Rouen, the capital of the northern French region of Normandy, stretches along the Seine River and is a major port. The city is historic, full of art and culture, and is known for its excellent food.
An active port city in the Roman era and Middle Ages, Rouen has Gothic churches, and a cobblestoned pedestrian center with medieval half-timbered houses. You'll probably recognize the skyline, as impressionist Claude Monet often painted the spires of the Rouen's Cathedral of Notre-Dame. Rouen is also known as the place where Joan of Arc died in 1431.
Walk Old Rouen
Start your walk through Old Rouen at the Tourist Office, where you can pick up information and a map. It’s directly opposite the cathedral, housed in the old Renaissance building of the Bureau des Finances (finance bureau), built in 1510. From here, wander in any direction through the narrow streets with their Renaissance half-timbered houses built from the 15th to the 18th centuries. To the west of the cathedral don’t miss the Palais de Justice, once the law courts of Normandy, in the rue des Juifs.
The Place du Vieux-Marche, a little further on, was the main gathering and entertainment center of the Middle Ages. Crowds gathered for the daily market and to join in hurling rotten vegetables at the unfortunate people in the stocks. It was also the place for public executions, the most famous being the burning of Joan of Arc.
See the Astronomical Clock
At rue du Gros-Horloge, which connects the Vieux-Marche to the Cathedral, you'll walk under Rouen’s most popular monument: 14th-century astronomical clock. The Gros Horloge, or great clock, is not only a beautiful object but in the Middle Ages when nobody had clocks or watches, it served a practical and vital purpose. The single hand tells the hours, the central section tells the phases of the moon, and the lower part shows the weeks.
The Rue du Gros Horloge is one of Rouen’s main shopping streets with half-timbered houses—they still have visible damage from World War II.
Explore the Gothic Cathedral of Notre-Dame
Stand outside to look at the west entrance and you’re overwhelmed by the carving and pinnacles and the two totally different towers. A carving of Richard Lionheart of 1199 on the left tower is a reminder of how close the histories of England and France were in the Middle Ages. The façade may look familiar even if you’ve not seen it before—Claude Monet used it for a series of 28 paintings to show the different effects of light at varying times of the day.
The interior is elegantly simple, the soaring columns take your eye upward. And it’s full of treasures: the heart of Charles V is preserved in a coffer in the 11th-century crypt; the ambulatory around the choir has the heart of Richard Lionheart, who loved Rouen so much that he requested that his heart stay here in the cathedral choir; Henry, the second son of Henry 11 of England, and William Longsword, Duke of Normandy and son of Rollo (14th century), are buried here. Five lovely, 13th-century stained-glass windows cast their luminous colors over the walls and floors. There’s also a chapel dedicated to Joan of Arc who was burned in Rouen in 1431.
Along one side you’ll see the old statues of the Apostles that were originally on the outside but have been so corroded due to acid rain that they’re being replaced. Many of them are identified by the symbols they carry, such as St. Peter—the first pope, he has the keys to heaven in his hand. It's a visual reminder that in a time when few people could read, this was how the congregation learned the stories.
The Musée des Beaux-Arts de Rouen (Museum of Fine Arts of Rouen) has one of France’s great collections of Impressionist paintings and more, housed in an impressive 19th-century building. It’s arranged chronologically for easy navigation.
From the 15th century come blockbusters like The Virgin among the Virgins, by Gerard David (c.1400–1523), one of the masters of Flemish painting. Then there are paintings by Caravaggio, Velasquez, Van de Velde, and Rubens.
The highlight of the museum are the Impressionist paintings, including stunning works by Ingres, Monet, David, Gericault, Degas, Millet, Renoir, and others. Normandy and Rouen were very dear to the hearts of the Impressionist painters, so it’s wonderful to see those paintings and then step outside and look at the scenes that inspired them. A donation in 1909 made Rouen’s Fine Arts Museum second only to the Musee d’Orsay in Paris in its Impressionist collection.
The high, wooden-arched roof of the modern church of St. Joan of Arc comes as something of a surprise among the medieval buildings of Rouen’s historic center. The church is on the Place du Vieux-Marche and is well worth a visit. Finished in 1979, it looks like an upturned ship—a reminder of the importance of the sea, which can be reached from Rouen via the Seine river. The 13 panels of superb 16th century Renaissance stained glass, rescued from St. Vincent’s Church after it was bombed in 1944, are remarkable, casting glorious, jewel-like colors into the calm space of the church.
The Historial Jeanne d'Arc, housed in the old Archbishop's Palace, is an attraction that takes you through the life and times of Joan of Arc, using multimedia in an imaginative way that draws you into one of the greatest, and most tragic, stories.
The Musée de la Ceramique (Ceramics Museum) in the 17th-century Hotel d’Hocqueville has a collection stretching from the 16th to the 18th century of the Rouen faience (tin-glazed pottery on a tan earthenware body) that made Rouen one of Europe’s most famous centers for earthenware. Rouen’s first famous maker was De Masseot Abaquesne, who worked here from 1524 to 1557. His tiles and portrait vases show the delicacy and fine drawing of the early Rouen school.
The museum has around 6,000 pieces, two-thirds of which are from Rouen. Rouen pottery might have declined from 1800 onward, but it was as famous as the better-known names of Lille and Nevers, Delft and Sèvres.
Just outside the center of Rouen, the Jardin des Plantes (Botanical Garden) is a year-round garden. The 25-acre park celebrates the spring season with irises and tumbling wisteria, camellias, and rhododendrons. In summer, the air is full of the delicate scent of hundreds of roses; autumn sees wonderful foliage colors and gold chrysanthemums. In winter, you can explore the tropical hothouses for more exotic plants and flowers.
There’s a picnic area, a place where children can play, and this being France, even an area reserved for games of boules, similar to Italian bocce.
Shop the Public Markets
Rouen is home to weekly markets selling flowers, food, and, on certain days, used goods and antiques. The market of Clos Saint-Marc located in Place Saint-Marc is the largest market in Rouen and carries a wide variety of local goods and has a flea market on Fridays and Saturdays. It's open Tuesday through Sunday.
The Vieux-Marché in Rouen’s Old Market Square has stalls selling fruits, vegetables, and flowers (and on Saturday serves as a flea market). The market is open Tuesday through Sunday. Both markets open early, usually between 6 and 7 a.m.
Another of Rouen's gothic churches, Église Saint-Maclou, the Church of Saint-Maclou, has carvings above the entrance that show Jesus in the middle and the path to heaven or hell on His right and left sides. Walk down Rue Martainville from the church to see the Ossuary of Saint-Maclou, which housed bones of those who died in an outbreak of plague in 1348. The bones were removed in the 1700s, but you can see the carvings of skulls and bones on the timbers.
Inside the decommissioned Church of Saint-Laurent, another ornate church, you'll find an antique ironwork museum (Musée Le Secq des Tournelles) with shop and pub signs, tools, ornate hangars, and even jewelry dating back to the 1500s.
Look up to see the larger pieces and peer into the glass cabinets to see the jewelry and smaller things. These items were collected by Henri Secq Tournelles, a painter who studied in Paris and Rome and who became one of the first photographers in France—he gave the collection to the museum in the 1920s.