiose European Parliament building.
The two well-known French department stores, Printemps and Galeries Lafayette, have branches here, both adjacent to Place Kléber. Great presents from the city include one of the seven varieties of Alsatian white wine, locally produced foie gras (supermarkets, or the Boutique du Gourmet at 26 Rue des Orfèvres, kougelhopf (a sweet brioche) or gingerbread from Pain d'épices at 14 Rue des Dentelles. Non-edible presents include blue-grey pottery from the village of Soufflenheim Betschdorf, or anything resembling a stork (the migratory bird winters in the region).
Big-name breweries and small brasseries co-exist happily in Alsace, and the opportunity to sample local beer should not be passed up. Always busy, Les Brasseurs (22 Rue des Veaux, 00 33 3 88 36 12 13) is open from 11am-1am daily and serves oven-cooked tarte flambée as well as numerous varieties of local beer. If you're not sure which of the four house beers to choose, ask for the dégustation - small servings in cognac glasses. Not far away, the Aviateurs (12 Rue des Soeurs, 00 33 3 88 36 52 69, 8.30pm-4am) is a popular late-night venue while, across the river, the Passerelle (38, Quai des Bateliers, 00 33 3 88 36 19 95, 11 am-1pm) attracts a younger crowd. Always reliable, the Café de l'Opéra on Place Broglie (00 33 3 88 22 98 51) is a good place to start or finish an evening out.
Visible from much of the Rhine plain, Strasbourg's cathedral dominated city life from the 13th century onwards: its vivid rose window, astronomical clock and detailed stonework make it a must for any visitor.
AU CROCODILE (10 Rue de l'Outre, Tel. 00 33 3 88 32 13 02, www.au-crocodile.com) Michelin-starred, Au Crocodile sits at the top of Strasbourg's gastronomic tree. Set menus are available from €82 (£56), and feature treats such as fennel-stuffed roast bass with a green cardamom sauce.
LE CLOU (3 Rue du Chaudron, 00 33 3 88 32 11 67) Serves up time-honoured Alsatian fare. Ham shank marinated in Pinot Noir (€14.90/£10.25) is a house speciality, but this is also the place to try choucroute, served with sausages and ham.
O'PITCHOUN (5 Rue du Saumon, 00 33 3 88 52 04 29) Lighter dishes are on offer here. The chef has been inspired by Provencal and North African dishes. The honey-coated shoulder of lamb (€17/£11.70) is mouth-watering. Vegetarian options, too.
SECRETS DE TABLE (39 Rue du 22 Novembre, 00 33 3 88 21 09 10) Ideal for lunch, serves homemade soup and tartines, thick slices of bread with savoury toppings such as salmon, spinach and walnuts or wild mushrooms. Prices start at €4.30 (£2.95) for soup and €4.50 (£3.10) for a tartine. There's an identical branch in the Galeries Lafayette across the road.
BROC EN STOCK (15 Quai des Pêcheurs, 00 33 3 88 24 06 09) serves delicious pasta and pizzas from €7.80 (£5.40), away from the centre. With its open fire and eclectic decoration, this is a friendly and unpretentious place to eat.
For more information and bookings, contact Strasbourg tourist office on 00 33 3 88 52 28 28; www.ot-strasbourg.fr
Light festivals and train collections
Nancy developed as the seat of the Dukes of Lorraine, once a powerful family of king-makers, and its churches, ducal palace and classically designed squares bear witness to this rich history. The Arc de Triomphe, Arc de l'Alliance and Place de la Carrière are particularly striking.
The Art Deco movement was another important influence on art and architecture, and is reflected in house facades and local museums, especially the Musée de l'Ecole de Nancy (36 Rue du Sergent Blandan; 00 33 3 83 40 14 86). The Fine Arts Museum (Place Stanislas; 00 33 3 83 85 30 72) has an excellent collection of modern art. Today, bustling shopping streets, a lively cultural scene and the annual jazz festival in the Pépinière park make this a worthwhile weekend destination, as well as good starting-point for exploration of the surrounding Lorraine countryside. The main festival of 2005 is the "Temps des Lumieres" - a series of events to celebrate the anniversary of the Stanislas Square (a UNESCO World Heritage site), which starts in May.
This eastern town looks set to become an increasingly popular French destination: TGVs should soon bring it within more accessible reach of Paris, and the capital's Pompidou Centre plans to open its first regional branch here in early 2007.
Not that the town doesn't already have artistic and cultural attractions of its own: a very pleasing old town and the combination of Roman, medieval and Gothic architecture have been attracting visitors for decades, as have Marc Chagall's stained-glass windows in the vaulting St-Etienne cathedral. Not far from the Esplanade, the 4th-century Saint-Pierre-aux-Nonnains is reputed to be the oldest church in France. Outside the centre, German occupation after the 1870 war left strong architectural traces, particularly around the grandiose railway station. More recently, a former arsenal has been transformed into a highly-acclaimed concert hall, while the town's monuments are lit up at night, drawing attention to fine bridges and creating dramatic reflections in the Moselle river. The town is due to host a contemporary art fair from 1-4 April, which this year will focus on Tuscany (00 33 3 87 60 28 88; www.artmetz.com). The town's flea markets should not be missed, usually held the first and third Saturday of the month.
In the past, Mulhouse was described as the "Manchester of Alsace" on account of its prosperous textile industry. Those days are long gone, but the town's industrial heritage endures in an impressive number of child-friendly museums, covering topics that range from electricity to railways. The silk-printing museum provides a fascinating look at the industry on which the town built its name, but the most extraordinary is perhaps the National Automobile Museum, otherwise known as the Schlumpf Collection (accessible from Avenue de Colmar; 00 33 3 89 33 23 21), which has over 500 antique and classic cars, including a Rolls-Royce Silver Ghost. Around Place de la Réunion, a 16th-century town hall, painted facades and other monuments recall that there was more to this town than industry.
The Train City French Railway Museum, which boasts "the greatest train collection in Europe", has recently been renovated and just reopened. A special museum pass that gives access to all Mulhouse museums and 150 museums, sites, gardens and fortresses around Mulhouse in France, Germany and Switzerland and valid for four days for 28 euros (£20) can be bought at the tourist office. Mulhouse is useful base for venturing elsewhere in Alsace and is especially handy for the Markstein skiing station.
For Mulhouse, 00 33 3 89 35 48 48; www.tourisme-mulhouse.comReuse content