The home of colourful medieval villages, German-influenced cuisine, and the cellar doors of Champagne vineyards, Grand Est is one of France’s most diverse and alluring regions. Occupying the north east corner of France, Grand Est borders Germany, Belgium, Switzerland and Luxembourg, creating a historic crossroads region that fuses Germanic and Romantic European cultures. It is made up of the previous regions of Alsace, Champagne-Ardenne and Lorraine.
Centred around its charming historic capital Strasbourg, this is also the home of the Ardennes forest, hot air balloon spectacles, amazing mountaintop castles, and the site of one of the 20th century’s biggest and most tragic battles. Germanic architecture is easy to find, as are Germanic dishes like choucroute (sauerkraut) and Kouglof cake.
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Cities in Grand Est
The cities of Grand Est are known for their gorgeous medieval old towns of half-timbered houses, and magnificent gothic cathedrals. With around 5.5 million inhabitants, Grand Est is the 6th most populated region of France, and the 5th largest.
The largest city and prefecture of the Grand Est region is Strasbourg, a city of beautiful canals, medieval architecture, Gothic cathedral masterpieces and cobblestone alleys. Located on the Rhine and Ill rivers, the city has a long and interesting history at the crossroads between Latin and Germanic Europe, with a proud Alsatian culture and heritage. It is also an important administrative centre for European and international institutions, being the official seat of the European Parliament, the EU European Ombudsman, and the Eurocorps (just to name a few).
Strasbourg’s charming streets are filled with reminders of the city’s long history. Standing high above the city with its distinctive red stone colour, le Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Strasbourg is one of the finest Gothic cathedrals in the country. Completed in 1439, the monumental single-towered cathedral was the world’s tallest building for 227 years, and is visible all throughout the low plains of Alsace. The cathedral is part of a greater UNESCO World heritage site, la Grande-Île and Neustadt, an ensemble of urban areas in Strasbourg.
La Grande-Île is an island in the Ill river, with beautiful historic buildings such as the Kammerzell House, the charming half-timbered houses of the Petite France area, and Place Kléber. Neustadt is the German quarter built during the Reichsland period, with grand tree-lined boulevards and majestic, orderly buildings designed to bring modernity and prestige to the city. Notable sights include the Palais du Rhin, originally built as an imperial palace; and the National University Library.
Of course, there’s much more to discover in Strasbourg, such as its famous Christmas markets, the Barrage Vauban and the Ponts Couverts defensive bridges, and the serene green park le Parc de l’Orangerie.
Situated right near the border to Germany, Luxembourg and Belgium is Metz, a city known for its spectacular Gothic cathedral, historic German Imperial Quarter, and beautiful tree-lined river. Many of the older buildings have a distinctive yellow colour, from the pierre jaune rock found in the area.
The most celebrated building in Metz is the Cathédrale Saint Étienne de Metz (Metz Cathedral), a masterpiece of Gothic style. Completed in 1550, it has 6,496 square metres (69,920 sq ft) of stained glass windows, the most of any cathedral in the world, earning it the nickname la Lanterne du Bon Dieu (the Good Lord’s lantern). Metz is also home to one of the oldest churches in Europe, the Basilica of Saint-Pierre-aux-Nonnains, built in 380CE. Another historic gem is the Porte des Allemands, a 13th century medieval castle bridge.
In 1870, Alsace-Lorraine was annexed by Germany following France’s defeat in the Franco-Prussian War. In Metz, the Germans built the Quartier Impérial between 1902 to 1914, which still stands today as a charming neighbourhood of Wilhelmian architecture with art deco fused together with Romanesque revival styles. Metz’s newest attraction is the wonderful Centre Pompidou-Metz, modern art museum, a branch of Centre Pompidou in Paris.
When it comes to the most beautiful cities in France, Colmar is often high on the list, with its colourful half-timbered houses, vibrant flower beds, and lazy mirrored canals. Indeed, Colmar Old Town looks exactly like Belle’s village in Disney’s Beauty and the Beast.
In the Old Town, you can find the Unterlinden Museum, which houses fine art and historic treasures. The Maison des Têtes is a striking historic house from 1609, remarkable for its 111 carved wooden faces that decorate its façade. And one of the old town’s most beautiful old buildings is the Maison de Pfister, a colourful house from 1537 with magnificent wooden balustrades and a pointed external tower.
There are many more wonderful sights; Rue Mercière, Chez Hanzi, the Zum Kragen House, the Old Customs House. Wandering around Colmar and enjoying the Little Venice district is one of the best experiences in the Grand Est region.
Reims has a special place in history for the Kings of France. Beginning with Louis the Pious in 816CE, Reims Cathedral has been the site of 34 coronations for over a thousand years until Charles X in 1825. Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Reims has had several incarnations, beginning as a 5th century Merovingian church, rebuilt in the 9th century in Carolingian style, before building the current Gothic cathedral, beginning in 1211 and opened in 1275. The UNESCO listed cathedral is a masterpiece of the High Gothic style, and is also known for its astronomical clock, rose window, and Gothic organ.
The cathedral shares it’s UNESCO listing with two other buildings. The Palace of Tau, former palace of the Archbishop of Reims, and royal residence during coronations. Reims has many more historical sites, such as the 11th century abbey church Basilique St-Rémi, one of the largest Romanesque churches in France. All sites are open to visitors.
There is another very good reason to visit Reims – Champagne. Indeed, Reims has a second UNESCO World heritage site, as part of the Champagne Hillsides, Houses and Cellars. The site spans the greater Champagne region, with Reims being the largest city and one of the best home bases for visitors. The Crayères of Saint Nicaise Hill in Reims is a series of tunnels and pits dug into the chalk under the city in the 3rd century, with humidity and temperature perfect for the ageing of champagne.
If you love wandering through gorgeous medieval alleyways, admiring leaning timber houses, cute cafes and cobblestone streets, Troyes is the place to visit! With bigger and more famous cities nearby, Troyes is somewhat of a hidden gem. Pronounced like the French word for three (trois), the city is the historic capital of the Champagne region. The half timbered houses were built after a devastating fire in 1524 that claimed many of the houses, and are painted in amazing colours.
Some of the best sights in the old town are le Tour de l’Orfevre (the Goldsmith’s Tower), an ornate 16th century round tower added to a house by a goldsmith that needed more space; La Ruelle des Chats, an alleyway named for the houses that lean so close that cats could jump from house to house; and the fantastically charming Cour du Mortier d’Or, a timbered courtyard around a public well.
Troyes has several notable cathedrals and churches for architecture lovers, such as the single-towered Cathédrale Saint-Pierre Saint-Paul, and the stunning Gothic Basilique Saint-Urbain de Troyes. And, don’t forget le Canal du Trévois, a short section of picturesque canal in the city.
The largest city in the Lorraine region is Nancy, a beautiful historic city on the Meurthe River. It is known for its grandiose UNESCO sight, Place Stanislas, a collection of three royal squares with exaltant golden gates, ornate fountains, and elegant façades. Commissioned by Stanislas Leszczynski, the King of Poland, Duke of Lorraine, and father-in-law to King Louis IX, the squares are a great example of modern urban planning of a European leader, giving the people access to ostentatious public buildings.
Nancy was an important city in the floral-inspired Art Nouveau movement. The École de Nancy was formed in 1901 by an influx of artists from German-occupied Lorraine. Today, Art Nouveau can be found in the city’s architecture, such as the Villa Majorelle, Saurupt Park (which also has Art Deco styles to contrast), rue Félix Faure, and the metal facade of the Genin-Louis building.
For more historic sights, Nancy is home to the marvellous 15th century Palais Ducal du Nancy (Palace of the Dukes of Lorraine), which has since been converted into the Musée Lorrain art museum. The imposing round towers of La Porte de la Craffe is Nancy’s oldest fortification, a city gate of the city’s former city walls. While seeing the city gate, it’s a good chance to explore Nancy’s quaint old town, with restaurant and cafe terraces, markets, and shopping.
Located just a stone’s throw from both the German and Swiss borders, Mulhouse is a city with an industrial past. Formerly a major producer of automobiles, electronics, chemicals and aircraft, today it is known for its world-class museums, historic buildings, and colourful street art.
Mulhouse is home to the largest automotive museum in the world, le Cité de l’Automobile. The impressive Schlumpf car collection contains over 400 vehicles on display, including a large Formula 1 collection, a 1955 Mercedes gullwing, 1902 Serpollet Double Phaeton, 1896 Léon Bollée Trocar, 1948 Arzen’s Ouef (the egg car), 1936 Alfa Romeo 8C 2900A, and the pride of the collection, 122 rare and beautiful Bugattis.
There are more wonderful museums too, starting with the Cité du Train, the largest railway museum in Europe, with trains from the 1844 Saint Pierre Buddicon No. 33 right up to high speed trains. While Mulhouse doesn’t have much of an old town to wander, some notable sights are the 14th century Tour du Bollwerk, the 15th century house called the Pharmacy Aux Lys Zielinski, and the pink-coloured Hôtel de Ville from 1552.
Regions and Landscapes in Grand Est
Grand Est is a very diverse place, with mountain ranges, forests, and the wide open plains of Alsace. From historic battlefields, vineyards, hot air balloons and hiking, there is lots to explore.
For many visitors, Grand Est is the perfect French getaway for one reason – it’s the home of Champagne! While the name Champagne-Ardenne applies to the greater region, the actual vineyards of the UNESCO listed region fall into 5 small sub-regions. The most popular are the Montagne de Reims, Vallée de la Marne, and Côte des Blancs in the north, with the Côte de Sézanne and Côtes des Bar en Champagne located in the south.
Visits to the vineyards and cellars doors are often best enjoyed over a few days by hiring a car or joining a tour. Walk-ins are not common, and booking is essential for the visiting the Champagne houses. Visitors usually follow the Route des Vins (wine route), marked by brown signs, that leads to some of the most popular producers.
Running alongside the German border are the Vosges, a stunning mountain range blanketed in dense forest. With rolling hills, mountain lakes and rounded summits, the region is perfect for outdoor activities such as skiing and hiking. The highest peak is Le Grand Ballon (the big balloon) at 1,424 m (4,672 ft) high. Visiting the Vosges Massif is a popular outdoors destination in all seasons.
Skiing is a popular activity in the winter, and there are many great ski resorts such as La Bresse, Ventron, and Gérardmer. The summer months are ideal for hiking, including the Blue Line of the Vosges, a historical Alsace-Lorraine border marker that has some of the longest and most challenging hiking trails in the area. While there are plenty more adventures to be had, such as swimming in le Lac de Gérardmer, and canyoning at Seebach, the area also has wonderful relaxation spots such as Ribeauvillé spa. About an hour and a half from Strasbourg, the Vosges are best explored by car.
The Ardennes are a hilly area of forest that covers parts of France, Belgium, Luxembourg and Germany. The Ardennes in Grand Est has forest covering the top third of the department, cross-crossed by the meandering Meuse river and Semois rivers. The largest town in the area is Charleville-Mézières, famous for its puppetry arts, incredible giant puppet parade, and is the home town of celebrated French poet Arthur Rimbaud.
The Ardennes is a great destination for outdoor activities such as forest walks and hikes, cycling the Trans-Ardenne cycle path, as well as more adventurous pursuits such as canoeing, rock climbing and paragliding. Le Lac des Vieilles Forges is the largest lake in the region, which has sailing, as well as beaches to sunbake on. Le Château de Sedan, a huge fortress dating back to 1424, is one of the most impressive castles of the region, spreading out over 35,000 square metres (115,000ft) and seven floors!
The Grand Est region was the location of the longest and one of the most deadly battles of WW1, the Battle of Verdun. Centred around the small historic city of Verdun and surrounding fortresses, the battle began in February 1916 and raged for nearly 10 months until December 1916. Designed to whittle down the French army through firepower and attrition, the battle resulted in an estimated 750,000 casualties, and turned the landscape into a horrific scene of mud, craters, and total destruction.
Today, the craters of many shell holes and trenches still remain, and are covered in new grass and plants. The battlefield is enormous, but there are some key sites to visit. The Verdun Memorial is located near the site of the destroyed village Fleury-devant-Douaumont, and contains exhibits and information about the battle, with vehicles, weapons and equipment. Nearby is the Douaumont Ossuary, a memorial that houses the remains of over 130,000 unknown soldiers, as well as France’s largest military cemetery with 16,142 gravestones. There are many more sites to visit in Verdun, which include fortifications, destroyed villages, and memorials.
Notable Sights in Grand Est
Château du Haut-Kœnigsbourg
Located high up in the Vosges mountains, about 55km south of Strasbourg is Le Château de Haut-Kœnigsbourg. One of France’s most incredible medieval castles, its red-bricked turrets and ramparts drape over a 757-metre (2483 ft) summit. Its mountaintop position offers breathtaking views of the Vosges, the expanse of the Alsace Plain, Germany’s Black Forest, and even The Alps in clear weather. Built in the 12th century, the château changed hands several times before being besieged, burned and abandoned in 1633 during the Thirty Years War. It was rebuilt between 1900 and 1908, and is now open to visitors.
Grand Est Mondial Air Ballons Festival
Every 2 years, at Chambley airfield outside of Metz, Europe’s largest hot air balloon gathering takes place. Taking place over 10 days at the end of July, the Grand Est Mondial Air Balons Festival event sees hundreds of hot air balloons take flight. When the weather is perfect, there are typically two mass flights per day, early in the morning and at dusk. Besides the whimsy of the balloons, the festival also features model aircraft and drone displays, flight contests and illuminations at night. The biggest launch is called La Grande Ligne (The Big Line), which sees hundreds of balloons launch together over a 6km runway!
The Fortifications of Vauban (Neuf Brisach)
All along the borders of France are 12 fortified strong points designed by military engineer Sébastien Le Prestre de Vauban (1633-1707). The fortifications come in different forms, such as mountain forts, defensive citadels, towers, and star forts.
There is one fortification located in Grand Est, the Neuf-Brisach Fortified Town. Located 18km east of Colmar against the German border, the town is arranged in a grid within a perfect octagonal fortification, surrounded by star-shaped earthen defenses. Building started in 1697, it is the last fortification designed by Vauban before his death, and considered one of his greatest works.
Eating and Drinking in Grand Est
Wine of Grand Est
Besides the famous Champagne regions of Grand Est, the region is also one of the country’s biggest producer of wines. The best place to find local wines is the Alsace Wine Route (Route des Vins), which stretches 170km from Strasbourg, along the German border down to Mulhouse. Driving the route is an experience in itself, with the rows of grapevines and cellar doors dotted with charming, picturesque villages. The route follows a generally straight path, perfect to see every winery along the way! Alsatian wine comes in a distinctive slender flute shaped bottle. Alsace-Lorraine is also the largest beer brewing region of France, with brands such as Kronenbourg produced here.
Cuisine of Grand Est
The gastronomy from Grand Est is some of France’s most unique and delicious in the whole country, influenced by its history and location next to Germany. Meat (such as pork and sausages) reigns supreme in many dishes, the most famous of which might be quiche Lorraine, a tart of eggs and lardons with a pastry crust. Choucroute Garnier is another contender for the crown, a dish of sauerkraut cooked with Riesling, sausages (such as Morteau, Montbéliard or Strasbourg), pork, bacon, and potatoes. Other classics include tarte flambée, a pizza-like dish of bacon, onion and crème fraîche; and baeckoffe, a stew of different meats, potato and white wine.
Desserts of Grand Est
Grand Est is the home of one of France’s most beloved small cakes, the madeleine. Hailing from the communes of Commercy and Liverdun in Lorraine, the ubiquitous madeleine is a almond-flavoured sponge cake with a distinctive shell shape. The region is also home of pain d’épices, a spiced cake-like treat baked in loaves; kouglof, a yeast based brioche baked in a round bundt tin and flavoured with raisins and cognac; and tarte aux mirabelles, a small tart of local mirabelle plums.
Grand Est is a big cheese-producing region of France. Munster is one of the region’s most popular cheeses, a soft cow cheese with a strong smell and an orange rind. Another popular variety is Carré de l’Est (square of the east), a brie-like soft cheese with a smoky taste from Lorraine. Other favourites include Langres, a soft cow cheese with a crumbly texture and a white rind; Chaource, a crumbly cow’s milk cheese with a soft rind that goes well with champagne; and the commercial Caprice des Dieux, a soft cow’s cheese with a bloomy rind from the Haut Marne department.
Grand Est is a region like no other; distinctly French, yet with a cultural identity all of its own. The influence of neighbouring Germany is found in its charcuterie and choucroute, its costumes and language, the half-timbered houses and mountain fortresses. It’s a region of bubbly champagne, rolling hills of grape vines, cellar doors and chalk caves. Elsewhere, Grand Est stretches out to the ancient forests of the Ardennes, snowy mountains of the Vosges and the battlefields of Verdun. And the cities of Grand Est, with resplendent Gothic cathedrals, royal palaces and narrow medieval alleyways are some of the most charming in France. Grand Est has something for everyone, making it one of France’s most wonderful regions.