The Best Things to do In and Around Baden-Baden during Christmas Time
After deciding to use Baden-Baden as our base during part of our all-girls trip around Luxembourg, the Alsace region of France and the Black Forest region of Germany, I was told by a German resident that “there’s Germany and then there’s Baden-Baden” presumably referring to the fact that the town is best known for its high-end casinos and and luxury homes rather than for a typical German lifestyle. What are the interesting things to do in Baden-Baden?
The spa town of Baden-Baden is an excellent base from which to explore the beauty of the surrounding regions. Located at the foot of the Black Forest in the southwestern part of Germany, the town is usually associated with resorts promoting well-being and luxury, but there’s really no need to break the bank since it is very possible to visit the area on a budget just like we did.
We rented a very well-priced apartment for six people just five minutes walk from the town centre. With three double bedrooms, a large common area and strong wifi, it was perfect for six girls on the go. We initially thought that having to share one bathroom between the six of us might pose a problem but we managed to work around our beauty schedules accordingly! The kitchen was extremely well-equipped and although we only made breakfast in the apartment, it would have been very easy to cook and prepare other meals too.
Home to the most beautiful casino in the world (according to Marlene Dietrich), Baden-Baden is a pretty little town with parks, gardens and chic hotels.
We spent our first evening in the old part of town strolling around the quiet roads lined with expensive boutiques until the smell of glühwein and freshly-baked gingerbread led us straight to the traditional Christmas market set up right in front of the Kurhaus. Baden-Baden Christmas market is a pretty wonderland of little stands selling local wintery dishes, mulled wine, freshly baked cakes and cookies, cheeses, meats and christmasy gifts and toys all intended to warm up your heart and belly. If you’re travelling in Baden-Baden during this time of year on a relatively tight budget, but you still wish to sample local fare, the Christmas market is the place to do so! Currywurst, bratwurst, glühwein, spaetzle, flame-grilled salmon, tartiflette and tarte flambée: the choice is wide and the portions generous. A plate of tartiflette and a mug of steaming glühwein will set you back about €10 whilst a large portion of tarte flambée cost €8 which we thought is pretty decent when considering the local prices!
The ancient Roman Bath Ruins below Römerplatz are also worth a visit especially if you’re interested in archeology (and even if you’re not). The audio tour (available in several languages) also directs you to a computer animation of the original baths showing how the thermal spring water was collected, heated and distributed by the Romans in Baden-Baden 2000 years ago.
As one would expect, there are several spas and spa hotels where you can spend long hours enjoying steam rooms, massages and saunas. Note that many of the areas are for nude bathing only so check spa procedures carefully if you have a problem with this.
Additionally if the weather is good and you feel the need for some fresh air, the area is home to several walking paths leading to some panoramic views over the town.
Day Trips from Baden-Baden
The Alsace region of France – Strasbourg & Colmar
The Alsace region in northeastern part of France is less than an hour’s drive away from Baden-Baden and makes for a great day trip. Actually, you could spend days exploring the wine region renowned for its Riesling, moving slowly from village to village, but a day trip to the city of Strasbourg and the smaller town of Colmar was all we had time for on this trip.
We started off by driving to pretty Colmar and were lucky enough to find a parking space in an underground garage close to its charming old town. It was the first Saturday that the Christmas market was open and the streets were packed with people enjoying the merriment and festivities. Armed with large cups of vin chaud and bags of chocolate-coated gingerbread and pretzels, we made our way around the little stalls, stopping occasionally to buy little Christmas decorations or more chocolate and wine (the main fuel supplies on our girls trips).
Most of Colmar’s old town buildings, with their beautifully decorated wooden balconies, are gorgeous, giving you the feeling of having stepped right back into the middle ages. My personal favourites were the Maison des Tetes (an old wooden house with many faces) and the Maison Pfister (a 16th century building with an elaborate facade and wall paintings). The old town area is very well sign posted thus making its main attractions easy to locate, although, in spite of this we still managed to get wonderfully lost at one point. A short walk led us to La Petite Venise, a riverside area lined with quaint medieval houses and little cafes. Previously a wine-makers’ & boatmen’s district, the picturesque area is actually nothing like Venice (except for having a river running through it) but its cobbled streets and half-timbered houses are packed with character making this district, in my opinion, the most charming area in all of Colmar.
We were pretty excited about visiting Strasbourg’s Christmas market having purposely planned on spending the afternoon and evening there. We were running rather late so we tried parking the car in the underground garage closest to the city centre. But to our dismay, our 9-seater Ford Torneo rental (an “upgrade” from the 7-seater we had originally booked) was too high for that underground parking garage….. and for every other parking garage we tried driving it to. Our only option was to look for parking spot outside which on a Saturday afternoon was almost impossible to come by. Finally, after about an hour of going round in circles (during which I almost fell asleep seeing that I had avoided driving duties), we parked a 15-minute walk away from Petite France, a pretty, picturesque district in the old part of Strasbourg.
Just like Petite Venise in Colmar, the Petite France area is characterised by half-timbered houses built on a river bank and was previously home to millers, tanners and fishermen. The district is bordered by the Covered Bridges (Ponts Couverts), a group of three bridges overlooked by four 14th century towers, remains of ancient defence walls which guarded the city. After having explored the area, we headed out to marvel at the renowned Notre-Dame de Strasbourg Cathedral, a large, impressive gothic cathedral built between the 12th and 15th centuries, and then finally set out to explore the famous Christmas market set around the cathedral. To our great surprise and disappointment, the market, supposedly one of the best in Europe, lacked the atmosphere and character we experienced at the smaller markets. The items on sale seemed to be mass-produced imports and to top it all, very little traditional food seemed to be available although we did later find a stall dishing out large portions of spaetzle with cheese and onions and munstertiflette.
The Black Forest
Baden-Baden is located right at the edge of the Black forest, so an infinite number of different days trips around the mountain range are possible. We chose include Freiburg and Titisee on our day trip and planned a driving route around the area, however you could easily spend a few days driving around different parts of the Black Forest if you are not pressed for time.
Freiburg im Breisgau otherwise know as the Jewel of the black Forest is a relatively large city (when compared to the smaller villages in the region), home to the Freiburg Minster Cathedral, one of the most beautiful in Europe. Located within the inner city, you need to walk along some canal-lined streets to arrive to the cathedral. The canals were designed so as to protect the city in case of a fire.
Perhaps it was the dismal, foggy rainy weather or perhaps I woke up on the wrong side of the bed, but I was completely unimpressed with anything Freiburg had to offer and was more concerned with getting a pot of coffee and a slice of Black Forest cake at whichever cafe could fit us in, than I was with looking around the city. That is until I noticed the cathedral’s gargoyles and amused myself with taking shots of the medieval waterspouts.
Not that the city and its squares are not beautiful, but I totally failed to catch any sort of vibe which is usually important in helping me adjust to my surroundings. Naturally we also included Freiburg’s Christmas market located in Rathausplatz on our itinerary. This market was dominated by booths selling traditional Black Forest crafts, Schokokuss (chocolate covered egg white foam) of different flavours, and of course stalls selling the ever-present German sausage which provided us with a very affordable lunch of bratwurst in a bun.
Lake Titisee is a beautiful natural lake surrounded by the Black Forest mountains with plenty of walking trails and outdoor activities to keep you busy in the summer. Although such activities were impossible during our visit on a cold wintery day, the quasi-frozen lake was peaceful and characterised by an aura of stillness and darkness that emitted a different kind of beauty. The town around the lake is very touristic being full of cafes and shops selling all kinds of souvenirs and cuckoo clocks, but we avoided all that and headed straight over to a little Christmas market selling hot glühwein and a curious fried dough pastry topped with powdered sugar which we later found out is called strieble (yes more food – we figured that most of the calories were being used to protect us against the cold winds anyway).
Driving back to Baden-Baden along the winding Black Forest roads proved to be quite spectacular. The forested areas gave way to rolling hills dotted with little farmhouses and cows which seemed oblivious of the freezing temperatures outside. We also passed through the picturesque town of Triberg but sadly had no time to stop and walk around since there was some stuff we needed to conclude in Baden-Baden that day – it definitely ranks high on the itinerary for my next visit though!
There are several other towns around the Baden-Baden area which are worth a visit; Metz is a two-hour drive away and was included on our itinerary mostly as a stop on our way from Luxembourg. But it turned out to be more than that and with its gorgeous cathedral and imposing architecture, the city has a lot going for it.
First up on our itinerary was the Porte des Allemands (German door) named after hospitaller brothers of Notre Dame des Allemands; a great example of a medieval fortified city gate with a bridge over the river Seille. Although the fort interior was closed when we visited, we could still walk through the gate and admire the architecture for free. Definitely worth visiting if you’re in the city!
Metz’s Cathedrale St-Etienne in place d’Armes is a magnificent gothic church filled with stained glass windows which are truly breathtaking. My favourite part of the city however was that around the Temple Neuf, a protestant church with a very picturesque setting overlooking the river next to which is a pretty little garden. Metz is quite a walkable city and whether you are driving your own car or arriving my train, it is very easy to plan out a walking tour around the main attractions.
Our Top Picks
Christmas market – after having visited seven Christmas markets during the trip, we all agreed that Baden-Baden Christmas market, with its atmospheric location and wide choice of local crafts and traditional food, was our absolute favourite.
Restaurant – Rizzi Wine Bistro and Restaurant. This was actually the only restaurant we tried in Baden-Baden, so I cannot claim that it was our favourite with respect to other places, however I feel that it deserves a special mention because of the high quality food and impeccable service provided. The prices are average for a mid-range restaurant in the area and although I cannot state that it is budget-friendly, I would definitely recommend dining here if you are looking for a great restaurant meal.
Best local food – my personal favourites were the tartiflette and tarte flambée. Tarte flambée is an Alsacian speciality made of a thin pizza-like dough covered in crème fraîche, onions and bacon or mushrooms and is widely available throughout the region. Tartiflette is hearty dish made of potatoes, cheese, onions and bacon – this was available at some of the Christmas markets and although very heavy, it was the perfect antidote to the bitter winter cold.
Best scenic drive – the winding roads through the Black Forest offers spectacular views of rural life, mountains and farmhouses giving rise to endless photo opportunities.