The Alsace region of France is like something straight out of a fairytale, complete with hilltop castles, medieval clock towers and winding cobblestone streets.
Located in eastern France near the German border, this picturesque area seems untouched by the hands of time thanks to buildings that date back centuries, and is particularly magical during the holiday season when Christmas markets pop up.
Flowers spill out of window boxes, the smell of fresh bread and chocolate wafts out of stores, and boats glide down the canals in cities like Colmar and Strasbourg. Truly everywhere you look is another photo-op, whether you’re admiring a colourful streetscape or cycling past steepled churches surrounded by vineyards.
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From towering cathedrals and castles to charming streetscapes, here are 10 of the best places in Alsace, France from north to south.
One of the perks of the Alsace region is how close everything is; it usually takes less than 10 minutes to drive between towns, and less than three hours between Strasbourg and Mulhouse.
Try to budget at least five or six days for an Alsace visit, which allows for full days to explore Colmar and Strasbourg and a few extra to do day trips to the surrounding Alsatian villages.
Strasbourg is the capital of the Alsace and the region’s largest city; essentially, it’s a mini-Paris. While parts of it can be busy and gritty, head into the historic town centre and the charm of it all will knock your socks off.
Strasbourg’s most important monument dates back to the Middle Ages, and the detail on its facade is astounding.
The spire of the Strasbourg cathedral soars sky-high, and visitors who climb the 332 steps up to the top are treated with sweeping city views from the 66 metre-high platform as well as the Vosges and Germany’s Black Forest.
The Strasbourg astronomical clock is a mathematical wonder that draws big crowds at noon every day to see the Renaissance masterpiece.
The experience starts with a short film about the incredible calculations involved in making the clock and the significance of its decor, concluding with the Procession of the 12 Apostles at precisely 12:30 p.m.
Some of the best things to do in Strasbourg are:
Walk through Petite France: The most picturesque part of Strasbourg is Petite France, known for its half-timbered houses, narrow streets, canal and window boxes bursting with flowers.
Grande Ile: The historic centre is connected to the rest of the city with 21 bridges and footbridges, and has preserved its beauty over the centuries earning it a spot on the list of UNESCO World Heritage Sites.
Take a boat tour: A great way to see Strasbourg is by taking a boat tour, with a company like Batorama which offers commentary in 12 languages during the one hour trip. See the city from a different perspective, while seeing landmarks like The Covered Bridges, Council of Europe and The European Parliament.
Globe Guide tip: If you plan on doing a couple of city tours and visiting museums, it’s worth it to buy a Strasbourg Pass which also provides free entry and discounts to other attractions throughout the Alsace. Click here to book
Strasbourg day trips
It doesn’t take too long to explore Obernai, yet it’s still worth a stop as a midway point between Strasbourg and some of the best places to visit in Alsace’s southern region.
Obernai is in the Bas-Rhin area, with vineyards and the Alsatian plains on its doorstep. Park outside the historic centre, then pass through the entrance anchored by Tour d’Enceinte.
There are a couple of pedestrian-only main streets, and the cobblestone laneways are lined with half-timbered houses, intricately tiled roofs, outdoor cafes and shops. The two towering steeples of the Church of Saints Peter and Paul are quite a sight, along with the grand town hall which looks down into a plaza that hosts a market during spring and Christmas time.
Beautiful streetscapes, vineyards and a castle await in Kintzheim, which is a good option for families thanks to a few quirky attractions.
This stop on the Wine Route and Route des Châteaux also has a pretty town centre, hiking trails nearby, and Kintzheim Castle which dates back to at least the 1200s. Today, it’s home to the ‘Volerie des Aigles’ experience where guests can see 40 different species of birds of prey like eagles, falcons, vultures and hawks up close.
Kids love Cigoland Alsace which counts tractor rides, a water park, rides, a White Stork museum and plenty of animals among its many attractions. Initially built as a stork breeding centre, it introduces young guests to the area’s ecosystems in a fun way.
There’s also La Montagne des Singes, where more than 200 Barbary macaques roam freely in 60 acres of the surrounding forest. Watch them in their natural habitat, or sit patiently with a handful of popcorn and one of the primates might come up and grab some right out of your hand!
Château du Haut-Kœnigsbourg
While there’s no shortage of castles in the Alsace, Château du Haut-Kœnigsbourg is one of the most impressive thanks to its grand medieval architecture and hilltop perch in the Vosges mountains.
Located west of Sélestat on a 757-meter-high rocky spur surrounded by thick forest, there are sweeping views of the Upper Rhine Plain and quaint villages from its grand bastion.
The castle dates back to at least the 12th century, and was looted and burned during the Thirty Years War. In 1865 the ruins were given to a German emperor who had it restored, and today visitors can get a glimpse of what life was like by touring spots like the chapel, arms room, living quarters, the Kaiser’s Hall and courtyard.
Château du Haut-Kœnigsbourg’s dusty pink sandstone facade is breathtaking, making this one of the most beautiful castles in France.
If you only visit one small town in the Alsace, make sure it’s Ribeauvillé.
Where do you even begin with this place? Perhaps the narrow laneways that are photo heaven thanks to their brightly-painted doors, medieval lanterns and sea of flower planters.
Or maybe it’s the window shutters with Alsace heart cutouts, the wineries, the open-air market selling leather bound books or the historical Clock Tower at the end of Grand-Rue (main street).
Or is it the trio of castle ruins looming high on the hilltop above town, which include the Ribeaupierre, the Girsberg and Saint-Ulrich which you can hike up to through the vineyards that date back to the Middle Ages and enjoy incredible views?
Whatever it is, Ribeauvillé is one of the absolute top destinations in the entire region and a must-do on your Alsace itinerary.
Another must-do during an Alsace visit is exploring Riquewihr, which is just down the road from Ribeauvillé.
This winegrowing community has similar features to its charming neighbour like a medieval clock tower, a main street lined with hotels and restaurants and a beautiful steepled church. Vineyards are literally on its doorstep, where you can enjoy sweeping views of the surrounding countryside.
A unique way to see Riquewihr is by hopping on the little train that shuttles visitors around the town centre and up into a vineyard, and includes audio commentary in multiple languages. Tours are half an hour each, and you’ll also find similar tours in places like Colmar and Strasbourg.
With one of the best shows of half-timbered houses in the Alsace, the medieval town of Kayserberg is charming at every turn. A stream trickles alongside the winding main street which is lined with shops and restaurants, flowers spill out from window boxes, gnomes are hidden among the homes and fountains anchor the plazas.
There are a few sites worth stopping by, such as the Romanesque Ste Croix church, a fortified bridge and the Castle of Kayserberg.
Dating back to 1200, the imperial castle is near the town centre and features Gothic art windows and a cylindrical keep with walls that are four metres thick. If time allows, take the 100 steps up to the top of its stairway for sweeping views of Kayserberg.
When it comes to romantic fairytale cities, few places on the planet compare to Colmar which is so charming there are rumours it inspired the backdrop for Disney’s Beauty and the Beast.
It’s easy to see why this is one of the top destinations in the Alsace, as soon as you lay eyes on the iconic canals of Little Venice. Small boats glide through the glassy waterways, which are lined with rose pink, sky blue and sunshine yellow facades. Cobblestone laneways wind through the preserved centre of half-timbered houses, and flowers spill out of window boxes.
Colmar is the kind of place where you can simply wander around the streets, soaking up the lively atmosphere of visitors popping into the boutiques and admiring the streetscapes, while locals enjoy their cafe on the sun-soaked patios. In the evening, dine at one of the fantastic Michelin starred restaurants, and find yourself mesmerized as the sunset casts a golden glow over the city.
Some of the top attractions in Colmar are:
- The cathedral, House of Heads, Pfister House and the Koifhus which is a pink Gothic and Renaissance-style building built in 1480 that once served as Colmar’s business and political hub.
- The Covered Market, a brick building along the water with an intricate metallic roof dating back to 1865. There are a couple dozen stalls with fresh produce, meat, cheese and baked goods as well as a restaurant.
- Little Venice and The Fishmonger’s District which are the most picturesque districts in Colmar. Nestled along the Lauch River, the half-timbered houses are where boatmen and fishermen used to live.
- The Tanner’s District, where most of the narrow, tall buildings date back to the 17th and 18th century. Interestingly, they were built on a stone base with no foundation or cellars, and used as tanners’ houses.
The Statue of Liberty in Colmar is a rather unexpected landmark proudly standing in the centre of a roundabout on the outskirts of town. The 12-metre-tall replica was built to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the death of sculptor Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi, who was born in Colmar and created the famous version in New York City.
Alsace day tours from Colmar
Eguisheim is one of the most popular Alsace towns, partly due to its unique circular setup as well as being the centre of wine production in the region.
Located just outside Colmar, it’s regularly ranked as one of the most beautiful villages in France thanks to the colourful laneways, charming main plaza and the Three Castles that stand tall among the vineyards in the distance.
The medieval town was also designed in concentric circles, which is wonderful if you’re walking around and not so much if you’re trying to drive! With that in mind, park on the outskirts of town and arrive on foot instead.
Book a wine tour of Eguisheim
For an ultra unique experience, book a segway tour of Eguisheim. A guide will lead you through the town’s streets (prepare for some funny looks!) before heading up into the vineyards to learn more about wine production and enjoy the great views. Cap off the experience with a wine tasting in a local cellar or among the vines.
Mulhouse is the culture capital of the Alsace, known for its art and history. Place de la Réunion Square is at the heart of it all, and this plaza in the city centre is framed by colourful houses, the Protestant church Temple Saint-Etienne and city hall which is a beautiful example of Rhine Renaissance architecture.
If it’s photos you’re after, take a stroll down Rue Henriette and Rue des Boulangers which are the most picturesque streets in Mulhouse, or head up to the Rebberg quarter for great views of the Black Forest, Vosges Mountains and the city below.
Auto enthusiasts won’t want to miss the National Automobile Museum (Le Musée Nationale de l’Automobile) which has more than 500 gleaming luxury vehicles, making it one of the largest motor museums in the world.
The likes of Ferraris, Bugattis and Rolls Royces have been on display for more than seven decades, along with select models highlighting the evolution of the automobile over the last century.
Get one of these city passes to make the most of your trip to Mulhouse:
Alsace Christmas markets
Aside from Germany, no other place on the planet does Christmas markets as well as the Alsace region.
Even Scrooge couldn’t help but get into the holiday spirit around here, when the streets are transformed with twinkling lights, wreaths and rows of stalls selling ornaments, handicrafts and traditional French food.
The smell of fresh-baked biscuits and steaming vats of mulled wine (vin chaud) wafts into the air, and live music sets the festive atmosphere making a seasonal visit to the region one of the best things to do in Alsace.
In Ribeauvillé you’ll feel like you were transported back to the medieval times, thanks to the street performers, bonfires in the middle of the street and even wild boar on a spit. Colmar has half a dozen beautiful markets spread around the city, while there are more than 300 different stalls that make up the Strasbourg Christmas markets in nearly a dozen locations around the city, earning it the nickname the Capital of Christmas.
Strasbourg’s market is the oldest in France and one of the oldest in Europe, dating back to 1570. Be sure to head over to Place Kléber, where a 30-metre tall decorated tree proudly stands in the square.
The Alsace Christmas markets typically run from the last week of November until Christmas Eve, though dates can vary–for example, the one in Ribeauvillé is usually only open for two weekends.
Book an Alsace Christmas market tour:
Where to stay in Alsace France
A good way to explore the towns in Alsace is by basing yourself in Colmar for a few nights, then heading to Strasbourg for a couple of nights and doing day trips from each city. I was lucky enough to spend four nights at the James Boutique Hotel in Colmar, and loved it so much we even ended up extending the stay.
This four-star property has a fantastic location just outside the city centre, which means it’s a quick walk to the action but away from the crowds. Parking is super easy and has quick access to the highways, which as anyone who has driven in a European city before knows is a luxury. The daily breakfast buffet is fantastic, there’s an onsite bar and lounge, the decor is modern and tasteful and the cozy rooms have plenty of storage and luxe amenities straight from Paris.
As a special offer for Globe Guide readers, get 10% off your stay at the James Boutique Hotel by booking here and using the code GLOBEGUIDE10 at checkout. Click here to book
There are lots of great accommodation options in Strasbourg, from modern hotels to quaint B&Bs in the heart of Petite-France. The Hotel des Vosges is a great mix of both, since it’s large and has on-site dining and events spaces yet feels like a boutique hotel with its Art Deco style and restored features (like the old fashioned elevator) dating back to the 1930s.
Staff are friendly and helpful, and the Hotel des Vosges is located across from the Place de la Gare train station which is a 15 minute walk from the Strasbourg Cathedral. Click here to book
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