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Colmar More Than Just a Pretty Place

by Roberto
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Colmar is a complete fairytale and it’s said it provided inspiration for Beauty and the Beast. Who would doubt that. Walking those streets would have been more than enough to satisfy me for the days I was there, but I discovered a city I didn’t expect. Beneath the pretty exterior lies a town of much history and culture, with an impressive culinary scene and viticulture. I fully expect you to end up in Le Petite Venise, but when looking for things to do in Colmar France, I implore you to look a little deeper.

History of Colmar

It’s not by coincidence that Colmar looks so Germanic in architecture. First mentioned in 884, it gained credit as a city in 1226, under the Holy Roman Empire. It became part of the alliance known as the Deapole city league, a group of ten Alsatian cities who maintained their rights, while remaining members of the Holy Roman Empire. It was taken by the Swedish Army for two years during the Thirty Years War. The customs, language and traditions of Alsace at this time, was predominantly German. In 1673, King Louis XIV conquered Alsace, and soon after it became part of the Kingdom of France. Despite this, the people were still allowed to keep their German language.

During the French revolution, many of the revolutionary generals hailed from the Alsace, including General Jean Rapp from Colmar, as opposition to the monarchical rule was strong there. The Franco-Prussian war of 1871, ended in defeat for the French, and the resulting treaty of Frankfurt saw France cede control of Alsace and Colmar to the Germans.

World Wars

World War I was a difficult time for Alsace as many who identified as French were forced to fight against their perceived countrymen. Soldiers returning after the war tried to create an independent government of Alsace Lorraine. It lasted all of two weeks as French soldiers stormed the new territory and established French control. This was ratified by the Treaty of Versailles. World War II saw the young men of Alsace again pitted against the allies, with many conscripted against their will. Most perished on the eastern front.

With such a turbulent background its no surprise the lines are crossed in Colmar. The language and people are most certainly French, but the architecture is undoubtedly Alsatian. And all the better for it.

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Top Things to do in Colmar

Enjoy Alsatian cuisine

One aspect of Colmar that cannot be missed is it’s cuisine. Not that I would ever miss a meal. From the rich options available at our breakfast buffets, to the lunch and dinner, Alsatian cuisine packs a punch. French cooking is regarded as possibly the world’s best, and Alsace has been awarded the best regional cuisine a number of times over the past few years.

We arrived from Colmar train station starving and made the somewhat unwise move to eat in the most tourist of areas, and in the first restaurant we found. La Krutenau is perhaps more bar than restaurant, but as we are total pizza lovers, we decided the first place with Tarte Flambée was going to be the winner. The bar also serves as the docking point for the boat cruises up the La Lauch river. Reviews we read after suggested the place was poor, but most partained to the staff, whom we found to be friendly in a French way.

But only one thing mattered and that was the food. It was served quick and eaten quicker. Tarte Flambee is a local pizza style dish, without tomato sauce, and usually with a topping of cheese, ham and mushrooms. The base is delicate, thin and delicious.

Better than pizza? Maybe. We even came back the second day to share another.

Tarte Flambee

Where to eat in Colmar

Hearty cuisine is very much the order of the day in Alsace, which is perhaps the reason I enjoyed it so. I grew up on hearty Irish food. Al fresco dining is en vogue come summer, but to get a table come early or late. Or try reserving; it’s something I usually remember too late. Plus I’m more of a walk and pick at random diner. The best thing about dining out in Colmar, is its remarkably cheap. Having just come from Switzerland, it was a breath of fresh air.

Au Kofihus

Wherever you end up try the local stews. I suggest the Baeckeoffe aux trios viandes, a stew of pork, lamb, beef, and potatoes, with a white wine sauce and served in a traditional metal pot. Restaurant Au Kofihus comes recommended.

Baeckeoffe – a stew for meat lovers

My adventurous side got the better of me when I saw calf head on a menu. Maybe it was just to add one more unusual dish to the my list, but I ordered without hesitation. I was nervous but when the plate appeared, I was thankful that it appeared more like two cheeks with a breadcrumb coating. No bones, eyes, nose, ears or any other features were anywhere to be seen. Phew. What’s more it was delicious and should be at the top of adventurous Alsatian appetite quenchers. We ate “Tête de Veau” at Le Fer Rouge on Grand Rue, and the duck with wine is wonderful for those looking for something more commonly French.

La Tete de Veau
Thankfully this didn’t look like a calf head

For something a little more on the run or to pick up some fine local produce, the Marche Couvert (covered market) is a fine place to stroll through. Above all bring your sweet tooth or take some craft produce to enjoy at home.

Drink the wines of Alsace

If you haven’t already had enough wine through the cooking (not likely), the Alsace has a great wine scene. Sweet wines are the speciality in the region, with Rieslings, Gewurztraminer, Pinot Gris and Muscat quite popular. There are a vast number of vineyards throughout the region, with 890 producers bottling for sale. That gives a lot of opportunity to explore. I’m no expert on Alsatian wines, but with Colmar as the professed capital of the reion, its a good place to start. For more in depth on the wines of Alsace, check the Vins d’Alsace site.

Visit Little Venice

As I said, I expect you to end up in Little Venice, so naturally I’m going to end up there too. One of the oldest and most beautiful parts of Colmar, the views of the river and the timbered houses are impeccable. It is the Colmar must see attraction.

Things to do in Colmar
Little Venice

Fishmonger’s District

This area is an extension of Little Venice and the heart of old town Colmar. It alongside and over the river. A big industry centuries ago here, the more affluent fisherman lived here in those colourful maisons.

See Bartholdi’s Colmar

Something that caught our eye as we wandered the streets of Colmar was the presence of golden triangles with the head of Lady Liberty on them. Where were these heads taking us? The triangles led to the various monuments that the sculptor had completed in and around Colmar. So who is Bartholdi and why does the Statue of Liberty adorn little waymarkers?

Bartholdi was a famed French sculptor who was born in Colmar in 1834. After the loss of Alsace to the Prussians he left for Paris rarely to return before his death in 1904. He had by that time though, built up a good repertoire of public works, and a sterling reputation. He is predominantly known for being commissioned by the French government to design the Statue of Liberty. With the aid of Gustave Eiffel and his team, he produced one of the most iconic statues in the world. The statue was of course gifted by the French government to the US one, as a sign of friendship and an emblem of liberty.

Her Ladyship

Bartholdi’s works in Colmar

In following those arrow heads not only will you be led to many of the sights of the town, but you can will have the pleasure of Bartholdi’s local legacy. There is great local pride in his achievements. With good reason; the man was talented. For me the wine grower of Colmar on the corner of the covered market is a definite highlight, but the fountains of Schwendi and Roesselmann are great centrepieces for their squares. Perhaps his most famed Colmar statue is of the French general Rapp.

Bartholdi Museum

The Bartholdi Museum is found in the artists birth home. The museum has been open since 1922 and is one of the finest Colmar attractions. For an insight into the man behind the art, it’s therefore essential. Admission is €6 for an adult. Within you will find a reconstruction of his house in Paris where he worked, kindly donated by his wife after his death. There are also much drawings, models, photographs, paintings and personal belongings of Bartholdi.

Naturally a museum dedicated to a sculptor without sculptures would be a bit boring so thankfully this end is covered too. Scale models of all his Colmar works are present, all preparatory works. The first floor is dedicated to this. The second is specific to his other famous pieces such as the Lion of Belfort and a horse head from the Fountaine Bartholdi. These works can be found in Belfort and Lyon respectively. The third floor though is why you came here. It’s 100% Statue of Liberty, from correspondence, plans to small models, and a huge ear as a centrepiece. Worth the admission price ‘ere alone.

Bartholdi Museum Colmar
An ear- intended for the Statue of Liberty- It’s huge

Musee Unterlinden Colmar

If you are going to see one museum in Colmar make it the Unterlinden Museum. Part of the Musee de France, it’s more than worthwhile for the following reasons. Firstly it’s a museum. Secondly, it’s located in a ramshackle maze style, incorporating both a 1906 public baths, and a 13th century Dominican convent. The convent is wonderfully woven into the museum, making excellent use of the cloisters. I’ll be honest though, I got lost a few times in the buildings. But happily lost amongst the great collection. I paid €13 for the pleasure.

The convent plays host to a religious wing as its theme. It’s highlight is undoubtedly the Isenheim Altarpiece by Matthias Grünewald, a jaw dropping work. It also features a neat trick of conservationists at work behind glass, endeavouring to ensure the art looks its best. I’m sure they felt like animals in a zoo though with all the punters watching them.

Isenheim Altarpiece
Isenheim Altarpiece

The museum has been open since 1853, but it was only in the last decade that it expanded to the baths. My highlights were the art collections both modern and from the 19th century. However I’ll admit I’m not the greatest student of art. I find beauty therefore where I find beauty. Or in the case of my favourites here I’m probably drawn to the dark.


Seek out the The Chariot of Death, an 1851 painting by Theophile Schuler, produced in the aftermath of the 1848 French Revolution . It stopped my in my tracks, a huge canvas featuring the four horsemen of the Apocalypse, Jesus on the Cross, and the liberty leading some poor souls to safety, while all descends around them. Or at least that’s what I got out of it. Riveting.

The Chariot of Death,
The Chariot of Death- an epic painting

An honourable mention must go to Le Christ en Prison by Jean-Jacques Hennet, and the Child Jesus amongst the Doctors by Ronault. I was drawn again to the dark and haunting Christ on the Cross and Prisoners of War by Otto Dix.

I was surprised to find myself quite enthralled by the museums modern art. It’s not usually my cup of tea. But from the Picassos to Monet to others, I was captivated. Picasso’s Bust of a Seated Woman has a raw unfinished look to it. Don Coucoubazar by Jean Dubuffet is a chaotic but captivating sculpture. Guernica by Jacqueline de la Baume is a tremendous tapestry based on the Picasso work of the same name.

The most interesting houses

Colmar is known for its great houses. Here are a few of my favourites.

House of Heads

Constructed in 1609, the House of Heads or La Maison des Tetes was built for a local shopkeeper. It takes its name from the 106 heads and masks that adorn it’s facade. The whole facade is beautiful with a large bay window and atop the gable stands a Bartholdi sculpted statue of a cooper.

House of Heads Colmar
House of Heads Colmar

Adolph house

Colmars oldest house isn’t exactly as aesthetic as it’s city compatriots, but any house built in 1350 is worth your attention. It stands opposite the St Martin Church.

Maison Pfister

Around the corner from the Adolph house on Rue des Marchands, lies the Pfister house of 1537. Probably Colmars finest, it’s style comes from the Renaissance. It’s a wonderful collection of wood; a gallery opens the facade and the roof is topped by turrets. The murals of biblical scenes are the perfect finish to what is an architectural beauty.

Pfister House Colmar
Pfister House

St Martin church

The St Martin Church was badly looted during the Franco Prussian War and sadly its interior reflects this. This gothic church was consecrated in 1365, after a build of over a hundred years. It’s exterior is it’s highlight; large enough to be a cathedral and constructed from an attractive sandstone. The interior is devoid of much attraction besides the choir, but it is free to visit. The Isenheim altarpiece once stood here, but was dismantled and dispersed in 1720. The recovered parts are now in the Unterlinden.

St Martin Church Colmar
St Martin Church Colmar

The Customs House

The Ancienne Douane is practically the centre of the city of Colmar. Constructed in a mix of Gothic and Venetian styles in the 15th Century, it is recognisable by its stunning green roof tiles. It was also the birthplace of General Rapp. Nowadays it plays host to a local craft market and the arcaded area is great for busking and live music shows. Amazingly I caught the same classical buskers here as I had in Bern a week earlier. What a voice!

Is there anything more cultural?

Visit the Alsace Wine Route

Extending through the villages of the Alsace, the wine route passes many vineyards and wine houses. Wine has been with us thousands of years, so there’s hardly anything more cultural is there. But dotted though that region are some of the most incredible villages in France. From Eguisheim to Kaysersberg, to Riquewihr, they are all half-timbered delights. Why not follow my day trips to Kaysersberg and Equisheim.

The River Cruise Through Little Venice

Ok so I said this post was about the deeper side of Colmar and now try to finish on one of its most frivolous things. But hear me out. River cruises are a great way to get to know a city from a different perspective. Rivers were the main source of commerce for many centuries, even for one as small as the river La Lauch. Of course today it no longer has that functionality, it’s sole purpose for the entertainment of visitors through tours.

But get the right gondolier and he might just share the city’s secrets with you. Why are houses painted certain colours? I can’t recall but I know he mentioned it. Plus there’s nothing more relaxing that floating gently down a river, as those pretty colours pass you by. And the fun of ducking so as you don’t lose your head to the bridge. Priceless.

A boat cruise lets you see a different side to most cities

Priceless like much of Colmar. The Alsace wine region is remarkable and Colmar and Strasbourg are its powerhouses. Lost in time, yet modern, Colmar’s rich culture permeates from behind its beauty. But if its beauty is all you seek then please seek inspiration in my photo blog, 50 Photos of Colmar that will convince you to visit.

If you have any more suggestion on cultural Colmar things to do, please suggest in the comments.

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