A tiny gem in the heart of the Alsace region, Colmar is too easily bypassed but with its unique medieval charm, cobblestone streets, and vibrant culinary scene, the rewards of what you’ll discover make the detour worthwhile.
Teetering on the German border in the northeastern corner of France, within a half-train ride Basel, Switzerland, Colmar is where French joie de vivre meets German efficiency with uncharacteristic ease.
There’s little doubt that Colmar has earned that grace from history through which the town has been conquered, annexed, lost and won again since it was founded in the 9th century. In short, Colmar has been in the Holy Roman Empire, adopted Protestant Reformation, and even had a spell under Swedish rule during the Thirty Years’ War. And through it all, Germany and France volleyed their claim with the tenacity of a Wimbledon championship.
In spite of its turbulent history Colmar has thrived, its charm so captivating that walking around Old Town’s narrow streets is to meander through all these time periods.
Its architecture alone is a pressed together collection of imposing Gothic churches with magnificent stained glass windows; lavishly decorated merchants’ houses, and entire neighborhoods that still celebrate the region’s early economies.
Examples include the 15th century Koïfhus, a complex of buildings that was once the heart of the town’s economic and political administration. Although the Slaughterhouse, metal depository, Corn and Salt exchanges have long gone, the oldest building – the Place du L’Ancienne Douane (Customs House) still stands. Its arcaded ground floor bustles with bistro activity while above is a decorative balcony, ornamental windows and brightly tiled roof. Look too, for the 17th century Maison de Tete (House of Heads), so named for the profusion animal heads, faces and grimacing masks carved into the walls, onto the doorway, oriel, jambs and mullions.
The Rue de Tanneurs (Tanners Street) is a highlight. It runs along the waterway that has long shed its ‘tanner’s ditch’ faculty for the more prestigious nickname of, Little Venice. The restored 18th century houses here are typical of that era. Very tall and narrow, they have no basements but rest on a high stonewall with upper stories built of half-timbered cob walls made from a mixture of straw and clay. The extensive roofs often have openings at several different levels set back relative to others, thus enabling the tanners to dry their skins.
For its size, Colmar has a remarkable number of museums, the best being The Unterlinden, which is arguably one of the finest small museums in Europe. Housed in a 750-year-old Dominican convent, exhibits include Roman artifacts, medieval wine-making tools, bridal trousseaus and household items, all displayed in striking contrast alongside military paraphernalia and works of art by Renoir, Monet, Picasso and Leger, among others.
Colmar also pays homage to one of its most famous children, Auguste Bartholdi, creator of the Statue of Liberty in New York. While you will find many of the sculptor’s works in courtyards, fountains and even as a gable capping, most are at the Musee Bartholdi, located off a small and elegant courtyard. And yes, you’ll see the original resin model cast for Madam Liberty as well as an entire room devoted to reduced-scale models of The Lion of Belfort, France’s iconic sculpture that stands at Belfort Castle, 11 meters (33ft) high and twice that from nose to tail.
Colmar’s cultural dynamic is positively palpable at every turn, and no more so than in its cuisine. This is the heart of Alsace wine country so even if you don’t do the somewhat touristy “Route du Vin”, Colmar’s many bistros and en plein air restaurants offer lashings of local flavor.
Alsatian wines tend to be heavier – even spicier that you might expect, but they are masterfully paired with the region’s signature dishes: German inspired Sausages and Sauerkraut, Kugelhopft (a kind of Bundt cake), fresh baked pretzels, and tarte flambee, a French-influenced, and very superior Alsatian answer to pizza.
Although Colmar is off the beaten track by car, do check into train schedules because invariably, they’ll turn a visit into an easy day or overnight trip. However you travel there, take note. Once in Old Town, many of the one-way, winding streets can be confusing to navigate so dump the car, pickup a map from the Visitor’s Centre and remember to leave the stilettos at home.
If you go: https://www.visit.alsace/
Photos (in the order they appear):
Bretzel Bundle – Chris McBeath
Colmar’s Central Canal – Chris McBeath
Colmar Street Scene – Chris McBeath
Koifhus – Colmar Tourism
Little Venice Swans – Chris McBeath
Little Venice Barge – Colmar Tourism
Maison Pfister – Colmar Tourism
Typical Narrow streetway – Chris McBeath
Busy street scene with plein air dining – Colmar Tourism
Typical Vendor Sign – Chris McBeath