The Historic Heart Of Rouen, A Walking Tour

At the historic heart of Rouen lies the Notre-Dame Cathedral, alone worth a visit to the French city that today boasts a half a million residents. Dating back to a foundation that began in the fourth century, it serves as a centerpiece for a “magic zone” where visitors can trace 1000 years of history, from the Roman era to present day. We went on a walking tour of the still-bustling metropolis that focused on five main sites, offering a unique look into a past that is very much part of today.

The Cathedral itself dominates the Rouen skyline, while ongoing reconstruction continues the structure’s evolution. To those who live and work in the area, that’s nothing new though. Destroyed by Vikings at one time and bombed (unintentionally) in World War II, its cast iron spires stand over 150 meters high, the tallest in France. Inside, one can’t help but be humbled by the still-standing, still-functional testament to the evolution of Gothic art.

Just opposite the cathedral, lesser-known Bureau des Finances dates back to the early 16th century and was once where Impressionist Claude Monet created his “Cathedral” series. Gadling was allowed a rare view from inside where Monet’s studio was at that time.

Walking the pedestrianized streets of Rouen where only foot traffic is allowed, we passed under the city’s signature monument, the Gros Horloge. Initially constructed around 1170, it served as the western gateway to what was the old Roman town. Walking under the clock face and below its richly decorated arch, stopping at shops along the way, it was hard not to realize much of what we were seeing is as it was centuries ago.

Not far is the Palais de Justice, built between 1499 and 1550 on the former site of the town’s Jewish quarter, destroyed in 1306 after the expulsion of the Jews from France. In 1515 the building began housing a court with legal, political and administrative powers. Continuing that theme, today local police cars can be seen in front of the building that was built centuries before their invention. During European Heritage Days in September, the building is open to the public.

Amid all this history, intertwined with centuries of construction, are storefronts that host viable, working businesses at ground level with housing above.

Looking forward, Rouen has launched a host of development, infrastructure, cultural and environmental projects. Rouen’s museums house the largest Impressionist collection outside of Paris, just a two-hour drive away. An international destination for the performing arts, its opera is set to tour the world. Nearby Seine valley attractions are home to a wide variety of must-see monuments, routes and sights.

But what impressed us most was how history and today are intermingled. Like a movie set, today’s buildings are right on top of yesteryear’s structures as those of the future will be on top of todays. Visitors and residents from around the world mingle to make for people watching that seems like a movie scene but yet happens every day, just as it has for centuries. Our short two-hour walking tour could have lasted far longer and gives good reason to return like generations have throughout much of recorded time.

For more information about Rouen, contact the Office of Tourism at

[Photos- Chris Owen]