I’m sitting on a bus up to NYC, swiping through various “Best of” lists, trying to plan my annual Thanksgiving trip abroad. It was late October, and all I had was a plane ticket to London; neither Steph nor I could figure out exactly where we wanted to go. Do we want mountain villages? Whiskey tasting in Scotland? Moody coastal towns? Nothing really felt right.
Christmas markets! I’ve been to the markets in London, Edinburgh, Dublin but never intentionally sought them out on a trip. So, where is the best place for Christmas markets in Europe? The obvious come to mind immediately; Munich, Strasbourg, Vienna…getting closer. But was there somewhere different, a bit off the radar yet still vibrant? Eventually, I stumbled upon Colmar.
Nestled in the Alsatian region of France is the small town of Colmar. If you’re like me and haven’t heard of the Alsace, it’s a remote region of eastern France next to Germany and Switzerland. Strasbourg, another Christmas market heavyweight, is also in the Alsace. Given the German, Swiss, and French influences, it probably shouldn’t be surprising that this area has all the elements you’re looking for in a fall/winter trip; hearty food, good wine, quaint town centers, and of course, Christmas markets.
A Late Arrival
The train from Paris is about 2.5 hours or so, just enough to let you try a quick snooze in an attempt to recover from the previous night of Parisian debauchery. Or read a book, whatever your thing is. Either way, it’s a pretty uneventful train through the French countryside.
The Colmar train station is about a 10-minute walk from the main downtown area. We’re staying in an Airbnb this trip, so we have to meet up with the host. Sandra was great, and her apartment was perfect, which was a massive relief from the previous two nights in our Airbnb in Paris (more on that later). After dropping off our bags, it’s time to explore. At this point, it’s mid-afternoon in the middle of November, so we aren’t working with a ton of daylight.
Naturally, the first stop is a wine bar. You need to pregame the Christmas markets, no? We hit up L’un des Sens, a cozy wine cellar. Wood beams, charcuterie, french ladies who aren’t all too interested in dealing with American tourists, you get the idea. After a few glasses of red to warm the belly, it’s time to explore the town.
This town takes Christmas just about as seriously as it gets. The downtown area is dressed to the nines with Christmas lights, tinsel, wreath, reindeers, all of it. Unfortunately, we missed the Christmas markets on the first night (beware, close at 7), but simply walking through the town was enough to scratch the itch.
As we meander through the streets, as if a mirage, we stumble across a large white tent filled with food carts, music, and mulled wine. A Christmas market after-party, if you will. The food carts served everything from German sausages to pasta. It made for good people-watching, too. Young adults, old adults – you got the feeling that this, and maybe a bar or two, was the nightlife in Colmar.
On the way back to the Airbnb, we stop at Les 3 Singes (The Three Monkeys) for a nightcap. The pub was relatively crowded; if you weren’t at the after-party tent, you were probably here. A pretty sizeable draft list, at least compared to many of the bars I’ve been to in France. Other than that, it was a relatively typical watering hole. They did have some pub grub, though, so if you’re still peckish at the end of the night, this might be the place for you.
An Early Start
It’s our only full day in Colmar, so it’s pretty packed. Luckily, a relatively tame night before makes this morning pretty easy. We start off at Patisserie Gilg for a croissant and my go-to double espresso.
Colmar in the daylight is different but just as beautiful. The timber-framed, gothic architecture of old-world Bavaria reminds you of the very present German influence in this French village.
We wander down to Le Petite Venise, Colmar’s main tourist attraction outside of the Christmas markets. It’s a beautiful little canal with painted houses lining either side. Great for a photo op. Even though it probably would take you all of 30 minutes to cross the town, you could spend a few hours merely admiring the city and losing yourself in imagination.
A light mist of rain in the afternoon beckons us to eat. Lunch today is at Marché Couvert, a covered market near the canals of Le Petite Venise. Many stalls in the market are filled with produce, meats, cheeses, and even some trinkets. There are also some restaurants in the market, where you can sit down and enjoy some grub. On the menu, flammkuchen! It’s basically a flatbread pizza, but specific to the Alsace and adjacent regions. The French call it a “Tart flambée,” but flammkuchen(!) is so much more fun to say. Either way, cold beer, and pizza go together in any language.
Luckily the rain stops, so our exploration of the Christmas markets can commence. There are a few different market pods across the town. They all have the same theme, trinkets, mulled wine, and food, but they vary enough, so it’s worth checking them all out. Plus, why else did you come here?
Importantly, there are plenty of options for mulled wine. In the Colmar Christmas markets, mulled wine is known as vin chaud (French) or glühwein (German). You can even get some vin chaud blanc, white mulled wine. We tried some, but white mulled wine just felt wrong. A cup of wine is only a few Euros, but still, make sure you have plenty of cash.
No surprisingly, we spent most of the day just meandering around the town, perusing the markets and small stores, and of course, sampling all the food we could find. I also got to try some mirabelle plum brandy, made by a local distiller. Mirabelle plums are incredibly sweet and full of flavor; the high sugar content makes them especially useful for fermenting. I guess it should be no surprise the neighboring region of Lorraine in northeastern France is known for mirabelle plums. The brandy was good; one was pure mirabelle brandy, the other was aged in bourbon barrels with vanilla. I’m always fascinated by the things we distill and ferment.
It’s actually Thanksgiving today! So we have a nice dinner planned. We made reservations at Restaurant Le Epicurian. The dinner was nice, but maybe nothing really to write home about. I remember the food being good (some foie gras and a steak), but nothing particularly Alsatian about the meal. In all honesty, I don’t remember much else about the restaurant; maybe that’s a telling sign. I think I’d recommend La Fleur de Sel if I were to do it all over again.
Since it’s the last night in Colmar, we have to take full advantage of it. After dinner, there’s one more wine bar we want to try, Le Cercle des Aromes. If you find yourself in Colmar, I would highly recommend this place. Great ambiance and helpful staff that was eager to recommend their favorites.
The Alsace is an important wine-growing region in France, producing about 111 million liters of wine per year. The area specializes in white wines, mainly dry Riesling and Gewürztraminer, but you’ll get the occasional pinot noir as well. As with much of Colmar, the wines reflect German and French history, as the Alsace region has passed between the two countries several times.
The sun is up, and it’s time to head to our next stop, London. To be honest, it’s a bit of a late start this morning, maybe a few too many glasses of wine to end the previous night. Fortunately, still one more chance for a croissant and double espresso.