A picturesque road connects a string of beautiful medieval villages famous for their half timbered buildings and wine.
Even in Europe, a continent dotted with castles and quaint villages, France’s Alsace region stands out.
Alsace sits on the eastern edge of the country, and has gone back and forth between being a part of France and a part of Germany since the 1800s. If you’re an American, you probably learned about the region in a high school history class; it was given to France in the treaty of Versailles at the end of WWI, occupied by Germany in 1940, and today is once again part of France.
Its geography and history have consequently made Alsace a melting pot of German and French culture. The food, the language, and the built environment all bear accents of both countries.
The “Route des Vins d’Alsace” — or “Wine Route” — links Alsace’s charming villages into an easy drive. The route is named for the the region’s famous wines, and the hillsides immediately outside of the towns are covered in vineyards.
The crown jewel is Colmar, which has block after block of half timbered buildings and twisting medieval lanes.
Colmar is definitely worth a stop if you have time, and is the biggest and best known of the Wine Route villages. I’m not sure I’ve ever been to a town that has such an expansive, unified, and well-preserved half-timbered old town.
However, that also makes Colmar the most crowded city on the Wine Route and I strongly preferred some of the smaller, less busy towns. During my visit, Ribeauvillé — a much smaller town about 30 minutes north of Colmar — was my home base. We showed up without a reservation, found an inexpensive but delightful hotel right on the town’s main square, and set out exploring the main drag.
Ribeauvillé, like several other towns on the Wine Route, is essentially just one main street.
But foot for foot, it’s hard to beat that street’s charms. There are ornate buildings in delightfully irregular shapes, as well as an old city wall with castle-like towers. There are several bakeries, a handful of restaurants, and at least one delicious pretzel shop.
High up on a mountainside, several imposing castles look down on the village, and a short walk will lead visitors along the remains of the ancient city wall.
The charm of the Wine Route is that there are seemingly endless things to explore. Case in point: Ribeauvillé was small and after one night we moved on. But within minutes we happened upon another town with an even more impressive castle on the hillside above. We tried to find that castle, somehow missed it, and randomly found an even bigger, more incredible castle high above the morning fog.
Turns out the castle was Château du Haut-Kœnigsbourg, a medieval castle dating (at least in some form) to the 1100s. It eventually became a ruin and was restored beginning in 1900 on orders from Wilhelm II.
Today, visitors can explore the castle’s keep, dining rooms, bedrooms, and guard towers. And though I’m told the castle can become crowded at times, it was fairly empty during my visit, which made it far more enjoyable than other European castles that are completely overrun (Edinburgh Castle comes to mind). (My recommendation: go early in the day.)
As with Ribeauvillé, I’d recommend checking out Château du Haut-Kœnigsbourg.
Or don’t; the great thing about Alsace’s Wine Route is that there are so many great sites all strung together. Every visit will be different, and the more you explore the more you’ll find.
In the end, then, my biggest recommendation is to simply get there and start driving.
If you go:
Exploring the Alsace region is definitely easier with a car, and a phone that has data in Europe. Here is the official tourism site for the Wine Route. I used the general tourism map to get my bearings, then put in specific destinations on Google Maps when I wanted more detailed directions.
— Jim Dalrymple II