There’s a rivalry in Normandy. Caen and Rouen vie for the title of the region’s premier city. So after visiting Caen in June it’s only fair that I give Rouen its chance to impress, right? Right. I’m off to Rouen.
I’m visiting as a guest of Normandy Tourism, the sponsor of my trip to France. I’m going to spend 4 days in Rouen taking in the city and its environs. From restaurants to sightseeing and cycling, there’s a lot on my itinerary.
I travel from London to Rouen by train via Paris, arriving on a sunny autumn afternoon. It’s a 15-minute walk from the train station to my accommodation, the Hôtel de Bourgthéroulde. It’s housed in a 15th-century property with a beautiful courtyard and carved stonework.
After getting settled, I start sightseeing. Rouen’s city center is compact and easy to walk around, so I spend a lot of my time exploring medieval streets and admiring Gothic spires.
Rouen is famous for its Joan of Arc connections—she was burned at the stake here—and its cathedral—Monet painted it over and over (and I get a chance to stand in the spot where he painted, which is now in the Tourism Office).
Rouen is also known for its astronomical clock. The Gros-Horloge sits above an arch over a pedestrianized street, its 14th-century facade glowing golden. I climb the Renaissance-era building that surrounds it, circling up steps as an audio-guide fills me in on its history.
When I get to the top, I’m rewarded with amazing views of Rouen. From the cathedral to the half-timbered houses, the whole city is on display.
Fete du Ventre, Rouen
And it’s not all that’s on display. There’s food, too. My visit coincides with the annual Fête du Ventre in Rouen. This food festival sees the streets and squares fill with stalls offering everything from pink macarons to heart-shaped cheeses.
Local produce, cider, apples, pears, and other regional delicacies fill the air with their colors. I walk through the festival, letting my senses succumb to the scents of chocolate and cheese, the sights of skillets sizzling with sausages, the feel of the warmth of open fires cooking crepes, and the sounds of live brass bands and guitar music.
Men shuck scallops and dip chocolates by the dozen, women dance in traditional dress, chefs demonstrate cooking techniques, and I take it all in as I make my rounds.
Food Markets in Rouen
But the festival isn’t the only place to get in the foodie spirit. Rouen’s Sunday morning food and flea market on the Place Saint-Marc is another mecca.
I head over, absorbing the bright flowers, antique books, and fat garlic bulbs as rotisserie chickens lend me their heat and galettes hiss on the griddle. The scent of olives and sound of bonjour fill my nose and ears, and the fresh produce has me wondering how much room I have in my suitcase.
Fruit Trail in Rouen
The only thing better than taking all the produce home is going to see where it’s grown. On my second day in Rouen I head off on the Fruit Trail, a 39-mile route that traverses orchards and incorporates architectural heritage along the loops of the Seine.
I pick up a bike from the Jumièges tourism office and cycle along apple orchards. The harvest is underway, and I watch as locals pluck the fruit from the trees and place it in wooden boxes. All the while the white cliffs along the river throw heat and light down from the sun.
When I return, I indulge in more of the area’s history with a visit to the Jumièges Abbey ruins. The hollow halls come to life with a 3D app that allows me to see what they once looked like, and the fields around them offer a respite from the city.
Not far away, I visit the Saint-Georges de Boscherville Abbey. This one is more intact than Jumièges Abbey, and I’m able to explore the 12th-century church and take in its Romanesque architecture.
Outside I admire the gardens and chapel, which have been restored to their former glory. The gardens are still in full bloom even though the autumn leaves are starting to show.
My final stop on the Fruit Trail is La Bouille, a riverfront village that inspired the Impressionists. It’s full of charming streets and views across the water, and I can see what attracted the painters here all those years ago.
Restaurants in Rouen
My day on the Fruit Trail has made me work up an appetite, and back in Rouen I find plenty to satisfy it.
I have a lot of good meals during my trip, but a couple stand out. The first is a dinner at La Galerie, a restaurant off the Old Market Square where a creative chef brings local produce to life.
The second is a lunch at Dame Cakes, a cafe near the cathedral with a secret garden, Mariage Frères tea, and pretty-in-pink everything.
I also have a good dinner at In Situ, a restaurant by the Museum of Fine Arts (I discover an excellent art collection and lots of Impressionist paintings in the museum during my trip).
And that’s to say nothing of a creative brunch at L’Empreinte, where the scrambled eggs with mustard and cheese go down a treat (and the hot chocolate even more so).
Less exciting are meals at Les Gens Heureux and Auberge des Ruines, where the flavors don’t quite live up to their promise.
Streets in Rouen
By the time I’m done eating, I need some exercise. I spend the rest of my time in Rouen walking down narrow lanes like the Rue des Chanoines, which transports me back in time.
I take in the umbrellas hanging over the Rue Massacre, and the half-timbered houses on nearly every other street in the city center.
I wander through the Gothic churches, which in any other city would be the main event but in Rouen take a backseat to the cathedral.
I explore the museums, where the Musée Le Secq des Tournelles houses a collection of ironwork in a deconsecrated church.
I walk through the parks, where I marvel that it’s mid-October and I’m wearing a T-shirt amidst the changing leaves.
And eventually I wander back to my hotel to check out and head home. But I’m not just carrying the bags I arrived with. No, I’m bringing back the memories of all the sights and sounds, tastes and scents with me.
And it’s a good thing, too, because it’s going to take me a while to choose between Rouen and Caen. I might even need a few more trips back to each before I can make up my mind. In fact, that’s exactly what I need. I’ll keep you posted…
This post is sponsored by Normandy Tourism.
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