With its fairytale villages and small towns, romantic canals of Strasbourg and Colmar, medieval castles and amazing wine, Alsace will sure enchant you and make you wish you didn’t have to leave (sure I did!) 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 visit in Alsace.
Where is Alsace?
Alsace is a region in the north-east of France, which borders with Germany. So much so, that over the centuries it has often passed from France to Germany and vice versa.
In fact, 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 during French public holidays.
As we were told by our day tour guide, the locals are very proud of their culture and local dialect, which is similar to southern German influenced by French. Needless to say, after so many changes in border status during the ages, when asked, they’ll tell you they are Alsatian above all else. And, in my opinion, good for them!
The Alsace Wine Route
If you are a wine aficionado then you’ll love Alsace. The area is famous for its wineries and lush vineyards. Alsace wines are white, following the German tradition. The most famous of them is Riesling, even though there are many others. Some old vintages are particularly worth tasting.
The best places to visit and things to see in Alsace
Strasbourg is the capital city of Alsace and the seat of the European Parliament. 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, the 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 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 colorful, half-timbered houses, canals and cobblestone streets, it looks as though it came out 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 architecture elements. It is a listed “Monument historique” (Historic Monument) by the French Ministry of Culture since 1930.
Finally, this is the birthplace of French sculptor, Frédéric August 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! Another medieval village of the Alsace Wine Route, Eguisheim is so pretty you could easily mistake it for a movie set, not a place people actually live. Make sure you have plenty of room in your camera’s memory card!
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.
Insider tip: It can be busy at lunch time. For instance, as two people we couldn’t find a place to have lunch and in the end we had street food while standing. Which, after being on our feet all day, wasn’t exactly ideal. You might prefer to have your meal elsewhere.
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 village all to yourself! It has a medieval castle too!
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 to 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. If you like castles and such, this is a must!
Mont Sainte-Odile is a former convent and now hotel near Obernai, a small town close to Strasbourg. At 754m high, it offers beautiful views to the surrounding area. However, the church dedicated to Odile, the patron saint of Alsace, is still there and visited by pilgrims and non-believers alike.
Due to the beautiful woodland that surrounds the area, this is a popular destination for hikers, thanks also to the sign-posted paths. There is also the “Pagans’ Wall”, built around 1000 BCE and one of Alsace’s unsolved mysteries.
Some practical tips for planning your Alsace visit
When to go?
Needless to say, summer is the most popular time for visitors and can get crowded. The best time to go to Alsace, particularly if you are interested in visiting wineries, is May/June and September/October.
That said, another great time to visit Alsace, even though cold, is late November to early/mid-December. for the fairytale Christmas Markets. Strasbourg is even nicknamed the “Capital of Christmas”!
How many days you need and how to get there
The closest international airports for most major airlines are Paris and Frankfurt. From Paris, Strasbourg is 2-hours by high-speed train and 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 explore Strasbourg (two at most) and then you can use Colmar as your base to explore the nearby villages.
Alternatively, an excellent way to see the most famous sights in Alsace (as I did) is to take a day tour from Strasbourg or even Colmar.
Where to stay?
If you make Strasbourg your base for exploring the area, then the most beautiful and comfortable hotel (and where I chose to stay), is the Hotel Cour du Corbeau – MGallery. I really can’t recommend it highly enough!
Alternatively, if you prefer to stay in Colmar, there are many lovely hotels and guesthouses, many in historic buildings for added charm.
To sum things up…
Alsace is like a fairytale wonderland that escaped the story book and came to life. Some of its villages are so beautiful and charming they are almost unreal. Walking in their cobbled alleys feels like walking in 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.