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Visiting the Cathedral at Strasbourg, France: For Over 2 Centuries the Tallest Building in the World

Updated on October 6, 2017
Flag of France
Flag of France | Source
Strasbourg, Republic Square, with the Cathedral in the backgound
Strasbourg, Republic Square, with the Cathedral in the backgound | Source
Strasbourg Cathedral
Strasbourg Cathedral | Source
Map location of Strasbourg, France
Map location of Strasbourg, France | Source

Aspiring to the heavens?

This amazing building was the tallest in the world between 1647 and 1874.

But its history is rather more complex than such a statement would at first bear out.

So does this piece of historical fact mean that the Cathedral was built in 1647? Actually, no: it was completed in 1439. Between 1625 and 1647, St Mary's church, Stralsund, Germany was the tallest building in the world, and prior to this, between 1549 and 1625 St Olaf's church, Tallinn, Estonia held this record: however, both these churches suffered fires which cause the destruction of their tall, record-breaking spires, with the result that Strasbourg Cathedral's tower and spire, at 142 metres unexpectedly gained this remarkable prominence.

Comes 1871 and Alsace, of which Strasbourg is the main city, was annexed to Germany. It was shortly after this that a church in Hamburg, Germany, was built with a taller spire than that of Strasbourg Cathedral. (Interesting timing, a subliminal, backhanded acknowledgment about the annexation, as if its builders, wanting to build the tallest in the world, were admitting that annexed Alsace was not in Germany proper?)

The main architect for the Cathedral was Erwin von Steinbach (c.1244-1318). Vosges stone was the material used in the execution of the building; this gives the structure a somewhat pinkish colour. The style is Gothic — indeed, the building, particularly its west front, is said to be among the finest examples of Gothic — although Romanesque features are also identified.

A south tower, similar to the record-setting north tower, was not built. The result of this omission is the curious, asymmetrical appearance of the Cathedral's west frontage. This asymmetricality has been so familiar for centuries that it would be hard to imagine it any other way.

An annual Christmas market has been held in the vicinity of the Cathedral since 1570.

During World War Two, the Cathedral was seen as a symbol of the legitimate war aims of the Free French Forces (1). During this war — indeed, during several conflicts in previous centuries — the Cathedral suffered significant damage. While Free French Forces regarded it as a historical and cultural treasure, yet unfortunately British and American aviators, in attacking Nazi German forces in Strasbourg, managed to bomb the Cathedral.


(1) Free French General Leclerc notably made a speech in 1941, when he said that his comrades in arms would not rest until the French tricolour was flying from the tower of Strasbourg's Cathedral. This later became a widely quoted remark. Thus, Strasbourg and its Cathedral took a significant place in Gaullist and Free French discourse; similarly, Metz in eastern France, where Resistance leader Jean Moulin was assassinated also emerged as a poignant venue for a sombre, historic event.

Also worth seeing

In Strasbourg itself, Petite France is a picturesque quarter near the Cathedral, with many ancient, timbered buildings. The Medieval Covered Bridges (French: Ponts Couverts ) are also striking landmarks. Strasbourg's Cathedral is Roman Catholic; the city also has the monumental, 17th century St. Thomas's church, sometimes known as the Protestant cathedral.


How to get there: United Airlines flies from New York Newark to Paris (Aéroport Paris-Charles de Gaulle ), from where car rental is available (distance from Paris-Charles de Gaulle airport to Strasbourg: 499 kilometres). In addition, via stopovers, Air France, Delta and KLM , which have a code-sharing agreement, operate flights from New York to EuroAirport Basel Mulhouse Freiburg, from where car rental is available (distance from EuroAirport Basel Mulhouse Freiburg to Strasbourg: 132 kilometres). Please check with the airline or your travel agent for up to date information.

MJFenn is an independent travel writer based in Ontario, Canada.


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