We had a great holiday, it's a lovely area with so much to see and I highly recommend it. It throws comparable English spots such as the Cotswolds or York rather into the shade by comparison. The sheer quantity of fairytale-like rambling old half timbered buildings, smothered in huge quantities of flowering baskets, wandering on for street after street, or hanging over ancient rivers, or sheltering under the ruins of medieval chateaux, punctuated by massive fortified gate towers, is almost overwhelming. Plus it is all in the shadows of the long range of forested Vosges mountains which themselves are decorated with various ruined castles. I took about 600 photos and by the end we were getting almost jaded because we had seen so many beautiful things.
We flew into Strasbourg from the UK, picked up a hire car and based ourselves in a hotel in Obernai. Obernai itself is very attractive and worth a morning to walk around the historical trail, and perhaps a visit to the many tourist shops or enjoy a snack in one of the patisseries. As well as being a good base for exploring the northern part of the Wine Route, Obernai offered easy access to the A35 fast road to travel south for further explorations (Colmar in around 40 minutes), and made for an easy day trip back into Strasbourg to see the sights there.
A priority is to pick up the tourist map of the Alsace Wine Route. I actually ordered mine online in advance of the trip but unhelpfully I can't remember from which website, sorry. Our hire car had GPS but we found we couldn't entirely rely on it for two reasons: either it would steer us by the most direct route which went on fast roads and missed all the pretty villages, or, it would steer us by the most direct route which turned out to be virtual tracks over vine-covered hills between villages often marked sternly with 'no access except for residents' signs which I don't think we were meant to be using. We also found we couldn't rely solely on the actual 'Route des vins' signs - in some areas these were plentiful, in other areas quite scarce - plus they kept changing in size and colour which made them even harder to spot. So we found a combination of map/GPS/signs/common sense made for the best navigation.
Another tip is to tick off on the map the villages you have visited. Also aim to take a photograph of the town name on arrival (on a sign or on your map) before snapping photos there. You think you will remember these stunningly beautiful places for the rest of your life but after a few days of endless half-timbered houses covered in flowers it becomes difficult to remember which village was which.
We found the driving fairly easy once we got used to being on the right hand side of the road. Traffic was never that heavy and the roads are good. Strasbourg was a bit nerve-wracking to drive into even on a Sunday, I think on any other day it might be a good idea to use the park and ride which connects to the local tram service. Parking can also be an issue: there seemed to be never-ending variations on free/not free (not to mention trying to find a parking meter), how spaces are marked, or they're not marked, when you can park on the pavement and when you can't, and how to fit cars into small medieval courtyards that were never meant to be parking lots. Try to always have some euro change with you for the Payant parking meters, we had to go and buy an ice cream a few times to break our notes. A lot of the smaller medieval villages have one-way systems which the driver needs to be on the alert for. It can also be confusing as to which roads are only for pedestrians and which are shared between pedestrians and cars in the touristy towns. But everything went smoothly and we only got lost a few times (including taking the wrong exit out of Strasbourg which was a bit tense for a while!)
There are so many villages on the route that it can be tricky to decide how long you need. We had about six and a half days in total (leaving out two travel days at either end, and a day and a half at the quilt show), which in retrospect was probably about a day and a half too long as we were getting a bit aimless by the end of the holiday. On the other hand, it meant we never felt rushed and could take as long as we wanted at every place. In the end we walked around or drove through 32 towns and villages plus a day trip to Strasbourg. It's a good idea to hit the town tourist office for a walking map in each place if it is open, but we found offices weren't always open at lunchtimes, nor on weekends in smaller places. If you are trying to pick the highlights, these are some of the places we particularly enjoyed:
- Eguisheim (just south of Colmar) - exquisitely beautiful, not as touristy as Riquewihr
- Kayserberg (just to the north west of Colmar) - lovely
- Riquewihr - lovely but heaving with tourists, go early or late
- Château du Haut-Kœnigsbourg - a reconstructed medieval castle, impressive and great views
- Mont St Odile - a former monastery on a hill, lovely to walk around and fantastic views
- Colmar - a city with a beautiful historic core and lots of interesting shops (proper shops, not just touristy shops)
- Ribeauville (between Colmar and Selestat) - long main street lined with historic buildings and towers
- Scherwiller - pretty village on a river
- Bergheim (near Ribeauville)
- Obernai (near Strasbourg) - nice town with lots of historic buildings
- Strasbourg - a bigger city, the boat tour is a good introduction to the sights, not as pretty as Colmar but we really enjoyed the Alsatian museum which is a labyrinth of converted medieval Alsatian townhouses
There are so many others I could list here but probably once you've seen the highlights, the best strategy is to fill in the free parts of your day visiting other villages nearby to the highlights, or nearby to your hotel base. As you drive, admire the many ruined castles on hills along the route, but be aware that most of them are not accessible. We hiked strenuously for 30 minutes up a steep hill to visit the ruined Chateaux d'Ottrott, only to find that not only were they fenced off and 'interdit', but that you couldn't even see the ruins through the thick woods, very disappointing.
There is a lot of information online about the Route des Vins and recommendations for destinations. You will probably find that, like us, your pace will become progressively slower and more relaxed until in the end you are almost drifting from one flower-bedecked cafe to another, all overlooking beautiful historical squares, and it is all merging into one gigantic medieval disneyland. Highly recommended.
I took so many photos, but here are just a few.