Exploring Colmar, France: Alsace’s Fairytale Town

Biking is popular in Colmar, in Alsace France. Noreen Kompanik photos.
Biking is popular in Colmar, in Alsace France. Noreen Kompanik photos.

What Makes Colmar a Magical Town?

By Noreen Kompanik
GoNOMAD Senior Writer

When I was a little girl growing up in the Midwest, I’d sit for hours reading my collection of fairy tale books and stories.Saint Martin Collegiate Church. Photo by Michael Kompanik I knew them all. The settings and the fanciful and wondrous characters intrigued me.

I so wanted to transport myself to these magical villages, majestic castles, sweet little cottages, and dense fantastical forests. Thankfully, as an adult, I’ve been blessed to visit many of the enchanted destinations of my dreams. 

And one of those happened to take place during a port visit on a Viking Rhine River Cruise – to the beguiling town of Colmar, France.

Getting to Know Colmar

Colmar is a charming town nestled in the Alsace region of northeastern France near the German border. The Alsace Region is known for its excellent wines, and hence, the town is surrounded by vineyards producing varietals such as Riesling, Gewürztraminer, and Pinot Gris.

Colmar is renowned for its well-preserved medieval old town, colorful half-timbered houses, narrow cobblestone streets, and picturesque canals. The unique architecture reflects both French and German influences given the region’s history of land ownership throughout the years.

Thankfully, it’s an easily walkable town and if you only have a day to visit, you’ll still be able to soak in the ambiance of all that makes this French village so very special. The locals get around mostly by bike as we didn’t see many cars on Colmar’s streets.

Taking Le Petite train all around Colmar. Touristy but fun!
Taking Le Petite train all around Colmar. Touristy but fun!

Visitors also have the option of hopping on the Petit Train, offering narrated tours and drop-off points to the monuments and sites of Old Town. For our part, we took advantage of both walking and the train, ensuring we saw as much of this magnificent destination as we could on our day visit. And who could resist a train ride? It’s all part of the magic.

Exploring Colmar’s Old Town

The author and her husband Michael in Colmar's Old Town.
The author and her husband Michael in Colmar’s Old Town.

This is where riding the Petit Train came in very handy for us. We could hop on and off spots and wander through the picturesque cobblestone streets of Colmar’s Old Town, a UNESCO Heritage Site, admiring the well-preserved medieval and Renaissance architecture.

This is where you’ll find the quaint and colorful half-timbered houses along with charming squares that include Place de la Cathédrale and Place de la Ancienne Douane.

Saint-Martin Collegiate Church: Don’t Miss!

Our train tour guide suggested we not miss Saint-Martin Collegiate Church, a 13th-century masterpiece of Gothic architecture, and to be sure to step inside. It’s not hard to find this imposing structure with an intricate façade, elegant spire, and stunning stained-glass windows.

The cathedral is located in Place de la Cathédrale, a bustling historic square surrounded by a myriad of quaint cafes, shops, and restaurants.

The Koïfhus, also known as the Ancienne Douane or Old Customs House, is a striking medieval building located in the heart of Old Town. It served as a center for trade and commerce in centuries past and now hosts cultural events and exhibitions.

Maison Pfister is a Renaissance-era house and one of the most iconic buildings in Colmar. Its richly decorated façade features ornate wooden carvings, frescoes, and bay windows. Maison des Têtes (The House of Heads) is another architectural gem in Old Town. Its facade is adorned with over 100 carved heads, each with a unique expression, creating one fascinating visual spectacle.

Bridges are often decorated with flowers in Colmar.
Bridges are often decorated with flowers in Colmar.

Rue des Marchands is a charming street lined with colorful houses, shops, and cafes, making it ideal for a stroll. We enjoyed taking in the sights, browsing its endearing boutiques, and stopping for a coffee at a lovely little café. Of course. This is France!

As we were enjoying our coffee with a French croissant of course, my husband asked “Can you even believe how cute this town is? It’s straight out of a European fairy tale.”

Alsatian winemakers explaining the local winemaking process. Photo by Noreen Kompanik.
Alsatian winemakers explaining the local winemaking process. Photo by Noreen Kompanik.

Discovering Petit Venise

And then we found the next Colmar treasure – Petit Venise (Little Venice), a mere 15-minute walk from Old Town in the Krutenau Quarter. This picture-perfect neighborhood is located along the area’s scenic canals reminiscent of Venice and lined with numerous colorful timber-framed houses, too many to count.

Reflections of the buildings in the water created a picturesque scene that’s almost impossible to capture by photo. As we stood on one of the bridges with magnificent views of the canal, one of the boat tours floated by, its passengers relaxed and in awe of their surroundings.

Boat tours last 30 minutes and provide another viewpoint of this lovely French town. We made a mental note to do this on our next visit to Colmar.

Petit Venise, like Venice, Italy, is also dotted with historic bridges spanning the canals adding to the area’s unique charm.

The streets in this area are lined with art galleries, boutiques, and artisan shops, where I purchased a Parisian apron too cute for words and a lovely Christmas tree ornament to remember our visit.

Visiting the Local Markets

One of our favorite parts of visiting Europe’s small towns is getting to explore the local markets.
Colmar’s markets are vibrant hubs of activity where locals and visitors alike gather to shop for fresh produce, local specialties, artisanal crafts, and more.

Colmar indoor market

Located in the heart of Colmar’s Old Town, the Marché Couvert Covered Market is a bustling indoor market housed in a historic building. Here, we found a wide range of vendors selling everything from fruits, vegetables, and cheeses to meats, seafood, baked goods, and flowers. It’s a great place to sample regional delicacies. Locals come here to pick up ingredients for a home-cooked meal.

In addition to the Covered Market, Colmar hosts several open-air markets throughout the week in various locations around the city. These markets typically feature a mix of fresh produce, flowers, clothing, accessories, and household goods. The largest takes place on Thursday mornings in Place de la Cathédrale, offering a wide selection of goods from local vendors.

We’re in love with Europe’s Christmas Markets and those visiting Colmar Alsace during this time of year shouldn’t miss the Colmar Christmas Market, one of the most famous in France, drawing visitors from near and far with its festive atmosphere and traditional charm.

The river in Colmar.
The river in Colmar.

Set against the backdrop of Colmar’s picturesque Old Town, the market features beautifully decorated chalets selling handmade ornaments, gifts, and seasonal treats. Visitors can enjoy mulled wine, roasted chestnuts, and other delights while soaking up the sights and sounds of the holiday season.

Taking Some Time to Wine and Dine

Colmar prides itself on being the capital of Alsatian wine, so you’ll want to plan a little wine-tasting while you’re there if you don’t have time to explore the Alsace wine route. But even if you do, you’ll love the wine, so feel free to have it again. As previously noted, white varietals include Riesling, Gewürztraminer, and Pinot Gris. Of no surprise, you’ll find numerous wine bars and tasting rooms throughout the town with sommeliers more than happy to help you select your favorite.

If, however, you choose to dine here (and we highly recommend it), you’ll find the cuisine a delightful mix of French and German influences, unique to this area.

Winstub Le Flory was recommended by one of our ship stewards who grew up in the Alsace region. This fun and whimsical French European gastropub tucked away in a small alley in Old Town is a local favorite with red and white plaid-covered tablecloths and friendly servers offering up traditional Alsatian cuisine Menus come in three languages, French, German, and English.

Murals in Colmar, France.
Murals in Colmar.

My husband selected the pork cheeks in a pinot noir sauce accompanied by a local beer, and I
thoroughly enjoyed my veal cutlet with mushrooms and cream that paired perfectly with a Reisling. No, it’s not a Michelin-starred restaurant, neither is it gourmet or fancy, but it was a really fun local experience.

Tips for Visiting Colmar

If you’re not doing a river cruise port visit as we did, Colmar can easily be reached by train if you’re already in Europe. It’s a one-hour train trip from Strasbourg, 1.5 hours from Zürich, Switzerland, or four hours from Paris. If you choose to make it a day trip, especially in the summer months, plan to arrive in the morning to avoid the crowds. You can also rent a car and explore more of Alsace including its magnificent wine region. The best months to visit Colmar range include May through August when the flowers are in full bloom.

As we headed back to our river cruise ship, we both agreed that one day in Colmar was a mere tease and that this delightful French town was worthy of a longer visit the next time we are in France. Later sitting on the ship’s outside deck and enjoying a French wine as the sun was beginning to set on a picture-perfect day, a quote from British children’s author Roald Dahl came to mind, 

“And above all, watch with glittering eyes the whole world around you because the greatest secrets are always hidden in the most unlikely places. Those who don’t believe in magic will never find it.”

We couldn’t agree more.

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