Rothenburg ob der Tauber is considered one of Germany’s most quintessential German towns. Famous for its timber-framed houses, it remains one of only three fully walled-in cities in Germany. Part of the Romantic Road in the Franconian region of Bavaria, 2.5 million people journey from all over the world to see this fairytale town. Rothenburg was Walt Disney’s inspiration for his 1940 movie Pinocchio. Filming was also done here for Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (2010, 2011) and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (1968 – which also filmed flying over Schloss Neuschwanstein).
A Brief History
Rothenburg ob der Tauber’s Old Town is a well preserved 17th-century medieval town. Its name translates to “red fortress above the Tauber” referring to the river below. Rothenburg was founded as a city in 1170 and was a Free Imperial City from the late Middle Ages until its incorporation into Bavaria in 1803.
During the Thirty Years War in October 1631, a Catholic count wanted to quarter his 40,000 troops in Rothenburg. They were a Protestant town and were prepared for a siege to prevent this from happening. Rothenburg quickly lost this fight. When the troops moved on a few months later, the town was left poor and much less populated. A few years later in 1634, an outbreak Bubonic Plague killed many more. The lack of money and power in the city meant a halt of economic growth. As a result, the town is now preserved in this state.
World War II
Rothenburg had quite an interesting role in World War II. It was idealized by the Nazis as “the most German of German towns.” In March 1945, an Allied forces bombing raid resulted in the destruction of many houses, towers, and parts of the city wall in the eastern section of town. The U.S Assistant Secretary of War, John McCloy, knew of Rothenburg and its historic beauty. He ordered the Army General not to use artillery in taking Rothenburg. He wanted to preserve it as much as possible. Six soldiers were sent into the town to negotiate their surrender. Hitler had ordered all German towns to fight to the end. Luckily, the military commander did not heed this order and the town was preserved from further attack. McCloy was later named an honorary citizen of Rothenburg in 1948.
Thanks to donations from all over the world, reconstruction of the town started almost immediately after the war. As much as 40% of the town (mostly in the eastern section) needed to be rebuilt. Thankfully, due to the stone construction, most of the eastern towers and walls remained somewhat intact. Most of the buildings and homes in the west and south were preserved in their original medieval state.
What We Did
My favorite thing to do in any city is to just get out and walk. Here, there’s so much charm and history to soak in that you could spend days just meandering about the city. The cobblestone streets are littered with enchanting multicolored timber-framed houses. There are plenty of cafes, bakeries, and shops to visit. There are also many museums including the Town History Museum, the Doll and Toy Museum, the Christmas Museum, and the Medieval Crime and Punishment Museum.
This Rothenburg’s most iconic site. When you google “Rothenburg,” this the photo that pops up. While most people think that the Plönlein refers to the yellow timber frame house in the center, it actually translates to “small square at the fountain.” The yellow house is the center of the Plönlein but it extends to include the fountain in front and the two city towers to its left and right. Your trip to Rothenburg won’t be complete without this photo, but make sure to go either really early in the morning or late in the evening so everyone else won’t be in your photos.
Take a Tour of the City
The best way to see the whole city while taking in loads of history is to take a tour. I cannot recommend the Night Watchman tour enough! There are six other tour guides, but Hans-Georg Baumgartner is THE Night Watchman. He tells the story of medieval Rothenburg with such wit and dry humor and reminds me of a German Gene Wilder. You’ll see him every night roaming the city, cloaked in black and armed with his halberd and torch.
The tour starts in Market Square and takes you through the Old Quarter as well as the Castle Garden around the wall. Tours start at 8:00 pm in English and at 9:30 pm in German and last about 45 minutes. In January and February tours are only offered on Saturdays, while March tours run Wednesdays and Saturdays. From the end of March through early January, tours run daily.
You can make reservations for a private tour with 6 of the guides. You can’t make reservations with Hans-Georg even if you wanted to, tours are paid to your guide at the time of the tour only in cash. My suggestion: get there early to chat and grab a photo (he’s actually quite friendly despite the appearance of his costume) and stick close to the front of the pack. Then, get ready to roam the city with your closest new 200 friends (if you go during the summer)!
Climb the Rathaus Tower
For the best panoramic view of the city, climb the Rathaus (City Hall) tower. It’s only €2! Beware though, this is not for the faint of heart! It is quite physically demanding with tight stairwells all the way up. Eventually, you reach a long flat room that leads to a tiny doorway (see below). From this point on, you are climbing straight up a set of stairs that’s more like a ladder. There is no guide manning the stairs so you must be on the lookout for others climbing up or down at the same time. Once you finally pull yourself over that last threshold, you’ll be treated to a 360° view of the walled-in city and surrounding farmlands.
Medieval Torture Museum
Rothenburg’s Medieval Crime and Punishment Museum is the sixth most popular museum in Germany. It features “50,000 exhibits from over 1,000 years of German and European legal history.” Exhibits range from criminal trials and public humiliation to torture and executions. Entrance for adults is only €7,50. (Helpful hint: if you have a student ID, BRING IT. Many places all across Europe offer discounts for students.) You can peruse the museum at your own pace, but you can also arrange a guided tour in English of German in advance.
Outside the museum is a display of gated carts that were featured as the sinister child catcher’s cage in the movie Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. He used promises of free treats like lollipops and ice cream to lure children into the cages and take them away to Vulgaria. (Side note: this movie legitimately terrified me as a child so this was an actual fear of mine.) Honestly, seeing these lined up outside was enough to give me the creeps, a feeling that continued throughout the entire museum.
Take a Stroll Along the Town Wall
Rothenburg is one of the only towns in which you can walk along the entire length of the city wall! There are 22 different stations, each with plaques that tell the history of the buildings and the city itself! You can walk along the whole 2.5 miles (4 km) or just walk a few sections along. This is one of the best (and easiest) to see the entire town!
Where We Ate
I am convinced that the best schnitzel EVER is found here in Rothenburg. Gasthof zum Ochsen is a small, quaint little restaurant that mostly locals frequent. According to TripAdvisor reviews, their customer service for tourists isn’t the best at dinner time. We went in the middle of the day, however, and did not experience this. I had the biggest, juiciest pork loin of my life. Will got (and I kept stealing some of) the jagerschnitzel and it was the best thing I’ve ever eaten. I kept ordering jagerschnitzel the rest of our trip and none of them even compared!
Where We Stayed
We stayed at Pension Hofmann-Schmolzer. There are actually two properties that make up this bed and breakfast. The main house is where you’ll find reception and the breakfast room. Heads up: If you don’t particularly like cold cuts, sausages, and cheese, German breakfast isn’t going to be your thing. The manager was perfectly friendly and walked us over to the secondary house, where we stayed.
Our room was on the top floor of this cute building in the attic. Fair warning: the attic gets HOT when you’re staying in the summer (no AC and heat rises…). Also, when they say “room with shower,” they mean it. Our room literally had a shower right next the bed. The toilet and sink were just next door and were shared between the two attic rooms, although no one stayed there while we were there so we had the whole floor to ourselves.
While the bed and breakfast is inside the city walls, it’s not directly in the heart of the old town. However, it was just a short walk to everything in town and it was nice to be a little out of the hustle and bustle. It’s certainly not a luxury hotel (hey, we were broke college grads), but if you’re looking for comfortable accommodations with friendly staff, it’s certainly that.
What We Wished We’d Known
There are no cars allowed in the center of the old town from 7:00 pm to 6:00 am. Generally speaking, there are no parking lots within city walls, although some hotels will offer parking. Rothenburg was not a city designed for cars (after all, it is medieval!) so some roads are one way and some are closed to vehicle traffic altogether. The city also has some days that car traffic is banned altogether, like on weekends and during festivals. My suggestion: travel light, carry only what you need, and park the car in one of the available lots right outside the city wall.
Rothenburg ob der Tauber is definitely a Christmas town. They have several Christmas ornament shops open year-round. There’s even a Christmas museum on top of one of the shops! But the best part is that it has one of the most famous Christmas markets in the world. The whole main town square is filled with rows and rows of booths from local craftsmen and smells of mulled wine and Christmas pastries. This market is definitely high up (if not at the top) on my bucket list!