A Frugal Exploration of Christmas Markets Along the Rhine River

In Strasbourg, France, throughout the holiday season, Santa-capped teddy bears festoon a restaurant’s facade. Stuffed polar bears adorn another. In a Yuletide arms race, buildings are affixed with giant, gift-wrapped packages, glittering white deer and oversize gingerbread men. Turning the central medieval quarter into a Christmas maze, curtains of lights glow above cobblestone lanes lined with food and gift stalls. And in the central Place Kléber, lights on a nearly 100-foot-tall Christmas tree flash and glow, synchronized to carols.

Across Europe, Christmas markets pop up like fairy-dusted street fairs, with temporary chalet-style shops selling everything from handmade ceramics to warmed wine and abundant food. Visitors shuffle among the merry warrens, holding their cellphone cameras high.

“The closer you get to Christmas, Strasbourg really becomes like Times Square,” said Jonathan Frank, a former Broadway videographer who retired to the city two years ago.

A popular way to visit the markets in France, Germany, Switzerland and beyond is to take river cruises on the Rhine, Danube or Main, spending roughly $2,000 to $4,000 a week. Could I replicate such a holiday pilgrimage for less by using trains to get around?

Along the Rhine, through the Alsace region of northeastern France, trains run continuously between Strasbourg in the north and Basel, Switzerland, in the south, allowing access to market cities and towns en route. To test my budget and my tolerance for seasonal cheer, I spent about $300 on trains, splitting six nights between lively Strasbourg and popular Colmar at Airbnbs that averaged $180 a night. In exchange for convenience, I hoped to gain priceless control over when and where to wander.

“If you stay a week in Strasbourg, you will gain three kilos,” said Pierre Feisthauer, a tour guide who runs Discover Strasbourg, during a two-hour market tour that I booked through Airbnb Experiences (about $26).

The tour on my first evening offered a practical lay of the land in the old town on an island in the River Ill, a Rhine tributary where, by Mr. Feisthauer’s count, more than a dozen markets cluster in plazas and pedestrian lanes, drawing two to three million visitors throughout the season.

He also demystified the food, led by tarte flambée — a thin Alsatian pizza topped with cream sauce, chunks of smoky slab bacon and onions — and followed by sausages, spaetzle, potato pancakes and soft pretzels, served salted, sugared or cheese-covered (most dishes cost between 2 and 12 euros, or roughly $2 to $13). Dessert stalls sold gingerbread loaves, nougat too pretty to eat and cookies by the kilo.

White or red vin chaud, or mulled wine (about 3 to 6 euros), accompanied it all. The white version with citrus and cinnamon notes was welcome when hot, but cooled to cloyingly sweet.

Lodged in a half-timbered house dating to around 1600, the Alsatian Museum (7.50 euros) provided more context on the seasonal festivities founded in 1570, after the city embraced the Protestant Reformation. Toys, gingerbread and roasted chestnuts remain from the original fairs, rooted in Germanic traditions, but the museum attributed the modern image of Père Noël, or Santa Claus, to Coca-Cola ads in 1931.

By day, before darkness cued the elaborate light displays, which included horn-blowing angels framing the view of the cathedral spire, it was easier to shop. Food, including a stollen-baking demonstration and 12-euro foie gras sandwiches, distinguished the riverside market Quai des Délices. Stalls mixing traditional casserole pottery, porcelain votives, snow globes and cookie molds were bunched around Notre-Dame Cathedral. Original art and upcycled gifts, such as aprons made from used denim, set the eco-conscious Marché Off apart.

“I love Christmas and it’s interesting to see how people do things differently,” beamed Denise Jimenez, who was visiting from Los Angeles. “It’s just super, super beautiful.”

An 80-minute train ride from Strasbourg, Basel introduced me to the fondue dog: a half-baguette drilled with a well in the center filled with molten cheese and a frankfurter (10 Swiss francs, or $11.50).

Swiss innovation — including Toblerone-stuffed doughnuts — met classics like raclette at Basel’s pair of markets on the central Barfüsserplatz and Münsterplatz squares. In Münsterplatz, I lunched on fondue (26.50 francs) at the stylish pop-up restaurant Wacker Fonduestübli, with sheepskin-covered stools and chandeliers made of deer antlers.

A terminus for many Rhine River cruises, Basel gets its share of holiday tourists. But its markets felt less commercial, including a Christmas tree-filled Fairy Tale Forest, with crafts like gingerbread decorating (7 francs), and a children’s train (3 francs).

Stalls offered a mix of costume jewelry, beeswax candles, wood carvings, tabletop Christmas villages and paper lanterns. At the Glas-Hüttli Riehen, I watched a glassblower make clear bulbs with opaque polka dots (5 francs each).

To reach Adväntsgass, a street festival of stands from nearly 30 restaurants, I crossed the swift Rhine on an old-fashioned skiff tethered to a river-spanning cable and propelled by the current (1 franc).

Throughout town, a series of 18 free Magical Courtyards trimmed for the season guided me to hidden respites.

One of these was in a courtyard beside the Johann Wanner Christmas House, said to be the largest purveyor of handblown and hand-painted decorations. I had long felt that trimming a tree was a duty, but after surveying the shop’s extraordinary range of ornaments in the shapes of birds, ice cream sundaes, musical instruments and, my favorites, mushrooms, I realized it could be a joyful craft.

Because there are only so many hours you can devote to eating carbs, sipping warm wine and browsing booths, I began to appreciate market towns for their unrelated diversions. Few were as rich as Colmar.

About 45 miles south of Strasbourg, Colmar is a popular day-trip destination with six official markets squeezed into a well-preserved city center you could walk across in less than 15 minutes. But leave a trail of pretzel crumbs in the labyrinth — I stayed there three nights and failed to find my favorite craft beer stand twice.

Easy to locate beside a giant Ferris wheel, Colmar’s Gourmet Market assembled nine food stalls bracketing high-top tables under a spacious tent. It was a rare place to have a deluxe meal — albeit standing up — with choices like oysters (six for 14 euros), charcuterie (10 euros), risotto with truffles (12.50 euros) and Bouchée à la Reine (14 euros), a puffed pastry filled with creamy chicken and veal.

Between forays to chalets selling three-dimensional wooden puzzles, handmade animal puppets, pine cone wreaths, cured sausages and the region’s renowned Munster cheese, I took timeouts at Colmar’s many museums, including the Bartholdi Museum (5 euros), devoted to native son Frédéric-Auguste Bartholdi, the sculptor of the Statue of Liberty.

One rainy afternoon, waiting for the magic hour when the lights would transform the city from dreary to Disney, I ducked into the Dominican Library (free). Its artifacts, which explore printing in the Rhine region, include a 15th-century encyclopedia elaborately illustrated with woodcuts, 16th-century maps and books of Gregorian chant in a separate vaulted room with a sound track of the music. The tour ended in a cloister dating to 1300, only steps from the crowds, but far from the frenzy.

Over a few weekends in the heart of the market season, the Navettes de Noël or Christmas buses (15 euros) ply a course from Colmar to a series of villages on the Alsace Wine Route.

Among the vineyards surrounding medieval Riquewihr, tour buses created canyons of the main roads. Dropped beside the town walls, I fortified myself with poêlee compagnarde (8 euros) — a hearty dish of sausage, onions, potatoes and bacon — and joined the masses moving in wonder along cobblestone lanes to a 13th-century defensive tower trimmed in stuffed hearts.

At the next stop, Kaysersberg, I met Lisa Muller, a ceramic artist based near Strasbourg, who sold delicate glazed bowls, dishes and cups in earthy glazes.

Local trains also reach some of the more remote Christmas-circuit towns. When my train to Obernai was canceled at an intermediate station in Sélestat, I discovered its festival over the 50-minute delay, time to have a 1.50-euro pretzel and learn that the oldest written record of the Christmas tree was in Sélestat in 1521.

Between the delay and the delight of learning such holiday trivia, I reached peak slow-walking, wine-sipping spirit in tiny, tranquil Obernai, purveyor of the trip’s best vin chaud, a fragrant white laced with spices and served beside a landmark bell tower.

Too much of picture-perfect Alsace is like vin chaud gone cold. For a refreshing dose of modernity, I headed roughly 25 miles south of Colmar to Mulhouse, once an independent country that prospered in textile printing in the 16th-century. In homage to its past, the town selects a new pattern each year as its Christmas print, found in its markets as tablecloths and stretched onto lanterns.

I gleaned the city’s fascinating history — which involved seeing sections of the former republic’s walls and early fabric workshops — from Rémy Specker, a native of Mulhouse who works in the chemical industry and volunteers his time as a Mulhouse Greeter guiding free tours.

By the end of our two-hour walk, Mulhouse’s markets were open and feeding locals Angus burgers and raclette sandwiches. I met a painter who decorates wooden ornaments for 10 months of the year to supply her stand, and another whose printed tablecloths seemed to connect back to city history.

I bought from both booths, which is where a Christmas market story jumps the frugal train tracks. From my treasured haul of about $250 in art prints, ceramics, ornaments and gifts, let it be known that Christmas markets are Whovilles on steroids.

Most of the markets featured here run until Dec. 24. Colmar’s ends Dec. 29 and Obernai’s Dec. 31.

It’s not too early to plan for next year, especially when it comes to accommodations. (The markets normally open in late November.)

I bought the 10-day Eurail train pass for $305, used it for six days, slightly beating à la carte pricing. Some French trains, including the high-speed TGV service from Paris-Charles de Gaulle airport to Strasbourg, require an additional seat reservation (12 euros).

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