2016 Christmas Markets in Alsace, France (& Basel, Switzerland)
Our December long weekend in Alsace was a different kind of trip than we usually take. Rather than focusing on the towns, scenery, history, we were visiting to experience an event and the spirit that comes along with it—Christmas markets! We met Rico’s parents, who had already been there the week prior, and stayed with them in their rented apartment in the fairytale, half-timbered town of Riquewihr, which served as our home base.
We flew into EuroAirport, which is built on French soil but technically serves the cities of Basel (Switzerland), Mulhouse (France), and Freiburg (Germany), where Rico’s parents picked us up. Our first stop was Strasbourg, the largest city in the region. After splitting a tarte flambée for lunch (the local specialty became a lunch and dinner staple of the weekend), we set off! Petit France is a picturesque part of the city based around the lock on the River Ill, offering views of half-timbered houses towering over the water. The small street Rue des Dentelles leads southeast toward Eglise Saint-Thomas, a Lutheran church. The church is a sign of the region’s history—Alsace has historically traded hands on a few occasions between France and Germany. German influence is clear to anyone who looks (architecture, cuisine, some elderly people still speak German and only limited French), but it’s especially interesting to see how this history has shaped the region’s religious institutions. Saint-Thomas was originally built as a Catholic church, but Martin Bucer, a German leader in the Protestant Reformation, served as pastor in the period that the church converted to Protestantism.
For a dose of French Catholicism, we walked northeast from the Lutheran church to the awe-inspiring Strasbourg Cathedral, a living, breathing treasure of gothic architecture. Completed in the 15th century and standing at 466 feet tall, the cathedral was the tallest building in the world for the 200 years up to 1874, when it was surpassed by St. Nicholas' Church in Hamburg. Both the exterior and interior are stunning. From here we wandered through the streets around the cathedral, eventually making our way north to Place Kléber, host to Strasbourg’s towering Christmas tree. Full of Christmas spirit, we made our way back to the car and went back to Riquewihr for the night. Our apartment was right on Rue du Général de Gaulle, the main drag, which was fully decked out with decorations. We grabbed some more tarte flambée (and crème brûlée!) for dinner at Maison Zimmer, but not before sitting in on the men’s choir holiday show at Eglise Protestante Sainte-Marguerite.
We opted for the Christmas market busses on our second day. The system actually works pretty well, with buses every 30 minutes carrying visitors to the most popular towns. The downside of this, of course, is you end up going where everyone else is going, and being a Saturday, the crowds were out in droves! Not to be deterred, our first stop was the charming village of Ribeauvillé. Grand'Rue was packed with people, but there were many opportunities to step off to the side—for example, there was a small square off the southeast end of the street with a makeshift hay slide (yes, Rico went down it!). Another worthwhile diversion was a stop at a series of apple-related stalls where we shared a delicious freshly-baked apple tart. We ran into some fuzzy friends on the way back to the bus—check it out!
Colmar, arguably the most famous and popular of the towns and cities in the region, was next up. There were plenty of little markets and stall strewn around the city center, but what sold this place for us was La Petite Venise, a half-timbered heaven along La Lauch—the most typical Alsatian scene! Marché couvert de Colmar is a covered market right in the area worth a stopover. Back in the center, we stopped in to Église Saint-Martin and then sat down for some hot chocolate (and an escape from the cold and crowds!) at Virevol Thés. We were crowd-ed out at this point, so back to Riquewihr we went.
Our last day started with a drive to Eguisheim, a curiously circular village packed with indescribable charm. It only takes an hour to walk through all of the streets in the old town, but you’ll find yourself stopping for photos every few steps (check out the especially photogenic building at 48.042042, 7.307227).
From Eguisheim, Rico’s parents dropped us off in Basel. Their flight was a few hours earlier than ours, so we had some time to ourselves in Switzerland’s third-largest city. We started at Basler Münster, a colored-tiled symbol of the city completed in 1500 (with construction interrupted by an earthquake in 1356). We sat inside for a while, appreciating the calm and quiet (Basel was not nearly as busy as the towns we visited) before walking through the small markets right in Münsterplatz. Pfalz, located directly behind the church, offers great views of the Rhine. From here we rode the Münsterfähre, a small wooden boat powered only by the current of the river, to the other bank. We walked along the Rhine toward Mittlere Brücke, appreciating the views across to the old town on the way.
We crossed the bridge back to the old town and walked down to Marktplatz, where Basel’s colorful Rathaus shows off its looks. The building is unlike anything we’ve seen before. Inside men and women dressed up in traditional garb were taking turns cranking their music box carts—this provided a fitting soundtrack! After some delicious lunch at Schlüsselzunft (Wiener schnitzel and a club sandwich), we made our way back up to Münsterplatz and down the picturesque Augustinergasse back toward the bridge before grabbing a ride to the airport for our flight back to London.
Experiencing Alsace at Christmastime was just that—an experience! There aren’t many things that will fill you with Christmas spirit more quickly than walking through decorated streets flanked on both sides by crooked half-timbered houses. That said, the biggest takeaway from our weekend is that we know we want to come back to this region in spring time when the crowds are much smaller and the houses are decked out in another kind of decoration—boxes on boxes of colorful flowers!