Visiting Colmar, Alsace: France’s fairytale town

Visiting Colmar, Alsace: France's fairytale town

I have a real weakness for canalside cities – places like Annecy, Bruges, Amsterdam and Venice. But one of my all-time favourites is Strasbourg in France’s Alsace region, a city overflowing with medieval half-timbered buildings and flower-lined canals. So when I heard there was a nearby town which was supposedly even more colourful, had prettier buildings, with more flowers and extra-scenic canals, how could I resist visiting Colmar?

Read more: 10 fabulous French weekend break ideas

Exploring the canals in Colmar Alsace's Petit Venice, France
Colmar’s canals

Visiting Colmar, Alsace

Colmar was apparently the inspiration for the village in the Disney film Beauty and the Beast, and it’s not hard to see why. Walking through its streets is like seeing childhood fairy stories come to life. There’s a wooden turret which would be just perfect for Rapunzel to let her hair down from, tiny cottages that would make the ideal home for seven dwarfs and a candy-coloured bakery that Hansel and Gretel would love to get their teeth into.

In real life, Colmar is a small town which is located in the Alsace region of northeast France. The Alsace is where France meets Germany, and ownership of the region has been passed back and forth between the two countries over the years. And the result is a unique mix of their two cultures – think of it as France with a twist.

Café culture and Alsace wine
Alsace wines

Colmar was conquered by the French in 1673 but Germany claimed the whole Alsace region in 1871. It stayed German until after WWI when it was given back to the French, then was temporarily occupied by the Germans during the Second World War. It was the last town in France to be liberated at the end of the war and has been French ever since. But its history means it’s no surprise that you can see a German influence on Colmar’s architecture.

Pretty streets in Colmar, France
Pretty Colmar streets

Things to do in Colmar

Colmar doesn’t have huge list of must-see attractions, but what it does have is scenic spots by the bucketload. Pack an extra memory card or two – I can’t remember the last place where I took so many photos. Everywhere you look there are colourfully painted waterside houses, wooden shutters, twisting cobbled streets and window boxes draped with blooms.

Colmar is the perfect place to wander around and see what you come across. The locals seem justifiably proud of their homes, and everything is neatly painted and maintained. Some buildings are decorated with hanging lamps, clocks and hearts – then there are a few who’ve have taken it to the extreme by hanging bikes, chairs and who knows what else out front. In Colmar it seems your house is an artwork as well as a place to live.

Colmar in France's Alsace region by night
Colmar by night

In among the houses are a mix of cute boutique shops selling local produce like chocolate and wine, as well as art and antiques. Some of the shops have ornate wrought-iron signs hanging over the street to show what they sell. Then there are also plenty of waterside cafés and tucked-away cellar restaurants. And if you’re visiting Colmar at Christmas, the streets are draped with lights and filled with market stalls selling local food, drink and gifts.

The town does have a few museums to explore, including the Unterlinden Museum with its famous 16th-century Isenheim Alterpiece. There’s also a Toy Museum and the Bartholdi Museum, in the house where local artist Frederic-Auguste Bartholdi was born. Bartholdi is most famous for creating the Statue of Liberty – and you can find a 12-metre-high replica of the statue on the road between Strasbourg and Colmar, a few miles out of town.

Decorated shops in Colmar, Alsace in France
Decorative shopfronts in Colmar

Also worth a visit is Gothic St Martin’s Church with its colourful tiled roof and 13th century stained glass. The Pfister House is one of Colmar’s most distinctive buildings with its wraparound wooden balcony and octagonal turret. And the Koïfhus was the town’s former customs house built at the meeting point between two major streets.

There’s barely an ugly building in the centre of Colmar, but things reach peak prettiness in the area near the Quai de Poissoniers which has been nicknamed Petit Venice. Colmar’s Little Venice is where you’ll find that picture-perfect row of half-timbered houses painted in pastel shades of pink, yellow and sky blue running alongside the canal.

Colmar's Koïfhus or Custom House
The Koïfhus

Colmar’s Petit Venice

Petit Venice was where Colmar’s merchants lived, transporting their goods around by boat along the River Lauch. The story goes that different colours were used to display different types of businesses – so if you were a fisherman your house was blue, or a butcher would have a red house. And they’ve been perfectly preserved since.

For a different view of Petit Venice you can take to the water on a boat trip. The canals are pretty shallow in parts (I saw a duck standing on the bottom at one point), so the tours use flat-bottomed boats similar to punts. Boats leave from the bridge Saint Pierre, which is next to Restuarant Le Caveau Saint-Pierre, and take small groups on a 30-minute tour through Petit Venice and out to a leafy residential area, with trips costing €7.

Along the canals in Petit Venice in Colmar
Petit Venice

Petit Venice isn’t exactly a secret though, so on a sunny afternoon you’ll be jostling for elbow room to capture your perfect shot with hoards of river cruisers and day-trippers from Strasbourg and Paris. Strasbourg is only 35 minutes away by train and has a similar feel to Colmar, along with a few extra big-city attractions, so the two are often combined.

A lot of visitors only spend a day visiting Colmar, but if you have time to spare it’s worth staying for at least one night. The best reason to stay overnight is that in the early mornings or at dusk you can almost have Petit Venice to yourself. When it’s blue hour, with soft street lighting and perfect reflections in the still waters of the canals, the fairytale is real.

The blue hour at sunset in Petit Venice
The perfect blue hour

Colmar is also a great base to explore the Alsace wine region, which is famous for its white wines. As well as delicious Rieslings you’ll also find Gewurztraminer and Pinot Gris varieties, rosés made from Pinot Noir and a local sparkling wine known as Crémant d’Alsace. There are plenty of wine bars and shops in Colmar where you can try the area’s wines, but if you want to find out more you can also head out on the Alsace Wine Route.

The full route covers over 170km and has hundreds of vineyards and wine producers you can visit. But closest to Colmar is Eguisheim, which is only 7km away by bike and is renowned for its good looks as well as its wine. Or if you want to go further afield there are guided tours* available to the surrounding villages of Kaysersberg, Riquewihr and Hunawihr.

Canals and cafés in Colmar, Alsace
Canals and cafés in Colmar

The details

When to visit Colmar

There’s not really a bad time for visiting Colmar. Summer is peak season, with warm dry days around 20–25°C (68–77°F). A host of festivals, including the Colmar International Festival and Alsace Wine Fair in July, mean the town can get very busy in summer. So expect crowds and if you’re planning on staying in Colmar try to book accommodation well ahead.

Winter means cold temperatures with averages just above freezing, but the Christmas markets mean late November and December are a popular time to visit. January and February are much quieter but you might get to see Petit Venice in the snow. And spring and autumn mean pleasant temperatures around 16–20°C (60–68°F), though spring can be rainy.

Colourful half-timbered houses in France' s Alsace region
Colmar’s fairytale houses

How to get to Colmar

Colmar is really easy to get to by train – it’s 35 minutes from Strasbourg, 45 minutes from Basel or 2 hours from Zürich. There are some direct trains from Paris Gare de l’Est to Colmar and more with a change in Strasbourg (all around 2.5 hours). If you’re travelling by plane, Strasbourg has a small airport with flights from various French and central European destinations, or the closest main airports are in Paris, Basel-Mulhouse-Freiburg or Zürich.

Where to stay in Colmar

We rented a two-bedroom apartment* in an old Alsatian house five minutes’ walk from the centre of Colmar. It’s been given a bright and modern makeover, with a well-equipped kitchen, dining/living room and two spacious double bedrooms and cost £135 a night for four people. Or if you prefer a hotel, the Hotel le Colombier* is a good choice. It’s a stylish four-star right in the middle of Petit Venice with some rooms overlooking the canals.

Buildings in the old town in Colmar
Turrets and tucked-away cafés

What and where to eat in Colmar

Like the Alsace itself, Colmar’s local cuisine mixes French and German influences. Among the dishes not to miss are flammekueche (a thin-crust pizza topped with bacon, onion and crème fraîche), baeckeoffe (meat and potato stew), choucroûte garnie (sauerkraut with pork and potatoes) and bretzels (tasty snacks shaped like a pretzel which taste more like a doughnut).

We mixed up eating out and self-catering, picking up supplies of fruit and veg, bread and cheese at Colmar’s covered market. If you fancy splashing out, Colmar has 10 Michelin-starred restaurants, with two-star JY’s having the most impressive canalside location. More low-key are La Soi with its delicious tarte flambée and the rustic Le Caveau Saint Pierre for traditional Alsatian dishes. And save room for Pâtisserie Gilg’s amazing cakes.

Diners outside a restaurant in Colmar, Alsace
Colmar evenings

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Could this be France's prettiest town? A guide to visiting Colmar Alsace, a fairytale town with its pastel half-timbered medieval buildings and flower-lined canals | Things to do in Colmar | Visiting Colmar Alsace | Places to visit to do in Alsace | France's prettiest townsThings to do in Colmar, Alsace: A guide to France’s fairytale town with its colourful half-timbered buildings, flower-decked window boxes and pretty canals | Things to do in Colmar | Visiting Colmar Alsace | Places to visit to do in Alsace | France's prettiest towns

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  • Reply
    March 28, 2018 at 6:25 pm

    A lovely looking place. I did part of the Route from Strasbourg but only got as far as Riqwihr – also lovely. I might just have to go back!

    • Reply
      April 2, 2018 at 7:32 pm

      I’ve heard Riqwihr is lovely too – I’ll have to give it a visit next time!

  • Reply
    March 28, 2018 at 8:39 pm

    How beautiful.
    Wonderful photos.

    • Reply
      April 2, 2018 at 7:34 pm

      Thanks so much!

  • Reply
    March 29, 2018 at 5:49 pm

    Colmar so close to Switzerland. How convenient!

    • Reply
      April 2, 2018 at 7:37 pm

      Very close! The great train connections in that area make it very easy to get around.

  • Reply
    Lesley Connor
    March 30, 2018 at 12:18 am

    How very beautiful. It really is a fairytale village. I really enjoyed your photos.

    • Reply
      April 2, 2018 at 7:38 pm

      Thank you, it really is a fairytale come to life!

  • Reply
    Perrine - Ola Banana
    March 30, 2018 at 3:24 pm

    I’ve always heard people say Colmar is a great place to visite, really need to take the time to go 🙂 your photos are gorgeous and really make me want to go straightaway lol


    • Reply
      April 2, 2018 at 7:41 pm

      Thanks Perrine, it’s such a beauty, and so well worth a trip!

  • Reply
    March 30, 2018 at 9:06 pm

    Wow, Alsace was a region I wanted to visit anyway. I’d never heard of Colmar but it looks beautiful. Do you know if they have a Christmas market? Bet it would look magical all lit up.

    • Reply
      April 2, 2018 at 7:42 pm

      They do have a Christmas market and it looks gorgeous – a good excuse for a return trip I think!

  • Reply
    March 31, 2018 at 9:46 am

    Wow, this place looks so pretty! I’ve been looking at visiting Strasbourg and so definitely would pay a visit here too. Can’t believe it has 10 Michelin star restaurants, it looks like such a small place!

    Sammy |

    • Reply
      April 2, 2018 at 7:48 pm

      Yes they do pack them in! Such a great place to visit if you like good food, and really easy from Strasbourg too.

  • Reply
    Jossus Travelpics
    April 3, 2018 at 7:49 pm

    Fantastic, reminds me of Strasbourg.

    • Reply
      April 8, 2018 at 3:54 pm

      Yes there are a lot of similarities – both great cities too!

  • Reply
    April 7, 2018 at 11:16 am

    Super pretty, especially with the clear blue skies! Whenever we have been in France, it is always the smaller towns near the bigger tourist bases that we’ve loved most too! I don’t know this bit of France at all but it looks lovely for a spring time break!

    • Reply
      April 8, 2018 at 4:41 pm

      Such gorgeous weather (though it was boiling hot but you can’t have everything!). The Alsace is lovely, definitely a good spot for a few days in the springtime.

  • Reply
    alison abbott
    April 7, 2018 at 10:32 pm

    My husband and I visited on a Viking River cruise. Unfortunately, the day was freezing (december) and we just got a taste of Colmar’s beauty. After seeing all of your photos, we must make it a priority to return in warm weather. I just love the charming buildings and cafes.

    • Reply
      April 8, 2018 at 4:45 pm

      It is a really charming place! I imagine it’s pretty magical in the winter when the Christmas markets are on, but it was nice to be able to sit outside and take advantage of all those lovely pavement cafés.

  • Reply
    Sara @ Travel Continuum
    April 8, 2018 at 12:07 pm

    Prettiness overload, as you rightly say – I’m kicking myself a bit, because I spent a few days near Mulhouse once and should have explored a little further than I did, especially Colmar, just half an hour away…aaarrghh!

    • Reply
      April 8, 2018 at 4:46 pm

      So close! One to go back for though someday.

  • Reply
    Kathryn @TravelWithKat
    April 10, 2018 at 8:04 pm

    Colmar sounds (and looks) wonderful. I know I’d love it and would probably take even more photos than you did. I’ve been longing to visit that region of France for many a year but still haven’t made it. When I do finally make it (and I will), Colmar will be top of my wishlist.

    • Reply
      April 11, 2018 at 9:26 am

      So many photos – you should see the rest! It’s a lovely area though and well worth a visit.

  • Reply
    November 13, 2018 at 4:59 am

    Please how do I go from Paris straight to Colmar without stopping at Strasbourg

    • Reply
      November 28, 2018 at 8:18 pm

      Hi there, I’m afraid it seems that all the trains do involve changing in Strasbourg – it’s quite straightforward though.

      • Bhushan
        January 9, 2019 at 9:32 am

        There are some trains from SNCF/Ouigo direct from Paris to Colmar. Check trainline . eu

  • Reply
    February 23, 2019 at 11:31 am

    Hi Lucy,
    Great piece and pics on this fairytAle town!!Also, just wondering, since you have been to Strasbourg as well, if planning a visit to the area (& not sure how many days will have), is Colmar very similar to Strasborg?
    Also, if did decide to stop in Colmar, does the train take you to center of town and could you visit for just a few hours?

    • Reply
      February 25, 2019 at 2:13 pm

      Hi Joan, Colmar and Strasbourg are quite similar in style though Colmar is smaller and so it’s easier to walk around in a short time. The train station is only around 10-15 mins walk from Petit Venice so you’d be find for a day trip.

  • Reply
    Geoff Coke
    March 3, 2020 at 9:29 pm

    Also reputedly the driest location in all of France, although admittedly that is still a little damp for those that would usually sun worship in the Eastern Mediterranean. I am planning to visit in Summer 2021 and the travel schedule seems straightforward, Dublin to Basel and transfer from the airport direct to Colmar using Flixbus. Particularly pleasing is the fact that property rental is very moderately priced when compared to similarly attractive locations elsewhere in Europe. I enjoyed your article, which served to confirm my existing suspicions that the South of Alsace has much to recommend it.

    • Reply
      March 9, 2020 at 12:06 pm

      Thank you – and have a great trip, it’s a lovely part of the world and such a unique feel to it.

  • Reply
    Ruthanne Siepel Danielson
    September 16, 2020 at 2:44 am

    I looked Colmar up because I live near Colmar, IL, shich has a grain elevator & several homes & a church. I suppose it was named for your city?

    • Reply
      Lucy Dodsworth
      September 28, 2020 at 4:33 pm

      I think so – there are a lot of places in the US with names from Europe, I didn’t know there was another Colmar though!

  • Reply
    Frank Schwartz
    January 20, 2021 at 6:13 pm

    Having been born in Colmar but having lived in riqwihr and being most familiar with it I have to admit that these Alsation towns are definitely magical.

    • Reply
      Lucy Dodsworth
      January 25, 2021 at 4:50 pm

      Such a lovely part of the world – hope to get back there and explore some more of the towns and villages when I can!

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