Why Alsace is famous:
Alsace and the Black Forest Region were the inspiration for the infamous Grimm Brothers’ Fairytales, as well as the setting for Beauty and the Beast. The houses look like they’re straight out of a fairytale.
Alsace also has a large stork population, and the story of storks bringing babies to parents originated here. If a stork makes a nest on your house, you have to protect it by placing a metal ring around it, so when the storks return from their migration, they can come home to the same nest.
During WWII (and before), Alsace changed hands between the French and German many times, and it’s easy to see the influence of both countries. Even the language spoken in the area has both French and German dialects. Although Alsace seems quaint, Strasbourg (the largest city in Alsace) is one of the de facto capitals of the European Union. It’s an extremely important European city, housing the European Parliament. Don’t be surprised when you see soldiers walking around the city!
What to Eat:
Tarte flambée, sauerkraut and gingerbread
What to Drink:
Alsatian White Wine and Lager or Weiss Beer
How to Get There:
There is a small, expensive airport in Strasbourg you can fly into – but we arrived via the high speed train from Paris. It was about 1 hour, 45 minutes and extremely easy! You can also drive to Strasbourg, just be aware that a lot of the old town is more for pedestrians and large vehicles aren’t allowed down some of the streets.
Admittedly, I did not know much about Alsace before we decided to make it our post-Paris destination.
I am a huge fairytale/Beauty and the Beast fan (I took an entire lit class in college focused on the Grimm Brothers’ fairytales), and my husband actually recommended we go here after seeing it on Reddit! This whole region was beyond any expectations I had – the food was phenomenal, and the wines and beer we drank while here are our favorites to this day. One day, I’d love to go back during the holidays and see their Christmas Markets (we went in October)! Seriously, they have so many I couldn’t even count them… check them out on this website! (Also, they’re known for their gingerbread, which just makes sense for a Christmas destination!)
Where to Stay:
During our trip, we stayed in one of those famous fairytale houses you see in every photo of Strasbourg, and I cannot recommend it enough! It’s right on the river and in the heart of everything. We loved Strasbourg’s Old Town and would prefer to stay there rather than in the busy areas, and we could walk anywhere we wanted to go! (It’s also walking distance to the train – ideal.) If you haven’t booked with airbnb before, you can save $40 on your first booking with my link: https://www.airbnb.com/c/megang19?currency=USD
What to Do:
There is a tour boat that takes you from the Old Town all the way to the Parliament Building (and the more modern areas) of Strasbourg. Because the water levels change throughout the route, you have to go through a series of old locks, which is a cool experience because they are so small compared to the locks in Chicago. During the warmer months, you have the option to do an open-air boat tour, and in the cooler months they have a glass-top boat. To see the city go from old fairytale houses to full glass modern buildings was a really unique experience! It was a long tour, but we’re thankful for it as we learned so much. Here’s a link to learn more about the boat tours: https://www.tourisme-alsace.com/en/223008552-Batorama-boat-tour.html
Wine, Castle + Countryside Tour:
We opted for a full-day tour versus renting a car and traveling on our own, and we are really glad we did! Having been once, we might do our own thing next time, but we love having a tour guide to tell us fun facts about the places we are going. Our guide did a great job of showing us the unique villages in the Alsatian countryside. She also took us to explore the local castle, Château du Haut-Koenigsbourg.
For wine tasting, we were taken to Domaine Sylvie Spielmann – a family-owned and operated winery in Bergheim. We were lucky enough to have our tasting with Sylvie herself! If you’ve read my interview with Lauren Kniebes, co-owner of Lazy Ballerina Winery, then you know that it’s unusual in the wine-industry to be a woman-owned winery, let alone a woman-winemaker. Sylvie is the second woman in her family to manage the winery, following in her mother’s footsteps. She allowed us to taste one of the first wines the vineyard ever bottled. Although you typically don’t age white wine, because of the environment her grapes grow in, she actually recommends aging them.
The Dry Riesling was our favorite! It’s a typical wine for the area, but pretty hard to find a great bottle in the states. Sylvie explained the differences that the clay, soil and local gypsum mine have on her wines, and you can surprisingly taste the different minerals in each wine. She prides her wines on allowing them to have their own personality based on environment – and I cannot recommend this place enough! As if you needed one more reason to go – they are certified organic!
Here’s a link to this full day tour: https://www.viator.com/tours/Strasbourg/Alsace-Day-Trip-from-Strasbourg-Colmar-Eguisheim-Riquewihr-High-Koenigsbourg-Castle-and-Alsace-Wine-Tasting/d5502-2016ALSACEHIGHLIGHTS
Walk Around the Old Town of Strasbourg
There are plenty of tiny, adorable shops to keep you busy for an entire day! We didn’t even explore the shops outside of the Old Town, and we didn’t feel we needed to. You can take a tour of the Strasbourg Cathedral in the city centre, or just sit outside at one of the many restaurants and drink some wine. Bonus points if you see pastry chefs outside offering samples of chocolate and cookies!
Tour the Strasbourg Cathedral
The interiors of old European Cathedrals are beautiful! So much time was spent to make each detail, sculpture and stained glass window just so. This is a gorgeous cathedral with a giant, beautiful stained glass window – but there’s another reason you need to visit. The cathedral is home to the largest astronomical clock in the world! According to wiki, it’s also unusually accurate, indicating leap years, equinoxes and other astronomical data. Legend says that the creator of the clock had his eyes gouged out afterward so he could never create another one like it… But on a lighter note, you can watch the clock animate every day at noon. The animation includes the figures of Christ and the Apostles, while the clock chimes.
Where to Eat
Get. the. escargot. Non-negotiable. This is a very cozy wine bar located just off the beaten path. When you walk in, you feel like you’re at home – the staff are all very kind, the atmosphere is homey and the food is amazing! I had the cordon bleu and Chris (my husband) had the choucroute, a regional specialty (sausage and sauerkraut).
This is extremely close to the airbnb above, and it was our first stop upon arriving. In addition, it was our first experience with tarte flambée and 1664 Kronenbourg Blanc on draft, which is now a life-long love affair. These are two things we’ve brought back with us as something we have to have when the opportunity presents itself. So what is tarte flambée? It’s similar to a pizza and a flatbread, with no tomato sauce. The crust is more like a pastry, flattened extremely thin, topped with crème fraîche, thin onions and ham/bacon. They make a ton of variations, too. Our first tarte flambée had honey, mushrooms and goat cheese… my second had escargot… They cook the tarte flambée in a wood-burning oven, so the edges of the crust brown. SO good.
Not only are the food and drinks great, this place is super cozy and feels very old (in a good way). There’s outdoor seating in addition to the indoor booths that are built into the interior of the building, and a downstairs.
Visit the Villages
If you don’t book a tour, you should still visit the other villages in the area! You’ll notice (unless you go in the winter) that all of the villages are covered in flowers. Each year, the villages compete for the “Flowering Village” award, designated by the National Council of Towns and Villages in Bloom. There is certain criteria each must have to compete, and the award is based on floral displays throughout the entire village. The residents get in the spirit and add flowers to their own homes to help with the competition, too. You’ll also see very colorful houses, with figurines above the doors. According to our guide, the houses are painted a specific color to designate the original inhabitant’s occupation. For example, a blue house with fish figures likely belonged to a fisherman.
Okay, now where do you go?
Colmar is a colorful fairytale village with the half-timbered houses you’ve seen in movies. It’s also the birthplace of Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi – designer of the Statue of Liberty. They have a replica in Colmar commemorating his work, and you can tour his childhood home.
Riquewihr is a Flowering Village, and voted one of the Most Beautiful Villages in France. The streets are so old and narrow that during the summer, they only allow pedestrians to walk down the streets, no cars.
Obernai (also a Flowering Village) looks much more medieval than some of the other villages we visited, but that makes it unique from the others.
Ribeauvillé is one of the oldest villages in France. They were awarded the 4-star Flowering Village Award for exceptional flower displays, and there are colorful flags hanging above the streets.
Eguisheim was one of my favorites! They were recipients of the Grand Prix National du Fleurissement, France’s most prestigious Flowering Village Award. The buildings are not only colorful, but the squares have such unique buildings around them, it was perfect for taking pictures! Similar to the other villages, some of the houses date back to the 16th and 17th centuries. Eguisheim is also home to a church that dates back to the 13th century!
Sélestat, awarded a 3-star Flowering Village title, is also home to one of the oldest churches, dating back to the 11th century. While we were here, we stopped by a cute cafe and had some wine and coffee. We also loved walking around and looking at all of the ornamented buildings. Some of the building-fronts really decked out their facade with crazy decorations!
Here’s a list of floral towns and villages throughout France!
A few things to know before you go:
- Don’t order jagermeister at the bar. Not that any sane person would (…Chris). The Alsatians are very proud of being French. They are not interested in jagermeister.
- You cannot buy a cuckoo clock in Alsace. Not a real one, anyway. If you’re driving, just head to the Black Forest and go to Triberg! This is something I wish we would have done! Both very German.
- Don’t take pictures of the shops! They don’t appreciate it and will ask you to leave.
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