Introduction

In northeast France’s top corner, Grand Est is the country’s sixth largest region. This substantial province shares borders with four countries: Belgium, Luxembourg, Germany and Switzerland. Thanks to its location, Grand Est boasts both Gallic and Germanic influences. Its residents speak several dialects, including Alsatian. Grand Est’s French neighbours are Bourgogne-Franche-Comté to the south, Île-de-France to its west, and Hauts-de-France to the northwest. Visitors flock to the region for its wonderful mountainous landscapes, scenic towns, and renowned champagne and wine production.

How to get to Grand Est

By air

Easyjet and BA both fly directly from London Gatwick or Heathrow airports to EuroAirport Basel Mulhouse Freiburg (BSL). Flight time is 1 hour 40 minutes.

By rail

From London St Pancras you can board the Eurostar and change at Paris Gare du Nord (journey time  2 hours 16 minutes). Transfer to Gare de l’Est (a 5 minute cab ride). From here, trains to Strasbourg take from 1 hour 45 minutes. Including transfers, your quickest overall journey time is 5 hours, 10 minutes.

By road

Take Le Shuttle from Folkestone to Calais in as little as 35 minutes. From Calais it’s a 386 mile (621 km) drive to Strasbourg. You’ll need 5 ½ hours plus time for stops. Take the E15/A26 towards Arras. At Reims take the A4/E46/E50/E17 junction towards Lyons/Metz-Nancy/Reims Sud. After Nouilly, take the E25/E50/A4 slip road. At Brumath follow the A4 towards Schiltigheim and central Strasbourg.

NB: Use a GPS, or make sure you’ve enough data on your phone for Google maps!

Remember, French highways/motorways get busy and slow-going during holiday periods, particularly during August. So plan your route accordingly.

Getting around Grand Est

Grand Est offers excellent road connections. Major arteries include the A4 autoroute between Paris and Strasbourg, the A35 from Strasbourg to Basel in Switzerland, and the A36 that links Mulhouse and Dijon. The A26 from Calais to Troyes is called the Autoroute des Anglais, because of the high volume of UK drivers that frequent it!

High speed TGV trains link Grand Est’s major cities, whilst the regional TER network connects to smaller towns and tourist destinations. Reims, Nancy and Mulhouse operate their own tram networks, and Strasbourg’s tram network extends into Germany. 

Size

Grand Est spans 22,175 sq miles (57,433 square km). Its landscape features the Vosges and Ardennes mountain ranges to the east and north, and the Saone, Meuse, Mosel and Rhine rivers. The Rhine marks the French/German border. Outside of its cities, much of Grand Est’s terrain comprises forest and farmland.

Departments

Ten departments make up Grand Est. These are: Ardennes, Aube, Bas-Rhin, Marne, Haute-Marne, Haut-Rhin, Meurthe-et-Moselle, Meuse, Moselle, and Vosges. Strasbourg is the regional capital.

Cities

Strasbourg

Lying on France’s eastern border with Germany, multicultural Strasbourg is a dynamic city. Here you’ll find the headquarters of the European Parliament, the Council of Europe and the European Court for Human Rights. The city’s UNESCO listed gothic cathedral soars over the city, visible for miles around. Gird your loins (and knees!) for the 330 step winding staircase to the cathedral’s 66m high viewing platform. Alongside panoramic vistas across the city, on a clear day you’ll spot the Vosges Mountains and Germany’s Black Forest on the horizon. Wander the narrow streets and waterways of the city’s historic Petite France quarter, where mediaeval timber houses lean over the canals.

Reims

Historic Reims is synonymous with its illustrious champagne houses. Beneath the city streets, 250km of labyrinthine wine cellars house millions of bottles. Around the city lie acres of vineyards where the precious Champagne grapes grown. No stranger to royalty, Reims’ majestic 800-year-old cathedral has witnessed 25 coronations down the centuries, and unsurprisingly champagne became the customary drink to celebrate each new monarch. 

Nancy

Nancy is an elegant 18th century city. At its heart lies the impressive neoclassical Place Stanislas, graced with fountains, statues, and arches. Visit Nancy’s excellent fine arts museum and browse works by Manet, Caravaggio, Delacroix and Rubens. The museum has rooms dedicated to Impressionism, Pointillism and Futurism. On a sunny day, enjoy a stroll in leafy Parc de la Pepiniere, amidst fragrant flower gardens and ornamental fountains.

Metz

Sited where the Moselle and Seille rivers merge, attractive Metz offers a verdant centre de ville, impressive gothic cathedral and a plethora of museums, shops and eateries. Place de la Comedie houses France’s oldest working theatre. Opened in 2010, Centre Pompidou-Metz is the city’s contemporary art museum. Like its Parisien counterpart, the gallery champions innovative, thought-provoking exhibitions. 

Troyes

A popular visitor destination, Troyes’ 16th century old town is a picturesque maze of cobbled streets and brightly painted timber framed architecture. Venture down mediaeval Ruelle des Chats and spot the stone carved cat amongst the brickwork. The alley’s ancient buildings lean in so closely the roofs practically touch, allowing local cats to saunter from one attic window to another. Stroll along the banks of the Seine past the ‘Heart of Troyes’ statue that has become an emblem of the city.  Strange but true: from the air, the city centre’s 12th century fortifications resemble a champagne cork, yet champagne cork production only began 500 years later!

A potted history of Grand Est

This fertile region has a chequered history, and its citizens endured repeated conflict over the centuries, particularly in its border areas.

By 1500 BC, Celts occupied the region and cultivated the land.

The Romans ousted the Celts in 58 BC. They built settlements and introduced winemaking.

Around 260 AD, with the Roman empire in decline, Germanic Alemanni took control.

In 5 AD, Frank King Clovis defeated the Alemanni. Clovis’ Merovingian dynasty established Christianity in the province.

The 8th century saw Charlemagne take control of the territory. 

In, 816 Louis the Pious became King at Reims. For the next 1,000 years, until 1825, they crowned French monarchs at Reims.

The province prospered during the 12th and 13th centuries. Strasbourg became a free republic in 1262.

The 14th century brought plague, harsh weather, and depleted harvests. They blamed Jewish communities for the hardships. Between 1336 and 1349, they massacred thousands of Jewish citizens throughout the region.

The 30 Years War (1618-1648) saw extensive bloodshed over religious ideologies. By 1639, France controlled most of the region, but Germany kept sovereignty over several Alsatian communities.

During the 17th century, a Benedictine monk, Pierre Perignon, developed the champagne production methods in use today.

In 1789, many citizens fled to Germany to escape the French Revolution.

Following the Franco-Prussian wars, much of the region became a German territory in 1871.

France and Germany alternately seized control of the province between 1914 and 1944.

Verdun suffered WWI’s longest battle, an 11 month conflict from February to December 1916.

Alsace and Lorraine remained part of the German Empire until WW1 ended in 1918, when the territory returned to France at the Treaty of Versailles.

During WW2, Germany seized control of the region and made German the official language. The Germans banned speaking French or Alsatian.

130,000 residents were conscripted into the German army during 1942..

In 1944, the Allies captured the region.

Alsace, Lorraine and Champagne-Ardenne merged to form Grand Est in 2016.

Culture in Grand Est

Strasbourg’s gothic Notre Dame Cathedral soars above the city, its 142 m spire piercing the clouds. Admire the delicately carved sandstone facade, and 13th century stained glass windows. Don’t miss the cathedral’s fabulous astronomical clock, a renaissance masterpiece. Each day at 12.30 pm a series of automated figures parade before the clock face, to symbolise the 12 apostles and the four stages of life. 

Tour Reims’ UNESCO Heritage sites. Start at its impressive 800-year-old gothic cathedral, whose ornate facade features over 2,000 statues and gargoyles. Visit the city’s 11th century Benedictine St Remi Basilica and gawp at its beautiful gothic Romanesque interior. Don’t miss the 17th century Palais du Tau, former home to the Archbishop of Reims, where newly crowned monarchs traditionally celebrated in style.

Visit Metz’s Musee la Cour d’or, which showcases two millennia of mosaics, paintings and sculpture. Browse ancient remains of Metz’s Gallo-Roman thermal baths, mediaeval ceramics and 20th century fine art, all under one roof.

Weather in Grand Est

Grand Est’s weather varies as you travel west to east. Western Champagne receives milder temperatures and slightly less rain than Strasbourg on the eastern border. Moselle and Alsace enjoy a semi-continental climate, with colder winters and more snowfall, plus hotter summers than the region’s west. Rain showers occur across the region all year round.

Winter (Dec to Feb)

Dig out your snow boots! Grand Est’s winters are notoriously chilly, with average high temperatures of 6oC/43oF and lows of 0oC/32oF. In eastern areas, temperatures may drop to a nippy -6oc/21oF. Snowfall is common, and heavy in the mountainous Vosges and Ardennes.

Spring (March to May)

From March onwards, temperatures climb to average highs of 15oC/59oF. Lows are around 5oC/41oF, usually warming up during May to 9oC/48oF.

Summer (June to August)

You’ll enjoy long warm days and plenty of sunshine, although summer rainfall is not uncommon, especially in eastern areas. Expect pleasant highs of 25oC/77oF rising to extremes of 32oC/90oF in some parts. Seasonal lows are around 13oC/55oF.

Autumn (September to November)

Highs of 15oC/59oF will slip closer to 10oC/50oF by November. Autumn typical lows are 8oC/46oF, dropping to 4oC/39oF as the season progresses. November often brings snowfall.

Best time to visit Grand Est

Weatherwise, mid-June to mid-September is your best time to visit Grand Est. You should get plenty of warm sunny days, but pack an umbrella, as showers occur throughout the year. If you’re visiting for the Christmas markets, wrap up warm for snowy scenes and crisp blue skies, especially in the region’s east.

Do not miss

Join a guided wine tour of Alsace. You’ll visit four beautiful Alsatian villages, including mediaeval Kaysersberg and fairy-tale pretty Eguisheim. Tour the vineyards of the Alsace wine route, learn about the wine-making process, and enjoy tastings of popular Alsatian labels, including Crémant, Gewurztraminer, Riesling and Pinot Noir.

Discover Strasbourg from the water, on a private boat cruise. Your captain will navigate the city’s locks and take you past Strasbourg’s stunning Vauban dam. Learn all about Strasbourg’s history and architecture with your knowledgeable guide.

Explore Epernay, the region’s champagne capital. Visit the prestigious Avenue de Champagne and taste the bubbles of famous names such as Taittinger and Moet and Chandon.

Learn the history of 13th century Reims cathedral de Notre Dame on a guided tour. This majestic gothic tour de force is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Admire the cathedral’s combination of ancient and modern stained glass: beautiful mediaeval rose windows contrast with stunning contemporary glass created by Marc Chagall in 1974.

Markets 

Troyes. Les Halles, Rue Claude Ruez, 10000 Troyes. Troye’s covered market features around 35 local stalls including bakers, butchers, fishmongers, and fruit and veg traders. Open 8am to 1pm Sunday to Thursday, Friday and Saturday 7am to 7pm.

Selestat. Rue du President Poincare, 67600 Selestat. Bustling food market selling fruit, vegetables, flowers, seafood, meat and cheeses. Tuesday, 8am to 1pm.

Strasbourg. General market at Place du Marché Neudorf, 67100 Strasberg. Browse locally made bread and pastries, cheese, charcuterie, fish, honey, and crafts. Tuesday and Saturday from 7am to 1pm.

Metz. Market for fruit, vegetables and local produce situated in Place de la Cathédrale and Place de Chambre. Saturday, from 7am to 1pm.

Alsace Christmas Markets

Since 1570, Strasbourg has hosted its annual Christmas market or Christkindelsmärik. For five weeks over the festive period, the streets and squares around the cathedral fill with hundreds of stalls. The scenic celebration draws two million visitors each year! Colmar, Mulhouse and Kaysersberg also host popular Christmas markets.

What to eat and drink in Grand Est

Meat eaters will be happy in Grand Est! Menus frequently features wild boar, venison and duck, along with Reims and Ardennes ham. Baeckeoffe is a warming, slow cooked stew featuring vegetables and any combination of pork, mutton, and beef. 

Other regional faves include tarte flambée or flammekueche (a crispy tart topped with onions, cheese, bacon and creme fraiche) and choucroute (sauerkraut) which is usually dished up alongside potatoes and/or meats. Regional cheeses include creamy Langres (AOC), Chaource (AOC), and Munster Gerome, all from cow’s milk.

Champagne is Grand Est’s world famous beverage and export. The region produces around 300 million bottles each year, made from Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier grapes grown in the fertile soils around Epernay and Reims.  

Quality regional wines include Gris de Toul, a rose from Nancy, and Vins de Moselle from Metz. Try Alsatian Riesling, Pinot Gris and fizzy Cremant d’Alsace, a French favourite. Alsace is also famous for its beers. Hochfelden’s Meteor brewery (Bas-Rhin) offers brewery tours and tastings.

Where to eat and drink in Grand Est

Reims, Anna-S. la table amoureuse, 6 Rue Gambetta, 51100 Reims. Excellent bustling bistro where friendly staff dish up classic French dishes and a good value set menu. Booking advised.

Strasbourg, Winstub S’kaechele 8, Rue de l’Argile 67000 Strasbourg. A ‘winstub’ is a traditional Alsatian wine-bar restaurant. This atmospheric eatery in central Strasbourg delivers cosy ambience alongside hearty regional cuisine. Open Tuesday to Saturday.

Metz, Les Copains d’Abord, 32B Rue du Coetlosquet, Metz. A comprehensive seasonal menu features cheese and charcuterie sharing boards, and substantial mains such as sea bream with saffron risotto, steak with chanterelle mushrooms, plus vegan options. The wine list is extensive. Open Wednesday to Saturday for lunch and dinner.

Where to stay in Grand Est

Rent this stylish apartment in the heart of historic Strasbourg, close to the cathedral, shops and restaurants. The property sleeps up to five and has one bedroom with a sofa bed in the lounge. Heart of Strasbourg-Great Apartment in Petite France – Petite-France (vrbo.com)

This three-bedroom house lies in tranquil countryside 20 minutes from Reims, ideally located for touring the Champagne district. The spacious accommodation sleeps eight, and comes with a heated indoor swimming pool. House in the countryside, covered and heated swimming pool – Saint-Remy-le-Petit (vrbo.com)

Stay in this beautifully presented gîte in rural Vosges. You’ve got mountains, forests and miles of hiking and bike trails on your doorstep. Strasbourg is 30 minutes’ drive away. Sleeps four in two bedrooms and has a private sunny garden and barbecue. Independent 4-star gîte, in the countryside, in a renovated old house – Sommerau (vrbo.com)

Conclusion

Grand Est boasts a wealth of culture and history, along with beautiful natural landscapes and superb cuisine. I hope my guide tempts you to visit this fascinating region. Happy travels!

Maria Bricheno
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Maria Bricheno is a freelance writer, with a focus on independent travel. When not writing or plotting her next trip, she enjoys trail/road running, contemporary fiction, and country walks with her enthusiastic golden retriever. An ardent fan of all things Gallic, Maria spends too much of her leisure time lurking on French property websites.

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