College Tourist Student Guide to Alsace, France
Where to Go and What to See in France’s Beautiful, Rural, Germanic Region
When you think of France, places like Paris, Brittany, and the French Riviera are probably the first to come to mind. But France is more than just these tourist hotspots–the country is filled with interesting and unique cities and regions just begging to be explored. One such hidden French gem is the Alsace region of France, an area along the borders of Germany and Switzerland that boasts both beautiful rural plains and hip, urban cities.
Once belonging to Germany, Alsace remains a very Germanic-inspired region. Its architecture and cuisine reveal the area’s history. I was lucky enough to spend two weeks living in Mulhouse, where I was able to hit up several other cities in Alsace–as well as landmarks in both Switzerland and Germany, thanks to the region’s convenient location! Germany’s thrilling amusement park, Europapark, is just an hour away from Mulhouse, and it takes less than an hour to reach the Swiss border.
But before you explore outside of Alsace, be sure to make the most that all of this incredible region has to offer; check out my top 5 (mostly) Alsacien must-sees:
Top 5 Must Sees:
A quaint, traditional Alsacien city, Mulhouse is where I stayed with my French exchange partner/best French friend in both her mother’s and her father’s houses (a week at each!). Mulhouse is an ideal place to stay because it is right in the middle of some of the best that Alsace has to offer–including the following four must-sees. Mulhouse has a great downtown hub with an above-ground tram, several chic shops, and a cool automobile museum, but it also has quieter suburban areas, too.
You can’t go to Alsace without seeing Strasbourg, the largest, most bustling city in the region, as well as the home to the European Parliament. As it is located right by the border of France and Germany, a lot of Strasbourg’s architecture has a heavy German influence (as does Alsace in general). Strasbourg boasts the second largest university in France (University of Strasbourg), the largest Islamic worship center in France (the Strasbourg Grand Mosque), a fantastic selection of renowned wine tours and tastings, the iconic, towering Strasbourg Cathedral, and countless restaurants, shops, clubs, and bars. If possible, try to stay in the city for the weekend, since there is so much to do and see!
Although it is located in the Franche-Comté region rather than Alsace, Belfort is a heavily fortified Germanic French city, about 35 minutes southwest of Mulhouse. On your way, make time (only about an extra hour) to take a leisurely drive through the Swiss countryside, in the Boncourt region of Switzerland (the section of Switzerland that reaches up the farthest north into France). The area is astoundingly pretty, and you’ll be able to brag to your friends that you went to Switzerland! (Who cares if it was only for 10 or 20 minutes?) While in Belfort, take a short hike up to see the Lion de Belfort, a large statue of a lion that commemorates the Siege of Belfort by the Prussians in the late 1800s. The area consists of a bunch of great walking trails with spectacular views, including a small castle.
This beautiful, mountainous town in the Vosges Mountains is home to the spectacular Château du Haut-Kœnigsbourg, a castle whose foundation dates all the way back to the Middle Ages. As the château is surrounded by flat vineyards, you must travel a steep, winding road up a very tall mountain to reach it. Then, park your car and take in its beauty. You can either take a self-guided tour, or opt for the guided tour, where a knowledgeable staff member leads you through the castle and the surrounding grounds, explaining the history of the structure and the town as you go. Of course, the guide will be speaking French!
Ergersheim is a small but gorgeous town about 40 minutes north of Orschwiller. It, too, is surrounded by vineyards, but the town itself is home to some of the most picturesque architecture in the Alsace region. Park your car and take a stroll along the cobblestone roads, which are lined with beautiful houses with a Germanic style and interesting color palettes. There are a bunch of cute markets and shops, too–grab your friends and family some Alsacien souvenirs here! Then, be sure to get lunch at the Auberge Alsacienne–see the “Where to Eat” section to get more info about this cute restaurant.
Fun For Free
Sight seeing is the number one free activity in the Alsace region. There is so much beauty to be seen in this mostly rural region–you’ll never want to forget your camera on daytrips. The landscapes, scenery, and architecture are all incredibly unique, and will never fail to impress no matter where you are.
Where to Eat
France is renowned for its incredible cuisine for a reason–the food is to die for. There are slight German influences in the local grub, but it is still very traditional French food. You’ll have to try French crepes (they’re everywhere) and a traditional Alsacien cake, a Kuglehopf cake. Ginger spiced breads, cakes, and cookies are super popular in Alsace, too.
As for restaurants, be sure to try the Auberge Alsacienne in Ergersheim, a pretty place with a lot of traditional Alsacien dishes. I recommend one of the tartines–they are large round pieces of crispy, toasted bread with toppings like meat, vegetables, and sauces.
When in Strasbourg, stop at Le Gruber, a restaurant with both German and French cuisine. I may be biased because my last name is Gruber (so…I basically have my own restaurant in France!), but the apple tarte-flambée, a large sheet of thin pastry dough covered in a sweet, creamy cheese spread and cinnamon apples, was one of the best desserts I’ve ever had in my life.
Just because Alsace is covered in rolling fields, farms, and vineyards doesn’t mean there’s no nightlife scene! If you’re in a more urban area, like downtown Mulhouse or Strasbourg, you’ll be sure to find bars and clubs to hit up. Check out Jet 7 Club in Mulhouse, or Le Seven in Strasbourg. If you’re looking to see a concert, go to La Laiterie in Strasbourg, a popular music venue.
To get around Alsace, you’re probably going to need a car. I highly recommend hitting up different cities in the region, and you’ll have to drive to do so. Cities like Mulhouse and Strasbourg have their own systems of public transportation, however. Catch a bus or a tram (they’re bright yellow, you can’t miss them) to get around Mulhouse. The tram is also the most popular form of transit in Strasbourg–there are four different lines that run throughout the city. You can purchase Unipass tickets that will get you on the trams and buses. Biking is extremely popular in Strasbourg, too, so consider renting a bike to get around!
If you happen to be staying with a local friend or a family of natives, be prepared to give la bise to people they introduce you to. La bise is the traditional French greeting of a light kiss or a touch of the cheek on each of the other person’s cheeks. I met several of my friend’s family members, and every one of them went right in for la bise. It was a bit disorienting at first, as I am so used to the American handshake, but you get used to it, and it’s super cute!
You’re in France, so be prepared to either speak French, or explain to locals that you are American. A French phrasebook can come in handy, and if you don’t know any French, I advise learning common helpful phrases–such as “Sorry, I don’t speak French,” or “Can you say that in English please?”–in French. (For reference: “Désolé, je ne parle pas français,” and “En anglais, s’il-vous-plait?” respectively.)