48 Hours In: Strasbourg
Travel to the heart of the continent this festive season, as France's easternmost city gears up for a Christmas extravaganza, with markets and mulled wine galore.
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Why go now?
The easternmost city in France perches prettily on the Rhine. Strasbourg's position at the heart of the continent, as home to the European Parliament and the Council of Europe, gives a strong international dimension to its intriguing mix of modern French influence and deeper-rooted Alsatian customs. At this time of year, the traditional side has the upper hand. From today until New Year's Eve, the city's Christmas festivities begin ( noel-strasbourg.com ), bringing open-air markets, concerts and special events to streets glowing with spectacular lights.
By rail, you can reach Strasbourg's splendid and recently expanded station (1) in under six hours from London St Pancras, using Eurostar (08705 186 186; eurostar.com ) to Paris Gare du Nord; it is a 10-minute walk to Gare de l'Est, from where trains run to Strasbourg in two hours 20 minutes. Air France (0870 142 4343; airfrance.co.uk ) flies from London City to Strasbourg.
Get your bearings
The island at Strasbourg's heart is embraced by the Ill river and a shimmering labyrinth of canals, and linked to the surrounding neighbourhoods by an assortment of stone bridges. The red sandstone cathedral (2), once the tallest building in Christendom, dominates the skyline of this essentially human-scale city and marks the heart of the old town; this district shelters dozens of well-preserved medieval and Renaissance buildings. The helpful tourist information office is on Place de la Cathédrale (00 33 3 88 52 28 28; ot- strasbourg.fr ), and has up-to-date information on hotel availability (which can be a problem in December and when the European Parliament is holding one of its monthly four-day sessions); it opens 9am-7pm daily. The commercial hub of the city, and venue from today for stalls run by charitable organisations, is Place Kléber (3).
A peaceful courtyard leads to the friendly and well-decorated Hotel Beaucour (4) at 5 rue des Bouchers (00 33 3 88 76 72 00; maison-kammerzell.com ), housed in an 18th-century private residence near the canal. Double rooms start at €132 (£110), including breakfast. The four-star Regent Petite France (5) at 5 Rue des Moulins (00 33 3 88 76 43 43; regent-petite-france.com ) is housed within the thick walls of a former ice factory, and offers wonderful views over a narrow lock in one of the city's most photogenic districts. Prices for a double room in December start at €276 (£230), with an extra €21 (£17.50) per person for breakfast.
The central Hotel Maison Rouge (6) at 4 rue des Francs-Bourgeois (00 33 3 88 32 08 60; maison-rouge.com ) is comfortable and welcoming. Prices for a double room start at €140 (£117), with breakfast at €14 (£11.60). Away from the centre, Villa Novarina (7) at 11 rue Westercamp (00 33 3 90 41 18 28; villanovarina.com ), an up-market lodging with doubles from €105 (£88) room only, is two minutes' walk from the Orangerie Park (8).
Take a view
The 329 steps to the platform at the top of the cathedral (2) are not for the faint-hearted, but on a clear day the views across to the Black Forest and Vosges mountains are their own reward.
Afterwards, don't miss the delicate stone-work, vivid stained-glass windows, and dozens of gargoyles and statues of this magnificent place of worship. An elaborate astronomical clock chimes "noon" at 12.30pm precisely each day, when figurines of the Apostles appear in parade. Inside, a rarely exhibited series of huge 12th-century tapestries on "the life of the Virgin" is currently on display, as well as a large Nativity scene. From now until March the platform is open daily 10am-5.15pm, and from March-October it opens 9am-7.15pm, €4.60 (£3.80).
Take a hike
The tourists who usually frequent the largely pedestrianised Petite France area are, at this time of year, flocking instead to the Christmas markets: take advantage of the relative quiet to explore this pretty network of black-and-white half-timbered houses, canals, bridges and geranium-filled balconies. Meander along cobbled streets to the Ponts Couverts and the imposing Barrage Vauban (9) for a view across the city ramparts, or stroll along rue Dentelles, past the labyrinth-like shop "Noel in Alsace" (at number 10, for the ultimate in Christmas decorations) to St Thomas' Church (10) – it is less imposing and more intimate than the cathedral.
Lunch on the run
Secrets de Table (11) at 39 rue du 22 Novembre (00 33 3 88 21 09 10; secrets-de-table.fr ) is ideal for a quick and informal lunch (closed Sunday). The menu features home-made soup and tartines – thick slices of bread with savoury toppings such as salmon, spinach and walnuts or wild mushrooms. There's another branch across the road in Galeries Lafayette (12).
Not far away, the good-value menu at Mooze (13) at 1 rue de la Demi-Lune (00 33 3 88 22 68 46) focuses on sushi, sashimi and yakitori, and the atmosphere is trendy but welcoming.
Strasbourg's narrow shop-lined streets are perfect for Christmas shopping; rue des Orfèvres and Grand' Rue offer contrasting experiences. The in-store supermarket at Galeries Lafayette (12) sells quintessentially French treats such as Mariages Frères tea and Fauchon biscuits. It, along with the Printemps (14) department store, has spectacular Yuletide window displays.
Outside the cathedral (2), Maison Kammerzell's ornately carved wooden facade hides painted stone arches under which medieval merchants once sold their goods in much the same way. The square outside is a key location for a Christmas Market, as is Place Gutenberg (15) (for European crafts), Place Kléber (3) and Place Broglie (16). They provide rows of present-laden stalls.
Mulled wine is the tipple of choice in December, preferably sipped from a plastic tumbler under the Christmas tree on Place Kléber (3). Otherwise, big-name breweries and small brasseries co-exist happily in Alsace, so don't miss the opportunity to sample local beer, especially since several brands issue "Christmas beers". The Frères Berthom (17) at 18 rue des Tonneliers (00 33 3 88 32 81 18; lesfreresberthom.com ) has a wide range of beers. Les Trois Brasseurs (18) at 22 rue des Veaux (00 33 3 88 36 12 13) is open from 11am to 1am daily: busy, lively and full of atmosphere. The stylish Cafe de l'Opéra (00 33 3 88 22 98 51) on 19 Place Broglie (16) is a good place to start or finish an evening out, as are the converted barges lined up on Quai des Pêcheurs (19); the Illvino (00 33 6 19 39 19 33; illvino.com), nearest the Pont Royal (20), is the most stylish.
Dining with the locals
Alsatian cuisine, served with local beer, riesling or pinot noir, is both hearty and filling, but in the hands of a good chef it can be surprisingly refined. Le Clou (21) at 3 Rue du Chaudron (00 33 3 88 32 11 67; le-clou.com ) serves delicious local fare. The house speciality is ham shank marinated in pinot noir, but this is also the place to sample a heaving plate of choucroute, topped with sausages and ham.
Au Renard Prechant (22) at 34 Place de Zurich (00 33 3 88 35 62 87), housed in a 16th-century former chapel, is atmospheric and cosy – and specialises in mouth-watering game dishes.
Lighter but equally traditional cuisine is available at Flams (23) at 29 rue des Frères (00 33 3 88 36 36 90), where tarte flambée comes with a long selection of sweet and savoury toppings.
Sunday morning: go to church
Mass is read three times at the cathedral (2) each Sunday morning. The English-speaking St Albans Anglican community, which meets in the Dominican Church (24) at 41 boulevard de la Victoire, will be celebrating the Advent period throughout December at its 10.30am service; guests are welcome to stay for tea or coffee afterwards.
Almost all of Strasbourg's museums are worth a visit, but the Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art (25) at 1 Place Hans Jean Arp (00 33 3 88 23 31 31; musees-strasbourg.org ) stands out, for the building in which it is housed as much as for the artworks themselves.
The permanent collection includes works by Gauguin and Kandinsky. It opens 10am-6pm at weekends, noon-7pm Tuesday-Friday, and noon-9pm on Thursdays, admission €5 (£4.20). A temporary exhibition (until 15 February 2009), entitled "Arp is Art", focuses on the avant-garde artist after whom the square is named.
Out to brunch
The art café at the top of the Museum of Modern Art (25) is open from 10am on Sundays, and offers excellent views and cooking.
Take a ride
To take in the sights from water level, jump on a boat behind the Palais Rohan (26) – once a bishop's palace, now home to the Fine Arts Museum. One-hour boat trips around the city (00 33 3 88 84 13 13; batorama.fr ) cost €7.60 (£6.30) and pass by the Petite France area and the grandiose European Parliament building (27).
A walk in the park
The beautiful Orangerie park (8) in the north of the city is home to swans, storks and squirrels. It also houses a mini-zoo and children's play areas, but still has room for a lake, quiet paths and immaculate lawns. The Pavillon Josephine at its centre hosts frequently-changing exhibitions. Walk up the Quai de Rouget de Lisle, along the Ill river, then turn right towards the park.
Write a postcard
Pop into the Chamber of Commerce's vaults on Place Gutenberg (15) and select an old-style Alsatian postcard among the books, engravings and other literary-themed treats in an antique booksellers' fair. Open 10am-8pm at weekends, 1-7pm on other days (Fridays to 8pm).
The icing on the cake
Release your inner Torvill or Dean under the Cathedral's spire. The Christmas ice-rink on Place du Château is open 10am-8pm daily (to 9pm on Fridays and Saturdays). Entry is €3 (£2.50), including skate rental.