Located between the two other lovely towns of Basel and Strasbourg, the small French town of Colmar is a wonderful, quaint and interesting place to visit.
You might be surprised when you first arrive that a lot of the people around you are speaking German. Don’t be alarmed, you didn’t get off the train in the wrong place, it’s just that not too long ago Colmar was a mostly German speaking town.
It’s not actually German you’re hearing but a morphed German dialect known as Alsatian.
Right on the border of Germany, Alsace is a historical and cultural region in France.
With Germany so close and the region having been part of a mostly German-speaking area of Europe for hundreds of years it’s not surprising that the people living in the region aren’t interested in giving up their roots so easily.
So, when you’re visiting many of the cities in Alsace you shouldn’t be surprised by people speaking German and seeing plenty of examples of German architecture and lifestyle.
This region is one of the most unique in all of France and the capital of Alsace, Strasbourg, looks like it would be better suited somewhere a lot further east than where it currently is.
Anyways, enough about Alsace and Germany.
Let’s talk about things to do in Colmar, but not before getting into a quick introductory lesson about the town.
Colmar is one of the biggest and most picturesque cities in Alsace.
The Old Town has been wonderfully preserved and you can’t walk very far around the town without stopping to stare at a beautiful scene in front of you.
A Quick History
The town was first mentioned in the ninth century and in the same time period it earned the status as a free imperial city. Thanks to this status, trade in Colmar flourished and it became a popular place for merchants and travellers making their way through the region.
Throughout its existence Colmar constantly switched hands between French and German rule. Even all the way up until World War II the town was in control of one side or the other and it wasn’t until after the war when it became a permanently French town.
Today, there are nearly 70,000 people living in the town and it’s one of the most popular with tourists visiting the Alsace region.
How to Get to Colmar
For train schedules check the DB Bahn website.
For bus schedules check the FlixBus website.
Getting from Strasbourg to Colmar and back is very straightforward.
Every 30 minutes during the day a train leaves from the Strasbourg train station and makes its way to Colmar.
The journey takes about 30-minutes and the ticket will cost between 7 and 10 Euro.
There are high speed trains leaving Paris Est train station for Colmar approximately every 1-hour.
The journey takes about 3 to 4 hours and might include a transfer or train switch in Strasbourg.
A ticket for the train will cost between 50 and 75 Euro.
Alternatively, you could take a bus. This option is slower but much cheaper.
The journey takes about 8 to 10 hours and a ticket for the bus will cost around 20 to 30 Euro.
Things to Do in Colmar, France
The Place de la Cathedrale and the Old Town
Right in the very center of the town is the Place de la Cathedrale. This is the main square in Colmar and is dominated by some of the most interesting landmarks in the area.
From here you’ll be able to check out the gothic Saint-Martin Collegiate Church along with the Former Guard House, or Ancien Corps de Garde.
The Former Guard House is incredible and over the years has served as a variety of purposes from military housing to a market and even a courthouse.
Today, it’s a prime example of Alsatian Renaissance architecture and offers up a wonderful photo opportunity.
Nearby is one of the oldest buildings you’ll find in the entire town, the Adolph House or Maison Adolph.
This house was built all the way back in the middle of the 14th century, around 1350, specifically for the Adolph family. Right beside the house is another interesting feature, a pair of lion heads that were installed in 1592 and have stood in place since then.
Just a few meters away is the Grand Rue which offers plenty of interesting things to see as you stroll along the cobblestone streets surrounding the Place de la Cathedrale. Now you’re walking through the Old Town where you’ll run into a range of different Alsatian houses that are also quite picturesque, bright and beautiful.
If you’re looking for the most well preserved and historic area of the town then you’ll want to walk around between the streets Rue des Tetes, Rue des Clef and Rue des Marchands. These are very near to the Old Town square and will bring you back in time as you stroll through the laneways and hidden passages.
In this area you’ll find the Maison Pfister right at the corners of Rue des Marchands and Rue Merciere. This is another one of the oldest homes in the town and was built all the way back in 1537 for a financier.
From the exterior of this home you’ll be able to admire an epic combination of Renaissance and medieval architectural building styles and it’s definitely one of the most impressive houses in the area.
Just a short walk away is the Eglise Saint-Matthieu. This is a Protestant church from the 13th century and while it’s not very big it’s still worth taking a few moments to check out and explore.
After checking out the Maison Pfister you might want to consider stopping by the Bartholdi Museum. This museum was created to showcase the artifacts and mementos left behind by the famous French sculptor, Auguste Bartholdi, was actually born in the same house that the museum is located in.
If you’re not interested in heading into the museum then you want to keep walking down the Rue des Boulangers and continue onto the Rue des Serruriers where you’ll be able to take a look at all of the well preserved, half-timbered buildings and houses.
Many of these are painted quite brightly and are a stunning sight when the sun is shining high in the sky.
Nearby, on the Rue des Tetes, specifically at number 19, is the House of Heads, or Maison des Tetes.
This is a wonderfully designed building from the Renaissance period that’s covered with a collection of different faces and busts. It’s quite an interesting building to check out and if you’re hungry there is an amazing restaurant located in the hotel that is currently running in the building.
Little Venice or the Quartier de la Krutenau
When you look at photos of Colmar many of them are depicting images of the Quartier de la Krutenau.
Known affectionately as Little Venice, this neighborhood is a picturesque, quaint and quiet area that’s lined with canals, lovely bridges and packed with the colorful and bright half-timbered homes.
During the summer the many restaurants that line the canals are full of people relaxing after spending a few hours walking around and with the greenery in full bloom there is hardly a more beautiful place to visit in the town.
The neighborhood got its name Little Venice for all of the houses that are built so close to the canal. Today, you can even take scenic boat rides on the canal to get a better view of all of the houses and other lovely buildings.
The people living here are taking a lot of care when it comes the presentation of the canal and its surrounding homes so you’re bound to be impressed as you float along the canal while you’re enjoying a comfortable boat ride.
If you’d rather walk around and explore on your own and I recommend starting at the Rue de la Poissonnerie. From here you’re going to want to continue walking along the entirety of the canal until you get to the Rue Turenne which will then take you across the neighborhood.
While you’re walking this route you’ll get plenty of vantage points to take great photos and you’ll have lots of opportunities to find somewhere to sit and enjoy a French meal or coffee.
I recommend taking your time and enjoying the view from the bridges that cross the canal as these offer some of the best views of the houses and buildings that line the waterway.
The Quartier des Tanneurs
Another beautiful area to explore while you’re walking around Colmar is the Tanners Quarter, or the Quartier des Tanners.
This area got its name after all of the leather tanners who lived here. They would sit in their homes or outdoors while they tanned leather and designed or created new leather products for anyone interested in buying.
On the top floors of their homes is where the leather wood get tried out and anything for sale would be displayed on the ground level.
Many of the half-timbered houses that you’ll see in this area have been painstakingly restored and date back to the 17th and 18th centuries when the town was still in an important position on a trade route.
Along with the canals and brightly colored houses there are a few other things in this neighborhood to check out. Nearby you’ll be able to find the Market Hall and the Palais de Justice, which dates back to the 18th century.
There is also the Hotel des Chevaliers de St-Jean, which is interesting because of its design as a Venetian palace. This is one of the more unique buildings in the entire region of Alsace and if you’re in Colmar it’s definitely worth stopping by and checking out.
The Musee Unterlinden
I’ll be the first one to admit that I’m not very interested in checking out museums but if you want to check out a very impressive collection of medieval paintings, local folk art, Gothic sculptures and Romanesque artwork then I recommend heading to the Musee Unterlinden and spending a few hours walking around.
Along with artwork and other part related pieces there is also a collection of historic furniture, decorative objects and other interesting items that are representative of Alsace and its history and culture.
Even just walking around the inside of the museum is quite interesting. The museum is actually a former Dominican convent from the 13th century that was converted into the museum.
On the inside you’ll find the impressive Isenheim Chapel, where there are a collection of paintings from German artists on display as well as an incredible altar.
Known as the Isenheim Altar, it’s one of the best examples of German painting and art handiwork from the time when it was created, specifically around the early 16th century.
Finally, there are also some pieces of artwork on display from more contemporary artists like Picasso, Rouault, Braque and Vasarely.
The Old Custom House
When you’re walking around the Rue des Marchands and the Grand Rue it’ll be hard for you to miss the Old Custom House, or Ancienne Douane.
Built in the 15th-century this building was the political headquarters and economic center of the town. During medieval times it was actually in a much more strategic and favorable location that made it easier to defend and to streamline interactions with traders and merchants.
Originally, on the ground floor was where taxes were collected or placed depending on what you were bringing in or taking out of Colmar. On the first floor was where council was held and where important political decisions were made.
It’s not just the interior that’s interesting, the grounds and the exterior of the Old Custom House are also interesting and worth checking out as well.
In the windows you’ll see the historic coat of arms for each of the 10 cities in the region and a few steps away on the grounds is an impressive fountain that was dedicated to von Schwendi, a highly honoured Imperial general.
If you decide that you want to walk around the interior you’ll want to check out a few of the wings that were added late in the 16th-century and from the outside you don’t want to miss the tile roof, which is very unique and was added during renovations during the 19th-century.
After exploring the Old Custom House you can head back to the Grand Rue where you can continue to walk down and explore the many different restaurants and shops that line the street.
The Quai de la Poissonnerie
Another peaceful area that you’ll be able to discover right between the Quartier de la Krutenau and the Quartier des Tanniers is the Quai de la Poissonierie.
This is a small yet historic and beautiful area where fishermen used to live hundreds of years ago. It’s called the Fishmongers District and was once an important area in Colmar when fishing had a more important role in the cities trade and development.
Fishing was done nearby and throughout the region. Near to this neighborhood is where the were fish ponds were and where the daily catch was stored until it was time for everything to be sold in the market.
Today, there isn’t much fishing going on but the half-timbered houses are quite picturesque, beautiful and this quiet area of the town is a great place to relax and enjoy a drink away from the busy crowds.
The Dominican Church
The Dominican Church, known locally as the Eglise des Dominicains, is a prime example of Gothic architecture in the Alsace region. Founded in 1283, the Dominican Church established themselves as a prominent religious entity and began building their church in the 14th century.
Unlike some of the other churches in the town and nearby areas the Eglise des Dominicains takes on more of a simple and serene appearance.
The stained glass windows are very impressive and although the architecture is very simple the church itself is quite grandiose. On the interior you’ll find a beautiful piece of choir artwork, the “Virgin of the Rose Garden“, which was painted in 1473 by the artist Martin Schongauer.
Another interesting feature about this church is that part of it occupies an old Dominican monastery that once stood in the same place.
Here is where you’ll find a cloister from the 14th century that was once used for concerts and other religious events or gatherings. In the cloister today is the Municipal Library where antique manuscripts are held for proper storage and display.
Just nearby is the main restaurant and shopping area in Colmar, the Rue des Clefs, so it’s a good idea to head here if you’re looking for a bite to eat or you want to relax with a coffee or cold drink.
The Saint Martin Collegiate Church
Right in the center of the Old Town is the Saint Martin Collegiate Church, or the Eglise Saint Martin.
This is another prime example that you’ll find of Gothic architecture in Colmar.
Built sometime during the 13th and 14th century, the Saint Martin Collegiate Church has an impressive, high and unique Gothic choir along with a variety of other decorative designs and details.
Even the doorway, named after St. Nicholas, is also very intricately designed and on the interior you’ll find some beautiful stained glass and incredibly carved woodwork.
Locally, this church is typically called a cathedral and while it looks like somewhat of a medieval cathedral it was only one for about 10 years in the late 18th-century. For every other time in its history it has been a church and, without a doubt, it’s one of the most impressive religious buildings in Colmar.
The Eglise Saint Matthieu
The Church of St. Matthew is the last religious building that’ll talk about in this post.
Originally, this church was used by the Protestants as a place of worship. It has also been used as a monastery, the hospital, big concert hall and just recently it was converted back for use by Protestant worshipers.
Construction of this church was started by the Franciscans back in 1292 and it took more than 100 years to complete. The Franciscans used it until 1543 when it was then closed and used for variety of other purposes.
Today, both the interior and exterior are quite picture worthy and impressive. If you’re visiting during the summer then you might get lucky enough to stumble upon the Colmar International Festival of Music which is held inside this church every year.
Nearby, close to the Quartier de la Krutenau, you’ll want to check out the Chappelle Saint Pierre. This is a Baroque church that was built by the Jesuits sometime during the 18th century.
It’s notable because it was actually built on the site of a former priory named after Saint Pierre. That priory was built during the 10th century.
On the interior is a lovely and quiet little garden that offers a good place to rest and relax your feet away from the busy tourist crowds.
Don’t forget to check out the monument in the garden that was created by Bartholdi in honour of G.A Hirn, a famous physicist from Colmar.
The Former Guard House (Ancien Corps de Garde)
The Former Guard House, once used as the building where town council decisions were discussed and announced, came into existence in 1575 and took its shape after being converted from the old Chapel of Saint-Jacques that was built in 1286.
From the front you can see an oriel window sticking out from the building and this is the specific location where any important decisions were actually announced from.
One of the best features of this building is the intricately decorated loggia. This loggia is a great example of renaissance architecture from the Upper Rhine region and is one of the most impressive examples of such architectural style in Alsace.
Very close to the Former Guard House is the Maison Adolph, a house built in the 14th century, which is one of the oldest private house is still standing in Colmar.
The Museum of Toys and Model Trains
If you’re traveling with children or you’re just interested in toys and model trains then you’re going to want to check out the Musée Animé du Jouet et des Petits Trains.
This museum has a large collection on display of different toy cars, model trains, model boats, dolls and other cool toys and trinkets for children.
Your child will especially find the museum interesting because there is an engaging re-creation of some French childhood stories including La Fontaine’s Fables and Perraults Tales.
There is also a computer-controlled puppet show and a one kilometer long model train network that’s quite a sight for both children and adults.
Where to Stay in Colmar
Here are my recommendations if you’re looking for where to stay in Colmar.
- Hôtel Roi Soleil Colmar (10-mins from city center, spacious rooms, free parking)
- Hôtel Restaurant – Les Maraichers (10-mins from city center, ideal for people driving, bicycle storage, air conditioning)
- Ibis Colmar Center (great location in center of town, close to train station, modern rooms)
- Mercure Colmar Centre Unterlinden (ideally situated in city center, reputable chain, sauna, outdoor terrace)
- Hotel Saint-Martin (charming, great location in city center, located in historic building)
- Apartments Center Colmar (spacious apartment, stunning interior design, close to all tourist sights)