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Europe is a hot spot for summer tourism, but have you ever visited in winter? Today, TPG Senior Points & Miles Contributor Nick Ewen shares his 6 reasons to consider a trip to the French border town of Colmar during next year’s holiday season.
As the 2015 holiday season comes to a close, your plans for next November and December may be the furthest things from your mind. However, if you are a lover of Christmas (like me), next year can’t come fast enough. This year, I managed to take my yuletide love to new depths by finally visiting some European Christmas markets, though my wife and I decided to stay away from the more mainstream locations and instead spent a week in Colmar, France. On the heels of TPG Editor-in-Chief Zach Honig’s post with his reasons to love Germany’s Christmas markets, I want to share my 6 reasons why Colmar should be at the top of your holiday travel wish list.
1. The town
When my wife and I travel for fun, we tend to visit larger cities that have a plethora of things to do and see. Colmar was at the opposite end of the spectrum. With just under 70,000 residents, the city feels much more like a quaint country village, and the architecture and street layout only added to the charm. The city center feels like it was pulled straight from the 16th or 17th century and even includes its own Little Venice (La Petite Venise) at the south end of the historical district.
It’s also exceedingly walkable. The main train station is centrally located, and all of the sights of the old town are within a mile walk. The Champ de Mars is a pretty stroll, especially in the evening, but the main place to be is the Grand Rue. Three of the five markets in the town are located along a 600 meter stretch, and the architecture is absolutely stunning both during the day:
And at night:
Despite the small-town feel, Colmar is still large enough to have some terrific stores like a full Monoprix for groceries and clothes (my wife calls it the “French Target”). We also found that the majority of local residents spoke decent English, which was a great help when purchasing souvenirs and shopping in the many boutiques.
2. The proximity to other (small) cities and their respective Christmas markets
The other nice thing about the centrally located train station is that it was easy to visit other towns in the region. Colmar is situated in central Alsace, the easternmost region of France, and it shares a border with both Germany and Switzerland. As a result, there are several other towns that are just a short trip away, many of which have impressive Christmas markets of their own.
We took the train down to Basel, Switzerland on the opening day of its market and enjoyed great views over the Rhein:
There was also a bus/train combination ticket to cross the Rhine and visit the markets in Freiburg, Germany, where my wife snagged this incredible handmade German cuckoo clock:
On our last day, we took a short 30 minute train north to Strasbourg for the opening day of its market, which claims to be the oldest one in Europe (dating back to 1570 and the “Christkindelsmarik”). Evy in particular loved the traditional carousel that was next to the incredible cathedral:
Several other local towns boast markets as well, including Mulhouse, but we were so enthralled with Colmar that it made it hard to leave!
3. The food
Another big reason for this love is the incredible food options throughout the city. Despite its small size, Colmar is loaded with gourmet restaurants, including 8 Michelin-starred restaurants and many other terrific dining spots. We had an incredible lunch at L’Arpege on our first day in town, and also highly recommend Restaurant Au Fer Rouge for a relaxed dinner. One of the best things about the cuisine in Colmar is the varied influences, blending German staples like sauerkraut and sausage with French specialties like escargot and gourmet cheese.
4. The wine
Of course, food is only as good as the wine it’s paired with, and Colmar didn’t disappoint. I was completely unfamiliar with Alsatian wine before our trip, but I found the Pinot Blancs and Gewurztraminers of the region to be very smooth and refreshing. This doesn’t even take into account the wonderful “vin chaud” being served at numerous Christmas market stalls throughout the town. Just like Zach, we too enjoyed taking home souvenir mugs from the different markets we visited. I found that there was no better way to beat the cold than to drop a few Euro on a steaming cup full of mulled red wine.
5. The lack of chain hotels
Hear me out on this one. It’s true that we are a points and miles site, but when one of my wife’s best friends proposed Colmar as a potential “home base” to explore the Black Forest, I was kind of excited to see that the city boasted no Hiltons and no Marriotts. While there was a Best Western (Le Grand Hotel Bristol) located across the street from the train station, the rest of the hotels in the city center were small and local. Instead we wound up booking an apartment through Airbnb (though unfortunately before Virgin America began offering points for these reservations).
It was a terrific decision. My wife and I (and Evy) were spending a week in Colmar, and we had two friends meeting us for part of the time. We found a fantastic three-bedroom apartment located just a block from the central Christmas market, and even if you don’t need the space, I can’t say enough good things about the apartment management company (and they have several other accommodations in the city). They even provided us with a high chair and crib for Evy in the apartment!
For what it’s worth, I booked the stay using my Citi ThankYou Premier Card and it was classified as hotel purchase, allowing me to earn 3 points per dollar spent:
6. The early opening
The final appealing aspect of Colmar (and the Alsace region in general) was the fact that the Christmas Markets opened much earlier than most others across the continent. My wife and I have limited vacation time each year, so traveling over Thanksgiving allows us to spend 9 or 10 days away but only use three vacation days in the process. Thankfully, the Colmar markets opened their doors on Friday, November 20, with Mulhouse and Freiburg coming shortly thereafter (Saturday, November 21 and Monday, November 23, respectively). Strasbourg, on the other hand, didn’t start until 2pm on Friday, November 27, and many others across Europe follow a similar timeline. It was really great to be able to arrive on the Saturday afternoon before Thanksgiving and already find the markets in full swing.
Getting to Colmar
Colmar may be off-the-beaten-path when it comes to its Christmas Markets, but it was actually pretty easy from a travel perspective. The nearest airport is EuroAirport Basel – Mulhouse – Freiburg (BSL), and though there are no nonstop flights from the US, you can find options from numerous European destinations, including Amsterdam (KLM), Frankfurt (Lufthansa), Istanbul (Turkish), London (British Airways) and Paris (Air France). Though the airport is in French territory, it is jointly operated by France and Switzerland, so upon arrival, be sure to follow signs for the French exit.
We flew Club Europe on British Airways from London-Heathrow and landed in the late afternoon. After exiting into the French sector of the airport, we caught Bus 50 to the St. Louis train station (€2) and from there hopped on a short 35 minute train to Colmar (€13.10 per person, though we were able to get a discount for traveling with Evy). From there it was a short taxi ride from the train station, though without luggage for a week, it’s definitely walkable.
Even though it’s a relatively small city, I did find that virtually all restaurants and shops readily accepted credit cards. I charged all of our meals and transportation to my Chase Sapphire Preferred Card to earn double Ultimate Rewards points, though all other purchases went on my Citi Hilton HHonors Reserve Card to make sure that I hit the $10,000 spend threshold to earn my annual free weekend night certificate. I also found that most of the stalls only accepted cash, but as a Bank of America customer, I was very fortunate to find a BNP Paribas just a short walk from our apartment. As a partner bank, this allowed me to avoid the $5 fee for non-partner withdrawals, though I was still subject to a 3% international transaction fee.
We had a terrific time in Europe, and the magic of the Christmas markets in Colmar really was incredible to see. While the markets of the Black Forest may be less renowned than those in larger European cities, I’d be hard-pressed to find a more festive location in which to kick-off the holiday season.
Have you visited Colmar or the Black Forest during the holidays before? Even after the introduction of the Chase Sapphire Reserve, the Chase Sapphire Preferred is still a fantastic choice if you want to avoid the Reserve’s $450 annual fee, earn 2x on all travel & dining and earn a 50,000 point sign up bonus.
Even after the introduction of the Chase Sapphire Reserve, the Chase Sapphire Preferred is still a fantastic choice if you want to avoid the Reserve’s $450 annual fee, earn 2x on all travel & dining and earn a 50,000 point sign up bonus.