When the lights twinkle and the air fills with the scent of mulled wine, you know that the Christmas market season has arrived. In Alsace, two markets are particularly famous and eagerly awaited: Strasbourg and Colmar. But which one should you visit? Ideally, I'd say both! But if you have to choose, here's an overview and a few points of comparison to help you.
Christmas markets in Alsace, a genuine tradition
Alsace is a region where the tradition of Christmas markets shines with particular intensity. Each village organises its own market, of varying size, lasting from a weekend to the whole of the Advent season.
The origins of Christmas markets in Alsace go back to the Middle Ages, with the St Nicholas markets (or Klausemärik). Back then, it was St Nicholas who gave presents to children on 6 December. The markets were an opportunity for parents to buy special items and food for the festivities.
Transformed into Christmas markets with the Protestant Reformation, these markets are still very popular with Alsatians and tourists alike. Between the stalls adorned with decorations, visitors can discover local crafts and culinary specialities such as gingerbread, bredele (or small Christmas cakes) and the famous spiced mulled wine.
Strasbourg, the Christmas capital
When it comes to Christmas markets, Strasbourg is the undisputed benchmark. Nicknamed the "Christmas Capital", the city transforms tradition into a spectacular event, attracting visitors from all over the world. In 2022, the record was even broken with 2.8 million visitors! But what makes Strasbourg's Christmas market so special?
One of the oldest Christmas markets in Europe
The Strasbourg Christmas market has a rich history. Launched in 1570 as the "Christkindelsmärik" (market of the Christ Child), it is the oldest in France and one of the oldest Christmas markets in Europe. This long-standing tradition is accompanied by others, such as the Christmas tree.
It was in 1492, in the account books of the Œuvre Notre-Dame, that we find the first written mention of 9 fir trees bought to celebrate the New Year. Today, the Great Christmas Tree on Place Kléber is an essential part of the Christmas celebrations. It's also one of the biggest decorated trees in Europe.
A magnificent city, especially at Christmas
With its architecture blending Alsatian tradition with French and German styles, Strasbourg is a magnificent city all year round. Its huge cathedral with one spire, its picturesque Petite France district, its French-style Palais Rohan and its very Germanic Palais du Rhin will surprise you.
At Christmas, Strasbourg takes on an even more magical dimension thanks to its illuminations, the warmth of its markets and the facade decorations in the historic centre.
Take a look, for example, at the richly decorated windows of the Christian patisserie, the many nannies at the Tire-Bouchon restaurant or the lively windows at Galeries Lafayette. Then there are the magnificent Baccarat crystal chandeliers in the rue des Hallebardes.
A dozen Christmas markets in the city
Strasbourg's Christmas market is spread over ten or so squares in the city, each with its own unique atmosphere:
- Place Broglie: the centrepiece of the market since its inception, this square is also home to the famous Christkindelsmärik (Market of the Christ Child).
- Notre-Dame Cathedral: at the foot of the sumptuous Gothic cathedral are chalets selling culinary specialities, handicrafts and Christmas decorations.
- Place Kléber: a large Christmas tree stands majestically amidst a host of activities for young and old.
- The Petite France district: located in the historic heart of Strasbourg, this typically Alsatian district offers a more intimate atmosphere, with chalets nestling along the water's edge.
Visiting the various markets is a great way to discover different parts of the city.
Activities, restaurants, accommodation: there's plenty to do!
Strasbourg is one of the 10 largest cities in France and one of the most popular with students. So it's particularly lively. It also has a wide and varied range of restaurants, from fast food to Michelin-starred restaurants. Of course, you can also sample traditional Alsatian cuisine, including sauerkraut and tarte flambée.
When it comes to accommodation, there's plenty to do, with hotels to suit all budgets. Just remember to book well in advance to get the best prices and the best locations.
Of course, the popularity of the Strasbourg market has its downside. The crowds can be impressive, especially at weekends, and some people complain that it's a bit too commercial. But don't let that put you off: the experience is well worth it.
Colmar, a more authentic market
Just 70 kilometres from Strasbourg, on the Alsace wine route, Colmar offers an equally enchanting Christmas market experience, but with a more intimate and picturesque atmosphere, I find. For the 2023 edition, Colmar expects to welcome between 1.3 and 1.5 million visitors.
Although less crowded than Strasbourg, the markets are also less spread out across the city. At peak times, you shouldn't see much difference. So what makes Colmar's Christmas market so famous?
A unique atmosphere in a beautiful town
What sets Colmar apart is its atmosphere. With its canals and half-timbered houses, the town seems straight out of a fairytale, especially at Christmas time. Much smaller than Strasbourg, the prefecture of Haut-Rhin offers a quieter, more personal and even human experience.
6 intimate markets in the heart of the city
Despite all the competition, Colmar has a lot to offer fans of authentic, traditional Christmas markets. Whereas Strasbourg has 8 Christmas markets, including the huge Christkindelsmärik, Colmar has just 6 markets in the most beautiful parts of the historic centre:
- The Place des Dominicains market: located in front of the eponymous church and surrounded by half-timbered houses, this is a magical place to pick up local crafts.
- The Place Jeanne d'Arc market: particularly popular with gourmets, this market will delight your palate with Alsatian culinary specialities such as mulled wine, pretzels and mannele (man-shaped biscuits).
- The children's Christmas market in Petite Venise: with sheep, rabbits and a mechanical nativity scene, it doesn't take much to fill children with wonder.
- The Place de l'Ancienne Douane market: with its typically Renaissance architecture, this is the ideal place to immerse yourself in the spirit of the medieval festivities of yesteryear.
- The covered market: set up under the old Koïfhus warehouse, this is a showcase for local craftspeople offering a wide range of original creations to visitors... and all in the warmth!
- The gourmet market: bringing together local enthusiasts, this market offers a chance to rediscover the flavours of yesteryear through a variety of culinary preparations.
A stone's throw from the Kaysersberg and Eguisheim Christmas markets
Strasbourg has enough to do to make a weekend of it, but Colmar is an excellent base if you want to visit several Christmas markets.
Kaysersberg, one of France's most beautiful villages, is just ten kilometres away. Its small Christmas market is a real gem. In any case, it's one of my favourites.
Another magnificent village is Eguisheim, less than 10 km south of Colmar. Its Christmas market is tiny but the setting is superb.
Which is the best Christmas market in Alsace: Colmar or Strasbourg?
As you can imagine, it's hard to decide between the two. As a native of Strasbourg, I'm very attached to the Christmas markets in my city and I love the atmosphere in the historic centre at this time of year. Even if it's not always easy at this time of year 😬
But Strasbourg allows you to spend a full weekend mixing market strolls, fly boat rides, cultural activities and evening outings.
Colmar, with its magical Christmas market, is a destination of choice for those seeking a more intimate experience, without sacrificing the magic and beauty of Alsace's Christmas traditions. The town is quieter in the evenings, with fewer bars, restaurants and places to go out. On the other hand, it is ideal for a weekend in the surrounding vineyards, with Kaysersberg and/or Eguisheim.