Updated on 10 March 2021
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Rouen, situated on the banks of the River Seine, is Normandy’s vibrant, historic and cultural capital. Monet’s famous depictions of Rouen Cathedral have made this vast edifice many visitors’ favourite building in the city, but there are also many fine museums to explore, not to mention the Gros Horloge clock tower, France’s oldest inn La Couronne and the beautiful modern church dedicated to Joan of Arc.
Centuries of history
The Seine was key to Rouen’s development over hundreds of years into one of France’s greatest ports. Romans and Vikings both settled in this part of the Seine Valley, and when the Vikings became Normans in the 10th century, Rouen became Normandy’s capital.
English medieval history is closely linked to Rouen. The Anglo-French kings kept a deep affection for the city. William the Conqueror often held court here. Richard the Lionheart was crowned Duke of Normandy in the city, and literally left his heart there… as would Joan of Arc, much against her will, when, in the second half of the Hundred Years’ War, English forces occupied much of northern France, including Normandy and its capital. After Joan had inspired a lightning series of successes against the English army south along the Loire, she was captured by Burgundians and ransomed off at vast price to the English. Joan was tried by French churchmen in English-ruled Rouen in 1431, ending up on the funeral pyre here in 1431. A new museum in honour of Joan of Arc d’Arc, Historial Jeanne d’Arc, opened in Rouen in 2015, housed in the Archbishop’s Palace next to the cathedral. Further well-established, excellent museums cover different periods of the city’s history and focus on its strong artistic and craft traditions.
Discover Rouen’s historic quarters
In medieval times, lords and the prosperous merchants of the city, as well as commissioning fine homes for themselves, supported the building of great religious buildings. Lined up in a row going from east to west through the centre of town is a string of tremendous churches – Saint-Ouen, Saint-Maclou, Notre Dame Cathedral and the modern church dedicated to Joan of Arc. It wasn’t for nothing that Victor Hugo famously described Rouen as ‘the city of a hundred spires’.
In addition, don’t miss the Gros Horloge astronomic clock, the splendid gothic architecture of the Palais de Justice and the Aître Saint-Maclou, whose carved skull and crossbones make it one of the most striking medieval cemeteries in Europe.
Rouen’s historic centre is also packed with tempting shops and restaurants, and great weekly markets. This being a university town, there is a thriving nightlife too.
The River Seine and its quaysides
Rouen is now focusing its attention on the River Seine, with increasing initiatives to open up the quaysides to the public. Parks and gardens have recently been built along the left bank, while on the right bank, bars, restaurants, nightclubs and the Panorama XXL visitor attraction line the quayside. The recent Rouen Armada maritime festival in June 2019 provided an excellent opportunity for visitors to enjoy everything that this newly-developed part of Rouen has to offer. The next Armada is programmed in May 2023.