I’ll admit: Rouen was never on my Bucket List. And, I knew next to nothing about the city before we embarked on our whirlwind search for affordable getaways from Paris last month. But, after discovering that Rouen, the capital of France’s Normandy region, was located just over an hour’s train ride northwest of Paris (at only €11 a ticket!), we absolutely couldn’t pass it up.
Like Paris, Rouen was established on the River Seine, complete with several iron bridges between the left and right banks and a large, inhabited island. But, Rouen’s charming, small(er) town vibe made it feel vastly different — and that was A-Okay with us! Intricate, Gothic churches and medieval buildings, exceptional food and drink, and a rich history riddled with heartbreak and intrigue… what’s not to love?!
Although I’m convinced we spent more time lounged at cafés (and enjoying the company of the furry fellow pictured below) than actually seeing the sights, Rouen gave Chris and me exactly what we needed at that moment: a refreshing change of pace.
Here are a few of the sights we hit on our tour of Rouen… when we weren’t eating all the crepes, that is!
1. Vieille Ville & the Gros-Horloge
After dropping our overnight bags off at the Airbnb, we set out into the still-sleepy city center on Rouen’s right bank.
During World War II, Rouen was occupied by Nazi Germany along with the rest of France. Unfortunately, nearly half of the historical city was destroyed between 1940 and 1944 at the hand of both Axis and Allied forces, and heavy damages were sustained by many of Rouen’s irreplaceable monuments. But, the medieval Vieille Ville (Old City) that remains — cobblestone streets lined by teetering, half-timbered homes — is straight out of a fairytale.
At the heart of the Old City runs rue du Gros-Horloge, a street bustling with commerce and home to the Gros-Horloge, or the Great Clock. The iconic, 14th century astronomical clock is the oldest of its kind in France, and has observed the goings-on here since it was moved to this Renaissance archway in 1529. Chris and I passed up the opportunity to tour the clock face room and the belfry, but I regret it now; the panoramic view offered by the tower is supposedly spectacular!
2. Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Rouen
At the end of rue du Gros-Horloge, we came upon Rouen’s grandest cathedral and muse for many a Monet painting. The Notre-Dame is a Gothic masterpiece, conceived in the 12th century on the legacy of the ancient churches that have dwelled in this location since the late 300’s. Since then, the Notre-Dame has stood the tests of time — that is, everything from lightning strikes and fire to hurricane damage to bombings during World War II — and remains today, a symbol of resilience and strength. A gorgeous one, at that…
3. Church of Saint-Maclou & Church of Saint-Ouen
Rouen has no shortage of churches, most of which are curiously crammed into just a few blocks. The petite Church of Saint-Maclou, for example, is located in the shadow of the Notre-Dame (both literally and figuratively!), but its flamboyant, late-Gothic design and its somewhat-macabre decorations set it apart in the best way.
Completed in the 15th century, the Church of Saint-Ouen, too, stands only a short walk away from her sister churches. Since the year 1800, the adjacent building (which formally served as a dormitory for monks) has been inhabited by Rouen’s Hôtel de Ville, or Town Hall. Oh, and look: there’s Napoléon Bonaparte in all his glory!
Chris and I stumbled upon both the Church of Saint-Maclou and the Church of Saint-Ouen on our way to lunch and, boy, were we glad we did! Unfortunately for us, however, both churches have weird hours and we weren’t able to check out the interiors of either. Actually, we arrived at Saint-Ouen just as an elderly woman was locking up the place for the day. Keep in mind: it’s only lunchtime. “À demain,” she chirped as we approached the entrance. But, we can’t come back tomorrow, lady! Oh well…
4. Musée des Beaux-Arts
After enjoying a café crème to combat the post-lunch slump, Chris and I ventured into the Musée des Beaux-Arts. This art museum is considered the most comprehensive in France, next to the public collections on display in Paris. And, get this: it’s FREE! We spent a few hours contemplating paintings and sculptures, even finding a few rooms filled with notable Impressionist works (i.e. my favorites).
5. Church of Sainte-Jeanne d’Arc
This 20th century church sits conspicuously in the Place du Vieux-Marché, more than a little out of place. But, believe it or not, its location is strategic. Joan of Arc, French military leader and heroine during the Hundred Years War, was famously burned at the stake at this very spot in 1431 for counts of cross-dressing. What’s a girl got to do to be taken seriously around here?! The architect designed the building to look like both the flames that engulfed poor Joan and an overturned Viking longship. Whichever way you swing it, if we’re being brutally honest, it’s not the prettiest building in the world. But, I was pleasantly surprised when we took a peek inside.
After taking in the colorful stained glass and quiet ambience inside the church, Chris and I sat in the Place du Vieux-Marché and shared a pre-dinner aperitif in Jeanne d’Arc’s honor. Here’s to you, Joan!
Thanks for a lovely stay, Rouen!