Updated December 6, 2023
Bonjour mon ami! Welcome to Rouen, the city that's as charming as a French patisserie and as historic as a Norman castle.
Rouen is the capital of Normandy, a region in northern France that's famous for its rich history, stunning landscapes, and buttery, flaky pastries. In other words, it's pretty much paradise.
The River Seine, after winding its way through the picturesque Seine Valley, past charming villages, rolling hills, and verdant forests, meanders through the center of the historic city on its way to the English Channel.
Rouen's old town is a delightful mix of medieval architecture, bustling markets, gothic churches, and a joie de vivre that's sure to leave you enchanted.
The best part? You can visit Rouen on a day trip from Paris! It's less than two hours from central Paris by train, and makes for a great day out of the city.
But let's cut to the chase - you're visiting Rouen for the sights, and the city has plenty of them. This city is home to some of the most breathtaking Gothic architecture, fine arts museums, and quirky landmarks you'll ever see.
Whether you're an arts and culture lover, a history enthusiast, or simply someone who wants to explore a new city, Rouen has something for everyone.
Rouen is often called the "city of 100 spires," and it's not hard to see why. Everywhere you look, there are towering Gothic spires that give the city a sense of grandeur and history. So if you're a fan of beautiful architecture and old-world charm, you’ll love Rouen.
So grab a croissant and a café au lait, and let's take a stroll through the best things to do in Rouen.
Notre Dame Cathedral
Welcome to one of Rouen's most stunning landmarks - the Notre-Dame Cathedral. Walking up to this stunning cathedral might make you feel like you're in a dream - but trust me, it's real.
Let's start with the basics.
Construction on the cathedral was started in the 12th century. It's built on top of a 4th century basilica and an 11th century Romanesque cathedral. It was built (and rebuilt due to damage) over the next 800 years, before finally being opened to the public in 1876.
While it's not unusual for cathedrals in Europe to take decades, or even centuries, that is one long building process! Today it's considered one of the best examples of Gothic architecture in the world.
In 1876, when the cast-iron spire was completed, the Rouen cathedral was the tallest building in the world. It held the title for a mere 4 years before being surpassed by the Cologne Cathedral. It is still the tallest cathedral in France.
The façade is adorned with intricate carvings and statues that are so detailed, you could spend hours studying them.
It's no wonder it has inspired artists like Claude Monet. He was so fascinated by the way the light played across the facade at different times of day that he painted it over 30 times.
Inside the cathedral is just as breathtaking. The soaring vaulted ceilings and stained glass windows are nothing short of mesmerizing. During my tour it was the first time I've had a guide say “let me show you my favorite window.” It's no wonder, it was a stunner!
Part of what makes the windows so beautiful is the fact that three of them date from the 13th century. One thing you'll notice is the amazing shade of cobalt blue in them, known as “the blue from Chartres”.
You'll feel like you're walking through a rainbow as the sunlight streams through the glass and casts a mosaic of colors across the stone floor.
The cathedral is the final resting place of many interesting Normans, the first being Rollo, a fierce Viking leader born in Scandinavia in the 9th century. He eventually became the first Duke of Normandy.
Another tomb you'll find in the cathedral is that of Richard the Lionheart, King of England. His body is buried in Fontevraud Abbey, but his heart was embalmed and buried in the Rouen Cathedral.
As you stroll through the winding streets of Rouen it's impossible to miss the city's rich Medieval and Renaissance history.
You may be surprised that the city has weathered many conflicts throughout its existence, Conflicts including Viking raids in the 9th century (which resulted in the formation of the Duchy of Normandy), the Hundred Years War, the Wars of Religion, the Franco-Prussian War, and World War II.
Despite these challenges, Rouen has always been a prosperous city, thanks in part to its thriving textile and wool industry.
The city's history is still visible in its architecture, especially in the Medieval quarter where three and four-story timber-framed buildings lean precariously over the street.
But perhaps the most striking example of Rouen's history is Le Gros Horloge, a Renaissance clock set in an archway that spans the pedestrianized Rue du Gros Horloge. First installed in 1389, the clock was moved to the arch in the 16th century.
The truly amazing thing about this beautiful astronomical clock, other than its striking facade of golden sunbeams and a blue starry sky, is the fact that it still tells time!
The dials on Le Gros Horloge are full of astronomical symbolism. It tells much more than just the hour of the day. Using representations of gods and planets it also tells the day of the week and the phase of the moon. By using symbols, even an uneducated and illiterate peasantry in the Middle Ages would have known the day and time.
Sheep motifs, symbols of the wool trade that was so important in Medieval Rouen, also feature prominently on the clock. At the top of the arch, just below the clock face, you'll see a passover lamb, the symbol of Rouen.
You can do more than just admire the clock from below. Consider a behind-the-scenes tour of the clock tower, which allows you to see the clock's intricate inner workings. You can also climb to the top of the belfry for a breathtaking view over the city.
One of Rouen's most unique Gothic churches, the first thing you'll notice about Saint Maclou is the distinctive architecture.
Built in the 15th century, the church was dedicated to Saint Maclou, the patron saint of builders. It is one of only a few churches in France built in the Flamboyant Gothic architecture style, and is a testament to the skill and artistry of the craftsmen who built it.
The façade is adorned with intricate carvings and ornate sculptures that will take your breath away. The flying buttresses and ribbed vaults give the church a sense of grandeur and elegance that is truly unparalleled.
Just down the street from the church, through an unassuming archway, you’ll find the Aître Saint Maclou, a site separate from but related to the church.
In 1348, a recurring and unwelcome visitor came to Rouen - the Black Death.
Approximately three quarters of the city's inhabitants died, and the churchyards of the city were too small to hold them. So a new burial ground, the Aître of Saint Maclou, was built.
An Aître, or ossuary, is an old French word for a burial house or place where bones are kept, and it became the final resting place of many of Rouen’s inhabitants.
In 1526 the Aître was once again too small, so the parish decided to build three galleries around the cemetery to hold all the remains. Once the galleries were built the old bones were carefully disinterred and moved to the attics of these galleries. This provided plenty of ventilation, as well as making them visible to all.
The columns supporting the galleries are decorated with all kinds of macabre symbols that show its morbid past of the site, but today the site serves a different purpose. It's now the home of the Regional Fine Arts School. Doesn't that give new meaning to the idea of students being bored to death during class?
Musée des Beaux-Arts
Art lovers will want to take some time to visit the Musée des Beaux-Arts, Rouen's world-renowned fine arts museum.
The museum boasts one of the most impressive public art collections in all of France. Feast your eyes on masterpieces from every school of art, including paintings, sculptures, drawings, and objets d'art, dating from the 15th century to the present day.
Included in the collection are notable works by artists like Monet, Renoir, Rubens, Caravaggio and Degas. These paintings are a testament to the region's deep artistic heritage.
Normandy is the birthplace of the Impressionist movement, when artists like Monet, Renoir and Pissaro flocked to northern France to capture the beauty of the region's landscapes on canvas.
Instead of trying to capture the scenes exactly as they appeared, as was normal in fine art at the time, the Impressionists instead tried to capture the changing light and the effect it had on color.
When you visit Normandy you'll understand why. The light is unlike anyplace else I've been. It's difficult to capture, but it's no wonder many impressionist masters spent a lifetime trying to do so.
Place du Vieux-Marché
The Place du Vieux-Marché, the city's old market square, has been the center of Rouen for centuries. With its colorful buildings, lively cafes, and vibrant atmosphere, it’s the perfect place to spend an afternoon. But there's more to this square than meets the eye.
The Place du Vieux-Marché is also famous for its association with Joan of Arc (Jeanne d’Arc in French), the national heroine of France who was famously burned at the stake in Rouen in 1431.
Saint Joan of Arc, a young peasant girl who believed she was following divine guidance, led the French army to a significant victory at Orléans in 1429. This victory turned the tide of the Hundred Years’ War, succeeded in driving the English invaders from France, and changed the course of the country forever.
A church, dedicated to Saint Joan, is located next to the site where she was burned as a heretic. This modern church, which mimics the shape of an overturned boat, was completed in 1979.
This church replaced an older church, the Church of St. Vincent, that was destroyed during World War II. Inside you'll find a wall of windows, with over 5,000 square feet of stained glass illuminating the interior.
This window wall is made up of 13 Renaissance stained glass windows dating from the 16th century. They were originally installed in the Church of St. Vincent and, after its destruction, were recovered from the ruins and preserved.
Another famous woman's story can also be traced back to the Place du Vieux-Marché; the American chef Julia Child.
Julia was accompanying her husband Paul, who was transferred to Paris while working with the US Information Service. They arrived at the port of Le Havre, not far from Rouen, aboard the SS America in 1948.
Following a suggestion from a Michelin Guide, they decided to stop at La Couronne for lunch. It is the oldest inn in France, which has stood at the edge of the old market square since the 1300s. It was here that Julia Child had her first French meal, which changed the course of her life.
After starting with a half-dozen briny oysters, served with rye bread and Normandy butter, they continued with Sole Meunière, green salad with vinaigrette, and Jullia’s very first French baguette. Finishing with a fromage blanc and coffee, Julia declared the meal “absolute perfection” and “the most exciting meal of my life."
That meal has become part of La Couronne's culinary history, and you can still order it if you stop in for lunch.
The bottom line: The best things to do in Rouen
Rouen is a city that truly has it all. With its charming medieval architecture, bustling markets, stunning Gothic churches, and breathtaking landmarks, it's a city that will leave you enchanted and inspired.
The city's rich history and beautiful surroundings make it the perfect destination for anyone looking to explore a new culture, while its quirky landmarks and joie de vivre provide endless opportunities for adventure and fun.
Whether you're a lover of arts and culture, a history enthusiast, or simply someone who wants to take in the sights and sounds of a beautiful city, Rouen is a destination that should be at the top of your list.