Alsace rarely springs to mind when families plan a vacation to France, but it deserves a spot on the short list. This less visited region, due east of Paris and on the border with Germany, is home to rolling countryside, excellent wine and medieval towns that appeal to all ages. We spent six days exploring the amalgam of French and German culture, and found it very accommodating for children.
Strasbourg is the largest town in the region, home to the European Union Parliament as well as one of the oldest universities in France. The medieval center, with its winding streets and spectacular cathedral, is easy to wander through, defined by the Ill river that cuts through it. Colorful homes and cobbled streets (slippery in the rain) are woven through this picturesque area. Outside the old center is L’Orangerie, a large green park known for its storks.
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The cathedral and its tall spire immediately called for a race to the top with my son, eager to stretch his legs after a long travel day, while the cool and dark interior with its vast ceilings and stained-glass windows was a welcome shelter from the weather. A helpful Tourist Information office on the corner facing the church is convenient for buying the Strasbourg Pass, which allows free or half-price entry over three days to various monuments, museums and activities.
Our favorite Strasbourg activity was a food tour, including bretzels (the name for the large, soft pretzels found everywhere in this region), sweets, charcuterie and cheeses, plus wine, beer and eau de vie. The guide led us through “La Petite France,” as the ancient quarter is called, to small shops tucked along the streets, filling in the details of historic buildings in an entertaining way.
We also enjoyed the Batorama boat tour with audio guides for adults and children in various languages, including English. The rocking of the boat actually sent my son to sleep for a short while! In addition, we visited the Musee Alsacien but found it better suited for older children. There is a wonderful science museum, Le Vaisseau, tailored to the under-12 set.
Having explored Strasbourg, we rented a car for the next few days and explored the scenic Route des Vins, a wine road that meanders through the Alsatian countryside. This area is filled with kid-friendly activities. About 45 minutes from Strasbourg lies the rebuilt Château du Haut-Kœnigsbourg, a medieval castle restored in the early 1900s to glorify Kaiser Wilhelm II. The views are spectacular and there are two pleasant cafes onsite featuring the ubiquitous sausages of the region (a perpetual kid favorite), as well as walking trails that circle the castle area and beyond.
Next we visited the monkey sanctuary, where we were each handed a fistful of popcorn to feed the monkeys. There is also a picnic area and a playground on the grounds outside of the gated perimeter housing the animals. We concluded our day with the nearby Birds of Prey show. Never have I seen so many types, their feet almost brushing our heads as they flew by. We even had the opportunity to put on a glove and beckon them to come land on an arm.
The next day, we visited the small, picturesque towns along the wine route. We explored the ancient ramparts still visible in Riquewihr, filled with 16th- and 17th-century homes. There are hiking trails throughout the region, including short 30-minute hikes to the remains of towers that dot the landscape. We also visited some of the wineries, located in towns like Ammerschwihr with just a few streets.
Because the vineyards are scattered outside the local villages, most of the production and homes are based right in town, unlike California or farther south in France. While my son happily assembled the figures from a popular European game that we had picked up for him, we tasted the variety of whites, mostly Riesling and Gewurztraminer, for which the area is known. The mix of hiking, small towns and wineries worked well for all of us.
Other family-friendly things to do include the Ecomusée, an outdoor history museum; Le Petit Prince, a small adventure park for younger children; and Kaysersberg, the home-turned-museum of Albert Schweitzer.
Roughly 40 miles south of Strasbourg, Colmar has its own medieval village center, crisscrossed with the canals that gave it the nickname “La Petite Venise” (Little Venice). This smaller town offers a few interesting museums, including the Musee des Jouets toy museum, which offers a small interactive area for younger kids but appeals to older ones as well. Two others worth exploring are the Unterlinden Museum and its famous Issenheim Alterpiece, set in a former cloister; and the Bartoldi Museum, celebrating the architect who built the Statue of Liberty.
Colmar offers easy access to the southernmost towns on the Route des Vins, including Eguisheim, famous for its bretzels and photogenic charm. It works well as a home base, or there are some lovely resort properties in the area if you prefer to stay outside of town.
It is also possible to take a side trip from either Strasbourg or Colmar into Germany. We chose to visit Europa-Park, the continent’s second-largest amusement park after Disneyland Paris, where each section represents a different (somewhat stereotyped) country. There are lots of rides and entertaining shows, and parking is easy; just be aware that much of the signage is in German.
TIP: We visited Alsace in early summer, but both Strasbourg and Colmar are famous for their Christmas markets, among the biggest, best and oldest in Europe. This is a very popular time to visit the area, so book well in advance.
Alsace is foodie heaven, and some of the finest Michelin-starred restaurants are located in this area. Casual weinstubes, the Alsatian equivalent of a brasserie, offer simpler fare such as sausages and choucroute (sauerkraut) or cheese over potatoes, the local alternative to mac and cheese. We found them incredibly accommodating to families, often suggesting that children split a platter. Many restaurants have children’s menus as well. Creperies, a perennial favorite, abound; tartes alsatiennes, the local answer to pizza, are also ubiquitous. The handheld sausages found in many epiceries make a wonderful snack. And be sure to try kugelhopf, the local pastry typical of the region.
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We stayed at the Hotel Cour du Corbeau outside the medieval section of Strasbourg, across the river and a short walk from the cathedral. Despite its modern front on a small side street, the hotel consists of several combined 16th-century homes, leading to a labyrinth of somewhat quirky rooms and family suites. The buffet breakfast was excellent, and there’s a small playground nearby, hidden in a pedestrian-only square.
Alsace is an easy trip from either Paris or points within Germany. We took the fast TGV train directly from Charles de Gaulle Airport and were in Strasbourg in less than 2 hours. The 19th-century rail station, modified to accommodate the TGV, is easy to navigate. We took a taxi to our hotel, but rental cars are available at the station. Strasbourg also has an international airport.
Editor’s Note: Photos by Barbara Weindling.
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