Rothenburg ob der Tauber is a city that looks straight out of a fairytale. It’s a medieval wonderland of half-timbered houses and cobblestone streets, waiting for you to explore. Is it touristy? Well, yes, but there are lots of reasons to love visiting Germany’s best preserved town.
Rothenburg is a small town by modern standards, but it was a major city once upon a time. The city grew rich on trade during the Middle Ages, and the king granted Rothenburg the status of “free imperial city” in 1274. The independent city prospered for a long time, but their luck ran out in the 1600s, when the Thirty Years’ War and the plague both devastated the city. Rothenburg never recovered. That is why 200 years later, tourists found the old town looking much the same.
Today, the city is a popular stop along the “Romantic Road.” It’s officially called Rothenburg ob der Tauber (English: Rothenburg on the Tauber) because there are other cities named “Rothenburg” elsewhere in Germany. So, why should you visit this Rothenburg? I’ll explain.
1. The Night Watchman’s tour
The biggest draw of Rothenburg is the city itself, and the most fun way to see it is with the Night Watchman’s tour. Legendary guide Hans-Georg Baumgartner dons his black cloak every night to make the rounds with his walking tour group. Halberd in hand, he shows visitors important places around town and tells tales of life in the Middle Ages with wit and humor.
I admit, I felt starstruck meeting this guy. I’ve been wanting to take his tour ever since seeing him on Rick Steves’ show years ago. The tour was everything I hoped for, a perfect introduction to Rothenburg.
The tour starts at 8 pm at the Market Square.
At the center of town is the Marktplatz (Market Square), a picture-perfect square surrounded by some of the town’s most glorious buildings. Along one side is the Rathaus (City Hall), with an arched, Renaissance-era facade and a tall tower. You can climb the tower for a view of the whole city.
At the northern end of the square there’s a glockenspiel that commemorates the city’s favorite myth: the Meistertrunk. According to legend, Rothenburg was beset by invaders who joked that they would spare the city if anyone could drink a huge tankard of wine in one go. The mayor stepped up to the challenge, and with one “master draught,” he saved the city.
The Marktplatz is also home to the iconic Georgsbrunnen fountain and a collection of cafes where you can watch people traversing the busy square.
3. Church of St. James (St. Jakobskirche)
Rothenburg’s main church is an artistic treat. The church was constructed with Gothic flair, but things were toned down a bit after the town switched from Catholic to Protestant. The result is an elegant interior punctuated with stained glass windows and a few gorgeous altarpieces. It’s my favorite church out of a dozen or so I saw in Germany!
The artistic highlight is the Altar of the Holy Blood, an intricately carved wooden altar. Lifelike figures surrounded by swirling floral patterns look like they might have been carved by the elves of Middle Earth. Except that they’re Bible scenes, of course. The altar sits in its own special chapel at the back of the church.
4. Medieval Crime Museum
You might think it’s a tourist trap, but this museum will amaze you with its comprehensive collection of torture devices and implements of punishment. Want to see how a torture rack worked? They have a few models you can compare. The descriptions of criminal justice are quite thorough, evoking a time when shame and misery were inflicted to deter would-be lawbreakers. The displays are supported with law documents from throughout history, many with descriptions in English. See how learning about torture can be fun for the whole family! (Ok, maybe not young children.)
5. The city walls
Though many cities across Europe once had defensive walls, few survive today. Rothenburg has some of the best, with nearly 3 miles of stone walls connecting 6 gates into the city and dozens of towers. The city feels like one giant castle, with most of the old ramparts open for you to explore. Along the way, you’ll have excellent views of the city for photography and Instagramming. There are lots of stairways, so it’s easy to walk for a bit and return to the street level when you’re ready.
6. Franconian wine
Rothenburg is politically part of Bavaria, but it’s also part of the region of Franconia (Franken). Franconia has a rich history of making wine, and the Tauber River valley is home to some excellent ones. Fans of riesling will not be disappointed, but keep an eye out for local varietals like Silvaner and Kerner. You can find good local wine in most of the restaurants and taverns. For a perfectly cozy ambiance and a long wine list, check out the Altfränkische Weinstube.
7. German cuisine
If you’re more of a beer person, Rothenburg has that too, plus all the delicious Bavarian/Franconian food to go with it. Wurst, schnitzel, spaetzle—you’ll find lots of tasty and hearty dishes. The upside of heavy tourism is that there are plenty of restaurants in a small area. I loved the food at Alter Keller, a short walk from the Marktplatz. But there are many places with good food, cozy interiors, and lovely terraces.
8. Unique shopping
I’m not much of a shopper, but the unique shops in Rothenburg are hard for a curious tourist to resist. My favorite shop is Waffenkammer Rothenburg (Rothenburg Armoy), a shop specializing in medieval weapons, clothing, and decor. If you’re in the market for a longsword, look no further. They have fun displays of armored knights in the store and plenty of luggage-friendly souvenirs for medieval enthusiasts too.
Rothenburg’s most famous shop is Käthe Wohlfahrt Weihnachtsdorf (Christmas Village), the flagship store of a worldwide German Christmas decor operation. Behind its twinkling facade, you’ll find a vast stockpile of ornaments and a terrifying array of Christmas collectibles that would impress Santa’s own elves. If you’re into Christmas, you’ll love it. If not, this commercial winter wonderland is worth a quick stop just for the novelty.
Rivaling the Christmas Village for novelty is Teddyland, Germany’s largest teddy bear shop. There you’ll see teddy bears of every shape and size, including specialty bears dressed up as famous figures like J.S. Bach, Pope Francis, and Rothenburg’s famous Night Watchman. The namesake bears are accompanied by a range of other plush stuffed animals.
9. Ye olde inns
For the full time-warp effect, you really need to spend the night in Rothenburg. The crowds die down, light dims on the buildings, and eventually you retreat to a comfy room amid historic surroundings. There are traditional places with a tavern downstairs and rooms upstairs, or you can opt for a room in an old guesthouse. Of course, some places are modern on the inside, if that’s more your style. Rothenburg excels at hospitality.
10. Tauber Valley countryside
Rothenburg sits along a beautiful river valley, perfect for exploring on foot or by bike. I only had a short time in the city, so I missed out on this. But you can bet I’ll be riding through the countryside on my next visit.
For a simple hike, you can start at the Burggarten (Castle Garden) and follow the trail down into the valley. Enjoy the wonderful views from the garden, then look for a path leading down next to the Blasiuskapelle (Blasius Chapel). On a bike, you can follow the Tauber Valley bike trail north or south. More information here: https://www.rothenburg-tourismus.de/en/plan-book/top10-activities/biking/
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