Strasbourg is an historic, multi-cultural city located close to the eastern border of France with Germany in the Alsace region, and known for its architecture, medieval streets and the Grande Île (Grand Island) city center, Gothic churches, parks and museums, Alsatian food specialities, and the Christmas Markets.
The Christmas Markets have been a tradition in Strasbourg for four centuries, making it one of the oldest in Europe, and the city seems to magically transform into a dazzling wonderland during the month of December. Everything—-streets, buildings, churches, shop windows and balconies are covered in lights and decorations, each uniquely beautiful. Hundreds of stalls and shops throughout the city offer Christmas ornaments, arts and crafts, gift items, souvenirs, food and drink, and there is a wide variety of entertainment, including concerts and cultural events. Absolutely no doubt — Strasbourg deserves the title Capitale de Noël (the Capital of Christmas).
After a two week stay in the French countryside, a friend suggested a quick trip to the Strasbourg Christmas Markets before the return home. We explored for three nights/two and a half days, and discovered a charming city full of lights, history and special moments.
Getting There: We took a high-speed SNCF train from Le Mans to Strasbourg. The trip schedule was 2.5 hours as there were a few stops on the route, but the train was 30 minutes late leaving the Le Mans station. [Note: Train travel has advantages, but it’s not exactly easy for beginners and/or those with little or no French language skills. Also, nation-wide transportation strikes can cause havoc. See ‘Train Travel in France’ below for links to info and helpful tips.] Upon arrival, it was dark and cold, and that made the walk in search of our hotel harder. At the entrance to the city center, a security check required us to open each of our bags for a search. So far, not really feeling the Christmas spirit.
Moon Before Yule: We were so lucky to see the biggest and brightest Supermoon of 2017 while walking the streets of Strasbourg. Gorgeous!
Festive Reunion: The Christmas Markets are best when shared with family and friends. We joined cousin, Ursula, and her friend Bine for a very special ‘reunion’ breakfast at the BOMA Hotel (7, rue du 22 Novembre 67000) before they had to drive back to Remscheid, Germany. The night before, we all enjoyed a late dinner at a brasserie near our hotels. There was a happy, friendly crowd, good food & service. [Aedaen Place, 4 Rue Des Aveugles]
Church of St. Thomas: We had been making our way through cold, wet streets crowded with people for hours when we ran across St. Thomas (11, rue Martin Luther) and decided to take a look inside. It was so much more than we expected.
Cathedral of Our Lady of Strasbourg: Will forever remember the feeling when turning a corner and — wow! there it is. This “gigantic and delicate marvel” (Victor Hugo) is the sixth tallest church in the world and the highest surviving structure built entirely in the Middle Ages. The interior is nothing short of magnificent with the choir screen dated 1252, grand high alters (1500 and 1682), huge stained glass windows (mostly dated 14th century, some from 12th, 13th and 20th centuries), a suspended pipe organ, and one of the largest astronomical clocks in the world. I lit a votive in memory of Opa Kneupper, and we all sat in awe for awhile in the pews.
Palais Rohan: Next door to the Strasbourg Cathedral is the Rohan Palace (1732-1742), former residence of prince-bishops and cardinals of the French noble family Rohan. Today, it’s considered a masterpiece of French Baroque architecture, and houses three museums: the Archaeological Museum (in the basement), the Museum of Decorative Arts (ground floor) and the Museum of Fine Arts (1st and 2nd floors). We visited all three, and liked the Museum of Decorative Arts best because of the opportunity to walk through the grand apartments and chambers of the palace.
Petite France: With half-timbered houses dating back to the 16th and 17th centuries, stone bridges and waterways, this is the most picturesque district of old Strasbourg, and the location of my favorite Christmas market.
Glühwein and Lebkuchen: Really– It’s all about the food and drink! If you’ve ever been to a German Christmas Market (Christkindlesmarkt), you’ll always remember the smells and tastes of glühwein (warm, spiced red wine) and lebkuchen (gingerbread-like cookies), and I was guessing there would be a good supply in Strasbourg because of its historic French-German culture. I was right, but it took some hunting and a lot of tasting. Along the way, discovered a wonderful Christmas tea, cookies and stollen (fruit bread). My absolute best-ever/favorite stollen was discovered at Maison Alsacienne de Biscuiterie (9, rue des Serruriers – near St Thomas church). A wonderful little bakery; also, loved the traditional Christmas cookies and macarons ‘toujours’. At a small booth just a few steps away from Maison Alsacienne, we enjoyed a perfect serving of glühwein (located in front of Les deux gourmandes). I was about to give up hope when I found really, really good lebkuchen from Mireille Oster at a booth in Petite France, and you must go to a Dammann shop (2 locations: 48, rue du Fossé des Tanneurs & 19, rue des Orfèvres) for the most delicious teas.
Snow: Yes, there was that perfect moment on day 2 when we knew — it’s Christmas.
Christmas Markets Travel Tips (from lessons learned)
It’s best to stay in the city center, but hotel room reservations can be difficult, if not impossible, during the Christmas Markets. Plan ahead and book well in advance.
Prepare for long walks in the cold, rain and snow. Coat, hat, gloves and walking shoes–the works. At the same time, pack as light as possible because the streets are bumpy (those cobblestones are killers!), and there are invariably steps to climb and descend as well as broken elevators and escalators in the train stations and airports. You can get lucky (like I did) and a kind soul will help you with your bags, but don’t count on it.
It’s surprisingly easy to get lost (at least in our experience). Wandering around can lead to interesting discoveries, but can also waste valuable time when you’re on a tight schedule. Directions received from helpful locals are often unreliable and/or confusing because of language issues, hard to remember street names, and the many twists and turns of medieval streets. Best to study-up on the city layout beforehand, and have a map (paper or digital) with you at all times. [Tip: rue = street]
The crowds seem to pick up later in the day, and this causes a lot of crushing jam-ups in the narrow streets, small shops, cafés and bistros. Go early to see and do more, but do not miss the late evening hours when the decorative lights are sparkling everywhere, creating a fairylike, romantic winter wonderland.
Look closely at ornaments and decorations sold in the booths. We were disappointed at first because many seemed to be mass-produced imports, but there are some beautifully hand-crafted, unique, and locally made items available at the markets. Take the time to search, and you’ll find something special.
Strasbourg is English-friendly, making communication much easier for English speaking tourists with no French language skills. However, making an effort to learn some basics and use French greetings and phrases can smooth the way for a better experience. Try practicing with Duolingo, free game-like French lessons (online or apps available). It’s kinda fun.
The French have specific times and ways of eating during the day — Follow the customs or go hungry. Breakfast (le petit déjeuner) is typically bread or croissants, butter and jam, and a cup of tea, coffee long or café au lait, or hot chocolate, but hotels and cafes may offer more variety. Lunch (le déjeuner) is the main meal of the day, and the French like to take time to relax and enjoy a full menu, including a starter (une entrée), main course (le plat principal), and cheese course and/or dessert. Most restaurants open for lunch at 11:30am and continue serving new customers until about 1pm (FYI – lunchtime hours are sometimes closer to 12-2pm), and many offer a special fixed lunchtime menu (le Menu du jour) or a special main course called “plat du jour”. Evening dinner (le diner) is much the same with service at restaurants typically starting around 8pm, but dinner at a restaurant is considered by the French to be a special event with a bigger menu, including classic three/four (sometimes 5-6) courses courses requiring 2-3 hours savoring at the table. Travelers looking for a brunch, ‘late’ lunch or early dinner will have problems finding a place that will serve them. During the Christmas Markets, Strasbourg restaurants may not take dinner reservations or they’ll book up early, so plan ahead. If you missed your chance to dine at a restaurant, keep walking to find a café, bistro or brasserie for good food and flexible hours.
Its always nice to have a few snacks and drinks in the hotel room, and we got everything we needed at the small grocery, U-Express, 5 Grand Rue. Take along a big shopping bag to carry all the bottles of wine.
Feeling a little under-the-weather? Look for the lighted green cross sign. It’s the mark of a French pharmacy, and they’ve probably got a quick, easy solution for you. Just walk in, point to your trouble spot, and explain the problem you’re having.
Christmas Markets in Strasbourg, an online visitor’s guide in French, German & English languages. [2019 Christmas Markets: November 22 – December 30]
Strasbourg Office of Tourism (information on all the things to see and do in Strasbourg)
Train Travel in France – Guide to Traveling in France by Train; and French Your Way (tips on how to buy a ticket at the train station and locate the platform and your coach for boarding) [Editor’s Note: 2019 – A nation-wide strike will make train travel to Strasbourg difficult, if not impossible; therefore, you must check ahead and have a plan B. Find information on train travel during strike and suggested alternatives (car rental and bus) → Here]
Security – Since a bomb threat in the year 2000, the Strasbourg Christmas Markets festival has been under reinforced security. [Editor’s note: In 2017, there were security entry check points requiring a search of luggage and bags, and armed police and soldiers patrolled the streets. Despite the vigilance, tragedy occurred on the evening of December 14, 2018, when a man attacked people on the city center streets near the markets with a gun and knife, killing 5 and injuring 11. As a result, the markets were closed for a day and re-opened with additional security measures, including shorter hours, limited tram service and closed bridges. Find visitor safety tips → here ]
Wikipedia: Strasbourg Cathedral, St Thomas’ Church, Palais Rohan
Museum of Decorative Arts (museum website translated to English language)
Feature photo: The Strasbourg Christmas Tree © 2017 Zeester Media LLC
The 2017 Christmas Tree is 30 meters high (more than 98 feet), weighs 7-9 tons, and comes from the Donon area of Lorraine, France. It’s decorated with 7 kilometers (4.4 miles) of twinkling fairy lights, along with more than 300 flashing lights, 40 large baubles featuring gold stars and 180 illuminated angels, biscuits, candles, apples and stars to create a “Christmas of Yesteryear” theme.
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