48 hours in: Strasbourg
This most European of French cities is in its full summer stride, with cultural|festivities, parks in bloom and boat trips to tempt visitors.
Why go now?
Although it can feel like a small town, Strasbourg is France's seventh-largest city, and its role as the home of the Council of Europe gives it a cosmopolitan air with plenty of cultural assets. The city hosts the annual Jazz Festival (festival-strasbourg.com), which has just ended, and weekends throughout the summer are devoted to festivities involving food (until tomorrow) and street theatre (August 12-15).
Despite its international credentials, Strasbourg has no flights from the UK. Basel — an airport that straddles France and Switzerland and is a stone's throw from Germany — is a good alternative. British Airways (0844 493 0787; ba.com) and Swiss (0845 601 0956; swiss.com) fly from Heathrow; BMI (0844 8484 888; flybmi.com) flies from Heathrow and Manchester; and easyJet (0905 821 0905; easyjet.com) flies from Edinburgh and Gatwick.
On arrival at Basel airport, take the exit marked ‘France’. For €1, a shuttle bus will take you to St-Louis train station, from where there is a regular rail service to Strasbourg (€40.40 return).
Get your bearings
The pink sandstone cathedral dominates central Strasbourg, a largely pedestrianised area roughly oval in shape, which is known as the Grande-Ile. This is enclosed by the Ill river, which connects in turn to the Rhine, some three miles from the cathedral. At the south-western edge of the old city is Petite France, a district once colonised by millers and tanners, who set up their workshops on the fingers of land that reach into the river.
North-east of the old city, on the far side of the Ill, is the German district, built between the two World Wars when Alsace was annexed to Germany. Beyond is the European quarter, home to several illustrious institutions.
The Tourist Office is located on the cathedral square (9am-7pm daily). On sale here for €13.40 is the Strasbourg Pass, a book of tickets valid for three days that grants free access to attractions including a museum and a boat tour, and half-price entry to others. Further around the square, on the corner of rue Mercière, is the Boutique Culture (4), (open 12-7pm; Tues-Sat) which dispenses tickets and information on all manner of local events.
The main public transport is the excellent tram network, whose hub is at Homme de Fer. Buy a €1.40 ticket at any stop, and validate it onboard.
The four-star Cour du Corbeau at 6-8 rue des Couples (00 33 3 88 37 10 10; cour-corbeau.com) is a recently refurbished 16th-century building constructed around an exquisite courtyard. Doubles from €273, room only. Hôtel du Dragon at rue de l'Ecarlate 2 (00 33 3 88 35 79 80; dragon.fr) is located between the old city and Petite France and was patronised by Louis XIV when he visited the city. Doubles from €91, room only. Hôtel Suisse is tucked behind the cathedral at 2-4 rue de la Rape (00 33 3 88 35 22 11; hotel-suisse.com) and has a pretty terrace. Room only from €78.50.
Take a view
Begin with a view of Strasbourg's spiritual and masonry heart, the cathedral — notable for the ornately carved west façade and single spire (the foundations, built on the base of an old Roman church, were unable to support a second).
You can visit the interior any day, 7-11.15am and 12.45-7pm. The astronomical clock in the south transept, with its moving statues, is rich with images symbolising the passage of time. The Gothic rose window is one of the largest in France; a modern stained-glass window, donated by the Council of Europe, depicts the stars of the European Union in the halo around the Virgin's head.
Then climb the 329 steps (9am-7.15pm daily, €5) to the top of the tower, from where there is an impressive panorama over the city and beyond to the Vosges mountains and Germany's Black Forest.
Take a hike
Start in front of the cathedral. Head down rue Mercière, with its half-timbered houses and varied façades, and turn into Place Gutenberg . The elaborate Renaissance building dominating the square is the Chamber of Commerce; in front is a statue of Johannes Gutenberg, the 15th-century inventor of the printing press, who lived in the city.
Continuing along the rue des Serruriers, you pass the city's main Protestant church, St Thomas — built, like the cathedral, in the local pink sandstone. Just beyond is the beginning of Petite France, a charming district characterised by bridges, locks and half-timbered houses. Look out for Mireille Oster's Pain d'Epices, a small gingerbread shop on the left-hand side of rue des Dentelles.
At the heart of Petite France is Place Benjamin Zix, dominated by the striking Maison des Tanneurs — a tannery for nearly 400 years before it became a restaurant. Animal skins were washed, then hung up to dry on the roofs and balconies of the houses around the square.
Continue down the road to the quayside. To the left is the first of Strasbourg's so-called covered bridges: the wooden roofs, added to protect supplies of gunpowder, disappeared during the 17th century. Walk beside the river along quai Turckheim, and turn right into the Grand' Rue, a shopping street lined with 16th- and 17th-century houses. Turn left and head up the rue des Grandes Arcades to place Kléber, the city's main square.
Lunch on the run
The Brasserie de l'Aubette on place Kléber is a popular spot for lunch. Quiches and salads are available from €8.50. If you prefer a picnic, the farmers’ market, open until 1pm every Saturday in the place du Marché aux Poissons, is a good source of local meats, cheeses and bread.
Rue Mésange is lined with luxury boutiques such as Hermès, which contrast with the popular chain stores along rue des Grandes Arcades.
Choose from more than 300 different champagnes in the champagne bar in the Hôtel Régent Petite France at 5 rue des Moulins, and enjoy a view of the water as you sip. More modestly priced, but just as scenic, are the bars along quai de la Bruche, beside the covered bridges: among the best is the Bar au Fantassin.
Dining with the locals
The house speciality at La Corde à Linge, at place Benjamin Zix in Petite France (00 33 3 88 22 15 17), is an Alsatian form of pasta
called spätzle, served with a choice of sauces. For a French alternative, head for the place du Marché Gayot, a lively square lined with restaurants; Le Cornichon Masqué (00 33 3 88 25 11 34) at number 17 has a good selection of steaks and other classics from €17.50.
Sunday morning: go to church
St Pierre-le-Jeune was founded in the 11th century. It became a Protestant church in 1524. Then in 1682 a dividing wall was built, cutting off the choir from the rest of the church, allowing the Catholic community to worship there again, too. This was removed in 1898 when the church once again reverted to Protestantism. Major renovations revealed the Gothic rood screen and some frescos, including one that depicts the nations of Europe marching on horseback towards the cross.
Out to brunch
The Art Café attached to the Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art at Place Hans Jean Arp offers a copious brunch of eggs, smoked salmon and ham, bacon, sausages, fruit salad and pastries for €22. In summer this is served on the terrace, from where there are captivating views over the city.
The contents of the Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art are as appealing as the view — a permanent collection of works from the Impressionists onwards, a room devoted to local artist Gustave Dore, and a temporary exhibition showing the art and installations of Franck Scurti. It opens 10am-6pm at weekends, noon-6pm Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday, and noon-9pm on Thursdays; €7.
Back in the Old Town is Le Palais Rohan, built for the Prince-Bishops and now containing several museums. Inside, the Museum of Decorative Arts (open 10am-6pm at weekends, noon-6pm on Mondays and Wednesday-Friday; €6) are the sumptuously decorated private apartments of the bishops.
Next to Le Palais Rohan and the cathedral, the Musée de l’Oeuvre de Nôtre-Dame (10am-6pm at weekends, noon-6pm Tuesday-Friday; €6) contains a collection of medieval and Renaissance art.
The city is celebrating the 80th birthday of its leading artist, renowned illustrator, Tomi Ungerer. You can see a retrospective of his children's books at the Tomi Ungerer Museum at Avenue de la Marseillaise, until August 7.
A walk in the park
The Parc de l'Orangerie is an extensive green space that connects the European quarter with the German district. With its lake, trees, paths and flowerbeds, it is a delightful spot for walking and picnicking. Attractions also include a café, a children's play area and a small zoo.
Take a ride
For an alternative perspective of Strasbourg, take a one-hour cruise on the river Ill, starting from the landing stage on the quai aux Sables and sailing clockwise around the city centre. There is also a short detour up to the European quarter, whose buildings include Richard Rogers' stainless-steel European Court of Human Rights. Batorama (00 33 3 88 84 13 13; batorama.fr) boats depart every half-hour from 9.30am-9pm, €9.