Rothenburg ob der Tauber is one of the most photogenic towns in Germany. The medieval architecture and brightly-coloured facades give the town a romantic and charming ambiance. The town is small and compact enough that you can see the main attractions in two days. But I wouldn’t blame you if you wanted to stay longer once you’re under the town’s spell.
Rothenburg is just one beautiful town along a trail called the Romantic Road, situated in Bavaria and Baden-Württemberg in Southern Germany. The area where Rothenburg is located was most likely inhabited by the Celts before the 1st-century C.E. But the city of Rothenburg itself was founded around 1170. So there’s no shortage of historical sights and stories here.
Choosing Where to Stay
Rothenburg ob der Tauber is small enough that there’s really no out-of-the-way neighborhood in which to stay. But, to add to the historic vibe (if that’s what you’re seeking, of course), I would recommend finding a hotel with some character and patina to it. The hotel we chose, Altfränkische Weinstube, is over 650 years old – and it shows! The half-timbered building has the most incredible wooden beamed ceilings and crooked walls:
There’s just something astounding about staying in a building this old. Why stay in a sanitized, ultra-modern hotel in a town that dates to the 1100s?
Once we settled in, we went exploring the town. This is how we broke up our two days in Rothenburg:
Walk along the Medieval city walls
You can freely walk along the covered ramparts of the old city walls. The oldest part of this former trading town was protected by a fortified stone wall as far back as the 1140s. Once the city became a Free Imperial City in 1274, it needed even stronger and larger fortifications to protect its castle and growing population. By the 1400s, Rothenburg was the 2nd largest city in Germany due to its wonderful markets. The remarkable preservation of the old Medieval walls are due to the financial constraints the town experienced after the 30 Years War in the 1600s. The town stopped growing, and therefore didn’t require expansion of the wall.
You’ll also get some lovely views of the steeply-pitched red-tiled roofs from here.
The so-called “Tower Trail” walk takes you around a circuit of the old town. The wall encircling the old town still boasts six gate entrances and 42 towers (down from its original 70)! This walk is a must, it’s so serene and calming. It’s also punctuated with interpretive plaques along the way so you can learn more about the town and its history.
This is the Röderturm, or Röder Tower and gate. Back in the day, this was the only observation tower along the wall. A city watchman would keep an eye on things every night from this vantage point, and signal the city center if they spotted any danger.
Today you can climb the 103 steps to the top and visit an exhibit about the towers.
The Klingentor (Klingen Gate) became a water tower in the 16th Century. It’s over 30 meters tall and shares a wall with the Church of St. Wolfgang.
Photograph the Plönlein
The Plönlein, or “Little Square” is one of the most frequently photographed and most recognizable areas of Rothenburg. On the left is the Siebersturm, or Siebers Tower, and the Kobolzeller Tower is the one on the right. Siebers Tower dates to 1385 and the Kobolzeller Tower dates to 1360. As pretty as this area is, there’s so much more to see and do in Rothenburg that makes it a worthy destination! But you’d probably be remiss not to stop and at least take a photo, like countless others before you. *wink*
Note the fountain in front of the yellow half-timbered building. Fishermen used to store their catches in cages by the fountain.
Check out the Marktplatz (Market Square)
The Market Square is surrounded by beautiful old, colourful buildings. Buildings of particular interest include the Town Hall (Rathaus), the Clock Tower (currently the Tourist Office), and St. Georges Fountain.
This white building below is the Ratstrinkstube (Councillor’s Tavern) and Clock Tower. The clock, dating to 1683, is still in operation. The doors of the astronomical clock open every hour on the hour between 10 a.m. and 10 p.m. The clock tells a story from 1631, called the “Legend of the Master Draught”. Count Tilly and his army seized Rothenburg during the 30 Years’ War, with plans to destroy the town, murder its residents and plunder their belongings. The residents offered him a tankard of wine at the Ratstrinkstube, in hopes of convincing him to spare the town. (A tankard held 3.25 liters of wine).
Tilly decided to offer the townsfolk a deal – if they could drink the entire tankard of wine without stopping, he would spare them and the town. On the flipside, he would execute those who failed.
Enter Bürgermeister Nusch, the town’s mayor. He agreed to the challenge and drank the entire tankard in one go. Count Tilly was impressed – and, true to his word, spared the town and its inhabitants.
The Clock Tower now immortalizes this historic moment, with Count Tilly appearing in the left window on the hour, and Mayor Nusch appearing in the right window. Nusch lifts a tankard to his lips, where it remains until the clock chimes.
This impressive building is the Rathaus (The Town Hall). It dates to 1572-1578. Part of the original building burned to the ground in 1501. Note the white tower to the left. This is the Rathausturm (Town Hall Tower), which you can climb for wonderful panoramic views of Rothenburg ob der Tauber. (If you don’t mind climbing 220 steps to get to the top!)
Try a Local Specialty
Rothenburg is also famous for one type of pastry in particular – Schneeballen, or snowballs. I’ve written about these before, which you can read about more in depth here. Schneeballen are deep-fried balls of folded shortcrust pastry dough. The recipe has been around for at least 300 years, and was most commonly served during special occasions such as weddings. They come in a variety of flavours, but I can’t say I was a fan of any of them. But if you don’t try them, you’ll wonder if you were missing out. So give them a go, and let me know what you think!
Drink the Local Tipple
A nice way to end the evening of exploring is to try the local wines. Rothenburg ob der Tauber (not to be confused by other towns in Germany also called Rothenburg) is conveniently situated in the heart of Lower Franconian wine country. The white wines in particular are some of the very best my husband Mark and I have ever had. They are sweet, fruity, flavourful, and unforgettable. There’s something extra-special about drinking a glass of local Riesling outdoors while watching tourists stroll by on a Nightwatchman walking tour. Any wine bar or restaurant with a good wine selection should be able to walk you through their offerings and guide you to a new favourite. Unfortunately, they no longer arrive in a 3.25 liter tankard!
Now that you’ve hit some of the big highlights in Rothenburg ob der Tauber, you can be a bit more leisurely with your time. There’s still plenty to see, though!
Stroll Through the Burggarten (Castle Garden)
Rothenburg Imperial Castle (circa 1142) fell in the earthquake of 1356. Instead of rebuilding the castle, a fortified tower replaced it.
The tower gate now leads to a large and beautifully landscaped public garden. The sandstone figures around the gardens represent the four seasons and four elements.
From the walled garden, you can look into the valley below where you’ll see what appears to be a little pale blue house on top of a tower. This is the Topplerschlößchen (Toppler Castle). This was once home to Rothenburg’s mayor, Heinrich Toppler. Toppler built the home in 1388, partly as his residence, but it was also a fortress.
See the Darker Side of Rothenburg ob der Tauber
The garden isn’t all beauty and serenity, however. In the garden you’ll also find the Pogrom Memorial Stone. It commemorates the “Rintfleisch-Pogrom”.
The Rintfleisch Movement in 1298 nearly extinguished the entire Jewish community here. This series of massacres was the first large-scale persecution in Germany since the First Crusade (1096-1099). Jews in the nearby town of Röttingen were accused of desecrating a consecrated host. A man named Rintfleisch, probably a butcher, gathered a mob and burned and killed the Röttingen Jews. He then went from town to town, doing the same to all the Jews in each town they entered. By the end, Rintfleisch and his mob killed over 20,000 Jews.
As you’re exiting the Castle Garden gate, be sure to look up at the Burgtor bastion tower. See the stone mask above you? This was used to pour hot pitch on the enemy. They weren’t messing around.
If you like darker subject matter like this, head to the Kriminalmuseum, or Medieval Crime Museum.
Here, you’ll see ancient instruments of torture, weapons, and learn some of the stranger laws that ruled the people of Rothenburg back in the day.
No Medieval crime museum should be without a good old iron maiden. The maiden contains iron spikes, which would slowly impale the person inside as the door closed.
This iron chair had a similar purpose and outcome:
A seamstress in 1692 wore this wooden collar as her punishment. She broke the “clothing laws” at the time. Her collar was probably larger than the laws allowed. At the time, social classes divided townsfolk. Your clothing was the most obvious sign of your social class. Clothing laws prevented and punished those who dressed too extravagantly for their class. We learned about a lot of strange laws and even stranger punishments in the museum!
The History Museum and Town Dungeon are also an interesting place to visit if you like the crime and punishment aspects of history. Here you’ll find the dungeon below the town hall. This was Rothenburg’s oldest prison. It includes a guardhouse, three jail cells and a torture room.
Above ground, the museum exhibits old weaponry from days gone by:
They also have a recreation of an alchemical workshop, dating to 1550-1616 or so.
Go Beyond the Wall
Although there’s plenty to keep you occupied within the Medieval walls, Rothenburg has some interesting sights beyond the wall, too. If you explore beyond the walled town center, you’ll find some lovely panoramic views:
If you walk to the west and through Kobolzeller Gate, you’ll find the Medieval Double Bridge. It was fortified after the earthquake of 1356 to form Rothenburg’s western defenses. Also note the vineyards climbing the hills around the bridge!
There’s also a beautiful old cemetery outside the walls of the old town called Alter Friedhof Rothenburg. It’s located on the eastern side of Erlbacher Strasse. The oldest graves date to 1911.
Have Supper in Hell
Nothing ends a trip to a Medieval-walled town filled with dungeons, towers and legends like a good, hearty meal. My top recommendation is to finish your visit to Rothenburg with supper at Zur Höll – “To Hell”. The foundations of this gorgeous restaurant date to 950 AD! They also know a lot about wine – always a selling point!
I wrote about our meal in more depth here. Whether you choose to eat indoors or outside, this will be a meal – and a destination – you won’t soon forget.
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