For centuries a pawn in Franco-German wars, Alsace's capital is a blend of Gemutlichkeit and ooh-la-la
One city, two countries and bistros galore
Last Updated: 12:01am BST 29/06/2007
Continuing our series on holidays without flying, Kathy Arnold takes the high-speed train to the cultural delights of Strasbourg.
Why go there
The record-breaking TGV service from Paris makes Strasbourg less than six hours away from London by train. Set on an island between the tree-lined arms of the River Ill, the old city is a photogenic gem, offset by the strikingly modern European Parliament.
The affluence of Eurocrats ensures smart shops; university students guarantee a youthful buzz. For centuries a pawn in Franco-German wars, Alsace's capital is a blend of Gemütlichkeit and ooh-la-la. Half-timbered buildings fly the French flag; wine taverns turn out to be bistros.
Rail Europe (0870 830 4862, www.raileurope.co.uk) sells returns from London Waterloo to Strasbourg from £89. The quickest route (about 5½ hours) involves taking Eurostar to Paris and transferring from Gare du Nord to Gare de l'Est (10-minute walk) for the new TGV.
When St Pancras International in London opens in November, the journey will be even faster - just in time for Strasbourg's popular Christmas market. A longer route, via Lille, takes about seven hours, but there's no need to change stations.
The Hôtel du Dragon (03 88 357980, www.dragon.fr; from £70) has contemporary sculptures and paintings throughout. In a belle époque mansion, the Regent Contades (03 88 150505, www.strasbourg.concorde-hotels.com; from £88) provides four-star comforts.
Budget travellers enjoy the Hotel Suisse, just steps from the cathedral (03 88 352211, www.hotel-suisse.com; from £60). Near the station, the business-oriented Monopole Métropole (03 88 143914, www.bw-monopole.com) offers attractive weekend rates; from £85.
All prices are for a double room, including breakfast. Always ask about special offers at weekends and in summer.
Strasbourg is small and walkable, but the cobbles demand comfortable shoes. As for green credentials, buses run on natural gas, trams are slick and efficient, and with 130,000 cyclists and 270 miles of cycle paths, this must be the cycling capital of France.
From the tourist office, hire an audio guide (£3.75) or buy Strolling in Strasbourg, an architectural guidebook (£3). Rest your feet on the bâteau-mouche river trip, the best way to see the institutions européennes.
What to see and do
With its 465ft tall spire, the pink-sandstone cathedral was once the world's tallest building. Inside, the astronomical clock whirrs into action at 12.30pm every day. Bag your place by 12.15pm to see the skeleton figure strike a bell, the apostles bow to Christ and a cockerel flap its wings.
Learn about the region's social history at the Musée Alsacien. Visit medieval churches: admire the frescoes in Saint-Pierre-le-Jeune, shared by Catholics and Protestants for 200 years; see the organ played by Mozart and Albert Schweitzer in St Thomas.
Then fast-forward 600 years to the glass-and-steel Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art, whose collection includes works by the local artist Jean Arp, founder of the Dada movement. Book for Sunday brunch on the museum's rooftop terrace.
Trawl streets such as rue des Orfèvres, rue du Dôme and rue des Juifs for fashion. Buy Gewürtztraminer and Pinot Gris in the 14th-century cellars beneath the city's hospital, where one barrel contains the world's oldest wine (1472).
Load up with foie gras at Jean Lutz (5 rue du Chaudron) and with chocolates at Thierry Mulhaupt (5 rue du Temple-Neuf). Mireille Oster (14 rue des Dentelles) is renowned for her pain d'épices (spice cake), while Arts et Collections d'Alsace (4 place du Marché aux Poissons) sells pottery, linens and more.
Where to eat and drink
The city is full of small restaurants. Splurge at Au Crocodile, where the six-course, £60 menu gourmand shows why the chef, Emile Jung, boasts two Michelin rosettes (10 rue de l'Outre, 03 88 321302).
Check out a fast-rising star at the minimalist Pont Aux Chats (42 rue de la Krutenau, 03 88 240877). For casual meals in wood-panelled cosiness, try a Winstub (pronounced vinn-stoob) such as Chez Yvonne (10 rue du Sanglier, 03 88 328415) or Le Clou (3 rue du Chaudron, 03 88 321167).
...to visit the picturesque Petite France district by day. Wait till evening, when the tourists have gone and postcard stands have been put away.
Check out the programme of top-class opera, ballet and concerts at the opera house (www.opera-national-du-rhin.com); listen to live jazz in the Au Verre à Soi wine bar (23 rue de l'Arc-en-Ciel, 03 88 363066); and rock on at clubs such as the Zanzibar (1 place St-Etienne, 03 88 366618).
Strasbourg Tourist Office, 17 place de la Cathédrale (03 88 522828, www.ot-strasbourg.com). The three-day Strasbourg Pass (£7.50) saves time and money on tickets and tours.
By taking the train to Strasbourg, rather than flying, you save 187kg of CO\u2082 emissions (based on figures provided by the CE Delft environmental consultancy).