Colmar is a true small town from a fairy tale.
When you step into its old part, the only thing you want is to get lost among the winding alleyways and colorful houses. Each of them is painted in a different color, with flowers on the windows and various types of decorations. It is additionally decorated during the Christmas holiday, which makes it even more interesting.
We spent a few hours in Colmar during our journey through the Alsace and Schwarzwald regions with Filip travel agency, in April 2016. Well, it was a very pleasant walk around the houses, bars, and shops with food, vines, and souvenirs.
Where is Colmar and how to get there
Colmar is located in northeastern France, at the foot of Vosges mountains, on the river Lauch which is connected with the River Rhine with a canal. It belongs to the Alsace region, surrounded by Switzerland to the south and Germany to the east. Despite the German and Swiss influence, you will be simply impressed by the uniqueness of Colmar.
It is 70 km from Strasbourg and a few kilometers from the former German border. It can be easily reached by car or by bus, or you can join tours organized by travel agencies.
Colmar can also be reached by train because it is connected with the largest French cities and European cities as well. You can find more about the train timetables here.
And it can be reached by plane. About 70 kilometers from Colmar there are two international airports: Strasbourg and EuroAirport Basel Mulhouse Freiburg.
History of Colmar
The first time Colmar was mentioned in a chronicle of the Saxon wars during the rule of Charlemagne, Charles the Great, emperor of the New Western Roman Empire (800–814). Then in 1226, Colmar got the status of an imperial town by the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II. During the Thirty Years’ War, in 1632 it was occupied by Sweden, but three years later it was conquered by Louis IV, king of France. After the Franco-Prussian War, Colmar was annexed and was part of Germany from 1871 to 1919, then returned to France, and again annexed to Nazi Germany in 1940.
Finally, in 1945, Colmar was again under French control.
Today Colmar has About 70.000 inhabitants.
What to see in Colmar
The town is filled with colorful houses, small squares, pedestrian bridges, and canals.
Therefore it is called “the little Venice“.
Generally, it takes one day to walk around and see the town. And to try some Alsatian food and wines, as well. So you can take a guided walking tour or wander the town on your own. Also, you can take a boat tour (the ticket for adults is 6 EUR and takes 30 minutes), ride a bike, or explore the city by tourist train (the ticket for adults is 6.5 EUR and takes approx. 35 minutes).
The great way to visit all important sites is to take the Colmar City Pass (adult pass is 32 EUR and 9-17 pass is 28 EUR), which gives unlimited access to the 5 museums and the Dominican Church, and one trip by boat and the little green tourist train in one week.
But if you have limited time as we had, go for a walk and explore this charming city by foot.
The unique houses of Colmar city
Walking down the cobblestone streets, you can find half-timbered houses in every corner. As I have mentioned at the beginning, the houses are painted in different colors, one next to other, in lines, making a wonderful view.
But they do not belong to the traditional French architecture. These half-timbered houses could be found only in the north-eastern part of France, and in Germany. The houses were built in France in the period from the late 15th century to the early 19th century, with some little changes over the years. Usually, they were made from stone and wood, because these regions are abundant in. Some of them are the symbols of the city, such as:
- Adolf house, the oldest house in Colmar, built in 1350.
- Pfister House (Maison Pfister), built in 1537. The house got its name by the family Pfister who bought the house and lived there 1841 to 1892. It has a long wooden gallery, painted murals, two-storey corner oriel, and turret.
- House of the Heads (La Maison des Tetes) is from the 17th century, in the German Renaissance style. It has 3-storey oriel and interesting details on its façade: 106 heads or masks. It was restored in 2012, and today it is a 4-star hotel and gourmet restaurant.
The Koïfhus house (Place de l’Ancienne Douane)
One of the most important buildings is The Koïfhus or the Old Custom-house.
It is the oldest public building in the city, built between 1433 and 1480. The ground floor was used as the warehouse, for deposit and transit all imported and exported goods. The first floor was a place for the trade meetings and the place of the Chamber of Commerce and Industry from 1870 to 1930. The roof is covered with glazed tiles.
Today many events and public activities take place here, and a part of the house was converted into a restaurant. So this former customs house had a huge role in the economic and political life of Colmar.
Market Hall (Marche Couvert)
Market Hall is located near the Little Venice district, built in 1865. This orange-red bricks building is completely covered and renovated in 2010. Today is the place where you can find local products, fruit, vegetables, cheese, fish, meat, or find refreshment in a restaurant and bar.
The Little Venice (La Petite Venise) in Colmar
Well, this is the most photographed spot in the town of Colmar 🙂
The Little Venice is really a postcard picture view.
All around the canal of the Lauch River, there are colorful houses.
And in the past times, each color on the house was a symbol of the owner’s profession. For example, the white color was for bakers, yellow for cheesemakers, and green was for gardeners.
In the Little Venice, there is the Fishmonger’s district, known because of the professional fisherman and fishmongers who lived in Colmar. Their houses were painted in blue. This part was destroyed in 1706 by a huge fire and then renovated in the period from 1978 to 1981.
There is also Tanner’s district (Rue des Tanneurs), which dates from the 17th and 18th centuries. It got this name because of tanners who lived and worked there. Usually, they dried the animal skins on the upper floors of their houses.
In this street, there is the restaurant Brasserie des Tanneurs as well.
Well, I think that this restaurant is the most decorated house in Colmar 🙂
But there is something more which impressed me a lot in Colmar.
There are various signs that indicate a certain activity which held in the houses, such as hotel, apartments, restaurant, shop. And they look adorable!
Close to the canal in the Little Venice, there is square Place des Six Montagnes Noires (the Six Black Mountains). Once it was used as a place of accommodation for distinguished visitors. There you can find the Roesselmann fountain, made by the sculptor Frédéric Bartholdi in 1888.
Bartholdi was born in Colmar. And he is known of designing the famous sculpture of the Statue of Liberty (Liberty Enlightening the World), located in New York. It was a gift from the people of France to the people of the United States on October 28, 1886. Today the house of Bartholdi is transformed in the Bartholdi museum, where you can see his masterpieces, the family’s furniture, and some temporary exhibitions.
The museums in Colmar
If you have enough time, you can visit other museums, such as Toy and little train museum, Natural history and ethnographic museum, and Hansi museum.
But the most popular is Musée Unterlinden, located in the former convent and opened in April 1853 as the museum. It was renovated in 1980, and today it consists of two building complexes, with the Issenheim altarpiece, the masterwork of the German religious painter Matthias Grünewald, then medieval and modern paintings, archeological objects, and art collections.
Saint Martin’s Church
Saint Martin’s Church is a Roman Catholic Church built between 1235 and 1365, in Gothic architectural style, dedicated to St. Martin. It was restored several times. In 1572 the fire destroyed the roofs and the south tower, which was replaced later in the form of the specific lantern shape. The main restorations were in 1982, when the foundations of a Carolingian church from the year 1000, and traces from the 11th and 12th century were found.
The citizens usually call it the Cathedral of Colmar even though it was a cathedral only temporarily during the French Revolution. It was a Collegiate church, which means that it was administered by a chapter of canons, and the city has never been the seat of a bishop. The church is open every day from 8 AM to 6.30 PM, except Sunday morning.
Another important religious site is Dominican church, built between 1283 and 1346, in the old Gothic style. It was restored a few times, especially in the early 1980 and 1990s. Here you can see the famous masterpiece: Altarpiece of Madonna of the Rose Bush, made by Martin Schongauer around 1475. The entrance fee is 1,5 euros for adults.
And when you get tired of walking, take a break.
Have lunch in little restaurants and enjoy Alsatian cuisine and wines.
There are a lot of restaurants and winstubs in Colmar.
Alsatian cuisine is very similar to German cuisine and it uses a lot of pork meat in various forms. One of the most popular dishes is Choucroutegarnie, which is made of cabbage, sausages, bacon, ham, and potatoes.
Also, very popular is Tarte flambée, which is similar to Italian pizza, in a rectangle shape and covered with rich creme, cheese, bacon, and thinly sliced onions. There is also the sweet version with cinnamon, apples or blueberries, and flambéed with a sweet liqueur.
Thanks to its geographical position, Colmar is the wine capital of the Alsace region. The small vineyards are lying in a narrow strip along the slopes of the Vosges mountains.
The Alsatian climate is semi-continental, with a lot of sunny days in the summer and the temperatures from 30° or 35°C. The autumn is also very pleasant, with the small numbers of the rainy days, making this area perfect for producing good wines.
So take the opportunity and try some Alsace wines, such as Pinot Noir, Pinot Blanc, Riesling, Sylvaner, Muscat, Pinot Gris, Gewurztraminer. The wines are a great souvenir to take home as well.
If you plan to stay here a few days, you can join the Alsace wine tours, and enjoy tasting wines and visiting wine cellars. You can find more information here.
Also, on the wine route, there are two interesting villages, colorful as the Colmar: Kaysersberg and Riquewihr.
Close to the vineyards, there is also the Chateau du Haut-Koenigsbourg, a medieval castle, located in the commune of Orschwiller, in the Vosges mountain. You can read more about these places in my next posts.
Any time is a good time to visit Colmar.
During the spring, during the summer and partly in the autumn, it is full of colorful flowers and greenery.
Also, if you enjoy wine and music, the perfect time for a visit in August. Every year Colmar Wine Fair takes part here, with more than 300 exhibitors, wine producers. At the same time, there are concerts of great international musicians.
And in the winter, Colmar is more decorated during the Christmas holidays. The small stands-houses with local products and gifts make this specific romantic atmosphere.
So, it is up to you to choose the best time to visit Colmar.
And create your own modern and magic fairy tale in this charming town, in Alsace valley.