Colmar is one of those places that has been on my travel wish list for some time now. I’m not sure who it was who first told me about this quaint storybook town in Alsace, France, but from the moment I first saw pictures of its brightly colored houses, tranquil canals, and adorable storefronts, I was sold.
In fact, every time I visit nearby Strasbourg (and I’ve been there three or four times now), I regret not making the one-hour journey south to Colmar. Somehow, it’s never been logistically possible – I’m either in Strasbourg for too little time, or I don’t think of visiting Colmar until it’s too late.
And really, I have absolutely no excuse as to why I’ve put off visiting Colmar for so long, especially when we’re talking about a village as bright and vibrant as this:
Way back in December (which actually wasn’t that long ago, but for some reason feels like half a year ago), I had a look at my calendar and realized that – gasp! – I had no trips planned until April (yes, I know, talk about first-world problems).
I decided I needed a weekend getaway in January or February to pass the time until then, and it had to meet three criteria: It had to be someplace close (after all, my vacation days are a precious commodity!). It had to be cheap to get to. And it had to have the potential to (temporarily) cure me of the winter blues.
I didn’t have much hope for that last point, especially since all of Central Europe is pretty much a gray, drizzly mess this time of year. But while randomly looking at bus trips out of Frankfurt (remember, I wanted to save money!), I found roundtrip tickets to Alsace, France, for a price that was criminally cheap.
How cheap, you ask? TWENTY. SIX. EUROS.
Almost instantly, images of Colmar flickered through my mind, and I realized it met all three of those criteria: I could be there by midday on Saturday, the tickets literally cost less than a fancy dinner and a cocktail, and heck – if a bright and colorful place like Colmar couldn’t cheer me up, I didn’t know what would.
When I finally arrived in Colmar, the sun was shining and the streets were teeming with life. What’s more, I was pleasantly surprised by all the Christmas decorations that were still up at the end of January. Wreaths and ornaments bulged out of windowsills, stars were strung up above cobblestone streets, and glittery Christmas trees lined the narrow alleyways.
Even though the temperatures were close to freezing, it was as if this entire village were trying its hardest to make a good first impression.
So yeah, Colmar had basically won me over, even before I turned onto a side street and – bam! – was standing right in front of Église Saint-Martin, or St. Martin’s Church (which apparently a lot of people think is a cathedral).
Personally, I loved the red stones and green shingles the most. The inscription on the clocktower – Memento mori, or “remember that you are mortal” – was another unique touch (which you unfortunately can’t see at this angle).
Just when I thought Colmar couldn’t get any more picturesque, I walked past the tall, slightly crooked houses of Le Quartier des Tanneurs, or the Tanner’s District…
…and into Le Quartier de la Poissonnerie, or the Fishmonger’s District.
The Fishmonger’s District ended up being my favorite part of Colmar, simply because of its dreamy, fairytale-like houses and the vibrant shades of red, blue, yellow, green, and orange that seeped out of every corner.
Seriously, what other half-timbered town have you been to that has houses and shutters as colorful as this?
I followed the canal at the Fishmonger’s District until I got to a bridge at La Petite Venise, or Little Venice, a part of town that is definitely full of punting boats, open-air cafes, and great spots to watch the sunset in the summer (although, to be honest, I didn’t mind visiting in the winter – everything was calm, quiet, and much more authentic).
After walking around Colmar’s Old Town all afternoon, I could feel my appetite starting to grow, so I stopped by a pâtisserie and got a tomato quiche and a raspberry mouse torte to go. And oh. my. gosh. You cannot even begin to fathom how delicious they were.
Think all of this looks good? Believe me, it tasted even better!
In fact, the pastries were so amazing that I went back to the same bakery (it’s called Lorber, in case you’re wondering) and had an eclair and a miniature kougelhopf the next morning.
One of the best things about spending the weekend in Colmar was staying overnight and going for an evening stroll through the Old Town. Almost all of the tourists had left by then (except for me, of course!), the half-timbered houses and the cathedral (erm, I mean church) were lit up, and I had the streets all to myself.
On top of that, everything was just as beautiful – if not more – in the soft, warm glow emanating from the street lanterns.
This, for example, is the Fishmonger’s District at night:
And here’s St. Martin’s Church behind one of the canals in the Old Town:
During my last few hours in Colmar, I managed to squeeze in a visit to the Unterlinden Museum – a place that is apparently well-known for its collection of religious art, predominantly the slightly disturbing Isenheim Altarpiece (which, I’ll admit, I had never heard of before).
While I’m not really a museum person, visiting the Unterlinden Museum gave me a reason to stop shoving my face full of French pastries (at least temporarily), and it also offered a nice break from the cold.
So how much time is needed to see Colmar overall? I’ll be completely up front here: You can see it in a day… or in a weekend. It really is up to you. The Old Town is small and compact, and it took me less than twenty minutes to get there on foot from the train station.
But if you ask me, it would be a pity to rush through Colmar in just a few hours. After all, the magic of this place lies in the little things, like strolling leisurely through its colorful streets, sampling a French pastry or two, and sitting on the banks of a canal as the sun grows low in the sky.
And in the end, isn’t that what joie de vivre, or the joy of living, is all about?