If you want a color rush (also a sugar rush), head to Colmar town in the Alsace wine region. It’s like a nicely arranged box of candy with half timbered houses and history hidden in the arches and walls and rooftops. Can you believe this tiny place has seen everything from fire burning it down, the bubonic plague, the Romans & the Germans…but pretty much preserved much of its medieval touch! This is also a fantastic place to stop over and discover villages along the wine trail. The Alsatian countryside will wow you. Most of the villages are an even more colorful extension of this picture book town. So here are things to do in Colmar so you soak in the quaintness, travel back into your childhood for a teeny while and start your day with some sweetness (don’t miss the raisin filled kugelhopf)
THINGS TO DO IN COLMAR
#1 / UNMISSABLE HUES OF HALF TIMBERED STRUCTURES / Old Town
Have you seen in some of the German towns a visual pattern with wood? The very same half timbered look gives most of Colmar’s Old town and its surrounding villages an indelible charm. Walk into the narrow cobblestone streets filled with baubles, flower vases and painted walls where the fishmongers, bakers and tanners lived. The half timbered houses and shops in so many colors would surely coax you to pick up your brush and capture the delight of being in a candy store.
Some of these structures do have motifs and statues and are loaded with stories from a time gone by. Stories of merchants who lived there and even those who occupied the land.
#2 / MUSÉE UNTERLINDEN
If you are curious about art or a lover of art then the medieval section and the contemporary wing houses exhibits you will love. You must see the Isenheim Altarpiece from the 16th Century commissioned by the Monastery of St. Anthony. It is quite magnificent when all panels are open but I saw it only in part. Titled ‘Crucifixion’, the paintings were done by Matthias Grünewald. The depiction of the entombment below shows the body of Christ covered in sores. The structure though is in fact a polyptych, which means there are 2 more hinged panels that open to reveal painted panels beneath. Here is a link to the Altarpiece write-up on the museum page.
The museum itself was formerly a Dominican convent from the 13th Century. Most 19th/20th Century artists including Renoir, Monet & Picasso’s works can be seen here in a dedicated lower floor, rather underground.
Location: Rue des Unterlinden
#3 / LE MARCHÉ COUVERT DE COLMAR
On the Rue des Ecoles, this 19th century market was where people brought their produce in their boats. When you are there, do note the Lauch River alongside the market making it easy for merchants to bring in goods. A niche in the outer structure holds a statue of a winemaker made by Colmar’s most famous sculptor Auguste Bartholdi. I was told that the bronze work was merely a copy and the original is in the Bartholdi museum.
If you are there before or just after Christmas too, you will be treated to tons of goodies that you can take back home.
Location: Rue des Écoles
#4 / MAISON PFISTER
While the name of the house comes from its 19th Century owner who is credited with restoring it, this grand piece is at least 500 years old. Built by Ludwig Scherer, a hat maker, the standout moment of this medieval design is its long wooden gallery and oriel window over 2 floors. The paintings showcase 16th Century German emperors, Evangelists and some Biblical figures/stories.
Adjacent to that I saw a statue of a man holding a rod. And was told the green building was in fact a drape maker’s house. The old town of Colmar has many such tiny stories. You need a local or a lover of the town to show it you. I suggest you look for these nuggets and then ask a local.
Location: Rue des Marchands
#5 / BARTHOLDI MUSEUM
Just opposite the Pfister House is the museum. Auguste Bartholdi was a French sculptor born in Colmar and better known for being the creator of the Statue of Liberty. His works are displayed in the house that he was born in, which itself is a 15th Century structure. It has sketches, drawings, engravings and the library, all of which are now a part of the museum. I though missed it completely as it was closed when I visited the town.
Here is a picture taken through the keyhole (crazy I know) of the courtyard that has Bartholdi’s group statute titled ‘Les Grand Soutiens du Monde’ (World’s greatest pillars) representing Justice, Hardwork and Patriotism, which was exhibited at the ‘Salon de Paris’ in 1902.
Location: Rue des Marchands
#6 / MAISON DES TÊTES
When I first heard the House of Heads I thought it was some Torture Museum. Perhaps a grotesque place of some sort given that it was in a medieval town. But in fact it is an expression of German Renaissance and built in the 1600s for Anton Burger a local merchant. Truth be told the heads that are visible over 3 floors is kind of amusing and not scary as I thought it would be. I wonder what was he thinking?!!
Incidentally the house is now a hotel and has 21 rooms in all, for guests to travel back in time.
Location: Rue des Têtes
#7 / HANSI VILLAGE & MUSEUM
The village of Hansi is really life in the Alsace region seen through the eyes of artist Jean-Jacques Waltz (popularly called Hansi). Since he lived during the times when Alsace changed hands between the Germans & French, he was often under watch for his anti-German views. The museum pages talk of him being beaten up and left for dead by the Gestapo in 1941, after which he left for Switzerland and returned post the war. But through all of this, I found most of his illustrations of the Alsace life light and idyllic. It’s said that he adored the land and brought its cultural sights to life through his drawings.
Here is my memory of an Alsatian girl in her traditional dress with that oversized bow on her head. I read that unmarried girls in times of yore wore bows in different colors and patterns. There are dolls in plenty right there in the Hansi museum, if you want to carry back a gift for someone.
Location: Rue des Têtes
# 8 / ST. MARTIN’S COLLEGIATE CHURCH (ÉGLISE SAINT-MARTIN)
From the 1300s is a church that best represents Gothic architecture in Alsace. It suffered extensive damage during the French Revolution and has been restored several times. I particularly loved the tiles on the rooftop, which I was told is typically Alsatian. I did see it on a couple of other structures in Colmar and the glazed feel and color was a nice contrast to the reddish-golden stones that formed the church. The exterior has many portals with intricately carved sculptures. Look closely for stories from the Bible.
Here too I missed going inside, so sharing a glimpse of the façade.
Location: Place de la Cathédrale
# 9 / LA PETIT VENISE (LITTLE VENICE)
This pretty stretch with buildings on either side of the Lauch River is totally an Instagram moment and the high point of Colmar, especially if you are there in spring. Because you can take a boat ride and have the colors and half-timber structures reveal their beauty. Today there are cafes alongside the River and while the flower filled balconies made it a must see place in Colmar, I got just a whiff of it at the close of winter in Feb. It is easily reachable wherever you stay in the Old Town.
I was living very close (Hotel Le Colombier) and hence did hop by quite a few times, when I was exploring the Quai de la Poissonnerie & Tanners District.
# 10 / ELABORATE STORE SIGNS
In Colmar the structures and wooden façades with murals & motifs, grab your attention from a distance. But on closer look many of them have signs marking the store and its business. And they are just as colorful and vivid. I’d say a ‘must not miss’ as they will always bring a smile to your face. Here are a few in closing.
Most of these sights can be visited and explored in 2 days perhaps, but stay on just so that you can head to the villages of Kaysersberg, Riquewihr, Eguisheim & Ribeauville. There are many others of course with all serving you some of the region’s finest wines. The local delicacies even for vegetarians are just fab.
Colmar has fests through the year:
- Spring fest in March-April. Crowded but great time to see the flower decked streets.
- International Music Fest in July that is usually dedicated to a musician or even an instrument.
- Christmas Markets of course come December.
So pick a month and stay for at least a week with Colmar as your base. I promise, memories will flood you well after your return.
If you like the visual captures here, I promise to delight you with more. Do visit my Instagram page @Pebblewalks to enjoy stories from many such offbeat destinations.