Strasbourg is a hybrid city: part medieval village, characterized by lovely half-timbered houses, soaring Gothic cathedral and narrow winding streets, and part modern European powerhouse, with sleek, glassy buildings inhabited by important European Union bodies. Boasting the largest university in France, the city is a lively, metropolitan place that deserves at least three or four days’ visit.
Strasbourg owes both its Germanic name – “the City of the Roads” – and its wealth to its strategic position on the west bank of the Rhine. The city’s medieval commercial pre-eminence was damaged by its involvement in the religious struggles of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, but recovered with its absorption into France in 1681. Along with the rest of Alsace, the city was annexed by Germany from 1871 to the end of World War I and again from 1940 to 1944. Today, old animosities have been subsumed in the European Union, with Strasbourg the seat of the Council of Europe, the European Court of Human Rights and the European Parliament.
It isn’t difficult to find your way around Strasbourg on foot, as the flat city centre is concentrated on a small island encircled by the River Ill and an old canal, while the magnificent filigree spire of the pink sandstone cathedral is visible throughout the city. Immediately south of the cathedral are the best of the museums, while to the northwest, place Kléber is the heart of the commercial district. The more attractive place Gutenberg to the south is nominally the city’s main square. About a ten-minute walk west, on the tip of the island, is picturesque La Petite France, where timber-framed houses and canals hark back to the city’s medieval trades of tanning and dyeing. Across the canal to the east of the centre is the late nineteenth-century German quarter, the University and the city’s European institutions.