An ancient city of parks, waterways, museums and markets, Strasbourg is a hub of culture and politics at the cross-roads of Europe, writes Farhad Heydari
1 Notre Dame Cathedral
Built between 1015 and 1439, Strasbourg's dominant feature is its cathedral, whose lone, 142-metre pyramidal tower can be seen from Germany's Black Forest, 45km away. Between 1561 and 1568, the Gothic, roseate-sandstone bulding was the world's tallest . Today, it's France's second-most-visited church, drawing three million holidaymakers a year. From the top of its 330 spiral steps, visitors can see the Vosges. Inside, there's a stained-glass sphere on the West Facade and a 12- to 13th-century organ in the nave. The biggest curiosity is the 30-metre-high astronomical clock, whose rotating figurines date from the 16th century. (Place de la Cathedrale, tel: [33 3] 8821 4334).
2 Grande Ile by boat
Strasbourg derives its name from the German word strateburgum, meaning the city of the roads - a reference to its strategic location on the west bank of the Rhine. The best way to see the Alsatian capital is by river barge. Strasbourg Fluvial offers year-round, 70-minute excursions past the city's 13th-century fortifications, libraries, palatial residences and turreted stone bridges to the modern edifices of the European Parliament complex. (15 rue de Nantes, tel: [33 3] 8884 1313).
3 La Petite France
Situated on a lattice of canals at the southwestern edge of the Grande Ile, the Petite France medieval quarter was the tradesmen's neighbourhood during the Middle Ages. Centuries later, nearly all the eye-catching 16th-century cross-beamed buildings remain intact and the district is a World Heritage Site. The elfin neighbourhood, one of the most beautiful in France, is defined by water, with old wooden locks that still work, 13th-century brick guard towers, 16th-century ramparts and covered bridges. The most striking of all the structures is the Tanners' Hall that dates back to 1572. Like most buildings in the area, the hall, now a museum, has charmingly uneven rafters and overflowing geranium planters.
The best time to see Strasbourg is at Christmas, when the city celebrates the holidays unlike any other town in France, with a seasonal market in the German tradition. The first such market took place in 1570, when Strasbourg's Protestants ousted the 'extravagant' Catholics and replaced the St Nicholas market with the Christkindelsmarik, or Christ Child market. Stroll around the modern-day market's small stalls, popular outdoor ice-skating rink and poetry and Bible readings, and you can't miss its 30-metre-tall Christmas tree bedecked with glass-blown ornaments. Throughout Christmas, the city holds 50 concerts, and there's Midnight Mass at the cathedral on Christmas Eve. (www.noel-strasbourg.com).
5 Foie Gras
Invented by the Egyptians and perfected by the Goths and Franks of early medieval France, goose liver spread or pate de foie gras is produced by the force-feeding of geese three times a day. The Alsatian varieties of this delicacy are said to be more refined and tender than the Perigord alternatives, while Edouard Artzner is among its best-known local purveyors, hand-sorting and seasoning the enlarged livers with 15 secret spices. (7 rue de la Mesange, Tel: [33 3] 8832 0500; www.edouard-artzner.com).
6 Chateaux des Rohan
This opulent former prince- bishops' residence is Strasbourg's most comprehensive arts complex. On the ground floor, the Decorative Arts Museum takes you back to the days when Queen Marie Antoinette visited, with meticulously recreated rooms. The Fine Arts Museum features the works of French, Italian, Spanish, Dutch and Flemish masters such as Goya, El Greco, Raphael and Rubens in more than a dozen rooms. The Archaeological Museum in the basement has an impressive collection of artefacts from the Paleolithic period to 800AD. (2 place du Chateau, tel: [33 3] 8852 5000).
7 Route des Vins d'Alsace
France's smallest province, Alsace produces seven crisp white wine varietals and has three Appellations d'Origine Controlees. The most renowned type of whites from the region are: the Gewurztraminer, a robust full-bodied variety; the powerful, aromatic Tokay Pinot Gris; and the Rieslings, from Alsace's grands crus vineyards. There are 13 wine cellars near Strasbourg, the most comprehensive being the Cave des Hospices Civils de Strasbourg.
8 European Parliament
As one of the three European Union capitals, alongside Luxembourg and Brussels, Strasbourg has a sprawling district dedicated to the Eurocrats. But unlike Brussels, where the EU area is cut off from the city centre, in Strasbourg the Eurocrat district is part of the fabric of the city. Most days, Strasbourgeois mill about the perfectly manicured grounds of the European Parliament, the Sir Richard Rogers-designed European Court of Human Rights, the Council of Europe and the Palace of Human Rights, all near the picturesque River Ill. All buildings are open to the public, and visitors are encouraged, in the spirit of transparency, to sit in on debates or peruse public areas. With the inclusion of 10 new member states this year, Strasbourg is making room for more Eurocrat office space. (Rue Lucien Febvre, tel: [33 3] 8817 2007; www.europarl.eu.int).
9 Parc de l'Orangerie
Adjacent to the European Parliament, Orangerie Park is Strasbourg's oldest. It was designed in 1804 by French landscape architect Andre Le Notre in his trademark, symmetrical style. The stately park has waterfalls, rose gardens and tulip fields, lily ponds, a rowing lake, a small zoo and many meandering gravel trails that were used by the Empress Josephine. The park's popular stork farm is a homage to the white birds that have long been a feature of Alsatian folklore.
Strasbourg has gained a deserved reputation for hosting one of Europe's best markets. On Wednesdays and Saturdays, dozens of merchants set up stands early in the many leafy squares and passages throughout the Grande Ile. Among the best are the flea markets in the Place de l'Hopital, where you can find rare books and old posters; a flower market on Rue Gutenberg, and the farmers' market on Place du Marche aux Poissons, where fresh cheese and local honey are prized purchases.