For years, we recommended only two hotels in Alsace, both of which were in Strasbourg. I’m pleased to say that on my recent trip to this region in France’s northeast, I discovered two other charming inns, one in a village at the northern end of Alsace’s line of grand cru vineyards, and the other in Colmar, a delightful small city farther south. With these properties, it’s possible to put together a lovely driving tour.
This region draws mostly French and German tourists, but few Americans. It is a shame, because Alsace ranks among the world’s prettiest wine regions, with vineyards terraced into the foothills of the Vosges Mountains, well-preserved half-timbered villages and the romantic ruins of castles that once protected them. And the wines themselves will delight any connoisseur. Riesling and Gewürztraminer reach great heights, and red-wine lovers will find much to praise in Alsace’s Pinot Noirs.
I recommend starting in Colmar and working your way up to Strasbourg, Alsace’s capital, which still has my two favorite hotels in the region. Note that when the European Parliament is in session, accommodations in Strasbourg fill up, making it important to secure reservations there far in advance if you’re traveling during that period.
The busiest season in Alsace is not summer, or even the fall harvest season, as one might expect. It’s December, when cities and villages glow with festive Christmas markets. January to March is the slowest period, before spring arrives and the vineyards are still dormant.
Read our editor’s full account from Alsace, which includes restaurant and wine bar recommendations.
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The pretty little city of Colmar is about three hours from Paris by train, or you can fly into the EuroAirport Basel-Mulhouse-Freiburg and rent a car. Colmar is about 45 minutes north of the airport.
Check into La Maison des Têtes, in a landmark historic building in the heart of the old center. This is not a true luxury hotel, but a comfortable family-run inn with a superlative gourmet restaurant. Official check-in time, alas, is not until 4 p.m.
Take a stroll in the city, walking from the hotel to Petite Venise, where a canal runs past pastel-colored half-timbered houses. It’s possible to take a 30-minute canal cruise; I recommend asking the hotel to reserve you a private cruise in advance, as the small boats can become crowded.
If time permits, have lunch at one of my recommended restaurants in Colmar and/or introduce yourself to Alsatian wines at one of my recommended wine bars.
Take a full day to enjoy Colmar. Start with a visit of the wonderful Unterlinden Museum, which recently added a new set of exhibition spaces designed by Herzog & de Meuron. In the 13th-century convent that forms the original part of the museum is the monumental and harrowingly expressive Isenheim Altarpiece, as well as a small but excellent collection of mostly French artworks.
Take the rest of the day to explore Colmar on foot. Walk along the Rue des Clefs, a major shopping street, and turn right down the Grand Rue. It leads to the picturesque Place de l’Ancienne Douane. Follow some of the smaller streets back toward your hotel. All along the route are restaurants and wine bars with sidewalk patios and shops with tempting local gourmet treats.
Colmar is a small enough city that driving in and out of it isn’t too much of a chore. Make a day trip by car to the wine town of Kaysersberg, about 20 minutes from La Maison des Têtes. First, ascend the hill to the Château de Kaysersberg, a ruined castle that affords sensational views of the town, the grand cru Schlossberg vineyard and the countryside beyond.
Have a stroll through the touristy but very attractive town, and then enjoy lunch at The Winstub at Le Chambard, an upscale wine tavern on the far side of town from the castle.
Do a wine tasting this afternoon, either at Domaine Weinbach, in a converted 17th-century Capuchin monastery just outside town, or at Jean-Baptiste Adam, in the neighboring town of Ammerschwihr. Both wineries are family-owned, and both farm their vineyards biodynamically. Making an appointment is recommended at either winery, but Jean-Baptiste Adam’s larger tasting room can better accommodate those who don’t book in advance.
Return to Colmar after the wine tasting.
If you are up for some exercise and the day isn’t too hot, drive about 25 minutes to Ribeauvillé and hike up to the ruined Château de Saint-Ulrich and its neighbor, the Château du Girsberg. The shortest path is steep and only partially shaded but the views encompass vast swaths of exquisite countryside.
If a hike up to a castle sounds unappealing, skip Ribeauvillé and head instead to Hunawihr, a little village just south of Ribeauvillé with a dramatic church on a vineyard-covered hillside. Walled Riquewihr is the next town to the south, and exploring it on foot is great fun. I had a good lunch there at Brendelstub. Or if you did the hike to the castle, you might prefer lunch in Ribeauvillé at Auberge du Parc Carola.
Either way, after lunch, drive to nearby Beblenheim for a tasting at Maison Pierre Sparr, where an appointment isn’t really necessary. Alternatively, if you prefer to try one of the more famous names in Alsatian wine, Trimbach is just outside Ribeauvillé, and Dopff au Moulin is just outside Riquewihr.
Return to Colmar in the late afternoon.
Check out of La Maison des Têtes after breakfast and drive about 30 minutes north to the Château du Haut-Kœnigsbourg, pausing en route, if you like, to wander in the attractive town of Bergheim. Haut-Kœnigsbourg underwent a major restoration in the early 20th century, with reconstructed banquet halls, sleeping chambers, a chapel and so forth. This castle, a short uphill walk from parking, is relatively easy to reach and popular.
If you prefer to have a castle more to yourself, continue north to the Château du Bernstein, another ruin that requires a hike to reach (though the walk is much less strenuous than the walk to Château de Saint-Ulrich).
The views from either castle are panoramic and impressive.
After your castle visit, continue north along the Route des Vins, stopping for a break to wander around the village of Dambach-la-Ville, which still retains some of its walls.
The meandering country roads eventually lead up to the town of Mittelbergheim, where I tasted the fascinating and delicious experimental wines of Vins d’Alsace Rietsch. Unfortunately, it’s difficult to make an appointment there, so I recommend instead stopping for a tasting at the easier-to-visit Domaine Armand Gilg.
The next village north is quiet Barr, home to the 5 Terres Hôtel & Spa, located in the center of town on the Place de l’Hôtel de Ville. Like La Maison des Têtes, this property is not a true luxury hotel, but a stylish inn with a welcoming staff and a good restaurant. The 5 Terres also has a striking spa in its vaulted stone cellar, including a small swimming pool.
Have dinner in Barr, either at the hotel’s restaurant or at Au Potin, a gourmet restaurant a 10-minute walk away.
About 35 minutes west of Barr is the only Nazi concentration camp on French soil, Natzweiler-Struthof. This relatively small camp housed mostly political prisoners, but that did not mitigate the Nazis’ cruelty. Around 22,000 people were killed here. A visit is illuminating, very upsetting and, to my mind, important to do. We forget the horrors of the past at our peril. (Read my full account of my visit to Natzweiler-Struthof.)
It’s possible to return to Barr via the Pinot Noir town of Ottrott, or take a more southerly route, as we did, passing through Andlau. If you do the latter, stop at Domaine Wach, another family-owned winery that produces a number of superb bottlings (an appointment is recommended, but if you don’t have one, try anyway).
Park back at the hotel. Have a stroll in Barr, and/or enjoy a treatment in the hotel’s spa.
Have dinner tonight in Barr, or if you feel like something a little more extravagant, drive about 15 minutes north to the beautiful walled town of Obernai to eat at La Fourchette des Ducs, which has two Michelin stars.
Check out of the 5 Terres Hôtel & Spa and continue north. Stop in Obernai if you didn’t have a chance to explore the town the evening before, and drive up to Strasbourg, a total journey of about 35 minutes. Check into your hotel, either the Hôtel Les Haras or the Cour du Corbeau, and return your rental car.
Have lunch at one of my favorite winstubs in town.
Visit Strasbourg’s soaring gothic cathedral, a pink-sandstone wonder that was the tallest building in the world for 227 years.
Set in the heart of the historic center of Strasbourg, this charming boutique hotel occupies a beautifully renovated former royal stable complex dating from the 18th century.
Lovely historic property in a renovated 16th-century coaching inn across the river from Strasbourg’s famous Gothic cathedral.
Take a full day to explore delightful Strasbourg. Simply wandering its old quarter is a pleasure, but in particular, don’t miss the canal-laced Petite France neighborhood and the Musée Alsacien, which gives a fascinating introduction to the complex history of Alsace. I also recommend descending into the cellars of Hospices de Strasbourg, which date to the late 14th century and contain what is reputed to be the world’s oldest barrel of wine.
If time permits, take another day to enjoy Strasbourg. If not, return to Paris by train, a journey of about two hours and 20 minutes, or fly out of Strasbourg’s airport and connect to your flight home.
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