If there’s one town that captured that cute-as-a-button, gingerbread-house aesthetic, it would be Rothenburg ob der Tauber, Germany. The postcard-a-minute town captivates visitors with its charm and beauty. Located in the southeast state of Bavaria, its well-preserved medieval architecture, cobblestone streets, and enchanting atmosphere make Rothenburg a true gem. Let’s explore!
Rothenburg – a short history
Rothenburg ob der Tauber—it’s full name—means “red fortress above the Tauber (River)”. Located in the Franconian (historically Frankish speaking) region of Bavaria, it has a fascinating history that dates back over a thousand years.
The town was founded in the 10th-century with the construction of a castle for the Counts of Rothenburg. The Rothenburg dynasty eventually died out and the Hohenstaufen dynasty took over, constructing their own castle.
The town quickly grew into an important trading center due to its strategic location along trade routes. This rapid growth meant the Rothenburg had to expand its first city wall, erected in 1170, a little over 30-years later. This contributes to the many famous towers that you can see inside the old town today.
In the Middle Ages, Rothenburg became a free imperial city, granting it autonomy and allowing it to flourish. An earthquake during the 14th-century leveled its castles. Despite this, the 14th and 15th-centuries were the city’s peak and Rothenburg experienced a period of prosperity and cultural growth.
However, Rothenburg’s golden age came to an end in the 17th-century during the Thirty Years’ War—a series of wars that began as a religious conflict between Catholics and Protestants. The Protestant town was besieged by Catholic forces. It is said that the city was spared from complete destruction when the mayor successfully completed a dare. The leader of the invading force agreed to let the town be if someone could skoll more than three quarts of wine. “Hold my beer,” said Mr Mayor!
Following the Thirty Years’ War, the town declined and remained in a state of neglect for centuries. In the 19th-century it was rediscovered by artists and tourists who were drawn to its medieval charm. Today, Rothenburg ob der Tauber is a popular tourist destination.
Best time to visit Rothenburg
The best time to visit Rothenburg ob der Tauber depends on various factors such as weather, crowds, and seasonal events. One of the most popular times to visit is during the summer months. From June to August, the weather is warm and pleasant. During this time, the town is bustling with tourists, so expect larger crowds and longer queues at popular attractions.
If you prefer a quieter experience, consider visiting Rothenburg during the shoulder seasons of spring (April to May) and autumn (September to October). The weather is still pleasant, and you’ll have a better chance of exploring the town without the large crowds. Another highlight of visiting Rothenburg, Germany is during December. The town is known for its enchanting Christmas Markets, where you can experience the festive atmosphere, shop for unique gifts, and indulge in traditional German treats. The Christmas Markets in Rothenburg are a must-see and attract visitors from all over the world.
How long to spend in Rothenberg
Rothenburg ob der Tauber is a charming town with a rich history and plenty of attractions to explore. To fully experience all that Rothenburg has to offer, it is recommended to spend at 1-2 full days. This will allow you to leisurely explore the cobblestone streets, visit the various museums and historical sites, and immerse yourself in the medieval atmosphere.
It’s possible to see much of Rothenburg in a day trip, but once you’re under its spell, you’ll wish you had more time. I recommend at least one overnighter. This will allow you to see some of the more popular sights before and after the day-trippers have passed through—especially in high season. If you are visiting for the Christmas Markets, 2-nights is more appropriate.
Getting to Rothenburg
Getting to Rothenburg ob der Tauber is relatively easy, with several transportation options available. Whether you prefer to drive, take a train, or join an organized tour, there are convenient ways to reach this charming town.
If you’re coming from Frankfurt, Stuttgart, Munich, or Nuremberg, you can easily plan a day trip to Rothenburg. The driving distances and times vary depending on your starting point:
Nuremberg is the closest major city, located just 80-km (50-mi) away from Rothenburg, which translates to a driving time of about 1.25-hours.
Frankfurt to Rothenburg is 215-km (130-mi), approximately 2.5-hours drive time.
Stuttgart is a bit closer, 255-km (160-mi) with a travel time of under 2-hours.
Munich is farther, with a driving distance of approximately 350-km (220-mi) and a travel time closer to 3-hours.
Note, navigating the narrow, old cobblestone streets can be difficult, let alone finding parking inside the walls. Furthermore, traffic is restricted at some times of day. It is best to park in the parking lots dotted around the outside of the city walls. From there you can easily walk the short distance into the sights and accommodation. There are designated parking lots for motorhomes and buses, as well as electric vehicle charging available. Checkout the official Rothenburg Tourism website for details.
If you prefer not to drive, there are also public transport options available. Rothenburg is a little more awkward to reach this way and you will need more time. I would only take public transport if you’re travelling from nearby Nuremberg. You can take a train-bus combo that will get you there in under 2-hours.
Alternatively, you can join an organized tour that includes transportation to and from Rothenburg. These tours often provide additional insights and commentary from knowledgeable guides, making your journey even more enjoyable.
The Romantic Road
The Romantic Road is promoted as a scenic route that stretches over 400-kilometers from the town of Füssen to Würzburg, north of Rothenburg. The name “Romantic Road” (Romantische Strasse in German) conjures images of picturesque landscapes and charming villages—that was the idea!
In post-WWII Germany, the country was desperate to rebuild its tourism industry and travel agents began to promote the route under this name. U.S. military folk deployed in occupied Bavaria and their families helped to spread the word. However, many modern travellers report that it is largely overhyped and a pain to drive, especially in peak season.
Though it translates rosily into English, the route’s name actually comes from the fact that the road follows the old Roman route. If you’re short on time or the patience to be stuck on a narrow, rural road behind a slow-moving tractor, skip the “Road”. Instead, opt for the autobahn to efficiently travel between a handful of the best stops including Füssen, Nördlingen, Rothenburg and Würzburg.
What to see in Rothenburg
Rothenburg ob der Tauber is a treasure trove of sights and experiences that will transport you back in time. Here are some of the top attractions that you shouldn’t miss during your visit:
Rothenburg Wall Trail
Take a stroll along the well-preserved medieval walls that encircle the town. From here, you can enjoy panoramic views of the town and the surrounding countryside from a largely elevated position. The town wall is not only a great way to explore, but it also offers a unique perspective on Rothenburg’s history and architecture. This was my favourite activity in Rothenburg!
Allow yourself 2-3-hours to take the full city wall trail complete with interpretative signage in English. The trial itself is only 5-km (3-mi) but there’s so many great photo opportunities, you won’t want to cut yourself short. Wear comfortable shoes and be prepared for uneven surfaces and a few stair climbs.
The ruins of Rothenburg Castle are now a stunning garden along the City Wall Trail. Don’t miss a wonder through this green space of Rothenburg, and the views of the surrounding countryside.
Market Square (Marktplatz) This scenic square is the heart of Rothenburg and is lined with colorful half-timbered houses. Don’t miss the impressive Town Hall (Rathaus) and Ratstrinkstuber (more on that to come). The Market Square is a vibrant hub of activity, with shops, cafes, and restaurants where you can sit for hours and enjoy the atmostphere.
Ratstrinkstube Clock Tower
Remember the story of the Mayor that drank the wine to spare the town? Well, that story is immortalized in the clock on the wall of the Ratstrinkstuber (Councilor’s Tavern), located in the Market Square. Between 10am and 10pm each day, the clock chimes on the hour and the doors either side open to show characters reenacting this dare.
St. Jakob’s Church
Admire the stunning Gothic architecture of Rothenburg’s largest church, a Catholic turned Luthern place of worship. St. Jakob’s houses the famous Altar of the Holy Blood carved by sculptor, Tilman Reimenschneider in the 1500s.
Towers in town
You will remember from our brief history lesson that the city walls had to be expanded to outward to make room for the growing city. Remnants of the fortifications now lie inside the town, including a couple of the prettiest and most iconic towers. None is more photographed than Plönlein. Some other beauties include Markus Tower and archway (Markusturm) and The White Tower (Weisser Turm).
If you want to climb a tower for top-down views, head for Town Hall (Rothenburg Rathaus). There you can climb the 60-m (197-ft) clocktower for a small admission.
Night Watchman Tour
Join the entertaining Night Watchman for an evening tour through the town’s narrow streets. Listen to fascinating stories and legends while experiencing the town’s medieval atmosphere. The Night Watchman tour is a unique way to learn about Rothenburg’s history and immerse yourself in its captivating past. Though, be aware that there are no bookings taken for this tour and its increasing popularity means groups can be very large.
Rothenburg ob der Tauber is a place where history comes alive. Immerse yourself in its charm and explore these top sights and experiences for an unforgettable visit. Whether you’re a history enthusiast, aesthete, or simply seeking a unique travel experience, Rothenburg is an essential inclusion on your Germany itinerary.
Peace, love & happy travels,