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 (House of the Exchequer), 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 entertainment center of the Middle Ages. Crowds gathered for the daily market and to join in hurling rotten vegetables at the unfortunate in the stocks. It was also the place for public executions, the most famous being the burning of Joan of Arc.
Other sights not to miss include the rue du Gros-Horloge, which connects the Vieux-Marche to the Cathedral. Here you’ll walk under Rouen’s most popular monument. The 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.
Gothic Cathedral of Notre-Dame
The Cathedral of Notre-Dame is a glorious, flamboyant, Gothic extravaganza. Started in 1200 then reconstructed after a fire, it was rebuilt again in the 15th and 16th centuries.
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 taking your eye upwards. 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 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 also 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 here 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 like St. Peter who has the keys to heaven in his hand. It's a graphic reminder that in a time when few people could read, this was how the congregation learned the stories.
The Museum of Fine Arts in Rouen has one of France’s great collections of Impressionist paintings and more, housed in an impressive 19th-century building. It’s arranged chronologically so is easy to navigate.
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 is the Impressionist paintings, including stunning works by Ingres, Monet, David, Gericault, Degas, Millet, Renoir and more. Normandy and Rouen were very dear to the hearts of the Impressionist painters, so it’s wonderful to see those paintings, 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.
There’s an excellent restaurant, Le Sisley, in the Sculpture Garden open during museum hours
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 well worth a visit. Finished in 1979 it looks like an upturned ship, a reminder of the importance of the sea, reached along 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.
In 2017 a new attraction opened in Rouen, the Historial Jeanne d'Arc. Housed in the old Archbishop's Palace, it 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 - story.
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 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 and his tiles and portrait vases show the delicacy and fine drawing of the early Rouen school.
The museum has around 6,000 pieces of which two-thirds are from Rouen. Rouen pottery might have declined from 1800 onwards, but it was as famous as the better-known names of Lille and Nevers, Delft and Sèvres. The museum is currently being renovated, so some galleries may be closed.
Just outside the center of Rouen, the Jardin des Plantes (Botanical Garden) is a garden for all the year. 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 plunge into the tropical hothouses for more exotic plants and flowers.
There’s a picnic area, somewhere children can play and this being France, even an area reserved for games of boules.