Nativity scenes, midnight mass, Yule logs, hot-spiced wine, Alsace-inspired marchés de Noël...
Christmas in France is a magical time when holiday spirit mixes with age-old traditions. Though you might not think of celebrating the season away from home, here are ten excellent reasons why you should.
Strasbourg’s Christmas Market
At Christmastime, Alsace-Lorraine is where it’s at, and it’s capital city Strasbourg is the region’s—and Europe’s—top destination de Noël. Its half-timbered buildings, giant Christmas tree (at Place Kléber) and 300 glittering Christmas chalets make an eye-catching setting for a citywide Marché de Noël.
Dating back to 1570, this Christmas market is as authentic as they come. Here you’ll taste the region’s age-old specialties—hot spiced white wine, foie gras, bretzels, and bredele pastries made with cinnamon-perfumed almonds. You can shop for everything from toasty shearling slippers to hand-blown ornaments. On Saturdays and Sundays, carolers sing the old Alsatian songs and the atmosphere around La Petite France’s cafés and canals is magic.
There are 10 distinct markets in the area, including Strasbourg’s eco-friendly OFF Market is a contemporary mix of organic fare, original artworks, vintage furniture, and fashions by local designers.
INSIDER TIPThis is the perfect time of year to see Strasbourg’s magnificent Cathédrale Notre Dame—and there’s no better view of the city decked out in Christmas lights than from the Gothic wonder’s 200-ft-high viewing platform.
Nancy’s Saint Nicolas Celebrations
The first weekend of December is when Nancy goes wild. More than 100,000 visitors from all around Europe descend on this Alsace-Lorraine holiday hot spot for a weekend-long party featuring parades, ceremonies, and processions to commemorate Saint Nicholas, patron Saint of Lorraine.
For the rest of the month, Nancy’s historic Place Stanislas, a UNESCO World Heritage site, is the backdrop for Villages Saint-Nicolas’ enchanting holiday market, with dozens of Christmas chalets.
INSIDER TIPDon’t miss the superb Musée des Beaux-Arts, home to a world-class collection of paintings, sculpture, and decorative arts or the rest of Nancy’s famous arts scene, excellent cafés and restaurants.
Colmar’s Storybook Christmas
It’s no surprise that Colmar came in second in the 2017 Best Christmas Market in Europe competition. The sorbet-hued half-timbered buildings of Colmar’s Old Town are right out of a storybook. Under cascading lights, charming Little Venice’s cobbled streets and canals are transformed into a children’s fairyland with a chalet farm and petting zoo, merry-go-round, and postbox for letters to Père Noël.
At Colmar’s Place des Dominicains, 60 chalets feature handmade decorations. The Place Jeanne d’Arc recreates a traditional Alsatian village. At Place de L’Ancienne, you’ll find 50 more indoor stalls at, as well as crafts and antiques.
INSIDER TIPCheck out the Musée Unterlinden which houses the pilgrimage-worthy Isenheim Altarpiece—Renaissance painter Matthias Grünewald’s eye-popping masterpiece, and Lucas Cranach’s glorious Melancholy.
Mulhouse’s Colorful Celebration
Each year, Alsace’s historic textile center creates a new fabric to drape in festive swags around the city to herald the Christmas celebrations which begin at advent and last through December. Festivities include concerts, caroling, storytelling for kids, guided tours, and exhibitions. The highlight of it all is the Christmas market, held in the Renaissance-era Place de la Réunion—in front of the city’s hot pink 15th-century Town Hall and historic Saint-Etienne church. There you can explore the more than 100 chalets packed with crafts, regional foods, and colorful samples of Mulhouse’s finest fabrics, then take a ride on the Big Wheel for stellar views of the city.
INSIDER TIPGet yourself a greeter. They’re not exactly guides, but local volunteers who are passionate about the city. Visitors can even choose their own greeter according to their interests for a tailor-made tour of the city.
Honfleur: Charming and Chill
This medieval maritime village’s half-timbered fisherman’s houses and narrow cobbled streets set the tone for charming Christmas festivities without the crowds. The stands at Honfleur‘s Marché de Noël, set right on Normandy’s most picturesque port, feature the region’s best goods: hand-crafted pear and apple eau de vie, cider, calvados brandy, homemade preserves, and handmade gifts. Fifteenth-century Sainte Catherine church, all in wood, is the setting for the city’s popular Christmas concert featuring Choir Erik Satie. At the special Christmas show for kids (free admission) everyone gets a Christmas surprise.
Shop Among the Lights of Lille
One of France’s chicest destinations, Lille is loaded with exciting places to shop, dine, and explore. At Christmastime, this lively Eastern city—the French capital of lace making—glimmers with lights. Lille’s old town is a Christmas wonderland, with 90 chalets on the Place Rihour featuring nativity figurines and other handmade arts and crafts. Sample the local delicacies—hot mulled wine, gingerbread, waffles, and traditional candies—and attend a live Christmas concert. Then take in the views of Lille’s prettiest square from the giant Ferris wheel.
INSIDER TIPTry to make it to Méert, the city’s oldest confiserie (1761) and purveyor of the classic gaufres—tender, melt-in-your-mouth waffles filled with delicate bourbon vanilla cream (and other flavors). All spruced up for Noël, this is the place to go for teatime in the city.
Choose Your Own Adventure in Paris
Home to a veritable Christmas feast, Paris boasts the country’s most extensive and far-flung menu of delights. Christmas villages abound. The biggest is under the canopy of Les Halles, at the cobbled foot of the church of Saint-Germain, facing Notre Dame Cathedral. This super-hip marché at La REcyclerie features vegan treats and ethical gifts.
Every neighborhood in Paris competes for the most dazzling Christmas lights, and the department store windows delight young and old (this year, Le Bon Marché‘s clever dance-themed windows are the best).
Between mid-December and the beginning of January, majestic Grand Palais becomes the world’s most elegant indoor skating rink, and from 5 pm until midnight the banks of the Seine, between the Pont Notre-Dame and the Pont-au-Change, light up with giant Christmas-themed images.
INSIDER TIPIf you’re looking for more to do, try a festive Christmas Eve dinner cruise or Christmas Day lunch boat ride on the Seine. Midnight mass at Notre Dame is a stately, if crowded, affair.
See Santa in Person in Nice
Christmas on the Côte d’Azur is a glorious affair. There’s nothing quite like winter in Nice, under the city’s famously limpid light. In the heart of old Nice, the Christmas Village features 60 chalets, a skating rink, artisan crafts like handmade Provencal santons (nativity figurines) and a tasting area where you can sample the 13 traditional Christmas desserts of Provence.
At the La Maison de Père Noël, kids can share their deepest wishes for Santa in person. From the top of its big Ferris wheel, you’ll see the city and the glittering bay beyond.
INSIDER TIPTake a walk down the Promenade du Paillon. It’s beautiful when it’s decked out for Noël.
Have a Whimsical Christmas in Toulouse
The fifth edition of Noël Enchanté, a Christmas market held around Toulouse‘s Square du Général-de-Gaulle, features a festive array of events for kids and adults. Here you’ll find a “forest of wishes,” Santa Claus in the Land of Gluttons, the Fairies Court, Christmas tales told by marionettes and Gourmet Gardens full of Christmas delicacies and treats. The party continues at the grand Marché de Noël, with 117 chalets, offering a huge range of gifts and regional specialties, and the Marché de Noêl Artisanale et Solidaire, whose 41 chalets feature eco-friendly gifts, fashions by local designers, and crafts and artworks.
INSIDER TIPSaint-Sernin Basilica’s magnificent interiors, gorgeous frescoes, Gothic windows, and famous relic from Christ’s crown of thorns make it the city’s most popular site, especially at Christmastime.
Try Something Different in Bordeaux
Smack in the heart of this elegant city, the 25th edition of Bordeaux‘s marché de Noël features 150 chalets brimming with Christmas treasure. Look for the city’s poignant nativity scene, two festive carousels, and Père Noël, on hand for photos and wishes. Kids can have their holiday face paint done by Les Clowns Stéthoscopes, to benefit hospital-bound children.
For a more contemporary vibe, Le Super Marché de Noël is held onboard a ferry boat and features the wares of 50 young designers. You’ll find everything from jewelry to textiles to leather goods plus food trucks, photos with Père Noël, and plenty of Christmas cheer (including a scrumptious Bordeaux version of vin chaud). Or head to the “alternative” market at the superhip Ecosystème Darwin, Bordeaux’s coolest contemporary arts space, with gifts by local artists and designers.
INSIDER TIPSee the Christmas lights reflected on Bordeaux’s breathtaking Miroir d’Eau, opposite the Palais de la Bourse. Or grab a vin chaud at La Cité du Vin and discover the universe of wine.