On the Romantic Road in Middle Franconia, Rothenburg ob der Tauber is one of those sweet old towns that doesn’t seem quite real at first glance.
To enter, you pass through a defensive system of more than 40 towers that are much as they were when King of Sweden and Count of Tilly were in town 400 years ago.
They guard an idyllic town of plush patrician houses and half-timbered dwellings with turrets, wooden bay windows, red roof tiles and blooming flower boxes.
In its glory years Rothenburg was an Imperial Free City, beholden only to the Holy Roman Emperor, and one of the ten largest cities in Empire.
Summing up Rothenburg’s power in those times is the glorious Renaissance town hall on the market square.
Let’s explore the best things to do in Rothenburg ob der Tauber:
1. Town Wall
As an Imperial Free City, defence was paramount for Rothenburg in Medieval times.
The city has kept hold of its 46 defensive towers and four kilometres of covered walls, which have been restored and set up with information boards.
On a two-hour themed walk known as the Rothenburger Turmweg you can read about the technical details of various gates and towers, and the events that have unfolded over the last 800 years.
You may be stopping every few steps to ponder the views over the city’s red rooftops and the Tauber Valley.
The Turmweg also links with six other themed trails in the town and in the vineyards around Rothenburg, so you can let your sense of curiosity be your guide.
Rothenburg’s town hall is split into two parts: Fronting the market square is the main Renaissance building finished in 1578, and with a Baroque arcade at its base, a three-storey oriel on its corner and a winding staircase tower above the arcade.
You’re looking at one of the best expressions of Renaissance architecture in the German-speaking world.
It was built to replace the east wing of the original 13th-century Gothic town hall that burnt down in 1501.The white west wing is still standing and sports the imperial and city coat of arms on its triangular gable.
Every day in summer and on weekends in winter, you can climb the watchtower for a couple of Euros to gaze over Rothenburg’s rooftops.
You would need a whole article to record the many epoch-making events to have happened on the square beside the town hall.
In 1474 at this very place, the territory of Holstein was granted to King Christian of Denmark by Holy Roman Emperor Frederick III. Another story, which may or may not be true, comes from the Thirty Years’ War: Georg Nusch, the town mayor, is supposed to have persuaded the Holy Roman commander the Count of Tilly to spare the town by drinking a 3.25-litre tankard of wine tankard of wine as a wager.
That moment is re-enacted by the automatons on the Ratstrinkstube on the north side of the square on the stroke of the hour between 10:00 and 22:00. A year later, in 1632, the opposing commander Gustavus Adolphus stayed in the town hall while passing through Rothenburg with his army.
The Hohenstaufen Holy Roman Emperors has their castle on this loop in the Tauber, but after it was felled by an earthquake in 1356 its stone was recycled for Rothenburg’s walls.
The only remaining piece was the Blasiuskapelle, converted from the castle’s great hall and hosting a memorial for the victims of the two World Wars.
Sweeping out below the terrace to the left is the Tauber Valley and you can look back at the southern quarters of the city.
And in the middle you’ll come to a formal garden from the 17th and 18th centuries, with eight sandstone sculptures, for the four seasons and the four elements.
At the end of the garden on the opposite bank is the weird outline of the Topplerschlößchen, a defensive tower with a residential house stuck on top.
If there’s one image that encapsulates Rothenburg, it’s this fork in the road on Untere Schmiedgasse.
Looking south the street slits into upper and lower lanes, both walled by half-timbered and stone houses.
From the fork you can see two 13th-century gates: Siebersturm is on the upper level, while to the right, at the end of a curve is Kobolzellerturm, which opens onto the Tauber Valley.
In the centre of the fork is the prettiest building of the ensemble, a narrow half-timbered house with a pointed gable and a little fountain in front.
6. St James’ Church
The city’s main Gothic church, consecrated in 1485, took more than 170 years to complete.
Its two towers are capped with spires adorned with crockets.
Make time for the tall, narrow windows in the east chancel date from the 14th century, which have scenes from the Passion and the Life of Mary.
But before you do anything you have to make for the western gallery, which has Tilman Riemenschneider’s phenomenal Holy Blood altarpiece.
He carved this in the first years of the 16th century and it’s considered among his greatest work.
The central panel depicts the Last Supper and is framed by interweaving vegetal motifs with unbelievable workmanship.
Near the top the altarpiece’s decoration envelops a reliquary cross dating to 1270.
7. Medieval Crime and Justice Museum
In the historic commandery for the Order of St John is an often grisly museum covering 1,000 years of crime and its consequences.
There’s a special interest in Medieval and Renaissance trials, methods of torture and punishment.
And although these various instruments hold a morbid fascination there’s also a lot of enlightening detail about religious inquisitions and the history of the police and courts on the second floor.
These exhibits call on legal manuscripts, a collection of seals and old prints depicting trials.
On the first floor is an authentic iron maiden, along with pillories and an alarming amount of devices made especially for women like shrew’s fiddles and scold’s bridles.
Outside is a genuine “cucking stool”, also for unruly women and dishonest tradesmen.
Another of the sights to ponder at the market square is a fountain that has been here since 1446. The monument sits between the town hall and the Fleisch- und Tanzhaus, a half-timbered hall that is special in own right and was built over the wing of the town hall that burnt down in 1240. As for the fountain, this was fixed over a well eight metres deep and with a capacity 100,000 litres.
In the centre is a 16th-century Renaissance column with a sculpture of St George and the Dragon at the top.
One worthwhile stop on the wall walk is this gate with its own defensive complex at the southeastern entrance to the old town.
In peaceful times a traveller would be greeted by the two customs huts with pointed roofs.
After that there’s a walkway leading into the half-timbered outer bailey, which was used for storage and stables.
From there you’ll cross the moat to approach the main tower, the oldest part of the complex dating to the early 13th century.
This tower was also signalling post in Medieval times and along with the town hall is one of only two towers in Rothenburg that you can climb.
Admission is €1.50 and the tower is open on weekend afternoons.
Translating to “forge lane”, Schmiedgasse runs down the gentle hill from the market square, and is traced by restaurants, cafes and inviting little shops in historic houses.
One such house is the Baumeisterhaus (Master Builder House)at no. 3, from 1596 and named for Leonhard Weidmann, also responsible for the town hall.
Between the mullioned windows on the first and second floors are 14 caryatids for the Seven Deadly Sins and Seven Virtues.
There’s also a rather grim story about Schmiedgasse: In 1525 during the German Peasants’ War, Casimir, Margrave of Brandenburg-Bayreuth rounded up 17 local ringleaders on the market square and beheaded them.
Their bodies were left on the square for a day and apparently their blood flowed like a stream down Schmiedgasse.
11. Imperial City Museum
This historical museum has its home in Rothenburg’s 13th-century Dominican convent.
The Gothic cloisters are still here, as is the convent kitchen, counted among the oldest in Germany.
On show in the galleries is a big collection of weapons and armour, as well as objects that give a sense of the day-to-day in Rothenburg, like clothing, coins and Jewish liturgical ornaments.
You may recall Georg Nusch and his drinking wager that supposedly saved the city; well, his tankard is the exhibition.
There’s also some precious Late Gothic sculpture gathered from churches and monasteries around the town, as well as the Rothenburg Passion, 12 altarpiece panels painted in 1494.
After passing under the Rödertor, you’ll come face-to-face with this quaint old house first built on Wenggasse in 1469. The Gerlachschmiede is an old forge with a cute triangular gable on a porch held up by wooden beams.
This was one of many buildings in the southeastern part of Rothenburg to be lost in a bombing raid in March 1945, but was faithfully rebuilt by 1948. A blacksmith continued to work here, making horseshoes, until 1967. On the street sign you can see the hammer and tongs of the locksmith and blacksmith guild, while the eye-catching coat of arms on the gable is a new design from 1950.
Below Rothenburg’s west flank there’s a scene right out of a Romantic landscape painting.
The Tauberbrücke is a bridge with two levels of arches crossing the Tauber Valley’s green meadows and vines for 123 metres.
It has a history dating back to 1330 and was on a trading route between the cities of Augsburg and Würzburg.
The big years in the bridge’s history are 1791 when the upper level collapsed and had to be rebuilt, and 1945 when the German army pulled it down to be fully reconstructed in 1956.
On the noble Herrngasse you’ll come across the oldest patrician house in the city.
The Staudthof, named after the von Staudt family, owners since 1697, has a relatively modest facade on the street side.
But once you cross the threshold the property’s splendour becomes clear.
The Staudthof dates back to the 12th century, predating Rothenburg’s city walls, so had a defensive wall of its own.
This encompasses a 120-metre courtyard surrounded by a barn, stables and centred on a beautiful garden with two yew trees that have been growing since 1678. It’s all a perfect window on the lifestyle of Rothenburg’s old patrician class, which made its money not through trade but by owning land.
You can get in touch via the property’s website to inquire about a tour.
Germany is a special place to be at Christmas when markets pop up in every city centre.
The same goes for Rothenburg, but the market has a Disney-esque quality for its backdrop of gabled houses on Marktplatz and its connecting streets.
And if you’re lucky enough to be here when it’s snowing the city looks like a living Christmas card.
What’s more this market, open from the 1st to the 23rd of December, can be traced right back to the 15th century and has a couple of traditions of its own.
One is the market’s eponymous Reiterle, a legendary Teutonic horseman originally known for collecting the souls of the dead.
If that sounds a bit creepy, the good news is that today’s Reitlerle is just a cheerful messenger who opens the market each year.