While Germany’s small towns and cities have probably the best Christmas markets in the world, in neighboring France, there are also some great places to get a good dose of seasonal cheer. Paris is the most famous, with its red lights along the Champs Elysees. There’s also Lyon with its annual Festival of Lights, but there are some smaller towns that are simply magical in the holiday season, for so many reasons.
Here are some of my personal favorite places to visit before the holidays, soak up the atmosphere, eat and drink some typical foods, and simply meander and enjoy the festive surroundings.
1. Colmar, Alsace
You may have heard of Strasbourg, one of the most famous Christmas markets and locations in France. The entire city bursts into twinkling lights and cheery decorations, large and small markets are located at every corner, and the world descends upon the city in December. But head 45 miles south of Strasbourg, to the colorful town of Colmar, and you have a very similar Germanic-cum-French town. Colmar features half-timbered houses, cobbled streets, and quaint bridges over the River Lauch. You have plenty of cozy markets and pretty decorations as well. Colmar is busy but has fewer crowds than its famous neighbor.
Colmar has the picturesque Rue des Marchands and the Marché des Gourmands, where you can try typically French Christmas foods such as oysters and German specialties like sausages and sauerkraut. There is plenty of warm spiced wine and, just like its neighbor Germany, there are plenty of stalls with crafted ornaments and pretty souvenirs. The Colmar markets are open between December 23 and 29, 2023.
Need more charm? Head 9 miles outside of Colmar to cutesy Riquewihr, whose tiny town center looks like a seasonal greeting card.
2. Saint-Malo, Brittany
The old, walled town of Saint-Malo is a wonderful place where you feel like you’re stepping into a time capsule. The thick ramparts encircling the old town hug the buildings standing along higgledy-piggledy lanes criss-crossing the inner sanctuary. If you’ve read All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr, you might have already been captured by this magical place. Intra Muros — “inside the walls” — you are greeted by a large tree towering over the buildings and plenty of chalets that spill out into the external part of town.
In Saint-Malo, typical galettes and crepes are for sale, as are roasted chestnuts and the cheesy treat tartiflette — potatoes, bacon, and onions covered in hot, melted cheese. You can work off the calories on the ice rink outside the walled city after, or by walking along the ramparts, getting a birds-eye view across the festively lit town. The market in Saint-Malo is open throughout December 2023. Just across the estuary of the Rance River — in the Belle-Epoque coastal community of Dinard — you can get an additional seasonal fix with a Christmas village, stalls, and traditional stilt walkers.
3. Lille, Hauts-De-France
Just 10 miles from the Belgian border in northeastern France, Lille is a fabulous and yet often overlooked town to visit at any time of the year. But at Christmas, the especially large Place Rihour and the neighboring Grand Place get dressed up and offer a special seasonal atmosphere. Some 90-odd stalls and chalets fill the squares, a Ferris wheel allows you great views, and the smells across the old town are wonderful.
One of the largest Christmas markets in a relatively small city in France, Lille’s main market also stays open nearly the longest, between November 22 and December 31. While you are there, book yourself in for some art and culture at the truly unique La Piscine art space — a museum housed in a former Art-Deco swimming pool. You could even take a side trip to the Louvre in Lens — 24 miles south on the way to Paris — where you have the bigger sister of the Louvre Museum.
Whether you choose Brittany, or the towns closer to Germany and Belgium, these three choices of mine will offer you a unique and individual way of enjoying the holiday season in France. I have chosen them because each place offers a bit extra on top of historic attractions, architecture, and culture, art, or general sightseeing.