The Alsace region of France was an absolute dream. A real life Disneyland Toontown if you will. It was like we were transported into the cartoon. Only a short 1 hour 45 minute direct train from Paris, Strasbourg is easily worth a visit on your next trip to France.
We visited in December during the Christmas market season and never in my life have I experienced something so magical.
As Austin said it’s the town where Buddy the Elf would live! Every single building was decorated all out with Christmas lights, décor, and large hanging stuffed animals. It was adorable!
Strasbourg had made my “must visit list” on this trip from not only the countless fairy-tale pictures I’d seen of the half timber buildings along the canals, but also the fact that it makes almost every top 20 list I’d read of the most magical/fairytale/best small towns to visit in all of Europe! I’m a big architecture fan, in fact I’d go as far as to say that’s one of the main reasons I like to travel, to see all the stunning buildings around the world. I was beaming (no pun intended) wandering around all the beautiful pastel colored half timber buildings.
As far as your itinerary goes, I would recommend spending at least 2 full days and nights in Strasbourg alone. If you’re like us, and have more time to spare in the region I would highly recommend taking a 30 minute day trip by train to the adorable town of Colmar! And if you have ample time I would recommend visiting even more of the small towns in this region.
We could’ve spent a full week here, we were tempted to do so. If it wasn’t winter we would have looked into renting a car and exploring the nearby small towns of Riquewihr and Eguisheim. Alsace is famous for their wine, specifically their Riesling, which just so happens to be my favorite!
When we come back we want to follow the Alsace Wine Route where you can take the train between towns and walk from tasting room to tasting room. If you rent a car you could head out to the vineyards for a more rustic experience.
Top Things To Do
- Wander around Petite France, it is such a picturesque place for photos and architecture admiration. There are countless adorable shops, restaurants, and wineries in this area.
- Take a boat ride around the idyllic town. I’m a sucker for a good boat ride especially in a town straight out of a storybook. This was one thing I wish we would’ve done here! It’s a unique way to see the town from a different perspective.
- Go inside the Notre Dame cathedral. The outside is absolutely stunning. We recommend visiting the interior during the day to see the stained glass shimmer in all its glory.
- See the covered bridges of Pont Couverts. Historically important and a beautiful example of architecture.
- Take a day trip to Colmar. Visit Little Venice and it’s colorful half-timber homes. This is where you get that Insta shot! We would also recommend a boat tour here as it is just so darling.
- Sample the foods at the Covered market stalls. Try Alsatian food, a unique combo of German and French influences.
In a span of 75 years, from 1870 to 1945, Strasbourg and Colmar switched hands four times between Germany and France leading to a unique blend of the two cultures.
Café culture is less existent in this region. The Parisian ideal of sitting on the sidewalk sipping coffee people watching for hours isn’t as present here. Instead you are more likely to find yourself wandering to a winstub. These establishments resemble beer halls more than cafes and clearly draw from the ever-present German influence. You can get pretzels and beer as well as hearty meat dishes and bar snacks. We didn’t have much luck getting in, they are popular and we went right at busy mealtimes each time.
The food is very German influenced compared to Paris or Normandy. Sausage, cabbage and white wine help define the Alsatian pallet. It is a heavy cuisine featuring lots of potatoes and meat. The traditional sausage and cabbage plate served at the Christmas Markets did not appeal to Austin, probably because this was similar to food we were eating across the past month in Central Europe. He was also expecting something more sauce based and delicate. Alsatian food is made for cold winters and warm bellies.
Austin found exactly what he was looking for in a plate of salmon, salad and crème fraiche. The fire roasted salmon was flavorful yet much lighter than other dishes we had been having. The acidity of the crème perfectly complimented the oiliness of the fish. This was followed closely by a steaming bowl of wild mushrooms. Cooked in a rosemary cream sauce these button mushrooms were so earthy with an incredible depth of flavor. Eating wild mushrooms with salmon in each of their sauces really drove home how exquisite regional French cooking is, even if it wasn’t specifically Alsatian.
Food and Drinks to Try
- Flambee is essentially a flatbread with cheese ham and other toppings. It is not only a street food staple but is also served in restaurants and winstubs. Flambee is a must try (if you’re not gluten free) Jamie really enjoyed them and they are found everywhere.
- Try the National Alsatian dish called Choucroute. It’s sausage, cabbage and potatoes served from a huge steaming bowl.
- Cordon Bleu is a well know fancy dish very popular in this region. Basically an upscale schnitzel (breaded, fried meat) wrapped around decadent cheese. We had this while drinking with our new French friends!
Try the unique white wines of Alsace: Riesling Gewurztraminer and Cremant. If you asked Jamie what her favorite wines are she would without hesitation say Riesling so when we found a place in France with an idyllic setting that is know for its riesling and Christmas Markets we just had to go.
- Rieslings are some of our favorite varietals, coming in sweet and dry forms. Alsace features mostly dry Rieslings. We tried an organic Riesling at a local wine bar that was one of the most delicious and unique whites we had ever had.
- Cremant is their sparkling wine and was some of the best of the trip. We sipped cups of it while strolling through Colmar taking in the Christmas sights.
- Gewurztraminer is the sweet wine of the region. Turns out it was too sweet for us even and that’s saying a lot! It’s a nice change of pace from the dryness of the other varietals.
As mentioned above Strasbourg goes all out for Christmas! In fact it’s one of the most famous Christmas destinations in the world, known for having one of the original Christmas markets. Thousands of people flock here for the holiday season. This time of year the architectural style truly reflects Christmas glory in all its majesty.
We figured for our first ever European Christmas market why not make it the best! The town has 10 different markets scattered throughout the town. You read that right TEN. Strasbourg is relatively small in size, the markets blend together throughout this charming town. You can’t go further than a few streets without seeing market stalls set up in festive decor.
The markets are filled with individualized stand-alone wooden huts that sell delicious food, drinks, desserts, and all types of gifts. Not to mention the tallest Christmas tree I’d ever seen! There was so much pure joy walking around the market streets.
Never in my life had I experienced more holiday cheer than when walking through the famous Christmas markets of Strasbourg bundled up in my winter coat and mittens with mulled wine in one hand and an Alsatian snack in the other, all while listening to Christmas music and taking in the views of the sights around me. This was it. What we had been waiting for. We had officially experienced a true world renowned European Christmas Market.
And boy was it all we had hoped it would be. Actually it exceeded my expectations! I remember specifically wandering through the markets at dusk, turning the corner and seeing the stunning Strasbourg cathedral for the first time as the church bells went off. It was truly magical. I almost teared up with how blessed I was feeling in the moment.
Of the ten markets three are the most famous: Christkindelsmarik, Place Kebler and Place de la Cathedrale.
- Christkindelsmarik, located at Place Broglie, is the original and largest market. It just so happened to be the first one we stumbled upon, making for a magical experience. Each market is themed towards its own niche. Christkindelsmarik is known for the best food, we can confirm it was! We even had Latkes in a Christmas Market! It was a welcome surprise to find here, a very popular food served with apple sauce and sour cream like at home. Christkindelsmarik had so many different food and wines stalls to try, gluwein too! Jamie’s favorite, nutella waffles, were among the best desserts of the trip here. You could come here for a snack, a full on meal, a dessert or a drink.
- Place Kebler is famous for its large Christmas tree! It was a truly huge market full of pure unbridled Christmas spirit.
- Place de la Cathedrale is of course located by the Notre Dame cathedral giving the market an ethereal and atmospheric setting. There was also an adorable Christmas carousel nearby that all the children were riding. It was at this market where we found gluten-free macaroons! A delight for Austin, he was incredibly exited to try them for the first time in years. They were pretty comparable to their original counterparts.
We typically don’t buy too many souvenirs when we travel, mostly because we don’t have the space in our carry on luggage, but we couldn’t pass up on the handmade ornaments made here. We even brought some back to our family and friends as the perfect gift.
If you loved Strasbourg, you’ll love Colmar as well! In fact Austin liked the Christmas markets here even more if that was possible. What Colmar lacks in size it makes up for in color! The town is smaller than Strasbourg but the colors of the half-timber buildings in Colmar are filled with brighter pastel hues of pink, blue, green, and yellow compared to the mostly white buildings of Strasbourg.
Colmar greeted us with winter charm the second we arrived. An adorable avenue led to a Christmas carousel rotating slowly with skis as seats. We took a seat, sipped hot wine and took in the adorable views of the ice rink and pretzel stand nearby. The slow rotating carousel bar decked out in full Christmas glory was something we had never seen! This region really is a Holiday dream.
The Christmas markets in Colmar somehow outdid themselves to nearby Strasbourg by having Christmas carnival themed rides throughout the city! Swoon! Could it get any better than this?! We saw a Santa’s sleigh roller coaster and took a reindeer ride much reminiscent of the Dumbo ride in Disneyland. I’ve never seen Christmas themed carnival rides before it was so cute!! Perfect for children but too adorable for us not to ride ourselves. I may have forced Austin to ride one with me.
The food in the Colmar markets were on another level! I had the most delicious croque monsieur I’ve ever had in my life with the cheese just oozing out. And the big thing that separated the Colmar markets from Strasbourg was that they had stalls that sold wine, not just mulled wine but actual wine! It was such a cool experience. We tried riesling again (of course) gewurztraminer, and their cremant sparkling wine which was delicious!
Along the way we made some friends when we stopped into a nearby bar for a drink. There were about 12 men fully decked out in different themed Christmas suits. It was a sight to behold and one too difficult not to start a conversation with. As soon as Austin stepped into the bathroom, Jamie started a conversation with the man in a snowman suit. He said they were a group of family and friends all from Colmar and they get together every year around this time to celebrate the holidays.
They invited us along with them to their dinner reservations at the place that serves the best Cordon Bleu in town, where they conveniently are friends with the owner. We had an absolute blast eating and drinking, laughing and singing, dancing and prancing the night away, all whilst only communicating a few words together. They even paid for our dinner! They were so kind and we exchanged information for next time we come to France or if they come to California. It was a memorable experience, one for the books.
Due to this being one of the most popular times of the year to visit, we had a really difficult time finding a last minute stay. We would recommend booking your Strasbourg accommodation at least one month in advance if you plan on visiting during the peak holiday season. When I say prices skyrocketed I’m talking a jump from a “reasonably” priced $150 a night for a hotel to a $500 per night! We were honestly almost priced out of staying here. If you were to visit in any other season, in any other month really, your accommodation price would be a fraction of the cost.
I would highly recommend visiting during the weekdays vs weekends here. We had a completely different experience wandering throughout the city and the markets on Wednesday/Thursday vs Friday/Saturday. Going on a weekend did feel quite crowded and a bit overwhelming. It lost a small amount of its’ charm but it was still a fun and memorable experience.
Contrast that to the weekdays where it felt like we had our space to wander and enjoy all its charm and storybook feel.
Overall our time in the Alsace region was nothing short of amazing. This dream like destination is a place I find myself daydreaming of often and a place where I will look back on for years to come as the place where we spent the most magical Christmas of our lives. We love you Strasbourg and Colmar. We can’t wait to come back.