Hidden gems of Strasbourg
There is nothing more thrilling than discovering hidden gems within a city, the path less traveled. Situated on the French-German border, Strasbourg provides the perfect opportunity to peer back into history.
Settled by the Celts in 1300 B.C., Strasbourg has been both a German and French city — developing a rich cultural history over time. Located on the River Ill, it was often a military stronghold, as well as a city known for art, architecture and sculptures. It is the place where the modern book was born, when Gutenberg launched his printing press here. Once, its sandstone Gothic Cathedral, dating back to the 12th century, was the world’s tallest building, taller than the Egyptian pyramids. There was even a time in Strasbourg where you could pay your debts with barrels of wine.
The best part is, you can still see all of this history today if you wander just a bit off the beaten path.
Cave Historique – the 600-year old-wine cellar of Strasbourg City Hospital
Tucked in the medieval basements of a city hospital founded in 1395 are 40 ancient barrels of wine, including a barrel filled with wine from the year 1472. Instruments of wealth have taken many forms over the centuries, and at one time medical care could be paid for with wine.
Vintages are still aged here and include some of the best Alsatian varietals of the region. It’s free to wander the damp caves and tunnels, or you can pick up a headset tour for three euros. There is a wine shop onsite, so drive and load your bottles of wine, versus walking from the main square.
See gargoyles and statues within the Barrage Vauban
The Barrage Vauban actually served as both a dam and bridge, and was a major defensive asset in the 1600s. In the event of an attack, locks could be activated — raising the level of the River Ill, causing all lands south of the city to flood — making the city impassable to enemies.
Although no longer functioning as a militaristic lock, the Barrage Vauban offers a wonderful viewing terrace of the city. And hidden in the quiet confines of its corridors are dozens of intricately carved and cast statues and gargoyles, just waiting for you to come explore.
Climb 300 steps for panoramic views
While the Barrage Vauban does offer lovely views of the city, climb to the platform of the Cathedral de Notre Dame to really get your head in the clouds.
Many tourists enter the front doors of the cathedral to admire the 12th and 14th century stained-glass windows, or perhaps St. Pancrace’s altar dating from 1522 and the 17th century tapestries. But just around the corner is a set of 300 steps that leads to the sky.
Be advised: it is quite a hike to reach the cathedral’s platform, accessible only via tight, winding staircases, not likely suitable for those who are claustrophobic or prone to dizziness, or with small children in tow. But if you can make the journey, the magnificent views at the top are absolutely worth it.
Eat at Au Vieux Strasbourg or Gurtlerhof Cave
Hands down, one of the most picturesque restaurant façades in town is the Au Vieux Strasbourg. Most tourists take pictures of its half-timbered, wooden-shuttered exterior dotted with lush window boxes, and continue on their route to the cathedral. This is great for you, since you’ll know to snag a table and settle in for some great Alsatian cuisine and fantastic people watching.
Reservations are smart for the evenings, but you should be able to get a table for lunch. However, if you find that the café is too crowded and tables are scarce, the subterranean Gurtlerhof, just across from Cathedral Square, is another great option.
Return to the well-traveled path
Although Strasbourg does have its hidden gems, there is a plethora of additional sightseeing opportunities in the city. La Petite France beckons with its historic corridors and canals. Visit the elegant 18th century Palais de Rohan, or tour these museums: Musee Alsacien, Archeologique, Des Arts Decoratifs, or Zoologique. But, between you and me – the hidden gems are the best part.
Photos by Kristi Adams