Got your attention with the 10 am wine, right? So let’s go. My husband and I took full advantage of our teenagers participating in school-sponsored trips in early September. This translated to free childcare for four whole nights. Ergo: parent vacation. We went round and round on where to go: Finland, Prague, and Belgium. We finally settled on Alsace, the area of France nestled between the Vosges and the Rhine River. Strasbourg, in particular, had been on my “must-see list” as it’s close to but not in Germany. (Truth is we need a break from Germany every now and then.
Unsure of exactly what to expect, we found Alsace is a region not to miss if you’re into eating, drinking, history, walking, biking, art, or enjoying fantastic scenery. Most people tend to travel there for the Christmas markets, but there’s a lot to see in the other three seasons, too. Here are nine of my top things not to miss.
1. Experience a Little Bit French with a Little Bit German
As an American, it’s super interesting to think of modern-day countries changing hands between different countries, not just once but several times. The Alsace region, including Strasbourg, changed hands between the France and Germany four times between 1871 and 1945. That means in one lifetime people went from speaking French to German and back again to French. I’m not going to get into a history lesson here, but this mix of culture and language makes the Alsace region totally interesting. Even more fun, Alsatians love to point out what part of them is French or German. Always on time: German. Great food: French (sorry, Germany). Great wine: French and Germany. Half-timbered houses: Germany.
One of the best ways to really understand this is by taking a tour. As per our usual modus operandi, we did walking tour via Happy Strasbourg Free Walking Tour on our first day in Strasbourg. This was definitely one of the best free walking tours I’ve done. Our guide was a native of Strasbourg and gave us all the details of this unique blending between the two countries.
2. Taste Seven Wine Varieties
White wine in Germany is great, and the wine in France is even better. Combine those two into one region. Winner! It’s a beautiful blend not to miss. Strasbourg is a stop on the Alsace Wine Route so we decided to book a full-day wine tour. Nothing says vacation like wine tasting at 10 a.m. We don’t normally splurge (€130 each) so much on a tour, but since this included transportation to three vineyards and copious amounts of wine, it seemed worth it.
What we learned is there are seven types of Alsatian wine identified by the grape type , unlike how its classified in other parts of France (how very German of them). The seven varietals are: Sylvaner, Pinot Blanc, Riesling, Pinot Gris, Muscat, Gewurztraminer, and Pinot Noir. Wine tours are nice as learning about wine adds significantly to enjoying it. It’s fun to meet with the owners of the vineyards and hear how they came to be, what makes their variety special and how they market to the local community.
3. Dine at Michelin-Grade Restaurants
I may have hinted earlier that the food was amazing. Alsace has a ridiculous number of Michelin starred restaurants, which I’m convinced just ups the ante for every other restaurant to be just as good! While there is an interesting mix of “germanesque-type food” where you’ll find pork, spätzle, and flammkuchen (aka tarte flambée), we had some amazing meals that were inexpensive yet beautifully presented everywhere we went.
I don’t normally list off the places we eat, but this time I feel compelled to rave about a few of the places. In Strasbourg, we enjoyed a delicious steak at La Table du Gayot. Normally, I would shy away from a place like this so close to tourist attractions, but the food and service were outstanding. La Fignette was right around the corner from our hotel, and we worked our way into a table at just the right time (without a reservation) for a delicious dinner. Colmar had equally fabulous places. Upon arriving we hustled over to Les Toques for a lunch, and then found Le’Epicurien the first night. The food and service was so fantastic that we returned again the following evening. Our bike trip to Munster allowed us to fit in another outstanding meal at L’Oliver. As always, either Yelp or check out the Google reviews before going.
4. Take Fairytale-Like Walks
It takes all of five seconds to delight in the half-timbered houses of Alsace that remind you of a fairy tale. Almost every turn is Instagram worthy. The area wasn’t destroyed by the war like other places in the area so many of the houses are original and ornately decorated.
While Strasbourg and Colmar are two of the “bigger” cities, many of the smaller towns and villages are reachable by train, car or even bike. We rented bikes in Colmar and rode to Munster in search of cheese. I had no idea this very smelly cheese came from this area. But it does! Carve out some time, if possible, to explore the small streets and the architecture. It’s hard not to keep taking pictures.
5. Follow the Canals through the Towns
Both Strasbourg and Colmar have an unusual network of canals running through town which give it a Venetian-type feeling. I’m not entirely sure why they are there other than for trading back in the day. But now it makes for a beautiful ambiance and a potential canal ride.
6. Marvel at the Impressive Cathedral and Astronomical Clock
Cathedrals in Europe are plentiful. We visit a lot of them. The Strasbourg Cathedral (officially the Cathedral de Notre-Dame) is so impressive for a lesser-known city in Europe. It totally blows my mind that these churches can take centuries (this one 400 years) to build. To think one man spent his whole life working on the church and subsequent generations also never saw it completed. What makes this church unique is its one spire. Their guess is they ran out of money before building the second one. Well, duh, it took so long! Because there are less crowds than, say, Notre Dame in Paris, you can stand right next to it and really enjoy the detail without being pushed around by tourists. If you’re in town for a few days, I recommend you visit the cathedral during the day and at night. It’s spectacular after dark. For what it’s worth, my husband says it’s the most amazing-looking cathedral he’s ever seen and he spent long periods just looking at it from different angles.
It’s as impressive inside as out. Spend some time taking in the details, but don’t miss the astronomical clock in the back-right corner. Every 15 minutes mechanical figures on the clock come to life. But the complete display occurs at 12:30 pm. An angel rings a bell while a second one turns over the hourglass. At the same time, four characters which represent the four ages of life (infant, young man, adult and old man) march past Death. On the top level of the clock are the Twelve Apostles who march before Christ, bowing to him. Christ blesses them and the rooster perched on the left tower flaps its wings while crowing three times (an allusion to Peter’s denial in the Gospels). There may be charge during certain months or times of day to see it in action. We wandered in around 2 pm and there was no queue or charge to see the clock.
Related: Top Must-See Paris Sights in 2 Days
7. Check Out a Few Castle Ruins
Driving along the Alsace Wine Route and the hills are dotted with castle ruins. Since we live in Germany and castle ruins are part of our every day life (how snobby do I sound saying that?), we did not go to any of these, but a few people on our wine tour did and really enjoyed getting a taste for some castles. If you’re visiting for a few days, find one close by and visit. The charm with most castle ruins is things are left as they were which leaves a lot to the imagination. To be honest, I almost prefer the ruins to those that have been “updated” in the past century.
8. Get Your History On at the Maginot Line
Full disclosure: We didn’t make it to the Maginot line this trip; however, it is on my list for the next time. In case you missed this in history class, like I did, the Maginot line was a series of forts, obstacles, and weapons built by France in the 1930s to stop Germany from ever again overrunning France after the Franco-Prussian and WWI. Seen by many as a failed attempt and waste of French resources since Germany just went North and came at France from Luxembourg and Belgium, many of the fortifications are still there to see.
9. Visit the Unterlinden Museum and Isenheim Altarpiece
Turns out there isn’t a whole lot to do in Colmar so I had some extra time to drop into this museum which had very mixed reviews on TripAdvisor. If you are mildly into religious art or have some art history background, this museum is worth a brief visit. I arrived when it opened and basically had the place to myself, minus a few older French groups. It’s a mix of mainly religious art, but there are a few more random modern things mixed in. It’s a funny museum to be housed in Colmar.
The main attraction is the Isenheim Altarpiece, which I understand is undergoing some type of restoration while housed in the Unterlinden, which means it’s “temporarily” here. To me that meant: see it while you can. In all honesty, the polyptych was impressive, even for this lapsed Catholic. Make sure you get the audio tour, which is just so-so in my opinion, but still worth the €2 to at least know what you’re looking at. As a side note, what the TripAdvisor notes say are true about the staff. They are the least friendly or helpful bunch I encountered while in Alsace.