So is Rouen worth visiting? You will certainly be unimpressed by the approach into central Rouen, with its ugly industrial suburbs. But, stick with it, because once you are through the repellant industrial and commercial business parks a day trip to this historic city centre is a must and I will show you the best things to see in Rouen Normandy. The warfare of World War II flattened much of the city south of the Cathedral. So, there is nothing much to see there. But, it would be a crying shame to miss out on experiencing its fascinating historic streets that includes Gothic churches, mansions and hundreds of restored half-timbered houses.
In recent history there has been a costly upmarket restoration of its historical centre (still ongoing), which is now largely pedestrianised and a delight to stroll around.
Victor Hugo calls Rouen the ‘City of 100 bell towers’. It may not have that many any more but it certainly has enough to delight. Let me take you on a quick tour of this under-rated French city…
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Let’s talk about the best things to see in Rouen to answer the question ‘ Is Rouen worth visiting? ‘.
Notre Dame Cathedral
It is currently being cleaned and restored (and will be for a long time to come). Parts, therefore, are gleaming white, parts are blackened and parts are under scaffolding.
But, there are good reasons to pay this a visit. Firstly, Rouen’s Notre Dame Cathedral has the tallest church spire in France.
The cathedral was completed in 1507 when the grander Flamboyant Gothic south tower was completed. It is topped by an octagonal crown and never had a steeple. It’s known as the Tour de Beurre (Butter Tower) because it’s believed that the construction was financed through ‘indulgences’ paid by some of the rich, who didn’t give up eating butter during lent!
The external detailing is quite breathtaking.
On our visit a Christmas market was being constructed in the square just in the front of these doors.
Being the capital of Normandy, the dukes of Normandy were traditionally crowned in this Cathedral. Several are buried inside, including the heart of Richard the Lion Heart.
Stepping inside, the first impression is of the soaring nave four stories high, the church seems to stretch on forever. It is lined by small chapels.
The original construction started during the late 12th century to modernise and enlarge a Romanesque cathedral on the site. However, a fire in 1200 caused major damage to the structure. This allowed the new Gothic church to be built free from the restrictions of the Romanesque predecessor.
Construction of the Gothic cathedral resumed but was hindered by the Hundred Years War, finances, fire, revolts and weather which all interfered with the building project. It ended up taking three centuries to complete (although parts of the church were always in use).
Look out for the Escalier de la Librarie, the Booksellers’ Stairway. It’s terribly romantic looking! The lower flight is from the 15th century while the upper flight was added in the 18th century.
There are original statues within the cathedral. You can get up and personal.
Many of the stained glass windows in this cathedral were blown out in 1944 during World War II. However, in 1939, almost all stained-glass windows in Rouen were removed from churches and historic buildings and kept safely until the end of the war.
Rouen Cathedral thus has some stained-glass windows dating from as far back as 1210.
This is not a cathedral where the windows stand out gloriously. However, this beautiful piece of art certainly did…
Other things to see inside the church are paintings by Monet.
Dame Cakes – Cake shop
If you have been following me for any length of time you will know I have a passion for quality tea rooms.
Head down Rue Saint Romain. It’s a beautiful street anyway – one not to miss.
Dame Cakes is housed in a building that used to be owned by an iron craftsman who created this building so it is beautifully decorated with flamboyant ironwork.
The window display is full of incredibly elegant delicacies.
The boutique inside is extremely tempting. The teas are exceptional and make a beautiful gift.
It’s quiet and chic inside. I would have loved to sit in the dining room but settled with ‘a cake on the run’.
It was extremely hard to choose. There is a wide variety of cakes for sale, confectionary such as candied fruits, sweets (rose, violet or poppy), chocolates, fruit jams and other Norman specialities.
I sat outside and indulged in a gloriously chocolatey brownie-muffin.
Rue du Gros Horloge
Straight ahead from the Cathedral is a busy pedestrian and shopping street that you can’t miss. The rue du Gros Horloge has more than just shops of course. It is full of beautiful brightly coloured half-timbered houses and the famous astronomic clock ‘Gros Horloge’.
When considering is Rouen worth visiting? You need to check out this iconic Normand street.
Le Gros-Horloge, the astronomic clock, takes pride of place on a Renaissance arch which has spanned the street since 1527.
The mechanism of the clock is one of the oldest in Europe, it was still working efficiently in the 1920’s when it became powered by electricity.
Take a close look at the coat of arms of Rouen at the centre of the archway. It features the lamb of God on a red background (the colour of Normandy) and is held by two angels. One has its head wrongly placed! It’s the result of workers which were discontented at the time of the construction.
Under the arch is a highly detailed bas-relief of Christ as the Good Shepherd.
War torn Rouen
Much of Rouen is tatty and worn looking. Hardly surprising considering is was war torn during recent history.
I found this oddly fascinating. I love reading historical and WWII novels and these scars brought them to life somewhat.
This church may just be VERY dirty, but it seemed to us that it was blacked by intense fire.
You will find dirty and graffitied streets in Rouen. Many of the buildings look like they are about to fall down! It’s all adds to the romance, I suppose.
Joan of Arc
If you are still wondering, is Rouen worth visiting? Then perhaps a chance to learn more about Joan of Arc, the patron saint to the whole of France might persuade you.
She went from hero, to martyr, to saint and a lot of the story happened here.
Rouen is making the most that she was held, tried and burned at the stake here in Rouen.
There is a Joan of Arc chapel in Rouen’s Notre Dame Cathedral (with a rather uninspiring memorial statue of her).
Place du Vieux Marché is one of the main squares of Rouen. It is surrounded by half-timbered houses and restaurants and is dominated by the perplexing, modern church of Saint Joan of Arc.
The 1979 wacky and spiky-looking memorial church looks odd with the attractive surrounding half timbered houses. It is thought to be the shape of an upturned boat or the pyre on which the Saint was burnt. The scaly tiling of the roof matches the fish-shaped windows.
It is whats inside that’s impressive. There are 13 stained-glass windows from the Renaissance era which form a glass wall of 500 square metres. These look magnificent bathing the interior with colourful light. They date back to the 16th century and were originally set in another church destroyed during the Second World War. Fortunately, precautions were taken and the windows were put in safe keeping until they were used in this church some 40 years after the war.
A small commemorative plaque and a plain 20 metre high cross mark the actual spot where Joan of Arc was burnt alive in this square on the 30th May 1431.
There is a nice market in the square which is much nicer to look at..
The rue Saint-Romain (where Dame Cakes is) is also bordered by the ruins of a former chapel where the trial of Joan of Arc ended on the 29th May 1429.
Architecture and winding streets
Despite the devastation of World War II there is a significant area of historic Rouen still to explore. The streets are narrow, cobbled, largely pedestrianised and full of interesting shops and restaurants.
They are wonderful for selfies or Instagramming.
Explore around the Place des Carmes. It’s a neat area with some great boutique shops and restaurants.
The rue de Ganterie is lined up with some interesting half-timbered houses.
You find you’ll want to zig zag your way through these historic streets, not wanting to miss one!
The Gothic building of the Parliament of Normandy really stands out. It is rare to see a civil building constructed in Gothic style in the late Middle Ages in France.
It was once the seat of the Parliament of Normandy. It’s not short of gargoyles!
Some buildings are much simpler but can hold your attention just as long…
Some parts feel as if time has stood still for hundreds of years.
Rue Eau-de-Robec is lined up with half-timbered houses and in its centre is a streamlet crossed by a walkway. Don’t go out your way to see it, it’s a little disappointing, being a bit concrete. But if you’re nearby it’s a tick in the box.
We discovered that there are a cluster of good restaurants around the Church of Saint-Maclou.
The Church of Saint-Maclou is one of the most striking and flamboyant churches in Rouen.
Our choice was a fantastic steak house restaurant called Rotomagus. It is on the church square with a brilliant view of the beautiful Church of Saint-Maclou. But, the men in the group only had eyes for the matured meat from the maturation cellar room.
The wine list is great and we received some excellent recommendations.
So, what do you think? Is Rouen worth visiting? In my view it certainly is!
I probably wouldn’t stay, as a day trip was enough time for us to see most sights we wanted to see. But, I’m so pleased we went and will certainly go again.
Let’s stay in touch!
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