After learning French for a few years, I knew that I had to go to France, if I wanted to really improve my language skills. But I didn’t want to go to the bigger cities that had more English speakers, so I looked up language schools in France and stumbled onto Strasbourg. After looking at a few pictures, I knew that’s where I wanted to go. So here’s some info from both studying there, as well as visiting it a few times since then.
Quick Overview of Strasbourg
Location: Western Europe, Strasbourg shares a border with Germany.
Language: French, and while enough people speak English, this is a country that if you speak even 2-3 words of French, the locals will really appreciate your effort. And depending on what part you’re visiting, you may hear a lot more of their neighboring country’s language, such as in Strasbourg, you’re likely to hear some German in the tourist areas.
Population in Strasbourg: 491,000.
Money: the Euro.
Transportation: Buses, and trams within Strasbourg, trains getting to/from there, as well as an airport in Strasbourg.
Religion: Protestant, but Catholicism, Judaism, and Muslim are also present. Due to Strasbourg’s history with Protestant Germany, the Alsace region enjoys a few more public holidays than the rest of Catholic France.
National Holiday: July 14 (1789), called Bastille Day, and it is seen as a turning point, from the major economic crisis caused by Louis XVI.
Safety: Strasbourg is very safe, and while the public transportation mostly stops around 0:30, most of the streets are well-lit, easy to walk around, and due to a big number of university students there, you’re rarely alone at night.
Fun Facts: Strasbourg is one of three locations that has the European Parliament, as well as many other European institutions are also located there. The University of Strasbourg is the second largest in France. Notable people who lived a few years in Strasbourg are Johannes Gutenberg, John Calvin, Goethe, and Louis Pasteur. Strasbourg has changed hands between the French and Germans a few times, which adds to the architecture, the food and even a few of the local words.
History: In general, France has quite the mixture of historical leaders, due to its location. Julius Caesar made it a part of the Holy Roman Empire, then Charlemagne made it French. The Hundred Years War was to prevent England from taking the throne, and during this time, Joan of Arc made a name for herself, helping to fight for French independence. In the late 1800’s, Napoleon made his mark in history. That gave France a lot of pride and power, not just in Europe, but in North Africa, South America and even some islands around the world, that to this day, still speak French.
Getting To Strasbourg: While Strasbourg does have an airport, it mainly connects to other French cities, as well as a few neighboring countries. An easier option is to fly into Paris or Frankfurt, and take a 2-hour train to Strasbourg, directly from the airport. The train will bring you to the central station, and from there, you can either walk to your Airbnb or hotel, or take the tram or bus to the city center. Those will both take about 5-15 minutes, depending on where you’re staying. There are ticket machines in front of all tram stops, and cost €2 for a one-way, one-use ticket, or you can do the very cost-effective 24-hour ticket for €4.50.
Walking Around: Strasbourg isn’t a big city like Paris or Lyon, so it’s very easy to walk almost everywhere. It also isn’t hilly, so you won’t be out of breath trying to get to your next destination. For the most part, you won’t encounter the cobblestone streets that are in other European cities. In some places, such as the touristy Petite France area, you will find stone walkways, but they are flat and even, so it’s easy for baby strollers or older people to walk around there. TIP: As with most of France, almost everything is closed on Sundays, so make sure to do all of your shopping on Saturday or wait till Monday, as only a few restaurants and souvenir shops are open in the touristic areas.
Things To See/Do In Strasbourg
One-Spired Cathedral: One of the most noticeable things that makes Strasbourg a little different, is that its Cathedral has only one-spire on its roof, instead of two or more, like most churches. But despite that, it held the title as the world’s tallest building for 227 years (1647-1874), standing at 142 meters (466 feet). You can pay €3 and climb the 330 steps to the top of the spire, and have an excellent view of Strasbourg. On a clear day, you can even see to the Vosges Mountains, and to the Black Forest in nearby Germany. TIP: It’s free to climb the steps on the first Sunday of the month, but leave big backpacks at home when visiting the Cathedral.
Have A Drink Or An Appetizer On A Boat: Because of the water flowing through a lot of Strasbourg, they’ve made the most of that, and turned a few big boats into restaurants, bars and even a club. If you don’t want to actually sit on the boats though, they also have sidewalk seating, which is quite popular in nicer weather.
A Must-See In Strasbourg: If you’re wanting to see a part of Strasbourg that is filled with charm and history, definitely head to the Petite France area. It used to be the area for tanners, fisherman, etc, but now it is a thriving tourist area, and is even a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
See Where Some European Policies Are Made: Something that’s unexpected in smaller Strasbourg, is that they are home to one of the European Parliaments. Strasbourg was chosen because of its ideal location in Europe, and it now houses many people that work in similar fields. TIP: you’re allowed to visit the Parliament year-round, for free, and they offer audio-guides in 24 languages. A reservation isn’t necessary, but do make sure and bring a valid ID.
Summer: One of the things that is really fun to see, is a light show each night on the Cathedral, in July-September. It’s a free show, and changes each year, but always has music and tells a story of some kind with the lights. There are 3-4 shows each night, all lasting 15 minutes.
Late Fall: Being a history lover, I was glad to experience this reenactment of Allied troops freeing Strasbourg, during World War II. They walk through different parts of the town, and you can see old American army Jeeps, men wearing clothes and carrying guns from that time, and still feel the sense of pride and excitement, when the men walk through. They end at Place Broglie, and you can take pictures with Jeeps, tanks, and even people dressed in old Asatian (regional) clothing.
Winter: No Christmas season is complete without visiting the oldest Christmas market in France. Since 1570, they offer a place for people to walk around, buy little Christmas presents, and of course enjoy some hot food and mulled wine. They like to brag that they have a taller tree than the one in New York City, but in addition to that, the ambiance is relaxing, inviting and full of charm. Even for those of us that are a Grinch when it comes to Christmas, it’s hard to remain that way here.
Colmar: If you’re able to spare a few hours, take the 30-minute train ride south to Colmar. It isn’t as big as Strasbourg, but it still has a lot of charm, its own Christmas Market, and in the off-season, it can be less touristic than Strasbourg.