- Travel in France
- Where to go
What to see and do
- the connoisseur's guide to France
introduction to Alsace
the Germanic region of France. It is a region lying on the west bank of
the river Rhine, between the Rhine and the Vosges mountains. To the
north and east it shares a border with Germany; to the south with
German-speaking Switzerland, and to the west with Lorraine and Franche Comté
Historically speaking, Alsace was part
German-speaking area of central Europe, and to this day a large
proportion of the population, of all generations, speak or understand
Alsacian, a dialectal form of German closely resembling the German
spoken in Switzerland.
In the last two
centuries, Alsace has passed from Germany to France and back , and back
again; consequently, it is a region that was not part of France at the
time of the makings of the modern-day nation, and has held on to a
number of institutional differences, particularly concerning religious
affairs. For example, Good Friday is a public holiday in Alsace, but
not in the rest of France; and in Alsace, priests are paid by the state.
Heritage and culture
In terms of heritage and
culture, with its villages of brightly-painted steep-roofed
half-timbered houses, Alsace is
definitely germanic. While today people are free - within limits - to
choose what colour to paint a building, in the past the colours had a
significance, and town houses, which often had shops or boutiques on
the ground floor, were painted according to the type of shop - bakeries
in one colour, butchers in another, shoemakers in a third colour, and
so on. Today that is no longer the case, but the tradition of brightly
coloured half-timbered houses has become firmly established as the
local Alsatian style.
Alsace stands apart from any other
France. The region's capital, Strasbourg, has all the feel of a central
European city. In economic terms, Alsace is part of the
valley corridor, one of the most important trading routes in
Europe since the Middle Ages. Consequently its economic activity has
much on its Germanic neighbours as on links with other parts of France,
and as a result the region has long been one of the most propserous in
Alsace is made up of just
two departments, the Lower Rhine, or Bas Rhin
and the Upper Rhine, or Haut
(68), capital Colmar
The biggest city in the Haut Rhin department is however Mulhouse
Both of these departments are comprised of a rich fertile plain in the
east - the flat lands of the Rhine valley - and the Vosges mountains in
In the heart of old Strasbourg
itself is one of the many fine cities of France; its historic
centre, with its magnificent gothic cathedral, is among the most
visited in France, and the Petit France quarter, on the banks of the
river Ill, is particularly worth a visit. Among the highlights of the
city's year is the annual Christmas Market, held around the cathedral,
an event that attracts visitors from all over France and neighbouring
countries. Generally speaking, Strasbourg attracts a large number of
international visitors, being the one of the two seats of the European
► More on Strasbourg
is a major manufacturing centre; but with the French national
railway museum and the Cité de l'Automobile, an impressive
with the world's largest collection of Bugattis, and also the large
Ecomusée d'Alsace open-air museum, this part of southern
plenty to offer the tourist.
Lying at the point on the
river Rhine where France, Germany and Switzerland meet, the town of Saint Louis
actually a suburb of Basel, or Bâle in French; as
such it is very close to this historic Swiss city, with its prestigious
The cities of Alsace all lie in the Rhine valley; to the west
the Rhine valley, Alsace includes the eastern side of the Vosges, a
range of steep and thickly wooded mountains which offer plenty of
opportunities for hiking, rambling and other outdoor activities.
Alsace wine is famous worldwide, and wine production is one of the
region's main activities. The Alsace vineyards are located along the
eastern slopes at the foot of the
typical traditional Alsace village.
Vosges; the area is famed for its
very pretty villages, with their brightly painted half-timbered houses.
Some of these villages such as Eguisheim and Riquewihr are classed as
"most beautiful villages in France", and as such tend to draw vast
crowds of tourists at weekends and in the tourist season. They are very
pretty; but these are just two among a large number of other very
attractive villages and small towns set among the vineyards. For a more
authentic view, visitors should follow the Alsace Wine Route, and stop
off at some of the less visited small towns and villages, such as
Niedermorschwihr or Turckheim. Turckheim and Kaysersberg are
particularly worth the visit, and though they both attract lots of
tourists in the high season and at holiday weekends, they are a little
bit less crowded than the "most beautiful villages in France"
of Riquewihr and Eguisheim
Most Alsace wines are white wines, in the German tradition;
Alsace vineyards are famous for their Sylvaners, Rieslings
and Gewurtzraminers, wines that are not produced anywhere else
in France, but are produced in German vineyard areas. The cheaper
Alsace wines are Edelzwicker and Sylvaner, the most expensive ones are
the Gewurtzraminer, specially those known as "vendanges tardives",
meaning late harvested grapes, which produce strongly savoured wines
that are excellent as an aperitif.
is famous for its beer (for example, Kronenbourg or Meteor), its
(choucroute in French), and several other local specialities such as
Alsace Flammekueche, a traditional dish that is not unlike a pizza
without tomatoes, but covered with cheese, cream, mushrooms and local
ham. Another local speciality is Alsatian gingerbread, known as Pain
Alsace in winter
Strasbourg's Christmas market
reputedly the oldest and biggest traditional Christmas market in
Europe. It has been going since 1570, and runs throughout the month of
December. With the growing international success of the Christmas
Market, other Christmas markets have developed in the other towns
across the regions, notably Colmar, and in many of the traditional
villages in Alsace such as Riquewihr. These attract visitors from all
over Europe, and have helped boost the Alsace tourist industry in a
month when tourism in other regiions is largely dormant.
to reach Alsace :
from Paris gare de l'Est or from Lyon. By motorway from UK /
Holland via Nancy and/or Luxembourg, from Germany via Kehl. The
region's main international airport is Basel-Mulhouse
served by several airlines including BA, Swiss, Lufthansa and Easyjet.
Strasbourg airport is smaller.
tourist attractions in
Bas Rhin (67)
- Strasbourg. Site,
historic centre, cathedral, Petite France,
riverside, riverboat tours, museums, covered bridge, the
castle. Legendary hilltop castle in the Vosges, near Strasbourg.
- Struthof - Vosges
mountains - Museum and memorial on the site of the Nazi
concentration camp that stood here from 1941 to 1944
- Kintzheim - the
Eagle Park (Volerie des aigles), a centre for the conservation of
eagles and birds of prey.
Haut Rhin (68)
the best preserved historic city centre in Alsace, with its half
timbered houses. The Unterlinden museum (►
info, tickets), with amongst many
the Isenheim altar (16th century) by Mathias Grunewald. Colmar also has
a famous Toy museum (► info, tickets).
- Kaysersberg :
classic small alsace town, with birthplace of Albert Schweitzer and
national railway museum; the car museum.
- La Route des Vins:
the Alsace wine trail, discovering the vineyards and wine villages such
as Riquewihr, Kaysersberg, Eguisheim
and many others.
- Riquewihr -
reputedly one of the most beautiful villages in Alsace. Rather over
touristic, specially in summer..
- Bergheim : small
town on the wine trail, completely surrounded by its 14th century walls.
- Ungersheim : between
Colmar and Mulhouse. Alsace
Open-Air Museum - Ecomusée
d'Alsace, France's biggest open-air museum, on a par with
the best anywhere. (► info, tickets)..
- Chemin de Fer du Dollar:
Dollar valley historic railway, with steam engines - southern Vosges.
- Neuf Brisach: seventeenth-century
city, fortified by Vauban.
Bas and Haut Rhin
- Vosges mountains;
hiking, mountain-bike trails, nature trails, skiing in winter.
And just outside the region:
the Black forest
(Schwarzwald), and city of Freiburg
the historic city of Basel
(Bâle), with its world-class art gallery.
Below: An Alsace wine village in the midst of its vineyards, with the
Vosges hills in the background
Traditional blacksmith's forge in the Alsace Ecomusée
of Grunewald's Isenheim alterpiece, one of the great works of
16th century International Gothic style. Colmar, Musée
Christmas in Colmar