When in Strasbourg, immerse yourself in the enchanting atmosphere of La Petite France, a picturesque neighbourhood that feels like an Alsatian village nestled in the heart of the city.
Strasbourg is located on the Franco-German border and is the capital of Alsace. It has a history that goes back more than 2000 years and has always been an important hub of trade. Its historic centre has been declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1988.
The most picturesque and famous part of the historic centre of the city lies on the western tip of La Grande Ile, the island encompassed by the River Ill and the Rhine and is the neighbourhood of La Petite France.
A neighbourhood of craftsmen
Against popular belief, it was not the French inhabitants that gave the quarter its name. It got it from the Hospice des Verolés, which was constructed to care for Charles VIII’s soldiers who had contracted syphilis during the Italian Campaign. Syphilis was then called the “French disease.”
Over the years, La Petite France flourished at the river’s banks. The region was home to tanners, millers, and fishermen who depended entirely on the river for their livelihoods during the Middle Ages. The 15th century saw the development of La Petite France as a neighbourhood famed for its industry.
The workshops of these craftsmen significantly polluted the river, and a strong, unpleasant smell emerged from the water. Something that definitely comes in complete contrast with the appearance of the neighbourhood today, with the flower-adorned windows of the houses, the colourful facades, and the picturesque banks of the river.
The houses around the main streets were built with the traditional architectural style we also find in the villages of Alsace. The Alsatian houses are highly recognisable by their pitched roofs, stepped gables and half-timbered facades. Most are painted white, but many also have vibrant and distinctive colours.
Explore the charming Maison des Tanneurs, a historic guildhall turned restaurant, and don’t miss the distinctive features of Rue du Bain-aux-Plantes. The houses on this road have large windows in the attic, giving them a special character. It is interesting that the original purpose of these openings was to help the tanners who lived in the houses dry their hides.
First line of defense
As you delve into the rich history of La Petite France, the architectural wonders unfold. The craftsmanship of tanners and millers seamlessly blends with the defensive structures, creating a tapestry of historical significance.
La Petite France was an important area for the fortification of the city and was actually its first line of defence. Strong walls have encompassed La Petite France since the Celtic era and new ramparts were built in the 13th century to block access to the river. These ramparts included three bridges, originally covered with wooden roofs, which supported five fortified towers. Afterwards, the bridges were replaced with the stone ones we see today, forming the Ponts Couverts (Covered Bridges). The bridges, along with their towers, are definitely the most recognisable image of Strasbourg.
Equally impressive is the Vauban Barrage, which is located a few metres from the bridges. It is a dam that was used as a 17th-century fortification that replaced the function of the three bridges. The dam blocked the water and forced the river to overflow its bed to flood the surrounding fields and turn them into impassable marshes.
In 1966, the city of Strasbourg created a panoramic terrace known as Terrasse Vauban on the rooftop of the dam. This terrace is the best point for unique panoramic photographs of La Petite France.
A village in the heart of Strasbourg
All the above compose a unique setting that manages to appeal to the visitor despite the thousands of tourists that flood its narrow streets. The visitor is automatically transported to the Alsace of previous centuries while walking just a few hundred metres from Place Kléber, or Place Gutenberg, where the commercial life of the city is bustling and modern shops challenge passers-by with their impressive windows.
This image of the unique neighbourhood becomes truly unforgettable in the month leading up to Christmas. It is the time when Christmas decorations and markets are everywhere in Strasbourg, and the houses of Le Petite France are certainly not missing from this celebration, with their facades becoming sparkling and colourful with hundreds of decorations and lights.
At the same time, La Petite France is the perfect place to indulge your taste buds in authentic Alsatian cuisine. For a true culinary experience, savour the flammekueche with its delicate layers or try the hearty Baeckeoffe, a slow-cooked delight.
But you must try Gugelhupf to leave Strasbourg, which you can find in the cafes and bakeries of La Petite France. It is a cake traditionally baked in a distinctive ring pan. There are three main types: cocoa, plain with a hint of vanilla and lemon zest, and a marbled combination of the two. However, Gugelhupf, according to the traditional Strasbourg recipe, in some cases, does not have the texture of cake but of fluffy bread, which is also made in a savoury version with sausage and onions.
In addition to being an Alsace village in the heart of Strasbourg, La Petite France is also the city’s Alsatian heart. The most authentic part of the city is the one that, as a strong foundation, gives rhythm to its modern life.
As you bid farewell to La Petite France, carry with you the flavours, history, and charm of this Alsatian gem. Visiting this unique neighbourhood is not just a stroll through picturesque streets but a journey back in time.
If you are looking for other cultural destinations, visit our website’s Art and Culture page.
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Antonis Tsapepas is co-founder of Voyagers Voice and founder of By Food and Travel, a website for people who want to travel and taste new things. Travelling is a way to escape, learn, discover unforgettable places, meet interesting people and try gastronomy from all over the world.