“Let’s go to Strasbourg,” Jordan and I have both repeatedly said to each other over the past year. This French city has been at the top of our travel list, but we’ve never found the right time to go. But when we learned Strasbourg transforms into a magical Christmas wonderland each year as the “Capital of Christmas”, we blocked off a weekend to visit.
Strasbourg is known as the “Capital of Christmas,” as the city’s Christmas market is the oldest in France and one of the oldest in Europe. The annual tradition dates back to 1570, where artisans would sell local goods in their makeshift stalls. And Strasbourg doesn’t have just one Christmas market; they have eleven. For comparison, Lyon, a much larger city than Strasbourg, only has one.
And yet, there was a chance all this Christmas magic would come to an abrupt halt due to the new Omicron variant. Rules and restrictions can change with the drop of a hat, and we kept our eyes peeled on the news to learn the fate of the Christmas markets. With caution on the city’s side, officials announced new restrictions for the Christmas markets days before we arrived. Restrictions, not a complete cancelation. Phew. Strasbourg’s Christmas markets would still go on, but masks were required, health passes were mandatory, and the markets would close early. Cool, whatever, just let us in!
The Christmas magic started as soon as we got off the train at the central station. Christmas-themed blue lights illuminated the side streets, mimicking snow. As we checked in to our hotel, we received a map of the Christmas markets to help us determine a plan. The markets are all located in the city’s center, making it easy to walk from one to the next.
We passed stores adorned with ornate Christmas displays above their signage, and streets lit up in over-the-top presentations along the way to our first market. Strasbourg is one of the most illuminated cities in Europe around Christmastime, with lights twinkling from everywhere we looked. Restaurants enticed passersby with signs for vin chaud, a winter specialty made with hot wine and various spices. You could feel (and smell) the Christmas magic in the air.
Our first stop led us to the largest market, Place Kebler, the one with a Christmas tree. It was no ordinary Christmas tree; it symbolized the essence of Christmas in Strasbourg. Picture the tree you’ve seen on TV (or in-person) at the Rockefeller Center in New York City. Now picture something larger. The Christmas tree in Strasbourg must be a minimum of 30 meters high (almost 100 feet) and is the largest decorated tree in Europe. As a reference, this year’s tree at the Rockefeller Center is barely 80 feet. So we are talking big.
As we approached the Christmas tree for a photo, the lights suddenly disappeared. A quiet but collective gasp across the Christmas market let out. Oh no, had someone pulled a plug? As everyone looked around, music started to play on the speakers. The lights on the Christmas tree began to spring back to life, dancing to the rhythm of the music. Ok, so this was planned. We watched the Christmas tree dazzle us with its color-changing lights for a few minutes before it returned to its static state.
After the light show, we slowly wandered through the multiple rows of stalls at the market. If there was ever a time to be successful in finding a Christmas ornament, it was here. There were stalls dedicated to Christmas ornaments of all shapes, colors, and sizes. Aside from Christmas ornaments, the shop owners filled their stalls with local chocolates, baked goods, candy, pottery, leather goods, and small toys. There was something for everyone at the markets. You could even buy your Christmas tree here!
We made our way to all the Christmas markets throughout the weekend. The adjoining streets connecting each market lit up in different themes enticing us to walk down each one. Each market had a unique personality: the oldest, the largest, the smallest, or the most unique. At one market, a local high school band played Christmas tunes to anyone who would stop to listen. We became familiar with what to expect at each market as many stalls were selling similar items. However, the Christmas magic never faded, even with the less than desirable weather.
It was a cold and rainy weekend, but not cold enough to snow. Had it snowed, it would have transformed this magical city into something straight out of a Hallmark movie. Instead, we braved the rain along with everyone else. And I mean everyone else.
During the one month the markets are open, the “Capital of Christmas” attracts up to two million visitors across the globe. Even in a pandemic. We often found ourselves shoulder to shoulder with strangers as we navigated between each market. We tried to pop into a few restaurants during an afternoon rainstorm to find relief from the weather. Unfortunately for us, many restaurants were full or only had outdoor seating. We finally found a small bar, hidden away from the hustle and bustle.
While warming up on the outside, I ordered the special Christmas tea to warm me up on the inside. When the waiter brought out the tea, he also brought out a couple of cookies. These cookies were soft and airy, with a touch of cinnamon spice and a light sugar glaze coating the top. They were next-level delicious. I spent the next hour thinking about those cookies, watching as the waiter retrieved them from a clear plastic container for other guests.
I couldn’t leave the bar without finding out what types of cookies they were. On our way out, I asked the bartender (maybe secretly hoping he would give me another one), and he told me they were pains d’épices. That translates to spiced bread, similar to a gingerbread flavor. We had tried pains d’épices before in Dijon, France, but hated it. It was a dry loaf and tasted like cardboard. These cookies, however, almost melted in our mouths.
We went back to the Christmas markets on the hunt to find a replica of these cookies. Surprisingly, we only found one stall across multiple markets that had them. Why did no one know how delicious these cookies were? They were so good; we bought two bags.
Our time in Strasbourg was coming to an end, but we couldn’t leave without buying a Christmas ornament. We made sure to examine all of the stalls to pick out our top choices. It was down to two options. First, an adorable little snowman that could have a custom phrase added to it, like “Noël à Strasbourg.” And second, a handmade ceramic ornament with the region’s symbol, a stork. With Jordan’s logic that the snowman would be written on with just a sharpie, we opted for the handmade ceramic ornament instead.
What better way to kick off the Christmas season than at the “Capital of Christmas” in Strasbourg? Hopefully, this will be the start of good tidings of great joy this Christmas.