Many visitors never make it to the northeastern French region of Alsace, even though it's easily accessible from Paris by train. But you should strongly consider adding it to your itinerary. The vast area stretching from Strasbourg in the north to Mulhouse in the south is notable for its diverse, postcard-worthy architecture, distinctive food and wine that blends German and French traditions, and arresting landscapes. Alsace boasts a distinctive local culture, in part because it has been part of both France and Germany at different points in its history.
It's famous for storybook-pretty villages with half-timbered houses, cities boasting Gothic cathedrals and enchanting holiday markets, hundreds of miles of vineyards interspersed by medieval villages, and centuries-old castles perched high on clifftops. Alsace is an inland region in northeastern France, bordering Germany and Switzerland and situated primarily on plains formed along the west bank of the Rhine River. The Vosges mountains lie to the west, while the Black Forest and Jura mountain ranges are found to the east and southeast, respectively. The climate is relatively mild and dry, but winters tend to be fairly cold.
In Alsace, you'll hear French and Alsatian, a Germanic dialect, spoken. Some half of residents in the region speak Alsatian in addition to French, the sole official language. Also, German is widely taught in regional schools.
The region has been a source of conflict and contestation between France, what is now Germany, and local independence movements for hundreds of years. After the Franco-Prussian War in 1870, 90 percent of the broader region known as Alsace-Lorraine was annexed into the German Empire in 1871, then ceded to France during the Treaty of Versailles at the close of World War I in 1919. It gained a measure of independence and self-governance between the world wars, only to be occupied by German troops in 1940, at the beginning of World War II. Today, as part of the broader and recently created "Grand Est" region of France, Alsace features laws and regulations different from those found elsewhere in France, and Alsatians are proud of their unique cultural traditions and identity.
The Best Time to Visit
Boasting a relatively dry climate and semi-temperate mercury levels through much of the year, Alsace can be a pleasant destination year-round.
If you're interested in wine-tasting and sampling local festivities, June through August is an excellent choice. During the summer months, annual harvest festivals turn the Alsace wine route (see more below) into a circuit of cultural discovery, with wineries opening their doors for special tastings and the streets of numerous cities giving way to live music, folk dancers, and other events.
If traditional holiday markets and festivities are calling your name, go in late November and December. Colmar and Strasbourg, in particular, are famous for their idyllic Christmas markets, where glowing wooden lodges, lights, decorations, and wintery treats such as mulled wine give Scandinavia a run for its money in the hygge department.
Finally, if outdoor activities like hiking, river cruises, and visiting the region's beautiful castles sound most appealing, consider going in the spring. In April, the pretty town of Colmar puts on a variety of festive events to celebrate the springtime, from pop-up markets to musical performances.
Where to Visit in Alsace
Alsace boasts numerous cities and towns worth exploring, each noted for their architectural gems and distinctive local culture. Depending on the length of your stay, you may choose to organize your itinerary around visits to two or more of these.
Remember that day trips from hubs like Strasbourg, Colmar, and Mulhouse can make it possible to spend time exploring some of the region's prettiest towns and villages, whether by bike, foot, train, or even river cruise. Also, see our suggestions below on the Alsace Wine Route for ideas on touring some of the region's smaller but intensely photogenic towns.
The capital of Alsace and home of the European Parliament, Strasbourg is the region's most populous and urban city and a historic center of political and religious power. Its outstanding feature is its imposing Gothic cathedral, which for centuries was the world's tallest human-made structure.
- Notre-Dame Cathedral is a masterpiece of high-Gothic architecture and crowns the city center on the enormous Place de la Cathédrale square. Construction began in around 1015 and was completed in 1439. The cathedral features a distinctive facade in pink sandstone, elegant Gothic spire reaching nearly 466 feet, well-preserved medieval stained glass and statuary. An astrological clock completed in 1842 offers a fascinating spectacle every day at 12:30 p.m. If visiting during the winter holidays, make sure to visit the cathedral's enormous Christmas market, one of Europe's largest and oldest.
- See some of Strasbourg's best museums, many of which are located in close reach of the cathedral. The nearby Palais Rohan hosts the Fine Arts Museum, Archaeological Museum, and Decorative Arts Museum.
- Take a stroll around the neighborhood known as Petite France, one of the city's oldest and best-preserved. The area was once home to fishers and millers working around the meandering quays of the River Ill. Its colorful, half-timbered houses date to the 16th and 17th centuries and boast balconies and windowboxes bursting with flowers. The area is part of a UNESCO World Heritage site.
This fairytale-worthy city is situated in close reach of the German border and is the third most important in Alsace in terms of population. Colmar is famous for its picturesque riverside areas and old town, local cuisine and wines, and for serving as an essential gateway to the Alsace Wine Route.
- The Petite Venise (Little Venice) is widely considered one of France's loveliest Renaissance-era quarters. Cut through with canals fed from the Lauch River, the area is endowed with beautifully restored half-timbered houses in bright, storybook-reminiscent shades; window boxes and balconies burst with geraniums and other blooms during the spring and summer, drawing tourists in the thousands. The Rue des Tanneurs features sloping rooftops once used by tanners to dry animal hides, while fishermen once carried out their busy trade on the Quai de la Poissonnerie.
- The Musée Unterlinden is a gallery built around a stunning Dominican cloister from the late Gothic period. The gallery features important works such as the Issenheim Altarpiece, a late medieval masterpiece depicting New Testament stories; it was created by painter Mathias Grünewald and the sculptor Nicolas de Haguenau. Also come to see late-15th century prints and an outstanding modern art collection, with paintings from the likes of Renoir, Monet, and Picasso.
- Old Town is home to numerous impressive buildings built in the medieval and Renaissance periods, and dating from the 12th to the 17th centuries.
- Take one or more day trips to nearby, picturesque towns, including Riquewihr, Eguishem, and Kaysersberg (the latter boasts an impressive 13th-century fortified castle). Also, make sure to hop over (and up) to the Chateau du Haut-Koenigsbourg, a fortified medieval castle in the town of Orschwiller. Dating to the 12th century and perched high above the Alsace plains in the Vosges mountains, the castle is one of Alsace's most impressive structures. It was renovated in the 19th century, giving it the appearance of a formidable and intact fortress.
The second-largest Alsatian city after Strasbourg, Mulhouse is located in the southernmost part of the region near the Swiss border. While the industry-heavy town isn't as popular with tourists as the more picturesque Strasbourg and Colmar are, it can serve as an excellent hub for exploring the "Haut Rhin" area. Confusingly enough, the term means "High Rhine" but refers to the southern part of the Alsatian plains.
- See the Automobile Museum (Cité de l'Automobile). This fascinating exhibit displays some 400 vintage cars. It offers insight into the history of the industry, before heading to the Cité du Train, a collection devoted to the history of locomotives and rail travel.
- Taste local cuisine at some of Mulhouse's trendiest restaurants, including Le Gargantua, a table and cellar offering creative twists on Alsatian cuisine paired with local wines.
- Take a day trip to the nearby Thur Valley, walking or cycling its green paths and Thur riverside areas to explore local vineyards and quaint countryside. You can also make easy and quick jaunts over the Swiss and German borders, setting out for hikes in the Black Forest mountains or spending a few hours exploring the elegant Swiss town of Basel.
Wine in Alsace
Interested in wine? Alsace is one of France's most important wine regions, with a dizzyingly complex "wine route" that stretches for around 100 miles east of the Rhine river; the Vosges mountain range lies to the west. While Burgundy, Bordeaux, and Loire Valley wines are more famous than those produced in Alsace, the landscape here is incredibly diverse and produces some distinctive and delicious whites in particular. Some 1,200 wineries—most from small, family-owned producers—are clustered along the route, which extends from nearby Strasbourg in the north to Colmar in the south.
Like neighboring Germany, Alsace produces mostly white wines, from dry to sweet; they make up around 90% of wines made in the area. Local vineyards produce finished products from an incredibly diverse variety of grapes, including Chardonnay, Gewürztraminer, Riesling, Sylvaner, Pinot Blanc, Gewürztraminer, Riesling, and Pinot Gris (formerly known as "Tokay") varietals. In addition to still wines, try to taste at least one example of Crémant d'Alsace, a sparkling white wine similar to champagne.
Vineyards in the area tend to lie at altitudes of 650 to over 1,300 feet, giving them optimal sunlight; also, typically dry conditions on the plains favor winemaking. Vines are often strung or "trained" on high wires to maximize exposure to sunlight.
Using Colmar or Strasbourg as a hub, explore the vineyards and cellars surrounding what seems like endless storybook towns along the long route. Eguishem is famous for its Riesling and Gewürtztraminer white wines. Barr is noted for exquisite examples of these same wines and boasting a picture-pretty medieval town center, while Riquewihr, a tiny, beautiful village that has been known for its winemaking activities since the Middle Ages. The latter produces elegant organic chardonnay-based whites, as well as prized "Grand Cru" rieslings.
To make the most of the route, we recommend taking a guided tour. You can find more information on available tours, the top winemaking towns and vineyards, cellars open to visitors, and annual harvest festivals in Alsace at the official Wine Route website.
One sight that will become familiar as you tour the region is the winstub, an Alsatian-style cellar and restaurant that serves both local wines and hearty regional specialties such as sausages, cheese plates, sauerkraut, and others. You can find a list of some of the best winstubs in the region here.
Foods to Try in Alsace
Make sure to try a few typical Alsatian foods and dishes during your stay. These include sauerkraut, bretzel (pretzels), flammkuchen (an onion, cheese, cream, and chopped pork pie shaped like a rounded or square pizza), sausages and potatoes, and bäckeoffe, a meat, potato and vegetable stew made with beef, pork, and mutton, all slowly cooked in white wine such as Riesling. Meanwhile, typical Alsatian cheeses include Munster, a semi-soft, robust, and unpasteurized cow's milk cheese that's widely exported, and Tomme Fermière d'Alsace, a hard cows milk cheese that's lightly washed with a fruity white wine.
In southern Alsace, fried carp is a favorite, and is tied to the region's historic Jewish and Yiddish communities. During the springtime, look out for a variety of dishes featuring or accompanied by white asparagus, which is produced in the region and is generally fresh and delicious.
Craving dessert? Local treats such as sweet flammkuchen, kougelhopf (a domed-shaped brioche cake dusted with sugar), and traditional pain d'epice (gingerbread or spiced bread) should do the trick. Local versions of cheesecake and apple tarts are also quite popular, and delicious.
How to Get There
Getting to Alsace is relatively straightforward. Regular trains connect Paris Gare de l'Est to Strasbourg, with journeys averaging around two hours. You can easily catch a connecting train to Colmar and other cities and towns in Alsace from Strasbourg.
In addition, Strasbourg Airport services flights from destinations, including London, Amsterdam, Munich, Bordeaux, and Toulouse. Carriers operating at the airport include Air France and Lufthansa.
There are also a wealth of practical tips, suggested itineraries, advice on accommodation, and other useful resources at the Visit Alsace site, managed by the regional tourism board.