A stroll through the quaint old streets of Rouen, in Upper Normandy, feels like a walk back in time. History awaits at every turn, from the Middle Ages to the modern era. For believers, the journey leads a few steps closer to heaven. Rouen has more than 50 religious buildings, and many of the churches are gems of Gothic architecture. Most of the top tourist attractions in Rouen lie within the city’s pedestrian zone, a charming area of winding medieval lanes and picturesque half-timbered houses. Highlights include the magnificent cathedral, the renowned Fine Arts Museum, and the remarkable Gros-Horloge clock tower. In Rouen, visitors can retrace the steps of Joan of Arc to see where she went to trial and where she was martyred. Tourists can also witness the destruction suffered during the Second World War. The exquisite facade of the Palais de Justice still has evidence of shell holes from Allied bombings
1 Cathédrale Notre-Dame
In the heart of the old town, the Cathédrale Notre-Dame is one of the largest and most impressive Gothic cathedrals in France. The cathedral’s main structure was built in the 13th century but the building was not completed until the 16th century. Viewers are dazzled by the elaborate facade, which inspired Impressionist painter Claude Monet. The cathedral’s central doorway was the subject of Monet’s famous painting series. He painted the scene at different times of day to capture the effects of various lighting. Above the facade, two towers loom over the town. The tower on the right is called the Tour du Beurre (Butter Tower) because it was paid for by offerings from the faithful, who in return were permitted to eat butter during Lent. The cathedral also boasts France’s highest spire at 151 meters. Despite damage during the Second World War, the cathedral still has some original stained glass windows.
2 Musée des Beaux-Arts
The Musée des Beaux-Arts ranks among the most important art museums in France. In a shady tree-lined square, this fine arts museum is renowned for its variety and breadth of artistic movements. The collection presents a wide range of paintings, sculptures, drawings, and objets d’art from the 15th century to the 21st century. The most notable works include the 17th-century masterpieces by Caravaggio, Diego Velázquez, Anton van Dyck, Nicolas Poussin, and Philippe de Champaigne, as well as the 19th-century works of Eugène Delacroix; Théodore Géricault; Paul Delaroche; and Impressionists Claude Monet, Alfred Sisley, Camille Pissarro, and Pierre-Auguste Renoir. There are also rooms devoted to landscape art, with paintings by Jean-Baptiste Camille Corot, Hubert Robert, and Gaspar van Wittel.
3 Abbatiale Saint-Ouen
This majestic 14th-century building was created as a church for the powerful Benedictine monastery of Saint-Ouen and is considered a masterpiece of Late Gothic architecture. The building’s tower is topped with a pinnacled section known as the “Crown of Normandy.” With its immense proportions, the abbey’s harmonious vaulted interior offers a peaceful space for spiritual worship. There are 80 exquisite stained-glass windows, which allow light to filter into the sanctuary. In the south transept of the abbey is the Portail des Marmousets that depicts events of the Virgin Mary. Visitors should also be sure to see the famous organ built by Cavaillé-Coll that is often used for recorded musical concerts. On the same square as the abbey stands the Hôtel de Ville (Town Hall), once used as the dormitory for the monastery’s monks. Behind the Hôtel de Ville are the former abbey gardens, now a public park.
4 Aître Saint-Maclou
One of the most interesting tourist attractions in Rouen, the Aître Saint-Maclou is a medieval building that currently houses the Ecole Supérieure d’Art et Design (Regional School of Fine Arts) in the southern gallery. The history of the site dates back to the “Black Death” plague of 1348 that killed a third of the town’s inhabitants. The space that is now a pleasant courtyard was once used for burials, and the buildings surrounding the cemetery served as the ossuary. The building’s galleries feature macabre decor depicting skulls, bones, gravedigger tools, and objects of funeral rites. The skeleton of a cat was discovered in the masonry. During the Middle Ages, cats (especially black cats) were considered to be evil spirits, and the cat would have been enclosed here (while still alive) to protect against bad luck.
5 Palais de Justice and Monument Juif
A splendid example of medieval civilian architecture, the Palais de Justice houses the Rouen Law Courts and was the meeting place of the Parliament of Normandy. This Gothic masterpiece was built by Rolland Le Roux in 1508-1509, damaged during World War II, and subsequently restored. The building is not open for tours, but visitors will be awed by the ornate detailing of the facade and especially the incredible gargoyles. The central wing features a resplendent balustrade, soaring pinnacles, and perforated buttresses. The Palais de Justice was damaged during an Allied bombing in 1944 and the shell holes are still visible in the building’s walls.
In 1976, during a renovation of the Palais de Justice, the remains of a beautiful stone building were uncovered beneath the courtyard. The building was determined to be the lower room of an old Yeshiva (rabbinical school) that dates from 1100. Once uncovered, this Monument Juif (Jewish Monument) was immediately protected by an archaeological crypt. The location, as revealed by the street name (“rue aux Juif” translates to “Street of the Jews”), was at the center of the old Jewish quarter that flourished during the time of William the Conqueror until the expulsion of the Jews in 1306. Rouen’s Monument Juif is the oldest Jewish monument discovered in France. The Monument Juif will be closed for restoration work beginning in the fall of 2017.
6 Tour du Gros-Horloge (Big Clock Tower)
One of the most emblematic sites in the historic center of Rouen, the Gros-Horloge lies just south of the Palais de Justice. From the southeast corner of the Place du Vieux Marché (where the Eglise Jeanne d’Arc is located), the Rue de Gros-Horloge leads to the cathedral. Halfway along this charming route of cobblestone streets and half-timbered houses, the Tour du Gros-Horloge adjoins a Renaissance pavilion. The Gothic belfry tower was built in 1389 for defensive purposes and the decorative clock dates from 1889. The belfry clock still serves its timekeeping functions for the city. Visitors should take a moment to admire the clock’s incredible details. The deity symbolizing the day of the week appears on a triumphal chariot at noon. A globe above the dial shows the phases of the moon, and sheep represent the wool industry. Depicted in the middle of the clock, a Passover lamb represents the arms of the city.
7 Eglise Saint-Maclou
Just a short walk east of the cathedral stands the Eglise Saint-Maclou, considered a jewel of Flamboyant Gothic architecture. The church was built in 1437 and dedicated to Saint-Malo. The twin-towered building has a decorative porch that features Renaissance-era wooden doors embellished with intricately carved Biblical scenes. A blend of different architectural styles is found throughout the church, from the Gothic staircase to the Baroque confessionals. Saint-Maclou Church was severely damaged during WWII and has been well restored. In particular, the belfry was repaired and its five church bells now resound with daily chiming.
8 Eglise Jeanne d’Arc
This surprisingly modern church allows visitors to appreciate the invincible spirit of Joan of Arc, who spent the last days of her life in Rouen. The church was built at the Place du Vieux Marché, the very site where Joan of Arc was martyred (she was burned at the stake in the center of the square). Designed to commemorate the famous saint, the Eglise Jeanne d’Arc was given a radical design. The shape of the church’s roof represents the flames of the stake. Inside the church are spectacular Renaissance stained-glass windows that were taken from the former Church of Saint-Vincent. This contemporary church provides an inspiring place for spiritual worship.
9 Musée Le Secq des Tournelles
Housed in the former Gothic church of Saint Laurent, this unique museum boasts an exceptional collection of antique wrought-ironwork. The 15th-century church building still has its stunning stained-glass windows, including the remarkable “Tree of Jesus” window. The largest museum of its kind in the world, it contains 14,000 items that date from the Gallo-Roman era to the 19th century. The collection covers a wide range and variety of ironwork, such as railings, door knockers, locks, scientific instruments, and jewelry. The collection was donated by Henri Le Secq des Tournelles.
10 Musée de la Céramique
In the elegant Hôtel d’Hocqueville, the Museum of Ceramics displays a wonderful collection of faience and porcelain. The collection includes earthenware from Rouen as well as from other cities such as Delft. Two rooms of the museum are devoted to delicate Sèvres porcelain from the 19th and 20th centuries. There are also examples of Rococo chinoiserie, ceremonial dinnerware sets, and lovely faience sculptures.
11 Tour Jeanne d’Arc
When Joan of Arc was brought to trial in 1431, she was taken to the dungeon of this tower to stand before her judges. Here she endured threats of torture by those who accused her of heresy. The Tour Jeanne d’Arc is the only remaining part of the château built by Philippe Auguste in 1207. The large and imposing cylindrical tower features three superimposed rooms and an attic.