Strasbourg cruise: Stunning city's beguiling blend of old and new

"Look out for the spire of the cathedral. You'll never get lost," says our guide, Irmi, as we pull up beside one of the 21 bridges that link the modern part of Strasbourg with Grande-Ile, the city's ancient core, which nestles on an island surrounded by the River Ill.

You can see what she means. Completed in AD1439, this cathedral, called Notre Dame like its Parisian counterpart, was once the world's tallest building. It was thanks to its Gothic spire, which soars 142 metres and remains both a magnet and a marker for pilgrims.

Battle way your through the crowds that flock to photograph the cathedral – described by Victor Hugo as "a gigantic and delicate marvel" and regarded by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe as a "sublimely towering, wide-spreading tree of God" – and there's comparative peace and quiet inside, with richly decorated altars, tapestries, stained-glass windows and pipe organs to admire and 332 spiral steps to climb to an observation deck with pretty, breezy panoramas over this, the capital of Alsace.

In clear weather you may also glimpse the Rhine, the river we're cruising this week on a luxury voyage between Amsterdam and Basel. In every port of call, as part of the all-inclusive package, guests are offered a choice of free shore excursions.

And when we're docked slightly out of town,  as in Strasbourg, complimentary shuttle coaches, with a greeter-guide, also provide transfers to the centre so you can do your own thing. I've plumped for this today, and having listened to Irmi's commentary – she reveals how Strasbourg, like much of Alsace, has passed several times between Germanic and Gallic rule (first becoming French in 1681 under "The Sun King", Louis XIV) – I spend one of those life-affirming mornings you have while travelling, when the sun's shining and you're lapping up a gorgeous new destination on foot.

Walking Grand-Ile's maze of cobbled lanes, passing what seems like hundreds of half-timbered medieval properties and neoclassical palaces and villas, and crossing scenic footbridges over the River Ill, a tributary of the Rhine dotted with swans and sightseeing vessels, I find myself pondering (as the cathedral bells toll in the distance): is there a more beautiful city in France?

While Paris gets most of the love, Strasbourg deserves to be showered with affection. In fairness, UNESCO awarded the Grande-Ile World Heritage status in 1988 (2000 years after the Romans founded a military outpost here), and whenever lists are compiled for Europe's best Christmas Markets, Strasbourg's usually feature.

Claimed to be the oldest of its type in France, these stalls do a roaring trade in festive treats like mulled wine and bredele (spiced biscuits). You suspect that, were it not for its relatively remote location, on the border with western Germany, a three-hour drive from Frankfurt, the closest major international airport, Strasbourg would be chockablock with visitors, year-round.

An upsurge in Rhine cruises has certainly brought more people here, but once you escape the throngs near the cathedral, this is a tranquil, tidy, orderly city, the kind of place made for casual strolls followed by refreshments and people-watching from boulangeries and bistros, cafes and winstubs (traditional Alsatian taverns) that spill out onto the cobbles.


Just watch, or listen, out for the cyclists (pedalling is popular in a city with 50,000 students, plus 280,000 residents).

Strasbourg is full of charming areas, but the neighbourhood of Petit France, south-west of Grand-Ile, is especially cute. Once home to butchers, millers, tanners and fishermen, it's now a prim enclave of terraced restaurants, classy boutiques and blooming flowerbeds.

Also on the doorstep – and good for when you fancy escaping the Middle Ages aura – the Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art is a free-to-enter attraction with funky 21st century murals and paintings, sculptures and installations from artists like Claude Monet, Pablo Picasso and Gustave Dore.

If you have time – and our ship, Crystal Bach, is in port until 11pm – hop on a slick tram (look out for the blue-and-yellow ones emblazoned with the stars of the European Union) and hit Strasbourg's out-of-town European District, where loom shiny landmarks like the European Parliament and Court of Human Rights.

After being tussled over for centuries – the armies of Napoleon, von Bismarck and Hitler all occupied the city – Strasbourg is now seen as a symbol of peace and unity. And last year the tramway was extended to Kehl, the German city on the other side of the Rhine. As Irmi mentioned earlier: "They used to destroy bridges here. Now they build them."




Strasbourg is a port of call on several of Crystal's Rhine cruises, which travel between Basel, Frankfurt and Amsterdam over seven, 10 and 14 days, priced from $US$3490. See

Steve McKenna was a guest of Crystal River Cruises.