If you’ve ever wondered what a an Alsatian city might have looked like in all its medieval glory, Colmar is your answer.
The old town has been left untouched for hundreds of years and looks like a theme park, except the timber houses and palaces are completely real and original.
Go on a guided tour or get hold of an itinerary from the tourist office to help you discover 16th-century merchants’ houses or renaissance civic buildings, and then hit the Musée d’Unterlinden where the masterpieces that the city commissioned will blow you away.
Then set off into the countryside to discover Alsace’s amazing white wines and experience the fabled natural beauty of the Vosges Mountains.
Lets explore the best things to do in Colmar:
1. Old Town
Colmar’s old quarter is as complete as it is lovely, with street after street of corbelled wooden houses and sophisticated renaissance palaces decorated with flowers.
The city avoided all of the conflicts that damaged many other French cities and remains a protected picture-book example of old Alsace.
Colmar’s history is so rich and complex that a guided tour is the only answer if you want to fully understand everything you see.
The city even organises guided walks to help you identify the meaning of all the coats of arms on display.
And if you’re with the whole clan then you could catch the two tourist trains, which offer headphones and commentary in 14 different languages.
2. Musée d’Unterlinden
A beautiful 13th-century Dominican convent is the location for one of France’s best regional museums.
Here you can uncover seven millennia of history and savour the artistic wealth of the Rhineland’s late- gothic and renaissance era.
This is epitomised by the masterful Isenheim Altarpiece, a 500-year-old polyptych painted by Matthias Grünewald and Niclaus of Hagenau.
There’s also a Gallo-Roman mosaic, romanesque capitals, paintings by Hans Holbein and Schongauer, engravings by Albrecht Dürer, a stunning 17th-century painted harpsichord and a new contemporary wing with works by Picasso, Renoir, Braque and Monet.
3. Little Venice
South of the centre, where the Lauch River diverges from its canal, is a picturesque little quarter in which tanners, winemakers and fishmongers used to make their homes by the water.
The river is crossed by two charming bridges, on which you can look across to the rows of half-timbered houses opposite Colmar’s old covered market.
On the right bank of the river is Krutenau, a once fortified suburb of Colmar where the city’s market gardeners used to live.
Brief boat trips through this unforgettable setting are available from the quay.
4. Maison Pfister
In a city of sublime Disney-esque houses Maison Pfister takes the cake.
It was constructed for the wealthy hatter Ludwig Schurer in 1537 and is implausibly cute and grand at the same time.
You’ll be stopped in your tracks when you see this marvel of Alsatian renaissance architecture.
Note the turreted spiral stairway, the corbelled wooden gallery on the third floor, the 16th-century frescoes and medallions on the facade, the arcade on the lower floor and the marvellous two-storey bay window, to name but a few.
Colmar’s oldest civic building is its former customs house that was completed in 1490 and was both the economic and administrative fulcrum of the city.
On the first floor of the southernmost building is the stately boardroom where the Décapole would meet: This was a federation of Alsace’s ten Free Cities that lasted until 1679. The room is decorated with ornamental weapons forged in each city and has beautiful mullioned windows on three sides.
Below, on the ground floor is the warehouse where goods for import and export would be taxed.
Outside you have to stand back to admire the diamond pattern of varnished tiles on the roof, which is a trademark of renaissance building in eastern France.
6. Musée Bartholdi
The 19th-centuru sculptor Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi was the man who gave the world the Statue of Liberty and also designed two of France’s emblems, the monumental Lion of Belfort and the statue of Vercongetorix in Clermont-Ferrand.
Musée Bartholdi is at his birthplace on Rue Des Marchands and has curated preparatory models for his major works: So you can see the early stages of both his lion and Liberty, as well as his many sculptures around Colmar, like the statue of General Rapp, the Schwendi Fountain and the statue of Maertin Schongauer the pioneering German printmaker, born in Colmar in the 15th century.
Also in this building is an exhibit about Alsace’s historic Jewish community, with an ark, cabinet and carved stone fountain from the 1600s and 1700s.
7. La Maison des Têtes
This lovely German renaissance palace gets its name from the 106 carved stone heads on its facade and has just been restored.
The palace was built for Anton Burger, a well-heeled merchant who was also Colmar’s mayor at the start of the 17th century.
Starting at the top, the statue crowning the building’s ornate gable depicts the Tonnelier (cooper) de Colmar a city symbol, and was designed by Bartholdi and placed there in 1902. Something peculiar about the La Maison des Têtes, is the windows, which have different widths and irregular positions on the facade.
8. Presbytère Protestant de Colmar
Another German renaissance wonder awaits you on Grand Rue, and was erected in 1606 as a home for protestant ministers next door to their Church of Saint-Matthieu.
On the ground floor is an arcade with ten arches, now taken up by shops and restaurants.
At the corners check out the three-storey-high bay windows supported by cantilevers, which have an octagonal shape, are capped with a pointed roof and almost resemble defensive turrets.
Finally come round to the church side to appreciate the Dutch gable.
9. Collégiale Saint-Martin de Colmar
This gothic church that went up between the 13th and 14th centuries is popularly known as Colmar’s cathedral.
Strictly it’s never been a cathedral apart from for 10 years at the end of the 18th-century on the back of the French Revolution.
Outside you can admire the typical diamond pattern on the glazed roof and the historic noon mark sundial that denotes midday.
The tympanums on the south and west portals are a joy too.
Inside there’s a late-gothic sculpture of the Last Supper and a rococo organ case added in 1755.
10. Schwendi Fountain
Behind the Koïfhus on Place de l’Ancienne-Douane is one of Colmar’s monuments designed and crafted by Bartholdi.
It depicts the Austrian Holy Roman Empire commander Lazarus von Schwendi, who held sway in the 16th century from the Château du Hohlandsbourg a few kilometres west of the city.
The story goes that it was Schwendi who brought the pinot gris wine grape to Alsace after a campaign against the Ottomans in Hungary, which explains why he’s holding a bundle of vines aloft in his right hand.
11. Musée du Jouet de Colmar
For more than 25 years Colmar’s former cinema has been filled with toys and models that date back to the 1800s and has childhood treasures from every era.
So no matter how old you are you can revisit your childhood with this nostalgic assortment of video game consoles from the 80s and 90s (game gear and NES), meccano buildings, dolls, Barbie dolls, Playmobil sets and robots.
The second level is the pièce de résistance, where there’s a labyrinthine working model railway network that takes up the whole floor and measures 120 square metres.
12. Maison Adolph
On Place de la Cathédrale you can feast your eyes on what is most likely the oldest building in the city.
It dates to 1350 and differs from Colmar’s later houses thanks to the gothic arched windows, which show the influence of religious architecture on secular buildings at this time.
These are the building’s oldest features, but there are other bits to spot, like the 16th-century bracket above the well out front, with carved lion heads.
13. Ballons des Vosges – Gazon du Faing
Ever visible on the horizon to the west, the curved granite peaks of the Vosges mountain range are sure to whet your appetite for outdoor adventure.
The lower reaches are rolling vineyards, and further up you can drive, walk or ride through woodland and highland pasture.
The smooth peaks help make the terrain navigable for all walkers, but there’s also a large network of country lanes that you could use to drive to sights like the epic Gazon du Faing peak, above the Lac Noir, a majestic lake surrounded by a bowl of steep mountainsides and cliffs.
14. Alsatian Wine Route
Even closer is Alsace’s wine country, where achingly pretty villages and castles are set in a fresh green landscape of vineyards that grow the region’s renowned white grape varieties.
The Alsatian Wine Route is 170 kilometres long and allows you to delve as deeply as possible into Alsace’s wine culture, meeting wine-growers, visiting caves and tasting some of the finest Rieslings you’ll ever know.
As well as the dry Rieslings there also sweet varieties like Muscat and the trademark Gewürztraminer.
On your journey spend some time in villages like Riquewihr, which is packed with half-timbered houses and still shielded by its medieval walls.
Alsatian food is a tempting blend of French and German flavours, which gives you delicacies like the “bretzel” a pretzel with melted cheese.
Desserts and cakes are also a forte here, so try kugelhopf, a sponge cake baked with raisins, almonds and cherry brandy.
For a main course, the ultimate partner for riesling is choucroute, the Alsatian version of sauerkraut: Fermented cabbage served with cuts of pork and usually three different types of sausage.
And for a satisfying snack try tarte flambée, rolled dough with fromage frais, onion and bacon.