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German destinations A-Z: Rothenburg ob der Tauber

It is rare to be able to see a townscape much as it was early in the 17th century. But this prospect, for more than two million travellers and German visitors each year, is the attraction of the walled Franconian town Rothenburg ob der Tauber.

Inside largely intact walls and more than 40 medieval towers, Rothenburg’s mostly cobbled streets and squares reflect a past that was both busy and turbulent before history consigned it to obscurity. Today, travellers can experience its Gothic and Renaissance gabled buildings and stone churches and walk around its parapets as if time had stopped.

Medieval Rothenburg was economically and culturally a place of substance. Its lords were close to the seat of German power and its merchants were affluent. It became a junction of pilgrimage routes, especially a north-south route connecting Denmark and Rome and the St Jakob routes from Speyer and Prague.

Rothenburg’s location above the river Tauber lent itself to fortification and in the 11th century the first castle appeared. It was handed to the imperial house of Hohenstaufen in the 12th century and a bigger castle was built for use by the duke of Swabia, later king of Germany as Konrad III. The town proper was founded in 1170 and its first walls were raised.

In the 13th century Rothenburg was granted the status of free imperial city, placing its civic leaders directly under the emperor. Its Jewish community was prominent in civic affairs and one of the great medieval Jewish scholars and jurists, Meir ben Baruch, lived there. But in 1298 the town’s Jewish community fell victim to slaughter amid the anti-Semitic hysteria of a series of massacres in Franconia.

A 1356 earthquake destroyed the castle and damaged parts of the town. But it recovered and, during the late 14th century term of mayor Heinrich Toppler, the town was one of the most populous in the Holy Roman empire.

Then came the 17th century and the Thirty Years War. Rothenburg was besieged three times and, according to tradition, its council was saved only by the ex-mayor Georg Nusch’s Meistertrunk. Responding to the challenge of the imperial commander Tilly, Nusch drained a three-litre draught of wine at a gulp, an event celebrated daily in the glockenspiel above Marktplatz and re-enactment days each September and October.

Thus rescued, Rothenburg lost its importance, no longer on a major route in the much-altered German landscape. As its wealth ebbed, its burgers made do with their 17th century surroundings.

But the value of its street environments and location were recognised and exploited for tourism in the 20th century. World War II bombing damage has largely been made good and Rothenburg’s unaltered state – looking past its tourist veneer – now attracts more than a million visitors a year. Preservation laws protect building styles spanning 500 years.

The centre of the old town is an enforced pedestrian zone for much of the day and, as in the 17th century, walking is best.

Marktplatz is the natural starting point. The Renaissance Rathaus building facing the square replaced a predecessor burnt in a 1501 fire, but the arcades on the facade were added later. An older Gothic section includes the main hall and tower, which provides a superb view over the town and Tauber valley. There is a reminder of the square’s market heritage – the portal to the older building carries fixed iron measuring rods reflecting the local medieval measurement systems.

Beside the Rathaus runs Herrngasse, preserving what was the top end of town. This precinct’s fine houses were also the business headquarters of patrician citizens. The clue comes from the beams that still overhang many roof gables, used for hoisting merchant goods up to the roof cavities.

At the Tauber valley end of Herrngasse is the city wall and some of the oldest structures in the town, including the 12th century Burgtor, tallest of Rothenburg’s gate towers, displaying the town’s arms. It leads to the Burggarten, site of the vanished Hohenstaufen castle. After the 14th century earthquake, only the Blasiuskapelle (now a war memorial) remained intact, surrounded by rubble that was put to later use in the town’s defences.

The St-Jakobs-Kirche, consecrated in 1464 and now the Evangelical parish church, attracted the pilgrims. They knelt to behold the exquisite Heilig-Blut-Altar of the great Franconian limewood sculptor Tilman Riemenschneider and today’s art lovers follow them in reverence. Riemenschneider may have had a role in crafting two other altars in the church.

Shepherds flocked to the fortified St-Wolfgangs-Kirche, consecrated to their patron saint late in the 15th century. Built into the town’s northern bastion, the church merged with the town gate Klingentor and had its own gun emplacements. Not surprisingly, it would also serve as a sanctuary – today’s visitors can creep through the secret stone passage underneath.

Other older buildings are in the Schrannenplatz precinct nearby.

Kapellenplatz was the original centre of the Jewish quarter and a synagogue site before the community was banished from the early walls. The Jews moved to what became Judengasse and some of their graves are in the small yard at the corner of Galgengasse. Near Weißer Turm, part of the early wall, is the Judentanzhaus, a Jewish community centre, with a small memorial to rabbi Meir ben Baruch.

Utilitarian buildings are also part of the historical picture. To the south, the early town walls (gated at the Siebersturm) excluded Spitalgasse and the Heilig-Geist-Spital, which functioned as an infirmary and lodgings for travellers who arrived after the town gates closed each evening. The four-storey Roßmühle once housed four large millstones and the 16 horses needed to drive them for flour during sieges or shortages. The nearby Zehntscheune (1699) was one of the biggest of about 50 barns in Rothenburg.

At the southern sweep of the walls, the powerful 16th century Spitalbastei is a defensive complex on three levels involving multiple gates. Visitors can walk around inside the bastion, where casemates house a few cannon pieces.

The town’s story can be pulled together and understood at its several museums. The central collection is at the Reichsstadtmuseum Rothenburg, including history and art. The centrepiece is the 12 panels of Martinus Schwarz’s Renaissance work the Rothenburger Passion.

Accommodation is available at many family-run establishments in historical buildings, or the youth hostel in the Roßmühle.

In the vaults of the Rathaus courtyard, the Historiengewölbe mit Staatsverlies recreates the colourful scenes of Rothenburg history. The Mittelalterliches Kriminalmuseum is one of a kind, its exhibits covering both the laws and means of punishment, many of them notably cruel.

If visitors can’t get their fill of historical buildings in Rothenburg, an excursion to the open-air museum Fränkisches Freilandmuseum is recommended, a short ride away by train at Bad Windsheim.

A free PDF guide to Rothenburg can be downloaded from the Jewels of the Past section below.

German Rail Pass offers limited 20% discount

Deutsche Bahn is offering 20 per cent discounts on German Rail Passes booked until the end of this month, valid until the end of September.

The German Rail Pass summer special is aimed at encouraging late-summer travellers onto German railways and can be seen as part-replacement of the budget Deutschland-Pass, dropped after 2015.

The budget offer covers second-class travel on consecutive or non-consecutive days until the end of September.

German Rail Pass allows unlimited travel across Germany – including ICE high-speed trains – for customers resident outside Europe, Turkey and Russia. It functions in place of a single-country Eurail Pass and is also valid on many non-DB trains.

It is valid on long-distance IC Buses and selected DB routes outside Germany including Venice, Milan, Brussels, Prague and as far as Kraków.

The pass can be booked online at the Deutsche Bahn website, www.bahn.de, in the offers menu.

The booking portal is in German, but the link can be pasted into Google Translate and followed without difficulty.

The German Rail Pass flyer, downloadable at the DB site, provides more information.

Download your guides here

Culture Encounters

Jewels of the Past

Berlin

Great Cities of Germany

Füssen

Füssen travel guide in 3 pages

The tiny town at the foot of the Alps has its own medieval castle and Baroque monastery as well as being the jumping-off point for visits to the famous Romantic castles nearby.

● How to visit Schloß Neuschwanstein and Schloß Hohenschwangau

● The Wieskirche, a UNESCO-listed Rococo pilgrimage church, is a short ride away

● The town’s own castle, churches and museums

Hyperlink access to essential tourist and accommodation information

Aachen

Detailed Aachen travel guide in 5 pages

The Romans developed the hot springs at the site, then 1200 years ago the Frankish king Charlemagne set up his court there and Aachen became the centre of his empire. The 2018 Raven Guide to Aachen is available for free download now.

● A guide to Charlemagne's church, which grew to become the present Aachen cathedral, one of the first world heritage sites

● The Roman and medieval survivals of the city and details of the city tour

● Essential services with hyperlink access to further tourist information and accommodation websites

Eisenach

Detailed Eisenach travel guide in 4 pages

The new Raven guide to the Thuringian town, birthplace of Bach and hiding place of Martin Luther early in his revolt against the established church. It is also the site of one of Germany’s great medieval castles, with links to another great German composer, Wagner, and a centre of automobile making.

● Guide to the Wartburg castle

● Guides to the Bach museum of his life and work and museum of car manufacture

● Hyperlink access to further tourist information and accommodation websites

Lutherstadt Wittenberg

Detailed Wittenberg travel guide in 4 pages

More than 500 years after Martin Luther's Reformation, this free guide covers the place where it all began. The town was the cradle of the religious movement that threw off the structures of the Catholic church and shaped new ideas and ways of worship, but also more than a century of bitter conflict that shaped Germany forever.

● Key sites, now world heritage monuments, include Luther's house and the castle

● The church where Luther's revolt began and churches Luther and his associates preached

● Hyperlinks to further tourist information and to websites for city accommodation

Bamberg

Detailed Bamberg travel guide in 5 pages

The layout of the UNESCO heritage-listed city centre and a range of Baroque and medieval architecture makes Bamberg one of Germany’s most beautiful cities.

● The Romanesque cathedral, the opulent bishops’ Residenz palace, and its Renaissance predecessor dominate the old town

● The old town hall in the middle of the river Regnitz and the mysterious statue Bamberger Reiter attract millions of travellers

● Summaries of 35 historic sites and museums

● Information on tours, parks, food and the arts

● Hyperlink access to further tourist information and accommodation websites

Trier

Detailed Trier travel guide in 7 pages

The Roman Trier was at one time second only to Rome itself. It was home to one of the most powerful Roman emperors, Constantine the Great, and later to Karl Marx. Signs of its past greatness remain for travellers to marvel at. Germany’s oldest city – and one of its oldest cathedrals – remain and are world-heritage listed.

● Read about the ancient Roman city gate Porta Nigra, the Roman bath complexes, a well-preserved amphitheatre and Constantine’s former imperial palace, plus the buildings of the medieval city

● The guide includes more than 30 sites, churches and museums, with essential services, *transport links, transit and tours

● Hyperlink access to further tourist information and accommodation websites

Rothenburg ob der Tauber

Detailed Rothenburg travel guide in 4 pages

Completely walled with more than 40 towers, the cobbled pedestrian streets of the Romantic Road town perched above the Tauber valley are little changed since the 17th century, with medieval and Renaissance half-timbered houses and stone churches.

● The guide includes 17 sites and museums and an excursion to the Franconian open-air museum at nearby Bad Windsheim

● Essential services, transport links, food tips and tours

● Hyperlink access to further tourist information and websites for many of the town’s small accommodation houses

Potsdam

Detailed Potsdam guide of 8 pages

The Stadtschloß palace was the first Prussian royal residence and more gradually multiplied in the city's extensive parklands. The city’s minorities grew with waves of immigration, leaving the Dutch quarter Holländisches Viertel and the Russian colony Siedlung Alexandrowka and its tiny Orthodox church.

● The delicate Rococo palace Schloß Sanssouci and the palaces and pavilions of Park Sanssouci with brief histories

● Potsdam’s ornate city gates, its Baroque streetscapes and 10 museums

● Essential services, transport links and fares, accommodation, food and tours

● Hyperlink access to further tourist information and accommodation websites

Regensburg

Detailed Regensburg travel guide in 6 pages

The streets, archways and buildings of this medieval city, which grew from remains of a Roman legionary camp, remain. The range of ancient monuments and its streetscapes justify Regensburg’s world heritage listing.

● One of Germany’s classic Gothic cathedrals, several medieval churches, rare Gothic tower houses and one of Germany’s oldest stone bridges

Almost 30 sites and museums, including the nearby Walhalla gallery of great Germanic figures of history

● Information on essential services, transport links and urban transit and fares plus listings of travel essentials

● Hyperlink access to accommodation websites and further tourist information

Würzburg

Detailed Würzburg travel guide of 7 pages

The prince-bishops who controlled Würzburg for centuries built wealth, power and influence expressed in Baroque by their huge palace, the UNESCO world-heritage Residenz. Their medieval castle still commands the city, reached by a stone bridge.

● Summaries of Würzburg’s grand residences, the medieval cathedral, churches and other sites

Museums and galleries including one of Europe’s prominent Jewish museums

Tours, essential services, transport links, transit services and fares and food tips

● Hyperlink access to accommodation and further tourist information websites

Passau

Detailed Passau travel guide in 4 pages

The border city of three rivers includes the Baroque cathedral of St Stephan, with one of the world’s largest organs, the fortress Veste Oberhaus and the well preserved old town.

● Descriptions of 13 sites and museums, including the exhibits of Passau’s Roman past and history of glass manufacture

● Details of essential services, transport links and urban buses including fares, accommodation, food, tours and spectacular views

● Hyperlink access to further tourist information and accommodation websites

Dinkelsbühl

Dinkelsbühl travel guide in 2 pages

This short guide covers a tiny medieval walled town, left unchanged by a royal decree and now a favourite of artists and a small number of travellers.

● Dinkelsbühl’s town walls and many Gothic and Renaissance buildings keep its atmosphere alive

● Small hotels, pensions and restaurants complement the historical scene

● Essential services, tourist and transport information are included with hyperlinks to accommodation

Augsburg

Detailed Augsburg travel guide in 6 pages

The wealth and influence of Augsburg’s powerful families brought the Renaissance to Germany at a time when the city was also the site of key events of the Reformation.

● The home of Germany’s onion-domed towers, museums with magnificent works of art, and one of the beautiful Renaissance streets of Germany, the Maximilianstraße

Guides to more than 30 sites, including monuments to Roman settlement

Transport links and fares, food and tours

● Hyperlink access to further tourist information and accommodation websites

Heidelberg

Detailed Heidelberg travel guide in 7 pages

The most common description for Heidelberg is Romantic. This comes from its valley location, half-ruined castle and the towered stone bridge crossing the river Neckar.

● Explore Heidelberg’s cobbled streets in search of the essence of the city – Germany’s oldest university, the churches, monuments to its religious struggles, and its restaurants and cafes

● Discover the castle, its history, and thefunicular railway that makes the climb – and vantage points above the city – much easier

● Several budget hotel and private hostels that help make Heidelberg accommodation affordable, plus hyperlink access to other accommodation and tourist information sites

● Guides to 27 sites and museums

Goslar

Detailed Goslar travel guide in 5 pages

The medieval town has hundreds of colourful half-timbered houses, Romanesque churches and the Kaiserpfalz, one of Germany’s oldest palaces. Its ancient Rammelsberg mines were the source of its wealth and are partly responsible for the town’s world heritage status.

19 sites and museums including the finest town houses

● A town walk and Rammelsberg tour

● Information on transport links plus listings of travel essentials and hyperlink access to further tourist information and accommodation websites

● An excursion to the nearby half-timbered Harz town Wernigerode

Lübeck

Detailed Lübeck travel guide in 7 pages

Trade made Lübeck the centre of the Baltic and the red-brick Gothic old town its merchant wealth built is now UNESCO world heritage-listed. Its churches, town houses and civic institutions are preserved and restored.

● The commercial and civic culture of the city through guides to 30 sites, museums and galleries

Tours, the best views and food options with other travel essentials

● Information on transport links and transit services including fares

● Hyperlinks to further tourist information and to websites for city accommodation

Berlin

Detailed Berlin travel guide in 31 pages

Berlin is used to crisis, novelty and immigrants – so any journey to Berlin is a journey to many Berlins. The city that the Enlightenment and industrial progress created survived years of destruction and division.

● Separate sections for the districts Mitte, Prenzlauer Berg, Friedrichshain-Kreuzberg and Neukölln, Schöneberg-Tempelhof, Charlottenburg-Wilmersdorf and Spandau, with local food and accommodation and quick guides to essential services

● Summary of major transport links with Berlin

● How to use urban transit services with fares

● Descriptions of more than 60 historic sites, with guides to walking sections of the Berlin Wall and its memorials

● Summaries of more than 50 museums of history, art and culture, and information on all major performance groups including orchestras, opera and theatre

● Short history of the city and its precincts

● Parks, views, tours and cruises

● Hyperlinks to websites for accommodation houses and further tourist information

Bremen

Detailed Bremen travel guide in 6 pages

One of Germany’s oldest cities includes UNESCO world heritage monuments, ornate Renaissance architecture with a regional stamp, the story of world travellers including emigrants to the US and arts precincts with works by some of the most innovative German artists.

● The ancient St Petri cathedral and 11 other sites including the giant Roland figure

17 Bremen museums including art and the remarkable Übersee-Museum, with exhibits of the wonders of the continents touched by Bremen’s worldwide trade interests

Transport links and the city’s complicated transit system explained

● Hyperlink access to websites for accommodation houses and further tourist information

Dresden

Detailed Dresden travel guide in 11 pages

Twice over the centuries, Dresden has been an amazing place. The first period was the Baroque magnificence of the 17th and 18th centuries. The second is now, with much of the city’s splendour restored.

Dresden's city palaces with their museums and galleries, highlighted by the two Green Vault museums, are among the most remarkable in Germany

● The exquisite, rebuilt Frauenkirche

● The Saxon ducal and royal summer palaces of Pillnitz and Moritzburg

● In all, 30 museums and galleries of art and culture

● Information on tours, essential services, parks and views, food and performing arts

● Details of excursions to the medieval city of Meissen, centre of European porcelain, and the fortress of Königstein

● Hyperlink access to further tourist information and accommodation websites

Hamburg

Detailed Hamburg travel guide in 8 pages

Germany’s mighty port city attracts travellers from all over the world and was the departure point for generations of migrants. ● 25 sites, ships, museums, monuments and churches that reflect Hamburg’s maritime and trading traditions

● The UNESCO world heritage Speicherstadt, centre of Hamburg’s former free port

● Essential services are listed with a choice of tours, including port tours

● Information on transport links and extensive urban transit services including fares

● Listings of essential traveller services

● Hyperlink access to further tourist information and accommodation websites

● The city’s arts and music scene, including opera

Nuremberg (Nürnberg)

Detailed Nuremberg travel guides in 8 pages

Modern Nuremberg has preserved or restored many walled and historic areas. The city’s leading late medieval citizens were some of the best known German personalities. Then came the Nazis.

● Guides to 20 buildings, historic streets and monuments, among them the Kaiserburg, the castle of early imperial German assemblies

● 13 museums, including Germanisches Nationalmuseum, Germany’s leading cultural history museum

● The courts of the post-World War II war crimes trials, now also a museum

Transport links, urban transit, tours and essential services

● Hyperlink access to further tourist information and accommodation websites

Cologne (Köln)

Detailed Cologne travel guide in 11 pages

Cologne is Roman, medieval and modern all at once, a city known for piety, carnival and perfume. Travellers can walk the historic centre and the remains of the Roman wall.

Germany’s mightiest cathedral, which took more than 600 years to complete

● Cologne’s Roman and medieval walls and gates picked out for travellers

● 12 precious Romanesque churches with historical background

● In all, 25 sites and 17 museums of art, history and culture including the Römisch-Germanisches Museum and associated archaeological sites

Transport links and urban transit services including fares

Tours, parks, views, food and performing arts

● Hyperlink access to further tourist information and accommodation websites

Stuttgart

Detailed Stuttgart travel guide in 6 pages

The Baden-Württemberg capital is one of Germany’s beautiful lifestyle cities, surrounded by hills and some of the country’s most beautiful palaces and pleasure pavilions.

● 10 sites including Stuttgart’s castle complexes, Schloß Solitude and the magnificent palaces of Ludwigsburg nearby

● 10 museums and galleries of art

Tours, walks through the city’s extensive parks and views

● Guide to essential services and hyperlinks to tourist information and accommodation house websites and a guide to performance art

Munich (München)

Detailed Munich travel guide in 13 pages

Munich was founded by monks and built up by dukes and kings, but became a centre of revolution as well as a home for arts, industry and travellers enjoying the good life.

● Germany’s largest museum, Deutsches Museum, and some of its richest art museums

● The city’s extensive palaces and palace gardens are featured

● Almost 30 museums of history, art and culture

● 30 historic sites in and around the city

● Information on major performance groups including orchestras and opera

Accommodation, food and a guide to essential services including transport links and urban transit services and fares

● A choice of city tours and some of its finest views

● Hyperlink access to further tourist information and accommodation websites