The capital of Alsace (now the Grand Est region in France) and the seat of the European Parliament, Strasbourg is a cosmopolitan city with diverse attractions, including one of the best Christmas markets in Europe. As entrancing as Strasbourg is, there are good reasons to tack an extra day onto the itinerary to venture deeper into Alsace in the direction of Ribeauvillé, Riquewihr, and Colmar. The landscape becomes rural almost immediately upon exiting Strasbourg. The wine route, or “route des vins d’Alsace,” passes through vineyards and villages that dot the foothills of the Vosges mountains. It’s scenic even during winter.
Alsace is known for flowery white wines, especially Riesling (dry) and Gewürztraminer (sweet). Pinot noir is the only red grape that grows well given the temperature swings between summer and winter.
Less than an hour’s drive from Strasbourg awaits Colmar, a quaint town with incredibly well-preserved half-timber buildings, many of which have been gracing this town since the 16th century when it was a thriving port for wine merchants.
The considerable number of old buildings, their façades and wooden shutters painted in a pleasing variety of pastels, is all the more impressive considering the battles that took place in the vicinity. At Christmas, holiday lights and decorations enhance the magical mood.
Colmar’s Christmas market takes place in 5 locations within easy walking distance. During the holiday season, vendors sell baerewecke, bretzels, pain d’épices, kougelhopf, marrons glacés, and other local specialties. Alsatian wines, beers, farmhouse Munster cheese, and Christmas ornaments are plentiful too.
Market stalls fill the plaza around the fountain at place de l’Ancienne Douane. A sculpture of Auguste Bartholdi celebrates the Colmar-born artist who created the Statue of Liberty. At Koïfus, a former customs house with a tiled roof, the indoor market is devoted to crafts created by local artisans. I restrain myself and buy only a couple of small ceramic spoons since I hardly have any room to spare in my suitcase.
There’s also a covered market in Colmar that’s open daily, all year, except Monday. Vendors sell fruits and vegetables, cheeses, meats, fish, sweets, breads, fruits, and flowers. The indoor market attracts a loyal following of local customers who appreciate the quality goods and friendly atmosphere.
Another village along the wine route is Riquewihr, which is arguably the prettiest in Alsace. In the weeks leading up to Christmas, it too has market stands and shops selling delicacies, ornaments, wines, and crafts.
Cozy winstubs serve local wines and choucroute, a traditional Alsatian dish of sauerkraut and pork.
The architectural details—some specimens date to the Middle Ages—set Riquewihr apart. Proclaimed one of the “Plus Beaux Villages de France,” its ancient ramparts, cobblestone streets, and large watchtower that was erected in 1291 make an indelible impression.
Don’t miss the views from the side streets which look up into the vineyards, one row stacked upon another. Riquewihr also boasts a so-called skyscraper (“gratte-ciel”)—in this case, two 16th-century buildings joined under a single gabled roof with a staggering (for its time period) five timber-framed floors.
There are other villages along the wine route that might also knock you out with their charms. Alsace is a worthwhile destination any time of year, but especially during the wine harvest and at Christmas season for the atmospheric marchés de Noël. Come for the Christmas markets or for the wines, but stay long enough to explore the architectural gems, taste the regional specialties, and experience the traditional lifestyle.