Alsace, a region in France on the eastern border with Germany, is a fantasy world: this picturesque paradise of half-timbered pastel houses makes you feel like you’re in a fairy tale. During Christmas, Alsace transforms into a winter wonderland, buzzing with Christmas markets, or marchés de noël, and teeming with festive decor. Christmas in Alsace essentially looks like a mix between a scene out of Disney’s Beauty and the Beast and Dr. Seuss’s How the Grinch Stole Christmas…Can it get any better?! Wait – it can. Add some vin chaud (aka mulled wine) and pain d’epices (aka gingerbread) to the mix, and you’ll have the booze + sugar-induced courage to be singing Christmas carols through the streets as you look for a place to sit down for a hearty Alsatian meal. (Don’t believe me about the singing? Watch the vids below.)
We spent four days and five nights on our road trip through the towns of Alsace at the end of November, right when the Christmas markets open. I thought this was an ideal amount of time: we didn’t feel rushed during the trip but also felt like we did everything we planned. Here is a “best of” list to help organize your route through Alsace during the holidays – or any time of year!
Best Christmas lights and décor…Strasbourg.
Christmas in Alsace would be incomplete without a visit to Strasbourg, the largest city on this tour – the other stops are more like small towns. Strasbourg is quite a spectacle in the early evening, when the Christmas markets are at their bustling best and the holiday lights begin to dazzle in the dark. As you stroll the city at night, you’ll notice how Strasbourg’s size lends to its holiday charm: the bigger the city, the more yuletide décor! The epicenter of Christmas cheer is the market at Strasbourg’s Notre Dame Cathedral. Get a photo of the cathedral’s impressive entrance façade from Rue Merciere, where trumpeting angels hang in midair to celebrate your arrival to this spectacular edifice. After browsing the market’s stalls filled with vin chaud, gingerbread, and local Alsatian cheese, roam through the streets of Grand Ile, the central island of Strasbourg, and get lost as you follow the lights and decorations that catch your eye. You’ll spot garlands, chandeliers, ornaments, candy canes, and Santa Claus figurines suspended above you or lining the windows of restaurants and shops. A huge Christmas tree stands tall at Place Kleber, which leads to other streets dripping in diamond-like lights or adorned with lit-up gingerbread cookies. The amount and variety of the Christmas decorations throughout the streets of Strasbourg give this city top honors when it comes to holiday glitz and glow. If Alsace is a scene out of Beauty and the Beast, then Strasbourg’s luminescence would make Lumiere feel right at home ;).
Most picture-perfect view…Colmar.
Colmar is the second largest city we visited on this tour of Alsace. The star of the show in Colmar is Petite Venise, or Little Venice. Reminiscent of Petite France in Strasbourg, this area of Colmar is known for its canals and little bridges. Petite Venise is home to the sight that earns Colmar the award for the most picture-perfect view: a wonderfully lovely row of multicolored half-timbered houses that make your jaw drop. The pastel plaster of these houses bears a striking resemblance to fondant, making the entire row of houses look like a giant cake. This photogenic walkway will put you under a spell, so take it all in by slowly going house by house, appreciating the shades of color along with the carved details on some of the wooden beams.
In addition to Petite Venise, Colmar has delightful Christmas markets sprinkled throughout the city center. It is wonderful to roam the markets with a vin chaud in hand to warm you up.
Best wine …Ribeauvillé.
Ribeauvillé takes home the prize for best wine due to an excellent little winery called Cave de Ribeauvillé. Stop in for a free tasting of typical Alsatian wines, like Pinor Noir, Pinot Gris, Riesling, and Gewurztraminer, and then select a bottle of your favorite to take home. After sampling a few wines, we went with the Riesling, which was crisp and delicious. I am not a white wine kinda gal, but I loved this Riesling. For some reason, I actually used to associate Riesling with some kind of weirdly sweet, hangover-inducing white wine, but let me clarify that this Riesling was the exact opposite: it was dry, light, and very drinkable.
Wine is not all Ribeauvillé has to offer – walking around town is extremely pleasant. (So is pretending to be Belle and Gaston and recreating scenes from Beauty and the Beast– see below lol.) The town is tucked amongst rolling vineyards, which provide a nice backdrop to the vibrant colors of its houses. The sight of hilltop castle ruins in the distance also gives the city a unique, whimsical character.
Best natural scenery…Kaysersberg.
During our planning we almost opted out of visiting Kaysersberg, but I’m so glad we decided to go! Kaysersberg has all the charm of a quaint Alsatian town but also has a few sights that make it unique. Unlike in Ribeauvillé, where you can only see castle ruins in the distance, in Kaysersberg you are a 10-minute uphill walk away from castle ruins that provide a fantastic view of the town. I really enjoyed walking up this path, which begins in the center of town and takes you up the hill of a vineyard to an abandoned castle tower. From the top of the tower, you get an awesome panoramic view of the countryside. Another feature that makes Kaysersberg unique is the small river that runs through it. The soothing sound of this river provides the perfect auditory complement to the town’s visually stunning appearance.
Best central street…Riquewihr.
The crown jewel of Riquewihr is its main street, Rue du General de Gaulle, which we thought was a wonderful representation of Christmas in Alsace. Carols drift through the air as the tangerines, royal blues, mints, and burnt reds of the half-timbered houses seem to come alive and sing along. (Speaking of singing along, so did I – see the vid below…whoops…) A medieval stone tower awaits you at the top of the rue, complemented by the stunning colors and Christmas décor of the houses on either side. Some will claim that Riquewihr is the most enchanting town on this route through Alsace, and I don’t disagree.
Most enchanting stroll… Eguisheim.
Eguisheim is truly unique among the towns on this route because of its shape – Eguisheim is comprised of concentric rings of streets. Placards posted throughout town describe some notable aspects of Eguisheim’s architecture and culture, so be on the look out for them. One such placard suggests that the recommended route to see the town entails first circling through its outermost ring, which, in my opinion, is the most charming part of Eguisheim. The highlight of meandering along this path was the houses – you feel like you’re in a colorful version of the shire from The Lord of the Rings. I saw some of my favorite Alsatian half-timbered houses on this circular stroll, so I recommend stopping into Eguisheim – even if only to take this walk!
Most regal castle…Chateau du Haut Koenigsbourg.
This award is kind of a sham, since Haut Koeingsbourg was the only legitimate intact castle that we visited. As I mention above, Ribeavillé and Kaysersberg only have castle ruins. Let’s start with this castle’s appearance: it looks like a real-life gingerbread house, especially during winter. The terracotta color of the stone and the dark roofs topped with snow look nearly exactly like a gingerbread cookie iced with frosting. The castle, dating back to the 12th century, has an intriguing history; it was home to powerful European families but also suffered periods of abandonment. The castle reflects Alsace’s own history, having gone back and forth between the hands of the Germans and the French. Touring the castles leaves you with some interesting facts: did you know that gingerbread and round ornaments became typical Christmas tree decorations after replacing the Eucharistic host and apples that once decorated trees? In addition to a history lesson, you get great views of the surrounding landscape from the castle’s position at the top of the mountain.
Obernai, a small town in between Strasbourg and Chateau Haut Koenigsbourg, is a worthwhile addition to your plans for Christmas in Alsace; however, we didn’t think it quite on the same level as the towns I mention above. Don’t misunderstand me – Obernai is adorable. We just thought it lacked a unique aspect to distinguish it from the rest. Nevertheless, it does have a wonderfully charming central square, filled with Christmas market stalls and watched over by a large medieval stone tower. We ate lunch at La Halle aux Bles, a cozy Alsatian tavern where we indulged in typical dishes like ham knuckle and sauerkraut. I know that may not sound completely appetizing, but digging into rustic dishes like these is part of the gastronomical experience of Alsace…and, oh, it was delish.
Christmas in Alsace is magical. During my time in this fairytale land, I felt like both Belle and Cindy Lou Who at the same time, which is pretty much #goals for me. Comment below if you have any questions about our trip!