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Winter and Christmas in the charming city of Strasbourg and the storybook villages of Alsace can be a truly magical experience. With over ten Christmas Markets, a 30-meter tall Christmas Tree, romantic canals and the enticing aromas of gingerbread cake and hot mulled wine in the air, Strasbourg really is “the capital of Christmas”!
Things to do in Strasbourg in Winter
There is something magical about Strasbourg that is difficult to put to words. Perhaps it is the unique fusion of French and German cultures that make it so enchanting. Or the location, with the awe-inspiring Vosges mountains to the west, the Black Forest to the east and the river Ill crossing the city, giving it its romantic canals.
A UNESCO World Heritage Site
As a matter of fact, the Grande-Île, the historic heart of the town, is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the first ever city centre to be awarded this honour. No wonder then that Christmas in Strasbourg has been voted the best in Europe more than once!
See the oldest Christmas Market in Europe
Not only Strasbourg hosts one of the most beautiful Christmas Markets, but it also boasts one of the oldest ones. In fact, it was here, in 1570, that the first edition of the Christmas Market took place, then called “Christkindelsmärik“, making it the oldest in Europe.
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Every year, over 300 stalls are installed in Place Broglie, the location of the most famous Strasbourg Christmas Market, selling handmade crafts and artisanal goods, traditional Alsatian products and Christmas decorations.
Not to mention that there is not just one, but a total of ten (10) Christmas Markets in the Strasbourg! Moreover, decorating the streets and shops starts from early November. Cold weather and early morning river fogs only add to the city’s Christmas charm.
2019 Opening Times: November 22nd – December 30th
Visit Place Kléber
At a whopping 30 metres (about 100 feet) tall at least, the Great Christmas Tree of Place Kléber is a sight by itself. Its trunk alone can reach up to 120 metres in diameter! It is a real tree and the head of the French Forestry Office searches for it in the forests of Alsace and the Vosges Mountains, starting March every year.
Traditionally, the people of Strasbourg would leave gifts for the poor at the feet of the great tree. Nowadays there is also a “Village of Sharing”, a Christmas Market with 85 booths by charities, including Médecins du Monde, the Red Cross and more.
The Great Christmas Tree dominates the square, which is also the main shopping area of Strasbourg. Around the square and its nearby streets you’ll find all the major shopping and eating brands, such as the famous Galleries Lafayette, as well as smaller boutiques with one-of-a-kind products.
See the Strasbourg Cathedral and Astronomical Clock
The Strasbourg Cathedral is probably the most imposing building in the city. It is so tall that I used it as a kind of GPS. Whenever I got lost in the cobbled alleys of the old town and had run out of mobile internet units, all I had to do was locate the Cathedral in horizon and find my way!
The Cathedral is indeed a Gothic masterpiece, with beautiful stained glass windows, religious statues and decorations inside. Best time to visit is before 11.35 a.m., so that you can see the Astronomical Clock in action. The clock is in fact made by the same person who made the famous Astronomical Clock of Prague.
At Christmastime, there is also a large Nativity Scene inside the Cathedral, as well as a Christmas Market outside, selling crafts, wooden toys, decorations and more.
Go on a river boat tour with Batorama
To my experience, boat tours may seem a touristy thing to do, but actually are a great way to see a river or canal city. They offer you a truly unique view of the place and are very comfortable too, after all that walking!
Near the Cathedral, just next to the Tourist Office, is the souvenir shop where you can get tickets for the Batorama river boat tours (there is a sign outside). With ticket at hand, just walk down the Cathedral street (the crowded one with all the souvenir shops), till you reach the docks. You’ll know you’re at the right place once you see the queue!
In winter, the boats are covered (with panoramic glass covers) and heated, so no worries about the weather. The tours run about an hour and circle the Grand Île. It’s a very comfy (and warm!) way to take in the sights of Petite France, Neustadt (also a UNESCO Heritage Site) and the European Quarter with the headquarters for the European Council.
Headphones are provided for free and the automatic guide is available in many languages. It’s actually quite good, I learned a great number of things about the city’s history that I didn’t know. I recommend it!
Walk around Petite France
Located on the western side of the Grand Île, this is the historic centre of the city. As it features picturesque river canals and pretty half-timbered houses, La Petite France is indeed Strasbourg’s most charming part and you shouldn’t miss it. Not to mention just how Instagrammable it is!
With this in mind, perhaps the best way to explore it is to just let yourself wander its cobbled streets. La Petite France used to be home to tanners and butchers in the Middle Ages, who built their shops and houses by the river canals, as it was convenient for their businesses’ needs. Their half-timbered homes still stand intact and are the highlight of the area.
Pro tip: some of the bridges are in fact canal locks and you might be asked to move when a boat approaches. So keep your ears open when taking pictures while standing on a wooden bridge and certainly don’t listen to music while wearing headphones or you might unwittingly cause some commotion (like nobody I know!)
Taste the local Alsatian cuisine
The local cuisine is an interesting fusion of French and German culinary traditions, as a result of Strasbourg being a border town. In fact, the whole province of Alsace has historically been claimed by both Germany and France since the Middle Ages, with the river Rhine forming a natural border between the two countries.
The most famous local dish is probably the Tarte Flambée (its French name) or Flammkuchen (its German name, both acceptable). It’s like a thin crust pizza, topped with crème fraiche, lots of onions and ham or bacon. One of the best places to have Tarte Flambée in Strasbourg is the Binchstub Broglie (according to a local)
The main street food is the pretzel, which is sold at street stalls and bakeries, both plain and topped with a melted cheese. Best enjoyed with a cup of hot mulled wine while enjoying the city’s sights!
If you have more of a sweet tooth, you won’t get disappointed in Strasbourg! One of the most traditional sweets is Pain d’ Épices, which is a kind of gingerbread. The best place to get Pain d’ Épices is at Mireille Oster’s in the heart of Petite France. She specializes in baking and selling only this particular cake, in various shapes and sizes, and I promise you it’s delicious. Her shop was right across the street from my hotel. Enough said.
Practical Tips & Info
For a town that is also the headquarters of the European Council, Strasbourg can be unexpectedly complicated to reach. But do not let this deter you! It so very much worth the extra connection.
Although Strasbourg has an international airport, this caters mostly to business travellers and can be quite expensive to fly into.
One way to reach Strasbourg is to fly into Paris and then take the 2-hour long TGV East (high speed) train. Travellers from London can also take the Eurostar to Paris or Lille and switch to the TGV towards Strasbourg.
Alternatively, and perhaps the best way, is to get to Strasbourg via Frankfurt. It may come as a surprise but, Frankfurt International Airport is actually the closest major international airport to Strasbourg. From Frankfurt Airport, you can then take the Lufthansa Express Bus, which directly connects the two cities six times a day in about 2 hours 30 minutes. Better still, the bus is available to all passengers, not only those on a Lufthansa flight. Moreover, it’s a very smooth ride along the German (mostly) countryside.
There are also good train, bus and road connections from other German cities and Switzerland.
Where to stay in Strasbourg
As Strasbourg is a rather small city, many of the hotels are on and around the popular historic centre of the Grand Île. For this reason, most sights and Christmas markets are within walking distance from the majority of the hotels.
From personal experience, I highly recommend the Hotel Cour du Corbeau – MGallery, just across the river from Grand Île. Housed in a former 15-century inn, it offers beautiful and quiet rooms with the famous for their comfort Sofitel beds, as well as impeccable service and very good breakfast.
Another option is the Bouclier d’ Or, which is another historic hotel I stayed in. This one is on the Grand Île, just a couple minutes from Petite France and about 10 minutes from Strasbourg Cathedral. A truly beautiful hotel, housed in a 16-century building, it has a lobby to die for, a small spa, comfy rooms (even though not as quiet as those of Cour du Corbeau) and good breakfast.
What to pack
Strasbourg in winter can be very cold. Also the weather can be very foggy because of the humidity from the river. For one thing, pack warm clothes and flat shoes (because of all those cobbled streets).
Some things to pack include:
- Thermal underwear
- Warm winter jacket
- Winter hat or beanie
- One warm scarf and one silk scarf (for an evening out)
- Umbrella or jacket with hoodie (even better)
- Warm, comfortable, flat or low-heeled ankle boots
- UGG-style boots
Is Strasbourg safe?
Following the terrorist attack in 2018, security measures have increased in Strasbourg considerably. It is now very safe to visit, especially with all this extra security, but be prepared for additional passport and security checks.
For this reason, during the busy Christmas season, there are additional police officers patrolling the city and checkpoints on the entrances to the Grand Île, which wouldn’t normally be there. In addition, there are security checks before going in the Strasbourg Cathedral at all times.
As a result, keep your passport and/or ID card on your person at all times and be ready for a security check of your belongings before entering the historic centre and museums/sights. Other than that, Strasbourg is very friendly, welcoming and safe destination.
To sum things up…
Who doesn’t love a good Christmas fairytale? And what better place to experience such a magical Christmas than the charming city of Strasbourg, with its half-timbered houses and lovely canals, warm mulled wine and pretzel in hand?
Even better, why not combine your visit to Strasbourg to a tour of the storybook villages of Alsace? But that’s another blog post for another time, so stay tuned by following me on Facebook, Instagram or by email!
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Cover photo by © J. DORKEL pour Strasbourg Eurométropole – www.noel.strasbourg.eu