How Strasbourg Became the Evergreen “Capital of Christmas”

It’s mid-morning on a Saturday in December and Strasbourg’s Rue des Orfèvres is crowded with festive customers. They wander past patisseries and jewelry stores, snap photos and soak up the festive atmosphere of this narrow street near the city’s majestic cathedral. Above our heads, the facades of old buildings are decorated with giant balls, large teddy bears and twinkling bows and, while a network of fairy lights can be seen winding among these arrangements, the lights are decidedly “extinct”.

Strasbourg, self-proclaimed “French capital of Christmas”, attracts 2.5 million visitors to its famous Christmas market. This year’s efforts to make Christmas more eco-friendly are in line with other city-wide initiatives, such as the 373 miles (600 km) of bike paths that have seen it crowned “the capital of France of the bike”. This means that these Christmas lights will not be on until sunset and will turn off at 11 p.m. (when they were on 24/7). Many have been replaced with more energy efficient LEDs and the city has been smart not to double down on hanging lights where businesses have their own light decorations.

Related: I took the train to Strasbourg, France – here is my guide to the city

As I bite into a traditional model, a figure of sweet dough sprinkled with chocolate chips made in honor of St. Nicholas, and around the corner to see the gigantic cathedral, my inner Grinch quickly evaporates, leaving my inner seven-year-old smiling with joy . The Christmas market here dates back to 1570 and it is magical to walk around.

There are festive markets in almost every square, and I head next to the Village du Partage on Place Kléber, dominated by a 30-meter Christmas tree (the tallest in France). The chalets here sell crafts, food and drink to benefit various local and national charities. In March 2022, French law banned outdoor heaters in public spaces, such as restaurant terraces, and that also means markets. As I buy a hot wine from a volunteer at the Secours Populaire Français chalet, I ask him how he manages the lack of heating this year.

The smell of mulled wine, hot cinnamon-infused apple juice and roasted chestnuts wafts between the chalets selling boules

“It’s not that bad; I can warm my hands at the ballot box,” he says. As we chat, he tells me that the €3 drink (plus €1 deposit for the cup) pays three meal and that the association supports 1,200 people every week. “The Village du Partage is the true spirit of Christmas”, he adds.

For those with more trading stalls, I expected the changes to be more reluctant, but when I later speak to Deputy Mayor Guillaume Libsig, he says, “Even the most conservative or nonconformist people realize now that they have to make those efforts. We need to operate in a more environmentally friendly way – we need to protect the changing seasons.

I return my cup to the Marché OFF on Place Grimmeissen, where they are testing a compostable cup as well as reusable plastic cups. Inside the pink-painted shipping containers are stalls selling eco-friendly products made by 30 ethical and sustainable artists and artisans. There is also a stage for music and a beer tent, where people laugh at the local specialty, tart soaringa thin pizza-like pie topped with fresh cream, onions and bacon bits.

We need to operate in a more environmentally friendly way – we need to protect the changing seasons

Deputy Mayor Guillaume Libsig

I find a vegan option on the tarte flambée menu at Mama Bubbele, but it may be a little early for veganism to catch on in this country of Baeckeoffe meat and pork stew sauerkraut. However, many local chefs have pledged to use very local suppliers, reducing food miles.

So, at Maison Kammerzell, the city’s most historic restaurant – built in the 15th century on the cathedral square – I enjoy a starter of snails from a farm 20 miles away while admiring its murals and windows sparkling circles. More tradition comes to winstub (wine bar) Chez Yvonne, where I sip organic wine to accompany a dish of Sauerkraut produced by a producer who has reduced his pollution by 60% by creating a new workshop; and at Marcus, a cozy dining cellar (wine bar serving food), I drink a glass of plain riesling with sausage and the chef’s wild boar mash.

Nearby, the Tandem Hotel is perhaps the greenest place to stay. Manager Carole Geneau tells me the breakfasts are all made with local produce, which means no orange juice (although they make an exception for coffee). There are, however, no coffee machines in the 70 rooms (only kettles and tea), nor minibars, and there is a water cooler for refilling glass water bottles. Single-use plastic is banned, while chemical-free cleaning is done with dry steam and black soap (natural black soap), and the restaurant’s Mediterranean-inspired menu is entirely locally sourced and meatless.

My own overnight abode, Okko Hotels, also has green credentials and is easily accessible from the train station by tram. I sleep soundly on the 100% natural Coco-Mat bedding set in an uncluttered bedroom, deliberately without a bathtub, to reduce water consumption.

Related: Holiday guide to Alsace, France including Strasbourg

As daylight fades on my last afternoon, I join the queue and sneak into the cathedral – its 142-meter 15th-century spire towers above – and gaze at the soaring arches , flickering candles and luminous tapestries. There is a huge nativity scene depicting Bethlehem 2,000 years ago. Who knows where we’ll be in 2,000 years, but it’s comforting to know that Strasbourg is taking steps to reduce its carbon footprint and make Christmas in the city (and, indeed, the whole year) a greener experience.

Carolyn Boyd was a guest of Strasbourg Tourisme and Okko Hotels, which offers double rooms only from 76 €.

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