Alsace is a great wine region to visit. With its fabulous wine, food and restaurants it has much to offer the hedonist, but it’s also full of history, with astonishing buildings in the beautiful cities, towns and villages, as well as stunning scenery.
The first things that will strike you are the culture and – depending on when you visit – the weather. The place does not feel totally French. Indeed Alsace is traditionally Germanic, as the architecture, the grape varieties, the wine bottle shape, the beer and the cuisine all remind you. Alsace history is complex, but fascinating and well worth reading up before your trip. Alternatively you could visit the Alsace-Moselle Memorial museum in Schirmeck about 30km south west of Strasbourg.
Historically the people spoke Alsatian, which is a German dialect, but this has become much less used in the decades since the Second World War, so French will serve you well.
As to the weather, strange as it may seem for somewhere so far north, Alsace is one of the sunniest and driest parts of France – which explains the richness and ripeness of the wines.
The region’s capital is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and very beautiful. The old part of the city is called Petite France and it is a wonderful place to stroll around, enjoying all the half-timbered medieval houses, dramatic fortifications, shops, bars, and brasseries. It’s an island in the river Ill (ill), so a boat ride is a lovely way to get a different perspective. Do visit the Barrage Vauban, it’s a 17th-century bridge, weir and defensive position and is well worth a visit, as are the nearby quays linked by the beautiful Pont Couverts, or covered bridges.
If museums are your thing, there are a whole raft of excellent ones here, including the Strasbourg museum of modern and contemporary art (MAMCS). This is a splendidly intimate gallery that houses a collection of superb paintings from the impressionist era onwards.
Make time to visit the Cathedral, Notre-Dame de Strasbourg, which was the tallest structure built in the middle ages. With its blend of Romanesque and Gothic architecture, it is quite magnificent and there is a viewing platform high up between the two bell towers. At 332 steps it is quite a climb up a spiral staircase, but the views are well worth it.
If all this has left you feeling hungry or thirsty, never fear. Strasbourg has an enormous number of bars and restaurants. The waterways are lined with cafés, sausage stalls and Winstubs, rustic restaurants that serve traditional Alsatian fare – try the Au Pont Martin or Le Baeckeoffe d’Alsace, both on the Quai du Woerthel.
Alsatian food is wonderful. It is very Germanic and you will find Choucroute garnie, sauerkraut with smoked meat, sausage and potatoes, on every menu. Make sure that you try Flammekuechle or Tarte flambée. These are like very thin pizzas covered with crème fraîche, onions and lardons and are normally eaten with your hands and washed down with some local beer. My favourite Alsace beer is Meteor, but Fischer is still good, despite now being owned by Heineken.
Do make sure that you try (The Great Alsatian) Baeckeoffe, which is a hearty casserole of potatoes, onions, mutton, beef, and pork that is slow cooked in a sealed dish and is perfect with a rich Gewürztraminer.
I would also recommend eating at Vince’Stub for a lovely casual, but less Alsatian style meal, or Le Gavroche for something more refined and expensive.
Once you leave Strasbourg, you can take your pick of all the delightful wine villages. A good way might be to follow the Route des Vins (alsace-wine-route.com) as a guide. However you do it, make sure that you spend a day in Colmar.
Colmar is the wine capital of Alsace. It’s close to the important wine villages and it is a gem of a place. There is much to do in this beautiful preserved old city with its fine buildings. Make sure you see the Saint-Martin Collegial Church, Maison Pfister and the Maison des Têtes, now a hotel with one of the best restaurants in town.
La Petite Venise, which is a delightful corner of the city with little canals, brightly painted half-timber buildings, shops, cafés and restaurants. You can even take a boat trip for a relaxing experience.
The Unterlinden Museum, is one of the most visited museums in France and it houses an incredible array of objects including Rhenish medieval art, Renaissance art, altarpieces, archeology and a superb modern art collection too.
Once you have worked up an appetite, there will be no problem finding somewhere to eat, as restaurants are all around you. I enjoy the homely and traditional Wistub de la Petite Venise. For something more upmarket, try the quirky La Table du Brocanteur, or sit by the canal at the two Michelin-star Restaurant JYS.
There is also the Marché Couvert, where you can buy the makings of a picnic, or eat in one of the little cafes. Maison Alsacienne de Biscuiterie makes traditional spice cakes and biscuits and also the local speciality Kougelhopf cake. Pains d’épices, or gingerbread, is very traditional and Fortwenger, who have branches in Riquewihr and Kaysersberg too, is an Aladdin’s cave of gingerbread and sweet treats.
Visit the wonderful Patisserie Gilg to fill up on brioche and macaroons, while Vincent Traitor sells superb charcuterie and prepared meals, including the delicious Tourte de Colmar – a sort of deluxe pâté en croute.
As if all that wasn’t enough hedonism, pop into Fromagerie Saint Nicolas, one of the best cheese shops you will ever find. There are a great many local cheeses, but the strong and smelly Munster, or Munster-Géromé is the most famous. You can experience Munster being made at La Graine au Lait in Lapoutroie, 10km to the north west of Colmar.
Whilst in Lapoutroie, you can also tour the Miclo distillery. They produce all the classic eaux-de-vie of the Alsace region, Poire William, Framboise and Mirabelle, Kirsch and Quetsche, as well as Marc de Gewürztraminer – they give free tastings too.
For a first foray into the wine villages, Eguisheim would be a great place to start. It is lovely and consistently voted one of the most beautiful villages in France. The cobbled streets form rough concentric circles that follow the pattern of the old moat and walls that are no longer there. There are little alleys and courtyards between the brightly painted medieval half-timbered houses, while a sea of flowers adorn every building. Walking through these streets is a constant delight, with lovely shops, cafés and wine bars. Do remember to look up though, as Eguisheim is where you are most likely to see some storks – the symbol of Alsace.
If lunch or dinner beckon by this time then there is plenty of choice. The Auberge du Rempart, Caveau Heuhaus and Kas’Fratz Bierstub Winstub all offer lovely traditional dishes. For the sweet-toothed communist, Patisserie Marx has fabulous cakes, but it also serves breakfast and lunch, so perfect if you want something lighter.
Nearby you will find the dramatic Hohlandsbourg Castle. This once belonged to Lazarus von Schwendi, a general of the Holy Roman Empire who was wrongly believed to have brought Tokay vines to Alsace – Pinot Gris was traditionally called Tokay in Alsace.
This famous wine village is another stunning place to visit. Unlike Eguisheim it has even managed to hang onto its three fortified gates, which adds to the sense of history in this beautiful place.
As well as strolling around, visit the Musée du Memorial des Combats de la Poche de Colmar. This is an excellent museum dedicated to remembering the bitter fighting that took place in the Colmar Pocket in 1944-45.
Turckheim is bursting with restaurants, so you won’t go hungry. Try the Auberge du Brand, Caveau du Vigneron or Restaurant de la Tour for excellent traditional Alsatian food as well as more typically French dishes.
Boulangerie Pâtisserie Husser is a perfect place to buy superb bread and cakes, including their mini versions of Kugelhopf, while Traiteur Geismar can supply you with something delicious to put in that bread.
All the Alsace wine villages are gorgeous to look at and stroll around, so if you can, make sure that you see my other favourites too, Riquewihr – which still has its walls and towers, Ribeauvillé – one of the prettiest of all and still with its walls, Obernai, Bergheim, Sélestat, Molsheim – with its preserved city walls, Kayersburg – with its ruined castle and fortified bridge over the Weiss River, as well as a museum dedicated to Albert Schweitzer who was born here.
If all these beautiful medieval villages are starting to blur into one and you are looking for something a little different, try the Four à Chaux, or Fort de Schoenenbourg. These Maginot Line forts are both near Wissembourg in northern Alsace and give a fascinating insight into this extraordinary structure, you can even go down into the tunnels. There is a smaller Maginot Line museum in Marckolsheim 12 km north east of Colmar.
If you do go north, you must visit the pretty little town of Wœrth. It was the site of a French defeat in the Franco-Prussian war of 1870 and there are memorials dotted around, as well as a nice little museum – oh and the Auberge aux Sept Chênes is a lovely restaurant.
Saverne, 45 km northwest of Strasbourg is a delightful town to wander around and has a fabulous museum housed in the beautiful Château des Rohan. Meteor Beer is brewed in nearby Hochfelden and you can visit the brewery.
The history of Alsace makes it especially rich in military history and if you are interested in these things there is the Fort de Mutzig, an amazing pre WWI German defensive complex at Dinsheim sur Bruche near Molsheim, it is easy to see where the French got the idea for the Maginot Line when you see this.
The beautiful seventeenth century fortified town of Neuf-Brisach, some 15 km south east of Colmar, is well worth seeing too. It was designed by Vauban and is another UNESCO World Heritage Site.
The Château du Haut-Kœnigsbourg, a few kilometres north of Bergheim, is a dramatic Germanic, fairy tale-type castle built high on a rocky outcrop, so the views are outstanding. In truth it was totally rebuilt on the orders of Kaiser Wilhelm II, but it makes for a great outing.
I love a simple, well presented regional museum and the Musée Serret has an excellent collection covering WWI and the Alsace Resistance in WWII. It is in Saint-Amarin, 30 km south west of Colmar.
For those of you who can stomach it, Natzweiler-Struthof is the only Nazi concentration camp on French soil and it’s some 30 km south west of Strasbourg. It is harrowing and uncomfortable, but everyone should visit one lest we forget. When I went there I found it quite heartening that the majority of visitors were from Germany.
Car enthusiasts should make sure they see the Schlumpf Collection at Cité de l’Automobile in Mulhouse, some 30 km south of Colmar. It is probably the greatest car collection in the world and includes ten Bugattis.
I would also recommend visiting Hunawihr to see NaturOparc, the Stork and Otter Park there, as well as the captivating butterfly garden.
As well as wonderful wine, Alsace has an amazing variety of things to experience. The food, countryside, towns and history are all wonderful and make any visit an exciting and truly memorable holiday.
Quentin Sadler is a wine writer, wine consultant, wine educator and friend of 3D.
3D’s vineyards in Alsace
Domaine Gruss, Eguisheim
Wines: Riesling Les Prélats, Gewürztraminer Vieilles Vignes, Pinot Gris Ortel
Vignobles François Baur, Turckheim
Wines: Riesling Grand Cru Brand, Gewürztraminer Herrenweg, Pinot Gris Herrenweg