Having just explored the Burgundy and southern Alsace regions, and some of the small wine villages along the Route du Vin, Strasbourg was a bit of a culture shock. With a population of 276,000, Strasbourg is large, and urban, and crowded. The streets are full with residents, students, tourists, and surprisingly, a lot of rough looking street people. I initially felt a bit intimidated, especially by the very crowded streets, but I did eventually adjust and found that the city was full of interesting architecture, public spaces, museums, cafes, restaurants, theaters, and pleasant places to walk, especially along the riverfront.
Pretty much all of the main sights are in the old city center which is a large oval shaped island encircled by the Ill River, a very walk-able area approximately ½ mile by ¾ mile in size. Many fine buildings line the streets in styles that include the Medieval through Baroque periods. Along portions of the riverfront are areas of cobblestone passages lined with shade trees and the characteristic half-timbered houses and structures all of which give an atmosphere of days long past. A series of pedestrian-only streets wind through the city center linking the major sights.
Directly in the center is Place Kleber, the main town square, lined with a pleasant mix of shops, cafes and restaurants. A short distance to the south is the smaller Place Gutenberg with a rather spooky looking statue of Gutenberg who, of course, we know for the invention of the printing press, and a fun two level carousel. Just a few steps away from this is the magnificent Cathedral Notre Dame, which dominates the entire city with its 465 foot (142 m) high spire. The original plan was for two spires to complete the symmetry of the front façade, but only one was constructed, leaving the entire form looking very awkward and unfinished. The Cathedral is constructed of a reddish sandstone in very lace-like patterns, giving it a feeling of delicate lightness. This lightness of form is very apparent in the construction of the huge spire which contains 8 open staircases (unfortunately not accessible to the public). At the ground, the front façade has three super-human scaled arched portals that are lined with floating saints at the arches and a series of statues of virgins and vices and virtues along the side jambs—talk about drama! Above the portals is a giant rose window. The Cathedral interior is blessed with colorful and brilliant stained glass windows, most of which are original, which give the space a pleasant ethereal glow. A major tourist attraction of the Cathedral interior is a large multi-level astronomical clock with automated figures of saints, cherubs, and angels. My favorite is the mechanical rooster at the top if the clock who graces the viewers by flapping his wings and a convincingly realistic cock-a-doodle-doo.
My favorite area of the old town is the “Petite France” which was formerly a leather tanners quarter. Located next to the River and characterized by shade trees, cobblestone passageways, medieval half timber structures, and a series of canals, it is a fun area to explore and a good place to dine; I found it best to visit in the evening when the crowds of tourists had dissipated a bit.