Having grown up in Los Angeles, where it was always warm and the only things decorated for Christmas were the palm trees, I’ve never truly experienced a storybook holiday like I saw in the movies, featuring nice people in a charming town where they make and sell their own crafts and food. This year is different though, since I’m living in Paris and have access to some of the original Christmas markets in Europe.
I’ve made some friends who are veteran Christmas market goers, so it was easy to spend a weekend following in their footsteps. We decided to go to Strasbourg and Colmar, both in France but very close to the German border. We grabbed a direct train from the Gare de l’Est to Strasbourg and made it there in less than two and a half hours. You can walk into the town center or take a short taxi ride to your hotel. There are many conveniently located places to stay near the markets for reasonable prices, but book in advance, as they can fill up at this popular time.
The Strasbourg market started in 1570, making it one of the oldest in France. It was originally created to distribute presents to children, and eventually it was made a bit more meaningful by adding in a celebration of Christkindel, the baby Jesus—a good afterthought to buffer the commercialism to come. Local merchants used the markets as an occasion to sell their handmade food and crafts, though you will now also see other, more commercial products, like an errant, angry rock ‘n’ roll Santa and way too many snow globes.
The markets are only open until 9 p.m. on weekends, so we missed them Friday evening; but the lights stay illuminated well into the night, and we had a wonderful wander through the streets, admiring the extensive holiday decorations. There are magnificent photo opportunities around every corner, so make sure to bring your camera battery charger—I forgot mine, and my camera died within 24 hours of our arrival.
Get a good night’s sleep, as the markets open at 10 in the morning and you’ll be on your feet most of the day, wandering through the little log cabin–looking booths set up all over the water-enclosed town. Each market has a theme, and you’ll find ones that specialize in homemade honey, cheese, chocolate—and then there’s a children’s market with rides, and a Swiss village with raclette and even more chocolate. The shops in the town are also festively adorned, and you can find many Christmas decorations in the market and streets. Never being someone who would think about stepping foot into an ornament shop, I found myself seduced by the Santa spell, and I’m now the proud owner of the most irresistible collection of snowmen, who live near their new, whitewashed Christmas tree with wooden ornaments, which I’m sure one of the Alsatian elves made in a workshop around the corner.
I needed to come up with another word for “cute,” because I must have said 72 times, “Oh my gosh, that’s sooooo cute.” It really was like walking through a fantasy, make-believe land, with one site more picturesque than the next. People couldn’t have been nicer, but that may have had something to do with the tradition of drinking vin chaud, or warm wine with spices, throughout the day to stay warm. You pay a deposit of 1 euro for a cup, and then it gets filled up with red or white spiced wine, which was pretty much like drinking Christmas in liquid form.
Strasbourg has a cathedral in the center of town that is truly spectacular, and not just because it makes a good landmark if you’re lost or in need of more vin chaud. It might just be the most beautiful cathedral I’ve seen to date. Its first iteration was built in 1015, then there were fires and rebuilding projects, and for four centuries it was the tallest building in the modern world. The elaborate astronomical clock was built by a team in 1842, and legend has it that they wanted to blind the lead designer after construction was complete so he’d never create anything this beautiful again. At 12:30 each day, the clock puts on a show, so time your visit if you’d like to see it.
There are many places to eat in the Christmas markets, and the smells will have you salivating. You can get cheese, onions and lardoons on pretty much any carb product you like—a thin pizza-like shell or toasted French bread, or right in a deep container on top of sauerkraut or potatoes. We tried them all and made a pact after the third one to eat nothing but vegetables once we got home.
After viewing Strasbourg by night and day, we took a quick half-hour train ride north to Colmar for more pig, carbs, vin chaud and Christmas cuteness. Colmar is set up on a series of canals, making for yet again more spectacular scenery to ooh and ahh against. There’s also a nice two-story indoor market showcasing local artisans and their paintings, pottery and sculpture.
By Saturday night, we were ready to get out of the Christmas cold and into a more substantial meal that didn’t need to be eaten with a plastic fork while standing up. Unfortunately, with no dinner reservations, most of the nice spots were full, but we did manage to get a table at a bar-like restaurant called Schwendi, which served a solid, warm meal, and also our first green salad of the trip.
On Sunday, after picking up more Christmas treasures and listening to some live music, while of course eating a sausage sandwich and drinking vin chaud, we had to pack up all our ornaments and snowmen and head back to Paris. I can say that I’m officially in the holiday spirit now and look forward to many more Christmas markets in my future.
Editor’s note: A perfect holiday gift, in our humble opinion, is a membership in our newly launched Girls’ Guide Travel Club, which gives you value and VIP treatment. If you follow us on Twitter, friend us on Facebook or subscribe to our newsletter, then you’ll receive a special rate!