The Four-Day Road Trip to Take Through France’s Alsace This Autumn
Filled with towns that feel pulled straight from Disney’s animated Beauty and the Beast, Alsace and its old-world allure draws travelers back again and again.
But the history of the the wine-rich region on the west bank of the Rhine River is far from a fairytale: the territory was fought over in bloody battles by the French and Germans for more than 300 years. It’s only been part of France since 1945, and the borderland’s dual heritage explains the whimsical blend of architecture (kaleidoscopic houses in timber framing), cuisine (pork-heavy, with thick sauces and lots of sauerkraut), and culture.
Situated between the Vosges Mountains to the west and the Black Forest to the east, it was the Ancient Romans who first established the area as a viticultural hub. Today, white wine is king, as Alsace specializes in dry Riesling and Gewürztraminer (distinct from the sickly sweetness usually associated with these styles) along its famed Route des Vins d’Alsace. But Alsatian attractions extend far beyond just the wine—a lesson my wife and I learned firsthand while traversing the territory by car last fall.
The trip: Four days, 170 miles
High-speed TGV trains from Paris to Strasbourg run multiple times per day (with a ride time of just 1 hour and 45 minutes), making the biggest prefecture in Alsace the perfect launch point for a four-day excursion. This road trip starts on Route A35 heading south, before branching off toward landmarks and small villages.
When to go:
Alsace is at its best in autumn, when the leaves turn and the vines take on a vibrant amber. It’ll be crisp—the average temperature in October is about 52 degrees—so pack a cardigan.
What to drive
While the region is well-connected by highway, the villages themselves have very petit parking spots. We recommend renting a small sedan from Avis or Hertz-Strasbourg Downtown, both conveniently located behind Gare de Strasbourg-Ville.
The first thing you’ll notice upon arriving at Strasbourg-Ville station is the jarring intersection of old and new: The original structure, built in the late 1800s, was encased in a modernist glass facade in the early 2000s. Viewed from the outside, the historic train station appears trapped in a snow-globe. You’ll spend time exploring Strasbourg on your way back—so pick up a rental and set the GPS for Obernai.
Bypass Obernai for now and continue west up Mont Saint-Odile. Come for Hohenburg Abbey’s odd history (it’s the site of a famous book heist), stay for the spectacular views: The abbey’s terrace provides panoramic views of Alsace all the way to the Black Forest. Then, head back to snag lunch in Obernai itself and hop back on the road to find your first drink of the day. The map and resources at Alsace Wine Route are a terrific way to discover wineries along your journey, but kick things off with a free tasting at nearby Robert Blanck. You don’t have to leave with a bottle, but you will—we suggest the full-bodied Pinot Gris.
Continue on to Haut-Koenigsbourg. Dating back to the Middle Ages, the castle was renovated in the 1900s at Kaiser Wilhelm II’s command. Today the fortress is surprisingly well-preserved and a popular tourist attraction—tickets run €9 ($10) apiece.
Save the day’s last two stops—Ribeauvillé and Riquewihr, the two Alsatian towns that allegedly influenced the original Beauty and the Beast—for golden hour. Sashay the same streets as Belle, specifically, Ribeauvillé’s La Grand-Rue from the Tour des Bouchers clock tower to the Augustian church, before arriving in Riquewihr for the evening. Pose next to one of the many quaint fountains scattered through Riquewihr, the more bustling of the towns, before settling in for dinner at the French-Japanese Au Trotthus, which specializes in fusion dishes like tuna tartare with ponzu sauce and wasabi cream. Once you’ve had your fill, check into Hotel l’Oriel for the night, conveniently located in the city center.
Start the day slow and enjoy an espresso al fresco at one of the many outdoor cafés on Riquewihr’s main drag. (Keep breakfast light—lunch is a doozy.) Once the car is packed up, set course for Kaysersberg.
On the outskirts of town lies Domaine Weinbach. Call ahead to schedule a tasting in a small room cluttered with bric-a-brac that feels like the Faller family dining room—they’ve owned and operated the estate since 1898. Tour the cellars and you’ll see giant oak barrels as high as the ceiling, some almost 100 years old, filled with balanced Pinot Blanc and fruit-forward Muscat.
After the tasting, you could shell out for lunch at Michelin-starred Le Chambard. But head across the street to Flamme & Co. instead. It’s the brainchild of the same chef, Olivier Nasti, and you can get tarte flambée (the French take on pizza) for a more reasonable price. You’ll want to order a few, but highlights for us included a flatbread with giant chunks of brie, and one with venison bolognese from a deer the chef shot himself.
It’s on the Colmar. En-route, make a pit-stop at the Jean-Baptiste Adam winery in Ammerschwihr. The tasting room feels a touch more corporate than others in the area, but that shouldn’t stop you from buying a case of crisp Cremant, which is effectively Alsatian Champagne.
Colmar is known for its bright colors and canals (the most seductive section of town is, after all, nicknamed “Petit Venice”). Once you’re done wandering the picturesque streets, grab dinner at l’Arpége, whose gastronomic dishes are practically impressionist art. Take note if the foie gras confit is on the menu—it’s a must-order.
With two nights in Colmar, treat yourself to a stay at luxurious Hotel le Maréchal. The building itself was constructed in 1565, but the romantic vibes persist to today. Pro tip: when booking, request a room with a canal view.
Before motoring away for the day, drop in at Bistrot Gourmand for a brunch bruschetta. (Say yes to the smoked ham with raclette and tomatoes).
Then, it’s just a 15-minute jaunt to Eguisheim, known for its picturesque cobbled avenues. Prepare to use your camera a lot here—preferably prior to a tasting at Maison Wolfberger if you want a steady shot. (Wolfberger is known for its hearty pours.) From there, proceed to lunch at La Galinette for crepes. Order something with sautéed mushrooms, served in a luscious pile atop your lunch.
Well-fed and ready to roll, your next stop is Lac du Ballon, a reservoir on the slopes of the highest mountain in the Vosges, Grand Ballon. Pack a pair of sturdy shoes on this trip, just so you can make the hour-long hike to the mountain’s peak—on a clear day, the views extend into Switzerland as far as Mont Blanc.
After scaling the summit, you’re bound to feel famished. Drive back to Colmar for dinner at Wistrub Brenner—the duck salad is cooked to perfection—then treat yourself to dessert at Jacques Bockel Chocolatier. Whether you try truffles or macarons, you can’t go wrong.
Time to return from whence you came. Before dropping the rental car off in Strasbourg, swing north for a glimpse of the futuristic, glass-covered European Parliament building. (Strasbourg is the seat of parliament for the entire European Union.)
Back in town, take a stroll through Petit France, the historic district where the city’s craftsmen once lived. Sure, you’ve seen old European churches before, but Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Strasbourg is truly a sight to behold. A prime example of Gothic architecture, the 466-foot-tall cathedral was actually the highest building in the world for more than 200 years, after its construction in the mid-17th century. Entry is free, so go in to admire the astronomical clock from 1843, adorned with hand-carved figurines.
Your viticultural tour culminates on the grounds of a historic hospital. Or in the ground, to be more exact. Hôpital Civil hosts a 600-year-old wine cellar beneath its floors, along with a wine barrel dating back to 1472. This space is now a museum where the vitners of Alsace are allowed to mature their product inside the ancient barrels and sell their wine in the gift shop for as few as €6 ($6.75).
Next, make a stop at Brasserie Les Haras for dinner. The expansive eatery is housed in Strasbourg’s former Royal Stud Farm, and large parts of the restaurant retain that rustic stable feel—especially apparent on the cozy, wood-beamed second floor. You can’t go wrong with the choucroute (sausage, cabbage, potatoes) or, if you’d rather leave with the top button of your pants undone, the ultra-rich bouchée á la reine. Thought to be an aphrodisiac, this dish with French royal origins places a puff pastry atop a pile of pasta, coated in creamy béchamel sauce.
Walk your dinner off with a lazy amble along the canal before checking into the ultra-contemporary Hotel Arok, a welcome change of pace to end your time in Alsace.