27 June 2022
A place of beauty
Between the Germanic and Latin worlds lies the heritage French travel region of Alsace. At just 8,283 km², Alsace is the smallest région of metropolitan France. This mosaic of hills, mountains and plains is home to nearly two million souls - and is it any wonder, when Alsace is such a place of beauty? Dotted with castles, vineyards and beautiful traditional villages, the region boasts some of the best French vistas - from peacefully verdant national parks to lively metropolises. Along with the region’s balmy summers - which range from 20°C to 25°C, Alsace makes for the perfect summer getaway. That’s not to say that Alsace isn’t the place to be in the winter though; German influence means the region sees some of the most stunning traditional Christmas markets in Europe throughout December. Whether you’re headed to Strasbourg, Colmar or even smaller villages like Riquewihr, the region’s festive cheer only adds to its immense beauty.
Having changed hands between France and Germany several times, Alsace’s fiercely traditional character has only been strengthened over the centuries - something you’ll be acutely aware of if you’ve ever been to France or Germany before. Though the official language of Alsace is French, you’ll just as easily find Alsatians fluent in German, having learnt the language throughout their school years, and you may even hear snippets of the Alsatian dialect spoken - a perfect blend of both French and German. This is a place where you’ll find both high-quality beer and wine served in abundance; foie gras and escargots served in the same restaurants as juicy ham hock with steaming choucroute, and delicate French pastries alongside spiced gingerbread. In short, this is a place where two cultures come together to form something entirely new - but just as beautiful as its origins.
What makes Alsace, Alsace?
1. A European crossroads between France and Germany
Bordered by the River Rhine and the Vosges mountains, Alsace serves as the perfect crossroads between these two natural beauties.
Running from the summit of the 1,400-meter Grand Ballon in the south, the Vosges mountains journey north along the thrilling twists and turns of the Route des Crêtes, the Petit Ballon and Col de la Schlucht – regularly featuring in stages of the Tour de France – up to the German border. Here, the wine-loving tourist crowds thin out as low mountains, lakes, waterfalls and forest take hold of the landscape. In the summer, the mountains make the perfect background for walking, biking, hang-gliding, canyoning and horse riding. When the winter snows arrive, Alsace ranks as the best French region for cross-country skiing.
Arguably Europe's major waterway, the Rhine stretches for 184km, flowing out of Switzerland and acting as the border between France and Germany. Traversing its waters, it’s easy to see why so many fall in love with this internationally renowned symbol of Europe. Explore the historic cities, quaint half-timbered wine villages, ancient castle ruins and impossibly steep terraced vineyards that line the banks of the river. If you’re in the mood to explore further, take a cruise along the Rhine to discover the River Moselle. Rising in the Vosges mountains, the River Moselle flows through north-eastern France and Luxembourg to western Germany. Take in spectacular scenery, as your cruise ship meanders along the river towards some of the most intriguing German towns and UNESCO World Heritage Sites before bringing you back to Alsace to enjoy the rest of your France itinerary.
Good to know: Before anything else, let’s learn how to pronounce Alsace, because this was definitely news to me! Alsace is pronounced "al-zass" and Alsatian is pronounced "al-say-shen".
2. A region passionate about its history
To journey through Alsace is to journey through the region’s history. Disputed for centuries by French kings and the princes of the Holy Roman Empire, and subsequently embroiled in a bloody tug-of-war between France and Germany, Alsace’s history is as tumultuous as it is varied. Remnants of the region’s numerous rulers are seen in each and every part of this place - from the cuisine down to the language - so much so that you might begin to wonder which country you’re actually in.
This is a place where even the wine serves as a reminder of its history. After conquering Alsace in 58 BC, Julius Caesar set to work establishing it as a centre of viticulture, later declaring that Alsace had the best of all wine produced in Gaul. I guess it’s no wonder why so many travel from far and wide just to traverse Alsace’s wine route, then… (more on that later 😉) Wherever you are in Alsace, discover the history of the region’s incredible vineyards in an abundance of museums dedicated to the region’s wine-making expertise. The Alsace Wine Museum, located in Kientzheim in the Haut-Rhin, houses particularly exceptional collections including a reconstitution of the cellar with a mobile press. Here, you can explore the work of winemakers as well as related trades such as glassmaking, and get to grips with the more technical aspect of viticulture. If you’re looking for a more immersive experience, check out The Ecomuseum of Alsace. Organised like a real village from the beginning of the 20th century with its streets, gardens, river and all of its buildings, this is the perfect place to get lost in Alsace’s history. Discover a traditional winegrower's house with its cellar and furniture. Meet the volunteer winegrowers who maintain the vineyards of the Ecomuseum as in the last century, without mechanical intervention, and attend the harvest.
As fascinating as the region’s wine history is, though, it turns out great wine isn’t enough to prevent an empire’s downfall… With the decline of the Roman Empire, the region fell to the Allemans, a people who would give it its language before giving way to Hohenstaufen Emperors. Under their reign, Alsace went through an artistic flowering like never before, entering into something of a golden age. The region became embellished with beautiful Romanesque churches like the Abbey-Church of Saint Peter and Saint Paul which still stand today - a testament to the region’s growing wealthy merchant class and increasingly sophisticated tastes at the time. In charming Strasbourg, explore the famous Notre-Dame, whose imposing flying buttresses, gargoyles and tall spire come together to create an awe-inspiring Gothic masterpiece. Enter the Cathedral to admire the way the light floods through its beautifully crafted 12th and 14th century stained glass windows, and around midday, watch the parade of figures portraying the life of Jesus and his Apostles as the exquisite astronomical clock strikes noon.
Alsace changed hands many more times over the centuries, until Germany’s defeat in WWI, after which it was finally returned to France. The region’s unique character - a blend of the two countries who fought so hard to claim the place - shines through in each of its charming towns and cities. Even the most innocuous stroll along the River Rhine will take you on a journey in time. Perched on the banks of the river, La Petite France - as quaint a neighbourhood as it seems - stands as a reminder of the city’s industrial boom during the 15th century. What now makes for the perfect romantic backdrop was once the district of tanners, millers and fishermen, whose trades entirely depended on the river.
Fun fact: The stuff of folktales, storks are seen as an essential symbol of Alsatian life. Once ubiquitous, the population of these striking birds dwindled in the 1970’s. Thanks to a successful conservation effort, storks are thriving again.
3. Colmar: the town pulled from a fairytale
Dubbed one of France’s prettiest towns, Colmar’s narrow cobbled streets, colourful waterside houses with wooden shutters, and window boxes draped with blooms make the place feel like it was pulled straight from a fairytale.
La Petite Venise
Discover Colmar’s very own Little Venice. Take a lazy boat trip in one of Colmar’s distinctive flat-bottomed boats to explore the town’s winding canals. Once upon a time, these charming canals were used by market gardeners to transport their vegetables to the marketplace. Enjoy the scenery as you pass through the residential Maraîchers district, before going back to the city centre and the Halles, which still houses a covered market today.
The Tanners’ Quarter
Explore The Tanners’ Quarter - home to beautiful 17th and 18th century half-timbered houses, whose high wood framing makes for a picturesque backdrop as you explore the village. Once populated by the tanners who worked and lived there with their families, the upper floors of these houses were also used for drying out their skins, often with an openwork design. Today, having been renovated between 1698 and 1974, the Tanners’ Quarter is a source of nostalgic beauty in the heart of the city.
Saint Martin’s Church
Built between 1234 and 1365 from local pink limestone, Saint Martin’s Church is a Gothic masterpiece in Alsace. In 1572, a fire in the south tower destroyed the church’s framework and all of its roofs. Today, its 71-metre high tower is notable for the distinctive lantern shape which gives the church its characteristic silhouette. Since then, the church has gone through several restorations - most recently in 1982, when foundations of a church from the year 1000 and traces of extensions from the 11th and the 12th centuries were found. Locals lovingly refer to Saint Martin’s Church as a cathedral, but in reality, it was only a cathedral for around ten years before the French Revolution. In 1801, the two constitutional bishops who followed one another were not able to assert themselves and to organise a diocese, because it was in the two thirds still devoted to Rome.
Fun fact: The colour of a building isn't trivial in Colmar: up until the 18th century, they corresponded to either the type of shop (i.e. bakery, butcher, etc.) or the religion of the household. In the latter case, blue represented Catholicism and red Protestantism.
4. The wine route
The Alsace Wine Route is one of the best things to do in the region. Founded in 1953, this is the oldest wine and most famous wine trails in France, stretching over 150 miles in the shadow of the Vosges, roughly from the west of Mulhouse to the north of Strasbourg. More than 1,000 wine makers welcome visitors to their cellars for a free wine tasting, but as much as wine is the main event here, the route is also a chance to discover some of Alsace’s most stunning landscapes.
Alsace’s wine villages are imbued with a fairytale-like quality, with brightly painted cottages set among wildflowers, medieval parapets whose heads peer over verdant valleys and distinctive stork nests perched delicately on church spires. Villages like Riquewihr, Eguisheim, Kaysersberg and Bergheim are among the most beautiful in all of France. In fact, Riquewihr - a medieval town right in the heart of the Alsatian vineyards - is aptly nicknamed The Gem of the Alsace Vineyards. This stunning town brings together quality architecture with world-famous wines to make it the most relaxing getaway. This is a town that was once besieged and plundered by conquerors, but which is now besieged only by the vines which lend themselves well to its authentic character and romantic ambience. It's also the place that inspired the Disney cartoon, Beauty and the Beast! Quieter hamlets like Saint-Hippolyte and Katzenthal offer the perfect opportunity to discover some of the many hidden gems that Alsace has to offer. At 250m altitude and with only 1080 inhabitants, Saint-Hippolyte is a tranquil escape from the main route where local wine makers offer tours of their cellars with tastings. Make sure to sample the town’s famous Pinot Noir for the authentic experience: 'Rouge de Saint-Hippolyte'.
When it comes to the Alsace Wine region, you’ll be spoiled for choice. Each vigneron will open up a dozen whites – including sylvaner, riesling, gewürztraminer, pinot blanc – the region’s distinctive red, a light pinot noir, and bubbly crémant d’Alsace. If you’re new to the wine-tasting scene, a good place to start understanding these complex vintages would be one of the bigger cooperative cellars, such as the Cave de Turckheim, where you’ll find high-quality wines at unbeatable prices. You can also check out the vineyards of the region’s two historic winemaking families: Maison Emile Beyer and Hugel et Fils. Alsace has an outstanding selection of organic, biodynamic and “natural”, no-sulphite vignerons. Two to track down are Domaine Weinbach for an incredible pinot gris, or the Domaine Albert Seltz, where the eponymous, exuberant owner has raised the humble sylvaner grape into an exquisite grand cru.
For a cultural break from eating and drinking, visit the mediaeval Haut-Koenigsbourg, an imposing hilltop chateau, or drive up to the mystic Mont Sainte-Odile, a seventh-century abbey set on a 753m summit among incredible natural scenery. Once an influential convent, it has now been converted into a hotel and this sacred place - once dedicated to Odile, the patron saint of Alsace - still attracts pilgrims from far and wide. If you’re travelling with kids - or just a child at heart yourself - a great stop-off is the Gingerbread Museum in Gertwiller, where master baker Michel Habsiger has created a museum dedicated to Hansel and Gretel teeming with retro toys. His boutique is a wonderland of gingerbread and paver varieties.
Good to know: The Vosges Mountains shelter Alsace making it one of the driest regions in the entire country! Combined with plenty of sunshine, this cool-continental climate helps the grapes ripen slowly to create beautiful, complex flavours.
Good to know
You can usually find bike rental schemes across Alsace, including Velhop and Velo. They are usually available 24/7, featuring standard, electric, tandem, child and trailer bikes that offer an affordable and healthy way to get around the city.
If you’re eating out, keep in mind that a service charge is usually added to the final bill and tipping is not expected, but a 10-15% tip for excellent service is appreciated.
Taxi rates are fixed by the prefecture. In Colmar, the flat rate is €2.30, then the price per minute starts from €0.45. Rates are slightly higher at night and on weekends.
Most taxis accept fare payment by credit card.
If you’re planning to take a road trip while in Alsace, remember that the French drive on the right!
The best way to explore Colmar is on foot, but for longer journeys, Colmar public transport provides an affordable and efficient way to move around the city. Colmar's well-developed bus station and service makes it easier to go to the surrounding area. The main lines leaving from Colmar are the following:
Colmar - Turckheim - with the TRACE (line 10 and line 15)
Several times a day, a trans-national line links Colmar to Freiburg, Germany. Further information is available on the company's website Südbaden Bus.
The Conseil Général du Haut-Rhin runs a bus transport network called "Lignes de Haute - Alsace." Those lines serve the Colmar Region´s main towns.
This is a region steeped in culture. From Lorraine, where you’ll find powerful reminders of the region’s war history among stunning countryside scenery, to Champagne whose rolling hills and magnificent wine cellars make it a dream come true for wine connoisseurs, the region’s immense charm is undeniable. Take your time exploring each and every corner of this incredible region and you’re sure to find innumerable hidden gems.