Far from the sea and full of history, Rouen is often overlooked in favour of more iconic sites like Mont-Saint-Michel, Saint-Malo, and Étretat. After all, it’s doesn’t lie along the Norman coastline, nor is it particularly close to any other point of interest other than itself. But, truth be told, no trip to Normandy would be complete without dedicating at least a few hours to exploring what this French city has to offer. From food to towering spires to medieval architecture there’s plenty to see and do. Here’s a quick guide to Rouen; all of the places you can’t miss and the sites you should make sure to see.
A Quick Guide to Rouen and its Medieval History
Lying on the banks of the Seine, Rouen was known as ‘Rotomagus‘ in Latin and ‘Rodomo‘ in Frankish, a local language which was spoken between the 4th and 8th centuries CE. Between the Roman era and medieval times, Rouen was one of the main hubs of trade and a strategic point in France’s geography.
Following the Viking invasions of France in the 9th Century, the great Viking leader Rollo went on to become the first leader of the newly established Norman state. And after the success of the Vikings, Rouen became home base to the Anglo-Norman kings in the 11th century. The most famous of these kings was William the Conqueror, a direct descendant of Rollo himself.
Leaders who emerged from Rouen would rule the Norman empire (large swathes of France) and much of modern-day England. By 1150 (at the peak of the first ‘renaissance’ period in France) the population of the city hovered around 30,000, making it one of the largest in the medieval world. This great number of residents also meant that Rouen was allowed to self-govern.
Renaissance Periods and Trade Importance of Rouen
By 1150 (at the peak of the first ‘renaissance’ period in France) the population of the city hovered around 30,000, making it one of the largest settlements in the medieval world. Other important medieval cities during this time included Avignon in Provence, and the medieval city of Provins, which was famed for its annual ‘champagne fairs’.
The great number of residents within the city limits meant that Rouen was allowed to self-govern. The town’s popularity grew over the following centuries and it developed a well-known textile trade, exporting all manner of fabrics to England. ‘Champagne fairs’ were also held annually. This allowed traders from all over the region to congregate, trade and sell wares.
In the 15th century, Rouen was invaded once again, this time by the Plantagenet family from England. Henry V of England invaded the city, recognizing its strategic historical and political importance. in the rich tapestry of French history. The population of the city at this point numbered 70,000.
During the centuries that followed, the importance of Rouen was little diminished. And by the Renaissance period (15th-century), the city was the fourth largest in the country after Paris, Marseille, and Lyon. Tragically, Rouen was heavily damaged during the Secon World War and so much of the medieval-esque architecture has been heavily restored in the past few decades.
Rouen Cathedral (Cathedrale Notre-Dame de Rouen)
Once the highest building in the world, Rouen Cathedral definitely shouldn’t be missed on a trip to the city. And to be honest, with its high spiralling towers and envious position in the centre of town, it would be hard to actually miss (ha!). The highest point of the cathedral reaches 151 meters into the air.The infamous ‘butter tower’ was paid for using money inhabitants of
The infamous ‘butter tower’ (Tour de Beurre), to the West side of the church, was paid for using money inhabitants of Rouen. Myth has it that the funds used to construct the tower were collected from churchgoers as penance for consuming butter during the lent period.
Oh, and the interior is no less interesting than the cathedral’s detailed exterior! After all, it’s the final resting place of legendary figures such as Richard the Lionheart (who actually spent most of his life and reign in France) and Rollo the Viking. Also, one of my boyfriend’s ancestors, or so he tells me…
A visit to the Cathedral will demonstrate just why Rouen has inspired artists and writers alike in the centuries since it was built. The famous impressionist painter Monet loved the cathedral so much that he painted it 28 times and a number of pieces of the collection are now on display at the Louvre.
Gros Horloge of Rouen
The fourteenth-century Gros Horloge (Great Clock) sits in pride of place at the centre of the city, not far from the Cathedral. The astronomical clock has one of the oldest working mechanisms in France, if not the world. Electrified at some point in the 1920s, the juxtaposition of the charming lean of the tower and its golden highlights have inspired artists such as Turner and Lemaître.
When I posted a photo of the Great Clock to my Instagram account last night, the first thing one of my friends remarked was that it looks a lot like the clock in Totnes, Devon, South-West England. However, these striking similarities become that much less surprising when you consider that the clocks were constructed at similar times within the same empire.
Wandering the medieval Streets of Rouen
Walking around the restored medieval quarter is akin to stepping back in time, albeit while maintaining the conveniences of the modern era. There are no open sewers or risk of catching the plague here any longer (thank goodness). Stepping down the narrow cobblestone streets, you really get a glimpse of how crowded the town must have once been. Spending a few hours getting lost in the town centre is truly a pleasure. Particularly if you have a camera in tow…
The Legendary of Joan of Arc
The legendary figure and young French heroine of Joan of Arc has cemented her place in history and is well deserved of the accolades accorded to her throughout France. Born at the beginning of 1412 CE to poor rural farmers, she lived a short life and died at the tender age of 19, having accomplished more things that many could hope to conquer within a lifetime.
Fiercely religious, powerful quotes attributed to her include “I am not afraid… I was born to do this” and “I was in my thirteenth year when I heard a voice from God to help me govern my conduct. And the first time I was very much afraid.” Joan of Arc is said to have once visited the historic city of Senlis, and likely attended mass in the medieval basilica at Provins.
Often nicknamed ‘La Pucelle d’Orléans’ (the maid of Orleans), Joan of Arc was born during the Hundred Year War, a fierce struggle between the French and the English over who would be the next heir to the French crown.
Aged just 18, she led a victory against the English in Orléans, hence her nickname. However, by the time she was 19, Joan of Arc was captured in Rouen by the English, who by this point were in control of the city. She was tried for heresy and put to death, burned at the stake in the heart of Rouen or so it is alleged.
Capture of Joan of Arc, Adolf Alexander Dillens, Circa 1850, Courtesy of Wikipedia
Richard the Lionheart and Rouen Cathedral
The famous English King, Richard the Lionheart was actually kind of French. Simultaneously to his English rule in the 12th-Century, he held the titles of Duke of Normandy, Aquitaine, and Gascony. Now, it is in Rouen Cathedral that you’ll the Lionheart’s tomb and final resting place.
In fact, Richard the Lionheart, or ‘Richard, Coeur de Lion’ was pretty much entirely French because, like much of the nobility of the time, he barely spoke a word of English and spent the majority of his life in Normandy (modern day France). During his ten year reign, he barely spent six months in England itself.
Napoleon I in Rouen and life in the Normandy Capital Today
You never have to go far in France before stumbling on a statue, plaque or 2.5 x life-sized effigy to the famous leader. Unlike previous leaders in centuries gone by, Napoleon did not rely heavily on Rouen as a power base, nor did he give it much importance.
By the time of Napoleon’s rule in the 19th century, Rouen had lost much of its importance in the European political scene. Today it is a lovely place to visit, full of intriguing history and there is always a new secret to be uncovered. Of all the things covered within this guide to Rouen, one of the very best things to do in this medieval city is simply to see where your feet will take you…
Read more: Best things to do in Normandy
Where to stay in Rouen, Normandy
While it’s possible to explore some of the best attractions in Rouen over the course of the day, if you truly want to get a taste for the best of the city, then I highly recommend staying for a long weekend. After all, the capital of the Normandy region is packed with cultural activities and historical things to do!
Mid-range accommodation in Rouen
Le Vieux Carré: Timber framed and complete with a pretty garden and tearoom, Le Vieux Carré is located in the historic centre of old town Rouen. All rooms have free WiFi and breakfast is available for an extra fee.
Hotel Mercure Rouen Centre Cathedrale: Located just steps away from the beautiful Rouen Cathedral, the hotel itself is situated within a half-timbered frame building and is well rated across review websites.
Luxury accommodation in Rouen
Chambres d’Hôtes La Maison: This typically French accommodation follows the maison d’hotes formula where you stay in a home away from home that’s extra luxurious. Located within a former mansion house, and steps away from a beautiful garden, this truly is a getaway from it all.
Hotel de Bourgtheroulde, Autograph Collection: This incredibly luxurious hotel is situated in the heart of historic Rouen. This 5-star accommodation has a spa, restaurant serving traditional French cuisine and is an amazing place from which to base yourself to explore Rouen.