For better or worse, we all have certain ideas of what to expect when visiting Germany. Most of those ideas actually revolve around Bavaria and the state’s particular traditions, and most are actually fairly hard to find in real life. There are several towns though that encapsulate all of the German stereotypes we love, and I mean that in the best possible way. Rothenburg ob der Tauber, or Rothenburg as I’ll call it from now on, is one such town and thanks to a variety of lucky twists of historical fate, presents to the modern tourist a look back in time at the color and beauty of medieval Germany.
Rothenburg started out life more than a thousand years ago and quickly grew into a wealthy and prosperous community. Several trading routes intersected near the town, and the influx of travelers was a constant boon to the local economy, pretty much just as it is today. After the Thirty Years’ War in the 17th century though, the town’s luck changed and it fell on hard times, no longer of any interest to anyone it seemed. This poverty is one of those historical twists of fate that helped preserve it for us to enjoy today. At the time, the residents of Rothenburg were too poor to build new houses or to remodel, left to linger in severely out of date medieval half-timbered buildings while the rest of Europe enjoyed the glitz and glamour of the Renaissance and later the Enlightenment. By the 19th century it became clear that these centuries-old structures were special – a historical rarity in Germany. Early tourists included Rothenburg as must-see stops on their grand tours and the city once again had life breathed into it. Then came the Second World War.
All around Germany, cities were razed to the ground and many of those old historical buildings were lost. Initially Rothenburg too looked like it would lose that heritage, suffering bombings that destroyed a third of the old town. But then a deal was struck, an American commander whose mother had once visited Rothenburg as a tourist gave the German military a choice, one that was accepted. Truce accepted, the town was spared and that alone preserved for us the town that is visited by millions of people every year.
Walking into town it all seemed a little too unbelievable. It all looked too good, too colorful and too much like a scene out of a Disney movie. But that’s why so many people visit, to wander these streets and to admire not just the distinctive architecture, but to discover what life was like hundreds of years ago and to learn more about the fascinating history of the region. The best place for me to start was at the top of the City Hall tower. It takes 241 steps to reach the summit of the 165-foot 13th century tower in the middle of town, but the views are well worth climbing those steep stairs. Bird’s eye view doesn’t do it justice, I felt like I was in a glider soaring high above the town. It’s the perfect vantage point to not just see and enjoy the city views, but to see the nearby countryside and understand the placement of the city walls, gates and towers. But it’s just the beginning.
I love quirky and odd museums and Rothenburg has them in droves. The first one I noticed was the Christmas Museum, a small place dedicated to German holiday traditions and which is located in the middle of one of the largest Christmas stores I’ve ever been to. If you want anything, and I mean anything, Christmas related, then this is the place for you. Like so many European towns, there’s also a Medieval Torture Museum, which I don’t typically like, so I skipped it and instead went to the city museum that highlights some of the town’s many historical quirks (including the mayor that drank an enormous tankard of wine to save the town) as well as dungeons and other more grisly findings. Odd for a small town there are a few other museums to spend some time in including one devoted to a particular regional dance, a doll museum and a craft house. Like I said, Rothenburg is delightfully odd.
Food and churches
Apparently, according to the brochure I read, many people visit Rothenburg to see St. James’ Church and a holy relic housed in a famously crafted altarpiece. While it was nice, I seriously doubt that’s the reason why many visit, no, instead it’s the overall beauty of the town itself. There’s also plenty to eat, including the regional specialties known as snowballs. Rothenburger Schneeballen, or Rothenburg Snowballs, are small pastries that are common in this part of Germany, but especially so in Rothenburg. They’re simple really, just traditional pastry dough that’s fried and then drenched with powdered sugar. And yes, they’re just as good as they sound. They also come in a wide variety of options, including a chocolate version that I loved especially. They make excellent presents to take back home since they can last for weeks and travel well. If you’re looking for a traditional meal, stop by the Hotel/Restaurant Reichsküchenmeister. A small hotel in a centuries old building, it’s the restaurant that’s the real star of the show. Regional specialties like Pflaumenkuchen (flatbread pizzas) and a variety of sausages make it the perfect introduction to the Franconian food that defines the travel experience in Rothenburg.
Night watch tour
I generally don’t join what I think are typically corny tours, but I had a free ticket and some spare time so I did in fact join the so-called night watch tour in town. Led by a guide in period costume, this one-hour walk around the old city was surprisingly entertaining, not just thanks to the good humor of the guide but the great information he shared. Pretty quickly I changed my opinion about the tour, and by the end of it I was sad that it was already finished. Rothenburg is bright and cheery by day, but illuminated in the evenings a different type of beauty is found, and this tour is the perfect way to experience it.
Like almost every other town and city in the world, the best thing to do in Rothenburg is to just wander around aimlessly. It’s not very big and is surrounded by a giant wall, so you’re not going to get lost. No, instead you will see the main touristy areas in addition to quieter parts of town that are no less interesting than the main market, but more secluded and peaceful. You may notice along some stretches of the city wall inscriptions, tributes really. After the end of WWII, Rothenburg raised the money needed to rebuild its walls and buildings through an international appeal. Thanks to its already strong record as a tourist hotspot, people from around the world sent in money to help in the efforts, the names of which are still found on the wall today. This and many other little secrets can still be found, surprisingly enough, even in this admittedly touristy village.
I enjoyed Rothenburg much more than I ever thought I would and instead of a Disney version of Germany, I found the real thing – albeit from an era long since gone. It’s what we think Germany should look like and while I’ve heard many people, German and not, complain about what they consider to be a fantasy experience, that’s why I enjoyed it so very much. Sure, it is fantastical but that’s ok. It’s also fun and mesmerizing and if that’s not an important part of the travel experience, then I don’t know what is.
Have you been to Rothenburg? What did you think?
31 thoughts on “A German Fairy Tale Come To Life: Exploring Rothenburg”
Not travelled Germany at all but its on the list. Was there a lot of beer drinking on your trip? One of the few nations that can match us Brits :)
Entering the Christmas Museum was like entering a TARDIS: you go into a small building, yet the museum seems to occupy the area of an aircraft hanger, albeit on several different subterranean levels.
I am going this summer. Thanks for this !
The last time that we went was in 2010, and we envy your going this summer. There just isn’t any place quite so beautiful and delightful as Germany – especially Bavaria, especially Franconia, especially Rothenburg. Enjoy!
Love seeing the photos! I went during Christmas a few years back, and its so strange to see the difference! So many people about!
I love wandering around aimlessly in such beautiful city like this. Definitely we’ll include this German Fairy Tale city in our bucket list for next year. Thanks for sharing.
I visited Rothenburg a few years ago but it rained the entire time. While I’ve been to Germany several times since, I’ve never had a chance to revisit the city in better weather.
I love Rothenburg. Just looking at your pictures makes me want to return as soon as possible. It is such a beautiful city.
so when it rains, grab an umbrella and go!
I have been to Rothenburg and Dinkelsbuhl several times and have never grown jaded to anything about them. They are both delightful. Once in Rothenburg we attended an a cappella choir concert at St. James and it was a wonderful experience. We always stay in the Hotel Markestrum, the room nearest the clock. For anyone who has not been, I encourage you to go!
So can’t wait to see this next year when we travel to Germany. :)
Rothenburg is one of my favorite place to stop over on my way. It should be on every travelers must see list when going to Europa. Be sure to go up the tower to see the whole city from up there. There are great B&Bs.
Rothenburg is probably my favorite German town, for all of the same reasons it is yours. I lived in Germany for eight years, back in the eighties, and enjoyed every moment of my time there!
Thank you for your sensitive impressions, descriptions and advice – great travel log – all true, except that part of the Am.commander and his mother’s intervening.Someone came up with that embellishment since I grew up there some 60 years ago.
I have never been to Germany, but thanks to your great post and beautiful photos, I feel like I have! Thank you so much for sharing this amazing tour.
I visited here in 1976 and am excited to be returning this summer. It was winter when I was there last and I’m looking forward to it not having changed! I also am hoping the clock shop is still there off the square and the bakery!
I just visited Rothenburg in May 2015. This was my second visit, but 30 years apart and this time took my wife and son. They loved it. We walked the wall in the early AM while it was quiet. It was much busier than last time but still has the beauty I remember. We stayed in a nice Hotel (Uhl) very nice people.
Visited 1997….before we entered the city a German couple we got to know had a picnic on a hill outside town so we could view the city from that vantage point….toured the Christnas Store & Tower…I’d go back it was so Historic…my husband was on a Change of Station for his work for a year so we lived like a German in a small town WINEGARTEN-WALDBRUCKE, Germany
It is a beautiful city to visit, did so many years ago, and if you have some time available a nice road trip includes Rothenburg, Dinkelsbuehl, drive along the “Romanitische Strasse”down to Munich, Wasserburg then on to Chiemsee. Another area that is worthy of mention a little further north, is just as beautiful in the Maintal (Main river region) is Miltenberg and Klingenberg and the surrounding area.(I am partial because it is where my mother was from and have many childhood memories there) It is a wine region and offers so much to do from sightseeing to hiking to cultural events.
Visited Rothenburg in August 2013. Loved it very much. There was a mechanical teddy bear up in a window blowing bubbles onto the crowd. Loved the Schneeballen!! Bought a lovely cuckoo clock necklace there.
I’ve made Rothenburg our home base since 1999 for our private tour company and know much about the city. The writer is pretty accurate except the ‘big drink’ story of former Mayor Nusch saving the town never happened. It’s more likely that the town just paid a hefty ramsom, as was common in those days. Also, ‘schneeballen’ are sort of like a joke played on tourists. They’re fried pie crust dough for Pete’s sake. You know, the bit you usually don’t eat after the yummy pie? Pretty bland and most tourists look for the nearest garbage can after wasting their 2 Euro on one. And finally, the story of an American General intervening and helping to save the town from destruction by artillery in March, 1945 is accurate. John J. McCloy was later awarded an honorable citizenship in the town square. Documentation exists on this event.
I was one the the tourists that fell for the beautiful looking schneeballen. Totally agree with your description of taste and yes I did throw it out. I did love the town of Rothenburg though and feel fortunate to have experienced a short visit there.
Lived in Germany for five years late 70’s, early 80’s, was able to see Rothenburg once and have never forgotten it. This fall, Lord willing, my wife and I will be able to see it along with many other places there.
w lived very close to this town for 4 years and spent many days there. I personally prefer Dinkelsbuehl, not far away. It is not as large but also not as busy and just as beautiful. I did love Rothenburg also, you made me very homesick for this place!
I’m a Military Brat and lived in Germany in the 80’s and 90’s. I enjoyed visiting Rothenburg so much that when friends and colleagues tell me that they are visiting Germany, I always recommend visiting the town.
My family enjoyed visiting Rothenburg in 1974, while stationed at Weisbaden.
I visited Rothenberg many summers with a performance tour. This was always the highlight if my tours. I’ve this “fairy town”. If I ever would moved to Europe, Rogen urg woukd be my choice. The people are so nice and make you feel like family. My favorite restaurant/hotel is Reichkuchenmeister. I get home sick just thinking about this town. LOVE IT!!!!!
If you visit Rothenburg you also should have Bad Wimpfen and Heidelberg on your list. These are in my eyes more interesing and more historical towns.
Heidelberg has also a really nice Zoo.
We’re going to Germany in December, 2015 for two weeks for a wedding and we’re hoping to spend a day & night in Rothenburg on our way to Munich for a visit. We’re hopeful that we’ll be able to see many of the same things that everyone is talking about in these posts during that time of year!
Ooh, I have seen Rothenburg on my weekly commute and I have been wondering if I should get off the train.
The answer is yes.
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