A popular Christmas shopping destination is the fairy tale town Colmar in the French Elzas region, 73 km south of Strasbourg. I was there in summer when everything is in full bloom, but the town’s undeniable charm is magical in any season. Colmar’s old town is like stepping into a real life ‘Beauty and the Beast’ scene. Think pastel coloured, timber framed houses, canals and bridges overhanging with flowers, picturesque squares, adorable shops and many heritage sites. In December the Christmas illuminations and the renowned Christmas market enhance the magical ambiance even more.
The most popular and photo-genic part of the old town is Petite Venise – Little Venice. This part of town has, as the name suggests, swirling cobbled streets, canals and bridges and charming small restaurants. Unlike in Venice, there is only one river going through Colmar; the Lauch. The river Lauch was once used by the market gardeners, fishmongers and tanners who passed through Colmar in small, flat-bottomed boats. The flat-bottomed boats are nowadays still in use as tourist tour boats – something you just have to do when in Colmar! At the small bridge at the Quai de la Poissonnerie (Fishing Quay), fishermen used to sell fresh fish. The candy coloured half-timbered houses used to be owned by rich fish corporations.
Also, don’t skimp on walking the board walk, towards the Saint Pierre Bridge for another beautiful on Little Venice. The many boardwalk, waterfront restaurants are a welcoming sight to still your appetite or thirst.
Shopping and eating
Colmar is above all the place to shop and eat your way around. There’s so much choice in restaurants that you don’t know where to look. Indulge in typical French cuisine, Alsace wines or the real flamkuchen. Shop honey, pretzels, French delicacies and hand-made artisan products.
TIP: Restaurant L’Epicurien
The small historic town center is easily explored on foot. However, a guided tour in the tourist train does offer more background information and anecdotes about the town’s highlights. The train departs from Rue Kleber every 30 minutes. For the more romantically inclined a ride in a horse-drawn carriage is another great option.
Colmar is packed with historical sights and buildings. You only have to look up to admire the original facades and intrinsic details of the buildings. Most of the buildings are transformed into charming boutiques and artisan shops or quaint hotels and restaurants. Some of the highlights are:
- The Tanners district
The tanner’s district can be recognized by its tall wood framing houses and half timbered houses, mostly dating back to the 17th and 18th centuries. the houses were once the homes of tanners and their families. They used the upper floors for drying out their skins.
The Koïfhus or the former customs house had a strategic place at the confluence of the Grand’Rue and the rue des Marchands, two of the major roads in the medieval city.
- The Pfister House
The Pfister house was built in 1537 for the hatter Ludwig Scherer, who made his fortune with money trading in the Val de Liepvre. Despite its medieval features, the house is the first example of architectural renaissance in Colmar. With its two-storey corner oriel, its wood gallery, its octagonal turret and its mural paintings which represent biblical and secular scenes, the Pfister house became one of the symbols of the old Colmar.
- The Saint Martin’s church
Built between 1235 and 1365 the Saint Martin’s collegiate church is an important example of Gothic architecture in Alsace.
How to get there
Colmar is located 73 km south of Strasbourg and 64 km north of Basel (Switzerland). From Strasbourg there is a frequent train schedule to Colmar (direction Mulhouse) which will take about 45 minutes. Easyjet offers cheap tickets to Basel, so I opted for Basel. From Basel airport it takes about an hour to get to Colmar. At the airport you take the French exit so you can stay in the EU. Right outside the exit there’s a bus stop that will take you to Saint Louis train station. From there an hourly train runs to Strasbourg, stopping in Colmar. From Colmar station it’s a nice scenic 15 minute walk into the town center. I stayed at the centrally located boutique Hotel Le Colombier…highly recommend!
TIP: Combine your trip to Colmar with an one-day city trip to Strasbourg to get more bang for your buck.