Last Updated on 23rd September 2022 by Sophie Nadeau
Ancient, magical and medieval, the charming city of Rouen is the capital of Normandy and well worth a visit on any trip to the region. Here’s a guide to the best things to do in Rouen, as well as things to know before you go!
If you’re travelling in Northern France, then there’s no shortage of amazing sites to visit. Rugged coastline, traditional French cuisine, friendly locals: all are great reasons to go ahead and plan a trip to Normandy. And while the capital of Normandy, Rouen, may not be as famous as other French hotspots, you should definitely visit Rouen on a venture through the region…
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. From food to towering spires to medieval architecture there’s plenty to see and do.
- What is Rouen known for?
- A history of Rouen
- Why visit Rouen?
- Best things to do in Rouen
- Visit the Gros Horloge of Rouen
- Discover the history of Rouen
- Rouen Cathedral
- Musée des Beaux-Arts de Rouen
- Jardin des Plantes de Rouen
- Discover the foodie scene of Rouen
- Admire the timber framed houses of Rouen
- Palais de Justice
- Tour Jeanne d’Arc
- Ceramics Museum (Musée de la céramique de Rouen)
- Explore the old town of Rouen
- Musée Le Secq des Tournelles
- Church of Saint-Maclou
- Musée Flaubert et d’Histoire de la Médecine
- Historial Jeanne d’Arc
- Old Market Square (Place du Vieux Marché)
- Visit the Rouen Christmas Market/ Rouen Givrée (frosty Rouen)
- Take a day trip from Rouen
- Things to know before visiting Rouen for the first time
- Frequently Asked Questions about Rouen
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What is Rouen known for?
Rouen is most famous for being the city where Joan of Arc was tried and executed (the French heroine was burned at the stake).
Throughout history, the city has been well documented for having a fabulous art scene, something which is still true to this day. During the 20th-century, the likes of Claude Monet, as well as many others, ventured to the city and were even inspired to paint the town.
Today, Rouen is a city of mainly ‘onlys’. For example, the city has the most classified buildings of any city in France. Attractions such as the cathedral, the parliament buildings, and the Grand Horloge are all protected under French law.
A history of Rouen
Beginnings to 12th-century
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.
12th-century – present day
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 Second World War and so much of the medieval-esque architecture has been heavily restored in the past few decades.
Why visit Rouen?
Northern France is a unique area which is like nowhere else in the rest of Europe. While the medieval town of Rouen may not be as famous as the chalky cliffs of Etretat, or as impressive as Mont-Saint-Michel but that doesn’t mean it should be overlooked.
Some of the best reasons to visit Rouen include endless cobbled lanes, one of the most impressive clock towers in France, and a cathedral that was once the tallest building in Europe.
Visit in the spring and you can expect to enjoy the city without the crowds, while the summer months will surely guarantee the best weather. Meanwhile, winter is offseason, resulting in lower prices, while the fall promises pretty fall colours.
Whether you want to see some botanical gardens, have a base from which to explore the rolling hills of the Normandy region, or simply want to snap some cityscapes (complete with timber-framed façades), there’s no denying that Rouen is incredibly pretty!
Now, many of Rouen’s streets remain pedestrianised, meaning that a stroll through the town truly feels akin to stepping back in time. No cars, cobbled lanes, a harbour area, and even an antique district: what’s not to love? Visit Rouen during June-September and you’ll even be treated to a free lights display at the cathedral when the sun sets and dusk sets in…
Best things to do in Rouen
Of course, there are certain photo spots and ‘Instagram’ locations in the magical city of Rouen that you won’t want to miss. There are also plenty of cafés, eateries and museums, as well as a whole host of stunning places to stay. Here are all of the very best things to do in Rouen:
Visit the 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.
Easily one of the most beautiful clocks in France, there’s a small museum located nearby and the Gros Horloge contains one of the oldest working time movements in France. And while the exterior of the clock can be admired 24/7, for a fee you can even enter the tower.
Discover the history of Rouen
If you love history, France, and lots of culture, then you should definitely invest in a Rouen Visit. Joan of Arc, Richard the Lionheart, and a plethora of other names you’ll recognise from all the history books: a trip to Rouen ensures a history lesson in real life.
Wander through the centre of the city and you can expect to find one of the oldest working clocks in France, oodles of timber-framed houses, and even the very location where Jeanne d’Arc was alleged to have been burned at the stake.
One of the best examples of Gothic architecture in France is Rouen Cathedral. The final resting place of Richard the Lionheart (though not his heart), as well as many other famous kings and historical figures, Rouen Cathedral reached 151 metres in height and was once the tallest building in the world.
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.
Today, its beautiful gothic-style façade and high vaulted interiors really are a sight to see! Free to enter and wander around, once inside you can expect to see the tomb of Rollo the Viking, as well as a series of stunning stained glass windows.
Musée des Beaux-Arts de Rouen
This fine art museum contains objets d’art and intricate antiques from all over France. First inaugurated in 1801, and shortly after the French Revolution, today the museum primarily houses collections of items dating from the 1500s-1900s.
Jardin des Plantes de Rouen
This green space is an oasis just outside the heart of the city. Jardin des Plantes is Rouen’s largest green space and is filled with amazing plants to see year-round. From wisteria in the spring to roses in the summer months, the gardens are almost always in bloom. In the winter time, you can visit the garden’s extensive greenhouses, where plants thrive even in the coldest of months.
Discover the foodie scene of Rouen
Locally produced food and cuisine come in abundance when it comes to Rouen. Normandy is well-known across France for its sea-inspired menus, freshly brewed tipples, and delectable sweets.
While in the city, when you’re not munching on French pastries, be sure to sample a ‘Kir Norman’. This alcoholic beverage is made with Normandy cider, a local speciality and is a take on the more traditional Southern drink of the ‘Kir Royale‘.
In fact, when it comes to this Northern French area, apple-infused products can be found around every turn. One of the more famous drinks from the region is ‘Calvados’. This apple brandy is used in cocktails, sipped on its own, and even used in desserts (where it’s poured over ice cream!)
Those who want to discover even more about the sweet side of Rouen cuisine together with a local guide should consider booking a guided tour like this one.
Admire the timber framed houses 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 pretty architecture of the timber-framed houses is part of what makes Rouen so iconic as a city. Some of my favourite houses in Rouen can be found in the streets surrounding the Gros Horloge. And so, if you’re looking to snap some picture perfect moments while in Rouen, you’ll soon discover plenty when wandering around the historic city centre.
Palais de Justice
Located right beside the grand Rouen Cathedral, you’ll find the Palais de Justice (Rouen Courthouse). Its façade has a gothic exterior and perfect for photography! Now classed as a historic monument, construction of this building commenced at the end of the 15th-century.
Tour Jeanne d’Arc
Of all the Rouen attractions to be found in the Normandy capital, the Joan of Arc tower is easily one of the most impressive. The last remaining piece of a once impressive Rouen Castle, the tower was built in 1204 by Philippe Auguste. Today, the building is home to an escape room game.
Ceramics Museum (Musée de la céramique de Rouen)
Situated in a 17th-Century townhouse, this museum displays plenty of ceramics dating from the 16th to the 18th-Centuries. In total, almost 6000 items are housed and displayed here. Though most of the pottery dates back only a few centuries, some of the oldest artefacts were made as early as the 12th-century!
Explore the old town of Rouen
Of all the very best things to do in Rouen, wandering the city may well be one of my favourites. Many French cities are best explored on foot and Rouen is no exception.
Wander through the old town part of the city to find some of the prettiest streets and quirkiest architecture. Check out our free and self-guided Rouen walking tour for a lovely stroll through the Normandy capital.
Musée Le Secq des Tournelles
The museum dedicated to wrought iron is one of the quirkiest places to see in Rouen. Situated within the walls of a former church, here you’ll find collections of all kinds of things; including pub signs, old keys, vintages locks, etc. Easily one of the best hidden gems of Rouen, this cultural space is open from Thursdays through to Tuesdays each week.
Church of Saint-Maclou
The imposing cathedral that sits in the very heart of the city isn’t the only beautiful or fascinating church in town! The gothic architecture of Saint-Maclou is well worth a look, if only to learn about its complicated history and see its macabre architecture.
The church of Aître Saint-Maclou also has a unique history. While the site of this ecclesiastical building has been used as a burial ground since antiquity, the place became a true cemetery when over half of the local population died during the Plague. Today, Aître Saint-Maclou is home to lots of morbid carvings, as well as a mummified cat.
Musée Flaubert et d’Histoire de la Médecine
Located in a former hospital, you’ll find a museum dedicated to all things medicine related. Now classified as a historic monument, the museum only costs a few euros to enter and here you’ll find quirky sights to see such as the birth room of Gustave Flaubert.
Historial Jeanne d’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.
Set over five floors, this museum is dedicated to the life and times of Joan of Arc, who was tried in the city of Rouen in the 1400s. Since her trial and execution (which many historians believe took place in a square not far from the Gros Horloge), she has become a national icon in France. For more Jeanne d’Arc in France, here’s how to follow in the footsteps of Joan of Arc.
Old Market Square (Place du Vieux Marché)
This picturesque market square is as pretty at night as during the day (so pretty much all the time!) All timber-framed houses and sloping rooftops, it makes for a very cute picture (and can often be found in snaps on Instagram).
Visit the Rouen Christmas Market/ Rouen Givrée (frosty Rouen)
If you happen to be visiting the city in the winter, then you may well be lucky enough to get the chance to visit the Rouen Christmas Market. Though not as popular or large as the Christmas Markets of Strasbourg, the market is known as Rouen Givrée (frosty Rouen).
This event sees over seventy market stalls set up on the cathedral square. On Place du Vieux Marché, there’s a giant ferris wheel, as well as an ice skating rink. In 2021, the Rouen Christmas Market will be held from the 25th November to the 26th December 2021.
Take a day trip from Rouen
If you give yourself just one reason to visit Rouen, then make it this: Rouen is a great place from which to explore Normandy, Spend a long weekend in the city, exploring the attractions Rouen has to offer, as well as making the most of the great transport links nearby.
After all, from here you can easily visit plenty of French castles or some small Normandy towns. One of the best day trips from Rouen is to Saint Martin de Boscherville, a traditional settlement which dates back to the Middle Ages and is home to the 12th-century Abbey of Saint-Georges de Boscherville.
If you have access to a car, then another great day trip from the Normandy capital is that of the Route des Abbayes (Abbey Route). As its name would suggest, this historic way stretches between Rouen and Le Havre, passing by many an ancient and fascinating abbey en route.
Things to know before visiting Rouen for the first time
Fancy leaving Paris and exploring some of the rest of France? Well, this three-day long weekend Normandy trip is an itinerary you’ll totally want to steal. Otherwise, if you’re short on time, the city of Rouen can easily be visited as a day trip from Paris! However, it’s worth noting that this will end up being a fairly long day trip as you’ll be on the train for several hours in each direction.
You should also know that while most people you’ll encounter in the tourist industry will speak English, it’s only polite to learn a few words of French. ‘Please,’ ‘Thank you,’ ‘Hello,’ and ‘Sorry’ are a great place to start. For more information, consider purchasing a simple French phrasebook like this one.
Finally, if you’re looking to make a weekend trip of your visit to Rouen, then you should consider booking your place to stay well in advance. After all, while not nearly as popular as Paris or Provence, the best places fill up quickly, especially so in the summer months when the city can get pretty busy. like this one
Frequently Asked Questions about Rouen
How many people live in Rouen?
As of 2015, the population of Rouen was 110,169.
Is Rouen safe?
The touristic areas of Rouen are generally as safe as other European destinations. With this being said, pickpocketing can happen all over Europe and so you should never leave your valuables lying around or unattended. I also recommend always wearing a crossbody bag like these ones.
Free things to do in Rouen
Those visiting Rouen on a budget will be pleased to know that there are a number of low cost activities and attractions on offer. Some of the best free things to do in Rouen include visiting the cathedral, admiring the old clock, and wandering through the many cobbled streets of the city.