Things to Do in Alsace
Perched high in the Vosges Mountains, overlooking the Alsatian plains, the striking pink sandstone towers of the Château du Haut-Koenigsbourg are an unmissable sight. Built in the 12th century and extensively renovated in the 19th century, the fairy-tale fortress is a popular attraction along the Alsace Wine Route.
The Strasbourg Cathedral of Notre Dame (also known as the Cathedral of Our Lady of Strasbourg, or simply, Strasbourg Cathedral) is the second most-visited cathedral in France, after Notre Dame in Paris. Up to 4 million people visit each year to admire its 465-foot (142-meter) spire and dramatic red facade sculpted from Vosges sandstone.
The colorful heart of Colmar earns its nickname from the canal-like Lauch River that divides its two banks, each lined with half-timbered fishermen’s homes that seem plucked straight from a fairytale. Soak up its quintessential Alsatian charm that's an easy day trip from Rhine River cruise ports.
Although locals most refer to it as a cathedral, Colmar was never truly the seat of a bishop and therefore cannot be called as such; it really is more of a rather large collegiate church dedicated to Saint Martin than anything else. It was a cathedral for less than a decade during the French revolution, hence the name of the square on which it is located. Built in the late 13th century in this iconic pink sandstone that is endemic to Alsace, the Saint Martin’s collegiate church is one of the most important Gothic works in Alsace and was even made a historic monument in 1840. A major fire in 1572 destroyed the framework, the south tower, and the roof. The 71-meter high tower was rebuilt shortly after in a lantern shape, a characteristic feature that make the church instantly recognizable. Archeological works dug out remains from the Carolingian era in 1972, and discovered foundations of a previous church from the Romanesque times. The church boasts several noteworthy features, including a massive Baroque organ, a typically Alsatian ambulatory, and two distinctly antisemitic images that act like a testament to the lost Jews of World War II.
The attention-grabbing, exuberant house on Rue des Marchands is a must in Colmar. Built in 1537 for wealthy hatter from nearby Besançon named Ludwig Scherer, the house boasts extravagantly ornate frescoes (representing Germanic emperors and Biblical scenes) and medallions with typical medieval features; it is, however, regarded as the finest example of Colmar’s architectural renaissance. Pfister House (Maison Pfister) also boasts a beautifully carved balcony, long wooden galleries, octagonal turret, a two-story corner oriel, and ground-floor arcades. The house is named after the family that lived in it and restored it in the late 19th century. It was made a historic monument of France in 1927.
The self-proclaimed capital of the Alsace wine region, Colmar is an undeniable highlight of the famous Alsace Wine Route and renowned for its beautifully preserved medieval center. Colmar Old Town (Vieux Colmar) is postcard-worthy from all angles, with its half-timbered buildings painted in a rainbow of colors, fishing boats bobbing along the flower-lined canal ways and maze of cobblestone lanes dotted with small cafés and artisan shops.
Colmar Old Town's compact center makes it feel more like a village than a town, and the main sights can be easily explored on foot, including architectural gems like the dramatic Maison des Tetes (House of the Heads), the 16th-century wooden Maison Pfister (Pfister House) and the pink sandstone St Martin Church. Additional highlights of Colmar include Mathias Grünewald’s 16th-century Issenheim Altarpiece, on show at the Unterlinden Museum; the Bartholdi museum, dedicated to the Colmar-born architect (best known for designing the Statue of Liberty); and the aptly-named La Petite Venise (Little Venice), where visitors can enjoy a boat tour around the scenic canal ways.
The most atmospheric times to visit Colmar are during the Foire aux Vins wine festival held each summer or during the annual Christmas market when the entire town comes alive with festivities.
Occupying a 13th-century Dominican convent in the Alsace town of Colmar, the Unterlinden Museum (Musée Unterlinden) features a large collection of European art, spanning the period between the Middle Ages and the 20th century. Its best-known work is the altarpiece of Isenheim, created with a mix of sculpture and painting in the early 16th century.
With its lattice of canal ways and assortment of half-timbered townhouses, La Petite France is one of Strasbourg’s most picturesque neighborhoods and an integral part of the city’s UNESCO World Heritage site. Set at the mouth of the River Ill on Strasbourg’s Grande Île, the historic district is the city’s oldest area, dating back to the 16th century, when it was mostly inhabited by fishermen, tanners and millers.
Today, the old tanning houses and water mills of La Petite France have been transformed into bijou hotels, waterfront restaurants and nostalgic souvenir shops, but it’s the district’s timeless charm that entices most visitors. Explore the warren of narrow cobblestone alleyways and you’ll find ample photo opportunities—exquisitely preserved medieval buildings, waterside promenades brimming with colorful flower baskets and views stretching down to the nearby Covered Bridges and Vauban Dam.
Located at the intersection of Colmar’s two major roads back in the medieval days, the Old Customs House (Koïfhus)—also referred to as the "Ancienne Douane"—always had a strategic mission. The former customs house was built in 1480 and was mainly used for two things: the ground floor was a massive warehouse used for storage, and the second floor served as a tax office for import/export and a meeting area for the magistrate and the emperors of Alsace, which later on became the Colmar Chamber of Commerce. Several buildings were added onto the existing one throughout the years, creating an amalgam of architectural styles and proving that the Old Customs House was significant enough, both commercially and locally, to justify extensive renovation and expansion works. The roof, which consists of colorful varnished tiles, is particularly striking. Wondering which part is the oldest? Look for the two-headed eagle of the Empire, which surmounts the two main entrances. The Old Customs House was made a historic monument of France in 1974. It nowadays houses small shops and cultural events, like the much-acclaimed Alsatian Christmas markets.
Built between 1732 and 1742 for the then-Bishop оf Strasbourg, Cardinal Armand Gaston Maximilien de Rohan, the Rohan Palace (Palais Rohan) has played host to a series of impressive guests throughout its history—Louis XV, Marie Antoinette, Napoléon Bonaparte and Charles X have all spent time at the palace. Today, the remarkably preserved building is one of the city’s most celebrated works of Baroque architecture, designed by Joseph Massol and looking out onto the Ill riverfront.
Since 1870, the Palais Rohan has been home to three of Strasbourg’s most important museums, as well as the Robert Heitz Gallery. On the first floor, the Museum of Fine Art includes works by Rubens, Rembrandt, Renoir and Monet, among many others. The ground-floor Museum of Decorative Arts displays an array of 17th- to 19th-century furnishings, sculptures, jewelry and ceramics within the former Cardinal apartments, while the basement Archaeological Museum exhibits a number of significant prehistoric and medieval artifacts found during local excavations.
More Things to Do in Alsace
The Toy Museum (Musée du Jouet), a small, playful space in the heart of Colmar, is aimed at visitors both young and old. Home to a collection of playthings that date from the 19th century to the present day, the museum (housed in a former movie theater) offers exhibits about everything from dolls to model trains to board games.
Named after one-time Strasbourg resident Johannes Gutenberg, who famously invented the movable-type printing press in 1439, Place Gutenberg remains an important commercial and navigational center of Strasbourg’s Old Town, strategically located close to the landmark Cathedral of Notre Dame. Today the square is best known as a meeting place, lined with cafes and restaurants, but a statue of the square’s namesake still takes prize place at its heart—designed by David d'Angers in 1840.
With many of its half-timbered buildings dating back to medieval times, Gutenberg Square is also celebrated for its striking architecture, most notably the Renaissance-style Chambre de Commerce (Chamber of Commerce) and the 16th-century Hotel de Commerce, from where writer Arthur Young watched the destruction of the magistrates' records during the Revolution. Place Gutenberg is also the center of many of the city’s seasonal festivities and events, hosting games and fetes during the summer months, a Christmas market and carousel over yuletide and a number of flea markets and book fairs throughout the year.
Built in 1690 by its namesake—legendary military engineer Sebastien Vauban—the Vauban Dam (Barrage Vauban) was designed not only as the city’s principal lock, but as an integral part of Strasbourg’s fortifications. Guarding the southwestern entrance to the Grande Île, the dam spans the width of the River Ill and has the capacity to flood the entire southern end of the town in case of attack.
Today the grand lock, with its 13 arches, magnificent sculptures and grass-topped terrace, is among the city’s most recognizable landmarks and makes a popular lookout point, offering panoramic views over the nearby Covered Bridges (Ponts Couverts), the Old Town canals and the distant Cathedral of Notre Dame.
The striking Cathedral of Notre-Dame might be Strasbourg’s most famous religious building, but the comparatively modest St. Thomas Church (Eglise St. Thomas) still stands out as one of the city’s most unique designs. Combining its 12th-century Romanesque façade with Gothic touches added in the 16th century, the protestant church appears more like a castle than a church and boasts five naves and a single tower.
Inside the church, notable highlights include a 10-meter-tall fresco of Saint Michael; an 18th-century Silbermann organ, famously played by Mozart; and an impressive collection of 18th and 19th-century tombs, including the elaborate Marshal of Saxony mausoleum, the work of legendary sculptor J.B. Pigalle.
Among Europe’s most popular Christmas markets, Strasbourg’s annual Christkindelsmärik sees the city transform into a whirlwind of festivity. More than 2 million yearly visitors flock to the seasonal market, which includes craft and gift stalls andvin chaud (mulled wine) vendors, as well as an ice rink and carolers.
Stretching over 2,600 hectares, the Parc de l’Orangerie is Strasbourg’s largest and oldest public park and the principal attraction of the city’s northeastern Orangerie neighborhood, or European Quarter. The tranquil, flower-lined gardens were created in honor of Napoléon’s wife Joséphine (although the empress never visited the park) and were laid out in 1804 by André Le Nôtre, who was best known for designing the gardens of the Palace of Versailles.
One of the Orangerie’s principal landmarks is the Europe Parliament building, which fronts the northwest entrance to the park and has served as the seat of the Council of Europe since 1977. It’s an impressive sight, lined with flags from the EU’s 28 member states. Additional highlights of the park include the Joséphine Pavilion, a small zoo and stork sanctuary, a rowing lake and several playgrounds, as well as a network of walking and cycling trails.
One of Strasbourg’s oldest and most famous buildings, the Kamerzell House (Maison Kammerzell) is a remarkably preserved example of medieval architecture, and its traditional timber framing and ornate carvings make it a popular subject of tourist photographs. Although originally built in 1427, the house owes much of its modern-day appearance to renovations undertaken in the 16th. It also takes its name from its 19th-century owner, grocer Philippe Kammerzell.
Today, the Kammerzell House is home to a period-style hotel and restaurant, and makes an atmospheric dining venue, with its authentic décor including vaulted ceilings, arched stained-glass windows and a series of elaborate frescos by early 20th-century painter Leo Schnug.
A trio of bridges arching over the canal ways of the River Ill, the Strasbourg Covered Bridges (Ponts Couverts) are an iconic symbol of the city, marking the gateway to its central Grande Ile. Somewhat confusingly named, since none of the three bridges remain covered, the bridges once formed an important part of the city’s medieval fortifications and featured wooden canopies from where soldiers could protect the dam below.
Today the bridges are a lasting vestige of medieval Strasbourg, and while their ramparts were destroyed back in the 18th century, the remains of the 14th-century square towers that once linked the bridges together still stand. The historic bridges are best viewed from the grass-topped terrace of the nearby Vauban Dam (Barrage Vauban), which offers panoramic views of the surrounding La Petite France district, or on a boat cruise around the city’s canal ways, passing beneath the arches of the fabled bridges.
At the heart of Strasbourg’s La Petite France district, tucked amid the half-timbered houses and snaking canals of the historic neighborhood, the Tanners House, or Maison des Tanneurs, is one of the area’s most famous landmarks. A lasting vestige of the old tanners district, the former tannery was built in 1572 and is known for its timbered galleries and slanted roofs, where dyed hides were once draped to dry in the sun.
Transformed into a restaurant in 1949, the Tanners House is now home to La Maison de la Choucroute, which serves up traditional Alsatian cuisine in authentic surroundings, with the original 16th-century beams complemented by antique furnishings and window boxes overflowing with geraniums. For the most atmospheric spot, book a table on the open-air terrace, from where the views stretch along the riverfront.
Encircled by the River Ill and the Canal du Faux Rempart, the Grande Île or “Big Island,” is the UNESCO–listed historic center of Strasbourg and home to the majority of the city’s top attractions. For most visitors to the city, the Grande Île serves as the prime focus of sightseeing tours. It also hosts Strasbourg’s world-famous Christmas market during the festive season.
Start your walking tour at the legendary Cathedral of Notre Dame, the city’s most iconic landmark, where you can take in views of the city from the 216-foot-high (66 meters) viewing platform. Next door, the Palais Rohan (Rohan Palace) is home to the Archaeological Museum, the Museum of Decorative Arts, the Museum of Fine Arts and the Galerie Robert Heitz, while the ornate Maison Kammerzell is a fine example of a half-timbered medieval townhouse. Additional highlights include the St Thomas Church and the picturesque La Petite France district, where the River Ill feeds a network of canalways crossed by the Vauban Dam and the historic Covered Bridges.
Set up in 1907 to preserve the region’s unique cultural heritage, Strasbourg’s Alsatian Museum (Musée Alsacien) is a fascinating tribute to Alsatian folk arts and traditions, displaying more than 5,000 items dating mostly between the 14th and 19th centuries. Housed in a trio of 16th- and 17th-century timber-framed mansions, the museum comprises a warren of rooms, each one providing a snapshot of traditional Alsatian life.
Exploring the museum takes visitors on a journey through the region’s cultural history, from the rural farms and vineyards of the Vosges valleys to the homes and craftsmen’s workshops of medieval Strasbourg and Colmar. Period furniture and clothing, ceramics, toys and household items make up the bulk of the collection, but there are also exhibits devoted to wine production, carpentry, rope-making, art and handicrafts.
Fort de Mutzig was built by Germany in the late 1800s to defend Strasbourg and Metz during the Franco-Prussian War. It is comprised of a number of dispersed units that are connected by tunnels, which provided shelter and also allowed for the dispersal of artillery—a design that later influenced the layout of the Maginot Line.
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