The region of Alsace in France, with its picturesque small towns, romantic canals, half-timbered medieval houses and fairytale castles, is one of the prettiest destinations in Europe you need to see, at least once.
But with so many places to see, how do you know which ones are worth your time and which are tourist traps? To help you out, I wrote for you this complete guide to the best places to see in Alsace.
Where is Alsace?
Alsace is a region in the northeast of France, which borders Germany. So much so, that over the centuries it has often passed from France to Germany and vice versa.
Strasbourg, the capital of the region, is so close to Germany that you can take the local tram and be in the town of Kehl in Germany in under 15 minutes! Locals often go there for shopping, especially during French public holidays when the shops in France are closed.
Our tour guide during the day trip from Strasbourg said the locals are very proud of their culture and dialect. This Alsatian dialect is similar to southern German and influenced by French.
To give you an idea of the situation, the tour guide’s grandfather changed nationalities three times in his lifetime. From French to German and back to French, the last time after WWII.
Needless to say, after so many changes in border status during the centuries, when asked, locals will tell you they are Alsatian above all else.
The prettiest towns in Alsace
Strasbourg Alsace’s capital city and the European Parliament’s seat. The heart of the city is the Grand Île, a small (despite its grand name!) island in the river Îl, a tributary of the Rhine.
The city is famous for its charming old town, Petite France (Little France), located in a corner of the Grand Île, with its storybook cobbled streets and half-timbered houses.
It is also famous for having the oldest, and one of the most beautiful, Christmas Markets in Europe. Its cathedral is a real landmark of the city, with an impressive 142m spire.
Colmar is very popular with visitors and rightfully so! With its colourful, half-timbered houses, canals, and cobblestone streets, it looks like it came out of a fairytale. Like Strasbourg, it also has romantic canals, although smaller in scale and number. The area with the canals is called “Petite Venise”, or Little Venice.
An interesting building to visit is the “Ancienne Douane”, a timbered 15th-century customs house, with Gothic and Renaissance architectural elements. It is a listed as “Monument Historique” (Historic Monument) by the French Ministry of Culture since 1930.
Finally, this is the birthplace of the French sculptor, Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi, the creator of the Statue of Liberty in the USA. While in Colmar, you can visit the Musée Bartholdi, which celebrates his life and work.
For me, simply the cutest, most fairytale village I’ve visited in Alsace! It is also part of the famous Alsace Wine Route. Eguisheim is so pretty you could easily mistake it for a movie set, not a place people actually live.
So much so that a friend of mine, who happens to be American and has visited the original Disneyland, told me the Eguisheim looks more Disneyland-like that the original amusement park! Goes to show just how pretty this town is.
This pretty village is quite popular with visitors, which sometimes works against it. That said, you still get the whole storybook – cobbled streets – half-timbered houses package.
Essentially it’s one main street, with many pretty shops and wine-tasting places. One of the highlights is the town’s Upper Door or wall gate.
Tip: Riquewihr can be busy at lunchtime. For instance, as two people we couldn’t find a place to have lunch and in the end, we had to eat street food while standing. Which, after being on our feet all day, wasn’t exactly ideal. The food itself was fantastic. It was the sitting out in the cold all the time that wasn’t so much. So you might prefer to organise your trip in such a way as to be at a quieter place at mealtime.
What a little hidden gem this is! We only drove through and didn’t have time to explore on foot. However, it has all the charm of the other Wine Route village with the added bonus that it’s lesser-known and thus not at all crowded. Particularly in winter, you’ll have the town all to yourself! It has a medieval castle too!
Honorary mention: Chateau du Haut Koenigsbourg
If you wish to feel as though you have time-travelled back to the Middle Ages, you can’t possibly miss this! The castle towers 757 metres above the cute villages of Alsace, in the Vosges mountains. As a result, it offers some truly breathtaking views of the area below.
It was built in the 12 century and was fully restored by the German Emperor Wilhelm II in the early 20th century. Some historians have contested the authenticity of the restoration, but as a visitor, I have to admit I liked it. It was nice to be able to get a realistic feel of what life in a medieval castle was like.
Admittedly, the place is popular and can get crowded, but if you enjoy visiting castles then you’ll love it.
What to eat in Alsace
The food in Alsace is a hearty mix of French and German cooking, as one would expect given the region’s history. The most common ingredients are cream, butter, sausages, potatoes and onions.
If Paris has its bistros, then Alsace has its winstubs. Traditionally, winstubs were the poor folks’ eateries but today they are a popular casual bistro for everyone. When in Alsace, you have to eat in a winstub, at least once.
The most famous dish in Alsace is the tarte flambée (or flammkuchen). It is a thin-crust savoury tart with a filling of cream, cheese, onions and bacon.
Other signature dishes are the choucroute (sausages and smoked pork served with pickled cabbage), baeckeoffe, which is a slow-cooked meat and potato casserole, and Spätzle, traditional pasta with meat (usually game).
Finally, the main street food in Alsace is the pretzel, served either plain or with melted cheese. You’ll find it at every corner and it’s delicious!
Alsace is famous for its nougat, which comes in many different flavours. The artisanal, handmade version is pricey but well worth it, as it’s amazing.
However, the signature Alsace cake is the Kugelhopf. So much so that the ceramic moulds traditionally used to bake it are family heirlooms, to be passed from mother to daughter each generation.
Finally, if you are in Alsace at Christmas, don’t miss the delicious pain d’epices. It’s the Alsatian equivalent of gingerbread and it’s fantastic. The best are Mireille Oster’s, who sells her handmade, artisanal ginger cakes at an elegant boutique in Strasbourg’s old town.
Travel tips for Alsace
Best time to go
Needless to say, summer is the most popular time for visitors and can get crowded. But since it can get cold in winter, the best times are May, June and September till mid-October. In November in particular (when I went), it is often foggy. I mean really foggy, we didn’t get to see the countryside at all on our way from Strasbourg to Colmar!
Another great time to visit Alsace, even though cold, is in December for the fairytale-like Christmas Markets. After all, Strasbourg is unofficially called the “European Capital of Christmas” for good reason.
How to get to Alsace?
The closest international airports for most major airlines are Paris and Frankfurt. From Paris, it is 2 hours by high-speed train; from Frankfurt, it’s 2h 40′ by bus.
Public transport in Alsace can be complicated to use and the train only goes to Colmar. So the best way to see Alsace is by car. It will take you about a day to see the sights (two at most) and then you can use Colmar as your base to explore the nearby villages.
Alternatively, you could take a day tour from Strasbourg to the most famous towns.
Where to stay in Alsace?
Accommodation in Alsace can be rather pricey, especially during peak times (especially around Christmas). Therefore it’s a good idea to check out your options before travelling there.
Accommodation in Strasbourg
In Strasbourg, I stayed at and highly recommend Hotel Cour du Corbeau Strasbourg – MGallery. It’s a 4-star hotel near Petite France and housed in a renovated 16th-century inn. Not only it has a great atmosphere, being a historic building, but also has the comfiest hotel beds I’ve ever slept in.
On the lower budget side of things, Hotel de l’Europe by Happy Culture is a great option. Also housed in a renovated historic building, it’s right in the heart of Petite France.
Accommodation in Colmar
Colmar is a wonderful place to spend Christmas in or have as a base for exploring the Wine Route towns. La Maison Des Têtes is a luxury hotel, in a historic building just 2 minutes from the location of the Christmas Market. A great budget option is Hotel Saint-Martin, in Little Venice, with quiet and pretty rooms decorated in traditional Alsace style.
Some additional tips
- Shops close early in Alsace. In winter, they close at 18.00 and in summer at 18.30 or 18.45. In addition, they often close for an hour or two at mealtimes (approx. between 12.30 and 14.00)
- Sometimes the situation might feel crowded and overpriced, and the locals can come across as less than welcoming. It’s only to be expected, as it’s a popular destination. I thought it was worth putting up with it because Alsace is so pretty. I’m really happy I went. But it’s something to keep in mind.
- The mascot animal of Alsace is the stork. If you look carefully, you’ll see their nests on top of chimneys everywhere. You’ll also find plenty of toy storks in souvenir shops for your children (or the child inside us!)
- In Riquewihr there is a fantastic shop where it’s Christmas all year round. If you love all things Christmas, then you’ll love this place. It’s called Féerie de Noël and you’ll find it near the town’s medieval gate, at 1, rue de Cerf.
- It can rain anytime, so bring with you an umbrella and/or a raincoat.
To sum things up…
Alsace is like a fairytale wonderland that escaped the storybook and came to life. Some of its villages are so beautiful and charming that they are almost unreal. Walking in their cobbled alleys feels like walking on a movie set. If you also add free wine tastings at the feet of the misty Vosges mountains, a visit to Alsace makes for a truly magical experience.