Rouen in France: best things to do in the city of Joan of Arc

If there’s one town on my itinerary in Normandy that struck me, it’s definitely Rouen. It is famous for being the city where Joan of Arc was killed in that square (Vieux-Marché) where there is now the “Eglise Sainte Jeanne d’Arc“. Rouen is also called the city of a hundred bell towers. At the end of your visit to Rouen, you will understand why… there are churches everywhere!

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A detail in Rouen

Rouen has become part of history for both past and relatively recent events. Because of its important role in the supply of goods, during the Second World War it was the scene of several bombings that marked it in a special way.

I don’t want to anticipate everything, however, continue to read the post and find out more about Rouen.

Itinerary of the best things to do in Rouen: walking route

Visiting Rouen is a delight. My advice is to do it strictly on foot, also because I suspect there aren’t many other options. This Norman city is quite intimate. We can say that the historical center is condensed all around the cathedral in a radius not greater than 200/300 meters.

Apart from the main streets that run around the centre, those inside Rouen are not very busy and mostly pedestrian. There is no shortage of parking so if you were to drive to Rouen by car, you will have no problem parking.

I would like you to follow the same route that I did on foot because I think it is a pleasant walk to explore the city.

1 – Place Saint-Marc and one of its markets

The starting point for this day in Rouen city will be the car park in Place Saint-Marc.

Why here? For two reasons.

The first is that it is an easily accessible car park as it is located outside the busiest spots. The second because it is the place where you will immediately get in touch with the local people and the fantastic products of Normandy.

The parking lot is located just below the square where you will find the market. Once outside you will find yourself in the middle of all kinds of cheeses. As you know Normandy is famous for its cheeses. This will be the best place in Rouen to buy them.

Since the route I am recommending to you will end up back in Place Sain-Marc, remember to buy them on the way back and not on the way out.

The street in front of the square, called Rue Armand Carrel, is also a great place to do some shopping. There are many shops eft and right, many are typical French delicacies. I visited Rouen on Saturday, all I can tell you is that in all the shops there was a queue. So I assume they are very reputed.

2 – From Place Saint-Marc to Eglise Saint Maclau

Rouen is quite small and the road from the square to the church is short. However, it is along this short stretch that you will cross one of the most characteristic areas to see in Rouen.

From the square you will have to follow Rue Martanville which will narrow down after a few meters and on the right you will see some houses with peculiar wooden facades. These are called wooden half-timbered houses.

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Wooden half-timbered houses in Rouen

Rue Martanville ends just near the church of Saint Maclau. It is an imposing church in flamboyant Gothic style that stands on a small square whose houses all have wooden facades.

The church adheres to the opening hours and during the lunch break it closes. I suggest you to reach it before closing time because it would be a shame not to be able to visit it.

Why do you have to go in there?

Not necessarily for pure religious reasons but if anything for historical reasons. The church of Saint Maclau was heavily damaged (along with the cathedral and the whole city) by a bombing in June 1944 that hit it in 5 points. (Read also: Focusing on D-day Normandy landing sites and beaches). It took many, many years to restore this gem of Rouen and reopen it to worshippers. Inside the church, displays recall the events of those years and retrace the history of the reconstruction of the church.

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Saint Maclau

Tip: it has nothing to do with religious aspects. Since the area is particularly full of pastry shops of all kinds, this is the place where you can try French pastry. If I were you, I’d grab an Eclair full of chocolate.

3 – Heading towards the beautiful Cathedral of Notre Dame in Rouen

Another great things to see in Rouen.

Rouen is the city of a hundred bell towers, you cannot fail to visit the most important bell tower of the city, its Cathedral.

Leaving the church of Saint Maclau to your back and following Rue Saint Romain, you will find the cathedral on your left.

Then you’ll have two options: enter from the side entrance or walk all the way to the main entrance.

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The side entrance of the Rouen Cathedral

The cathedral of Notre Dame in Rouen is a must see. It is giant and has been the subject of many paintings of the impressionist painter Monet. Its spire reaches 151 metres. It is the highest in France and you will notice it even better if you climb the Sainte Catherine hill next to Rouen. Thanks to the spire, you will always be able to spot the centre of Rouen.

The cathedral was also hit in several parts during the 1944 bombings. It also remained closed for many years, although for a shorter period compared to Eglise Saint Maclau. Looking up towards the end of the nave you can see different colours in the ceiling due to the post-World War II repairs.

4 – From the Cathedral of Notre Dame to Joan of Arc Square

Leaving Rouen Cathedral behind you, you’ll have to turn into Rue du Gros Hologe. Halfway along this pedestrian street with its medieval atmosphere and classic wooden half-timbered houses, you will walk under the Gros Horologe, a clock with allegorical figures representing the days and lunar phases.

Further on, you will reach the Place du Vieux Marché, the square where Joan of Arc was burned. Here, ancient and modern live together and there is also one of the city’s markets. It is a covered market. I recommend you to make a stop because it is even more niche than the Place Saint-Marc market.

5 – A walk on the Seine river

Rouen is part of the Seine Maritime and was built on the Seine. This important French river separates the city in two. On the right side the old part and therefore the historical centre of Rouen. On the left side the modern and industrial part that stretches for miles and miles. The Seine is navigable and is itself an attraction. On its shores there are giant boats awaiting to sail out to sea. Every 5 years, all heads turn on Rouen because of Armada, a parade of the most beautiful sailing ships in the world, is celebrated. It could be a great opportunity to visit Rouen.

So I advise you to enjoy a little walk along the waterfront.

To reach it from the Place du Vieux Marché, take Place du la Pucelle and then Rue Saint Eloi which ends right on the Seine. Here, keeping the Seine on your right, you can enjoy the river.

6 – From the Seine to the Museum of Fine Arts in Rouen passing through Saint Ouen

When you will cross the Avenue Champlain bridge you could go back and visit two of Rouen’s museums: the Musée des Beaux-Arts and the Musée des Tournelles. I missed the former, but I visited the latter, which, among other things, features free exhibitions. As far as I understand the museum is inside a deconsecrated church and therefore very particular.

To get to the museums, from the Seine, you just have to walk all along Rue de la Rèpublique to the Town Hall Square, where you will then take the Rue Jean Lecanuet. 200 meters afterwards you will find the museums on your right.

Near the Town Hall you will see yet another bell tower, yet another giant Gothic church. You will understand why it is called the city of a hundred bell towers.

Returning near Saint Ouen and the gardens behind it, take Rue Armand Carrel and you will find yourself in the square from which you left shortly before.

A great thing to see in Rouen: the view from Sainte Catherine Hill

Rouen is very, very beautiful, and it will be even more impressive if you can see it from above.

From the hill of Sainte Catherine the view is wonderful. You can see how the city has developed on the banks of the Seine and how it is sheltered from the surrounding hills.

rouen view from the viepoing sainte caterine hille
The view from the Sainte Catherine hill

The spire of the cathedral stands out and seems almost to be taller than the viewpoint. You can’t leave Rouen without having seen it from its viewpoint. Although, unfortunately, you need a car to get there. I don’t think there are any trails to reach it on foot.

Conclusion

Rouen is an ideal city to be included in an itinerary in Normandy. A full day is enough to visit it in peace and quiet. Rouen is promoted with honors!

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