Last Updated On: August 13th 2015
I visited Rouen previously, a few years ago. I was so impressed with the history, gothic architecture, markets, restaurants, and old buildings combined with modern urbanisation that I almost wanted to keep it to myself. However, I returned for a weekend in early May, to remind myself why it had left such an indelible imprint on my mind and to share it with you, the readers of Travel Gluttons. When I returned I was glad to find most of the city remained the same. After more exploring I found a lot of things I missed the first time. So it’s time to brush off the school French books, remember some of those conversational phrases, and head to Rouen. I guarantee you will not be disappointed and will wish you had planned a longer visit.
Rouen is famous for it’s association with Joan of Arc, who was dramatically burned alive in the Place De Vieux Marche in 1431. Today a memorial to her stands in the very place she perished at the young age of 19; her ashes were scattered in the Seine. As you wander around the streets adorned with Gothic architecture, cathedral upon cathedral, stunning law courts, and the River Seine which runs along the bottom edge of the city, you get an impressive sense of history. Rouen was razed to the ground during the Second World War yet, despite all the dramatic events that have taken place here over the centuries, the city still provides an outstanding panorama of architectural and artistic styles. The famous painter, Claude Monet, was inspired by this city and made several paintings of the Notre Dame cathedral, which is what makes it so famous, although there are many others.
Today you can enjoy historic architecture, so many museums you will be spoilt for choice and markets and bustling pavement cafes where the clientele rotate around the city to catch the rays of sunshine that penetrate this wonderful city. These vibrant meeting places transform themselves into tranquil places at night where one can absorb the presence and feeling of the dominant cathedrals.
Situated on the northwest tip of France, Rouen is close to the channel which means that it stays cooler than some other parts of France. The best time to visit is June, July, and August, although this is also the busy tourist season. If you prefer a quieter time, then try the winter months when significantly less tourists make exploring this historic city easier. The winters are milder here than other parts of Europe making it a pleasant place to visit almost any time of year.
If arriving by air then Paris is the nearest major airport city, you can reach Rouen by train in an hour from Paris airport. If you are arriving from the United Kingdom, take a cross channel ferry from Portsmouth to Le Havre. A one hour drive north on the A29 and then East on the A150 will take you to Rouen. Other European cities that are also within easy reach of Rouen are Brussels, Antwerp, and Lille. There is plenty of underground parking all over the city, expect to pay 14 Euros (EUR)/day.
In Rouen it’s not a question of what to see but, more how to see it all in the time available.
I would recommend starting at the Cathedral De Notre Dame which dates back to A.D. 393. An impressive example of Gothic architecture, a cathedral that hosted many coronations over the centuries, but today is an impressive example of preserved history.
There are several other outstanding cathedrals in Rouen. For example, the Church of St Maclou which rises just behind the Notre Dame Cathedral and the Abbey Church of Saint Ouen, situated on Place du General de Gaule. Named after a one of Rouen’s most aspiring bishops from the 7th Century, this benedictine abbey functioned for almost 1,000 years until the Revolution put an end to its importance. Situated directly behind the Abbey Church is the Hotel De Ville (town hall) with beautifully manicured gardens, a perfect place with tranquil surroundings and only the song of birds as company. The Church of Sainte-Jeanne d’Arc (Church of St Joan of Arc) stands on the site of a previous church which was destroyed in the second world war. The stained glass windows from the original church were used in the construction of Church of Sainte-Jeanne d’Arc. The churches of Saint Patrice, Saint Goddard and Saint Nicaise are also worthy of a visit.
When you have had your fill of cathedrals and churches there are many other things to occupy your time in Rouen. The Tour De Jeanne d’Arc (Tower of Joan of Arc) where she was imprisoned during her trial, is now a museum. A ceramic museum is situated just below the tower and Square Verdrel is where you will find the museum of fine art, displaying the works of Monet, Renoir, Sisley, and Degas. Once you have wondered in awe at the fine art, the peaceful and shady gardens of Square Verdrel provide a quiet and cool resting place after all the sightseeing. Other Museums worth a visit are Musee des Antiquities (Antique Museum) housed in a former monastery, Musee Flaubert et d’Histoire de la Medecine (Flaubert Museum and History of Medecine), and Musem D’Histoire Naturelle (Natural History Museum), which was founded by a naturalist and zoologist. Scientific and educational themes are the main focus of this last museum, which also contains several extinct species.
After you have exhausted yourself with museums head back down towards the centre of Rouen (in the direction of the Seine) and you will come across Palais du Justice (Law Courts) which will literally take your breath away. It is one of the finest, most important expressions of civil architecture of the Middle Ages in France.
The Rue Gros Horloges is the main, busy and vibrant shopping street, and will keep you occupied for some time, providing ample opportunity to pick up some souvenirs or check out the boutiques enticing you with chic French fashion and shoes that you just can’t leave in the shop. Spanning the end of the street mounted on a lowered arch is the Gros Horloge (Big Clock), is a Renaissance pavilion. Above the dial show the phases of the moon and the passover lamb in the centre of the arch symbolises the arms of the city. Inside you can see the 14th century mechanism and enjoy a unique view of the city.
History, art, and architecture having been the highlight of the trip so far, take a breather and head towards the Seine for some fresh air. Wide boulevards along the Seine provide the perfect place for a refreshing walk, or you may like to sit a while, do a spot of people watching, or a cruise on the Seine, looking at the city from a different perspective. Towards the right end of the docks you will find the Panorama XXL. This amazing work of art is the largest panorama in the world (31 metres high) and unique in France, by German artist Yadegar Asisi. The panoramas created by this artist combine painting, drawings, and photographs – you will be hypnotised by the result. At the time of my visit the exhibition was Rome A.D. 312. Future exhibitions include Amazonia (September 2015), a dive into the heart of the amazon Jungle and Gothic Rouen (May 2016), a representation of Rouen at the time of Joan of Arc.
Eat and Drink
Cuisine in France is not done only to provide a satisfying meal as part of a daily routine but rather a labour of love. In Normandy there is certainly no exception to the rule. So what do you eat and drink whilst visiting Rouen? The Normandy region of France is famed for it’s Cidré (Cider) and Calvados (Apple Brandy). Eat; Steak Haché (minced steak), Galettes (savoury buckwheat pancakes), escargot (snails), or grenouilles (frog’s legs), if you are feeling adventurous. Camembert (a soft, strongly flavoured cheese) is also a speciality of the region but think twice before taking some home with you – it has a very pungent aroma!
The french normally eat their main meal at lunchtime, taking a couple of hours over it, relaxing with friends and savouring the flavours and tastes of the region. There are two main areas to eat in Rouen – the Place de Vieux Marché or Place Barthelemy. Both have an abundance of restaurants offering local cuisine. When the weather allows pavement tables, adorned with thick white linen tablecloths and shiny silver cutlery, entice you in.
At Place De Vieux Marche try; Le Rivé Droite, Les Maraicheurs, and Le Maupassant, all situated on the place Vieux Marché. Or Head to Place Barthelemy, where La Vouté Musical does a very good steak haché – I had mine with camembert and it was delicious – galettes, local ciders, and a good selection of vin rouge (red wine), Côtes De Rhone is always a good choice. Around Place Barthelemy try Restaurant Des Beaux Artes, L’Etoile D’Or, you will also find several traditional creperie’s.
I opted to eat breakfast out of the hotel as the smell of freshly baked croissants wafted through the air. Salon de Thé is worth trying, located right beside the Church St Maclou. You can enjoy giant, warm, fluffy croissants and coffee whilst listening to the saxophone player busking outside, a perfect start to the day.
Looking for accommodation in Rouen is not difficult, accommodations range from boutique style to main stream chain hotels, all mostly located in the centre.
I stayed in La Hotel De Cathedrale, and, as the name suggests it’s surround by cathedrals. Notre Dame a few yards to the right, Church of St Maclou a few yards to the left. A beautiful boutique style hotel, with an inner walled garden, flourishing with acer trees and fragrant azalea’s.
Here are additional options for where to stay in Rouen.
Wherever you choose to stay in Rouen you can be certain of two things, you are never far away from a stunning building, gothic cathedral, or bustling market and you will fall asleep after a hard day of sightseeing to the sound of chiming bells.
Travel Tips and Local Blogs
There are a plethora of websites and information about Rouen. Some to check out are:
Official Tourist Information, housed in a stunning building opposite the Cathedrale De Notre Dame. Staff are very friendly and helpful.
Look out for the racks of pushbikes that can be found around the city named, Cy’clic. You can hire bikes to take you around the city, anything from one hour to one week. The first half hour is free and with 21 bike stations and 250 bikes available, what are you waiting for?
The Michelin Guide has a lot of information including some videos on ideas of day’s out.
Have a look at this local Blog for an insiders view on Rouen.