Open air Christmas Markets are a traditional European celebration of the Christmas season–one that drew the attention of terrorists in Berlin. Despite that horrific event, the Christmas markets in the towns of the Alsace region of northeast France are warm and wonderful places. Filled with bright Christmas lights and gorgeous decorations, the outdoor Christmas Markets sell hot spiced wine, gingerbread, and crafts.

Outdoor Christmas Markets in France have been a cheerful tradition for hundreds of years.

Christmas Market in Strasbourg, France in front of the stunning Cathedral (Photo Philadelphia TMOM Sarah Ricks)

Christmas Markets in Alsace France

We visited  the outdoor Christmas Markets in France to enjoy Christmas lights, Christmas decorations, and a tradition going back hundreds of years. We visited France in the calmer week before the horror of the recent terrorist attack on a Christmas market in Berlin. Would I go now? Yes! Bad things happen all the time all over the world. If we let it stop us from traveling, the bad guys win. Here’s why we visited Europe despite State Department warnings,

European Christmas Markets

In parts of France and Germany, Christmas Markets are a cheerful, celebratory tradition. Towns celebrate the month leading up to Christmas by outdoing each other with bright cheerful Christmas lights and elaborate decorations. Shopkeepers set up temporary market stalls in clusters around churches and in town squares.

Shopping in the Outdoors Christmas Markets

In the cold night air of Alsace France, the bright lights of the outdoor Christmas Markets drew us in like a warm fire. The temporary wooden market stalls sell crafts, wooden toys, brightly colored Christmas ornaments, sweaters, hats, and candles. Bakers sell traditional spiced breads, gingerbread boys and girls, and huge varieties of cookies and shortbreads. We saw market stalls selling traditional foods of Alsace, like fois gras, crepes, spices to bake gingerbread, and Alsacian white wines. While my husband and I traveled from Philadelphia without our kids, we saw lots of kids enjoying the carousels and decorations.

Towns in France light up with Christmas decorations and outdoor Christmas Markets

Christmas Market in Colmar, France, with medieval half-timbered buildings (Photo Philadelphia TMOM Sarah Ricks)

Vin Chaud, Hot Crepes, Hot Sausages

Even though it is outside, the fragrance of the Christmas Market is the heady scent of mulled wine. Open air stalls sell cups of hot spiced wine, called vin chaud. They ladle cups of hot wine from steaming cauldrons that fill the air with the scent of cloves and cinnamon. While wandering the open air market, shoppers sip hot wine or hot chocolate to warm their hands and insides.

Other shoppers explore the open air markets while nibbling on on warm pretzels or on hot crepes stuffed with Nutella or butter and cinnamon. All in the cold open air, hungrier shoppers eat hot sausages with a sweeter version of sauerkraut, called choucroute, topped with mustard or horseradish.

Alsace France

Two of the most famous Christmas Markets in France are in Strasbourg, where it is a 400-year-old tradition, and in Colmar. Both cities are in the Alsace region of northeast France, which has a strong German influence. At times in history, Alsace has been annexed as a part of Germany. Until this visit, I didn’t realize that many traditions I associate with Christmas – gingerbread, mulled wine, red balls decorating trees – are rooted in this region.

Wandering beautiful Strasbourg, France is part of the Christmas Market experience

Petite France neighborhood in Strasbourg, France (Philadelphia TMOM Sarah Ricks)

Why CroisieEurope for the Christmas Markets

We visited the Christmas Markets of France with the French cruise company CroisiEurope. A big advantage of traveling with CroisiEurope was the chance to explore different places while letting them handle the logistics. We treated the riverboat like a hotel: we stayed overnight, docked in the harbor, and ate a gourmet breakfast and dinner on the ship.

But all day, from after breakfast until dinner, we explored Alsace France with CroisiEurope tours. The cruise company provided an English-speaking guide and handled the logistics for two full days of excursions.

Christmas Markets are a tradition in the Alsace region of France

Christmas Market at the base of the Cathedral in Strasbourg, France (Philadelphia TMOM Sarah Ricks)

We explored more than just the Christmas Markets of Colmar and Strasbourg. On the first day, CroisiEurope provided a bus and an English-speaking guide for the drive to the wine growing region of Alsace. We visited a vineyard called Domaine Baumann-Zirgel. We met the family who has lived and worked on the same land for hundreds of years. It was fun to taste the grapes from a big bin, and then taste three of the white wines the family produces. The same morning, we visited a small town famous for its gingerbread factory, Fortwenger, and visited its gingerbread store.

Experiencing Alsace France

CroisiEurope arranged for our bus group to eat a traditional Alsace lunch in Eguisheim, a charming town of medieval half-timbered houses built in three concentric circles. Our group spent the afternoon exploring Colmar, another beautiful town of traditional half-timbered houses that might have inspired Walt Disney’s vision of a European village. CroisiEurope drove us to and from Colmar, and provided a group guided walking tour in English (and French). My husband and I split our afternoon between Colmar’s Christmas Market and Colmar’s excellent art museum, a converted monastery.

Bakeries in France offer every kind of cookie during the Christmas Markets

Christmas cookies of every kind in the bakeries of the Alsace region of France (Philadelphia TMOM Sarah Ricks)

On the second morning, CroisiEurope provided a bus and guide for a driving tour of several neighborhoods of Strasbourg. Our helpful guide, Elaine, spoke in both French and English. We drove through the German neighborhood, with elegant mansions built after Germany took over Alsace in the 1870’s. Our guide took us on a walking tour of the oldest part of Strasbourg, a practically car-free island with bridges and beautiful medieval houses. It was fun to notice the dates and ornate carvings on the beams of the half-timbered houses. Most stunning is the Cathedral, begun nearly 1000 years ago, and lit up at night to highlight its architectural details.

I enjoyed the lunch of ham, sausages, and chourcoute at a restaurant specializing in Alsatian food, L’Ancienne Douane, and arranged for our group by CroisiEurope. The group split up for the afternoon to independently explore the Christmas Markets and Strasbourg. Our group walking tour resumed in the evening, to enjoy the Christmas lights together after dark. We drove back to the riverboat for dinner.

Christmas Markets in France are a centuries old tradition

Christmas Market in Strasbourg, France (Photo Philadelphia TMOM Sarah Ricks)

CroisiEurope offers river cruises throughout Europe, including a summer cruise from Paris to the Normandy region of France.

Tips to Enjoy the Christmas Markets in France

Dress warmly. The Christmas Markets are outside. It is cold, even if you pop into stores and sip hot wine as you explore. My husband and I were grateful for our long underwear, winter boots, hats and gloves.

Most of the CroisiEurope passengers were French, a fun travel experience in itself. I was glad the cruise company arranged for my husband and me to eat breakfast and dinner on the ship with a couple from Australia. On excursions, the guide spoke in both French and English, to make sure we understood.

Have you ever visited a Christmas Market? Tell us about it in the comments.

Open air Christmas Markets are a centuries old tradition in Alsace, France

Open air Christmas Markets are a centuries old tradition in Alsace, France (Photo Philadelphia TMOM Sarah Ricks)