Christmas markets are one of the coolest aspects of living in Europe during late November and all of December. I’d always heard Germany does it the best (they did invent the Christmas tree, after all), but once we were living in France I had read THE place you need to visit during the holidays is Strasbourg, up in the Alsace (aka German) portion of France (it’s literally a few kilometers from the German border in North east France). So, about a year ago I started planning our holiday trip to Strasbourg – the self proclaimed capital of Christmas.
Originally we’d planned to take a long weekend trip, just before making our way back to the states to spend the holidays with family. But, unfortunately, Jim wasn’t able to join me, and I ended up going during the week, exploring on my own.
Strasbourg is a beautiful city. Based on population it’s the 9th largest in France, but in many ways it feels bigger than Toulouse (the 4th largest). The city is the home of numerous government & European Union seats along with numerous museums. I didn’t tour any of this. Instead, I spent most of my time outside, eating treats, enjoying the lights, and soaking up all the gorgeous architecture.
I arrived around 9am on day one to rain and significantly colder weather than in Toulouse. I could’ve done without the rain, but the cold weather was perfect for getting me into the holiday spirit. After checking into my hotel, I decided I’d check out the Grand Île (main historic district), creating my own sort of walking tour. First stop was the incredible Cathedrale Notre Dame-Strasbourg.
This Roman Catholic cathedral was built in the Gothic style (think similar to the Notre Dame in Paris), was the tallest church in the world (for a time) and even today is the 6th tallest (I’ve heard you can even see it from the Black Forest in Germany) . While it has a similar rose (REALLY pretty) it is best known for its astronomical clock (above, top left). What’s an astronomical clock? Well, it has a planetary dial, a display of the Sun and the Moon, as well as solar and lunar eclipses. The main attraction is the procession of Christ and the Apostles, which happens each day at solar noon (pretty cool).
Outside of the cathedral is one of the main/largest Christmas markets. This is where I first observed Vin Chaud Blanc (white mulled wine), which I’d never seen before. I opted for a little mulled cider while I walked through the stalls. It’s worth mentioning there are FAR more Christmas ornaments and Christmas related gifts for sale here than the Christmas markets I’ve visited in southern France.
From here I decided I’d just wander around the Grand Île most of the afternoon until I got hungry. This took me toward the Canal de Faux Ramparts when I saw the below building (below, left). I figured this was probably the home of a wealthy person or a museum or something like that. Once home, though, I discovered it’s a highschool (Lycée international des Pontonniers)! Thinking of the architecture of my own high school, I’m pretty jealous. Can you imagine spending some of your most formative years learning inside those walls?
The buildings along the canals are some of my favorites. The vibrant colors as well as those that are timber framed (you’ll see more of those below) remind me of Germany, but also of Amsterdam and Bruges. Of course, there are also many bikes in the photos as the bike is the primary way to get around.
As I continued my walk I encountered the Protestant Church of St. Peter the Younger (below, left). I love the juxtaposition of the turquoise to the somewhat pink stone, but also the incredible tree just outside. What’s interesting here is the presence of Catholic and Protestant churches. It’s not as intricate as Notre Dame, but it’s still wildly impressive.
From there I found myself drawn to a market not far from the tram and Place Kléber. In the three photos above you can see some examples of the Christmas ornaments as well as various lights for sale. I wandered through the aisles and decided on a mushroom soup for lunch before heading into Place Kléber (below).
Place Kléber is the main square in Strasbourg and the home to the “grand sepin” or large tree seen in the photos above. It’s a real tree, which they cut down each year and often supplement with additional branches then decorate. Something interesting is the lights change colors (green and red or purple and gold) from day to day. As you can see from the photos above I visited in the afternoon and returned at night. That evening was pretty windy and believe me when I say it’s quite a sight to see a tree 30 meters tall sway back and forth.
Not far from the main square is Galleries Lafayette. It’s sort of like a French Macy’s or slightly more upscale department store. I wandered inside, as I had a gift card that’s been burning a hole in my pocket for almost a year. I tried on a few articles, wandered through every department (it was cold and wet outside, but dry & warm in there) then made my way to the shoe department. Here, friends, is where I noticed there is a Pierre Hermé macaron shop! If you find yourself ANYWHERE selling these, buy them. They are hands down the best macarons I’ve ever had. Luckily for me they had some special Christmas flavors: earl grey & date (yum), chocolate foie gras (double yum), raspberry & gingerbread (yum), & enchanted garden (with a little pepper on top…so good) in addition to the standard flavors like black lemon, mandarin, rose & lychee, Brazilian chocolate, roasted chestnuts, etc. I got 12 and packed them away for later consumption. The foie gras was (surprisingly) my favorite. Jim jokes that means we’re really becoming quite French. I loved these so much I returned on my last day to buy another mixed dozen for Jim to enjoy.
From there made my way to Petite France. At first I thought it might be an amusement-y park sort of area, but it is not. Petite France is an old district that used to employ tanners and tradesmen, which is now a site of some of the prettiest old buildings, as you can see below.
This is also the spot where my phone went from about 60% power to 0%. In fact, it died right after I took the above selfie. That will give you an idea of how cold it was that day. After a little investigating I found out extreme cold weather can kill your battery. Luckily, I had a power bank from Jim!
Regardless, I decided to head back to the hotel to rest up a bit before my dinner reservation at La Cuiller a Pot. Should you find yourself in Strasbourg, this is a tasty restaurant, catering mostly to locals. I had a delicious rabbit terrine, porkchop, and some local pinot noir (the wine might’ve been my favorite part).
After dinner I decided to walk around the markets again to see all the lights. As you can see from the photos below…Strasbourg is NOT messing around with their decorations. In fact, I’d say the best time to see Strasbourg might be around 9pm, after the markets have closed. The streets are peaceful and the lights are gorgeous.
In addition to the lights, the Cathedrale is also on full display at night, gorgeous as ever.
The next two days I spent making trips into the Black Forest, returning to Strasbourg each night. The first day I went to Freiburg/Lake Titisee and the second day to Triberg to buy an authentic cuckoo clock). More on those in other posts.
One interesting fixture of my hotel room was that it came with a personal sauna. I’d never used a sauna before, but I was highly intrigued and decided I’d give it a shot on my last night. I read the gigantic booklet of instructions (short version – stay hydrated, don’t stay in for more than 30 minutes, max, and have 8-15 minute sessions over the course of two hours). I didn’t really know what to expect, but I am here to tell you I’m a HUGE fan. There’s a little oven, which brings the room up to the standard temperature of 78 C (!). I stepped in, and I imagine this is what a dessert feels like or intense dry heat. It’s definitely hot, but wasn’t as bad as I thought it would be. With some controlled breathing, I didn’t start sweating until I’d been inside for five minutes, but then I was completely soaked. By the end of my session, I felt like I’d just had an intense workout – it was invigorating and relaxing all at the same time. After walking 20-30 miles over the course of two days, I couldn’t have found a better way to detox/soothe my sore muscles. When I got home I told Jim we should think about building our own sauna. He laughed, as I think he thought I was kidding (I was…kind of). I get the appeal. The Fins are doing it right.
On my final morning I was finally blessed with some clear blue skies. As such, I took the opportunity to revisit some of my favorite spots and (I think) the photos below are some of the best from my trip.
In sum, Strasbourg is really quite gorgeous and makes the perfect holiday destination to get you into the Christmas/holiday spirit. It really does deserve the title of Capitale de Noël!