In this post, we visit Rothenburg ob der Tauber, and share our experience, tips, and photos from this city in Germany that is known for its old world charm. It’s actually more than that: the quaint village has a fairytale charm that defies explanation, and feels less like a place you should encounter in real life and more like something out of a Disney film. What’s ironic is not only the fact that it does exist in real life, but also that it has been the inspiration for Disney settings in both film (Pinocchio) and theme parks (Epcot’s Germany pavilion). Fans of either should notice some familiar sights in these photos.
And in what I guess is a twist of double irony, it would seem that Disney’s theme parks now serve as some of the inspiration for Rothenburg. (It’s like when the attraction Pirates of the Caribbean inspired a movie, and then the attraction received a movie tie-in!) Not in any explicit way, but the way Rothenburg now operates has a distinctly Disney-esque feel in terms of showmanship and how it’s deftly commercialized. It’s tourist-y, but without the cheap feel that often comes with that territory.
Before I lose any of you who are put off by the idea of something “tourist-y,” I want to state up front that while Rothenburg is unquestionably tourist-y, it is the perfect marriage of a humble European village and a tourism operation. Rothenburg ob der Tauber absolutely oozes charm and really is the exemplar of a medieval European village, perfectly preserved and perfectly enthralling. We’ll circle back to that later in the post–I just wanted to paint a picture of Rothenburg ob der Tauber up front without losing anyone. Suffice to say, it absolutely belongs on everyone’s shortlist of places to visit in Germany.
Admittedly, our visit to Rothenburg ob der Tauber was rather cursory. We were in Munich for Oktoberfest, a scene of which we grew weary after a couple of days. Realizing we might not have a car on a future trip to Germany, we decided to call an impetuous audible, and made a day trip to Rothenburg.
Our day trip was about a 3-hour commute each way, leaving an insufficient amount of time to actually explore Rothenburg. So, if you’re reading this with an eye towards planning your own trip, our first morsel of advice would be to actually stay in Rothenburg.
Basically, the four things we did in Rothenburg ob der Tauber were shop, eat, climb the walls, and take photos. Lots and lots of photos.
As for dining, we had dinner at a place called Baumeisterhaus in the center of town. It was charming inside and packed to the gills with people (probably due to the location), but it wasn’t anything special. We also tried the Schneeball (“snowball cake”), which I thought was excellent. It was, essentially, a hardened ball of pastry with various “stuff” in it. Not everyone likes this, but as the regional specialty, I feel at least trying it is a “when in Rome…” kinda thing.
Here are some other things I think are worth highlighting about Rothenburg ob der Tauber…
Seemingly every restaurant, shop, and hotel has an ornate sign. I wish I would’ve focused more attention on getting closeup photos of these, because they were really cool.
We did the 1.5 mile loop through the preserved medieval wall, and highly recommend that. There were some points where it was a bit tight, but the views were spectacular and, at least when we did it at sunset, there were only a handful of other visitors up there.
There are a ton of hotels in Rothenburg. Since we didn’t stay here, I’m not too sure of pricing, but all of the ones we saw looked like they had a lot of charm. Based upon what we saw, there were a surplus of cute inns and hotels, and during the impulsive trip, we saw a ton of things we wished we could’ve done while we were there. Learn from our mistake and spend the night instead of doing a day-trip. (If anything, on a return visit, I’d debate whether to spend 1 or 2 nights there–probably one.)
This is a German cat. Exotic, right? Actually, I have nothing insightful to say about this cat. I don’t even remember why I took this photo of it.
St. Jakob’s Church is stunning. Definitely not to be missed.
In terms of the things we did not have the time to see, here are just a few of the highlights:
- Medieval Crime and Punishment Museum
- Deutsches Weihnachtsmuseum (German Christmas Museum & Shop)
- Imperial City Museum
- Night Watchman Tour
We saw the Night Watchman Tour in progress (and before that, we saw the tour guide walking by himself, which eerily resembled a scene from The Seventh Seal as it appeared Death himself was lurking in the shadows) and overheard part of the presentation while stationed beside my tripod to take photos. It sounded fascinating, and I’ve never heard anything but high praise for the tour.
In addition to doing that tour and the Crime & Punishment Museum, I’d also like to revisit Rothenburg for the Christmas Museum. If possible, I’d love visit around Christmas for its famed Christmas markets. European Christmas markets look incredible, and I think seeing those, along with the snow-covered mountains around Neuschwanstein Castle put December high on my list of times to visit Bavaria.
In our Third Man on the Matterhorn post, I broached the subject of how Zermatt blurs the line between a staged, themed environment and an authentic idyllic village. Rothenburg, Germany takes that a step further and feels like a time capsule of a bygone time. For a town to remain this “pure” in design over time isn’t just improbable, it’s impossible.
I have no doubt that Rothenburg has gone to great lengths to preserve its buildings to maintain a certain vibe and comport with tourist expectations about what an “authentic” European village looks and feels like. There’s no doubt that travel and tourism makes up a significant segment of the local economy, so of course it behooves Rothenburg to deliver what its visitors expect.
I find this particularly fascinating, especially since there’s nothing (necessarily) inauthentic about it. As best I can tell, this is an instance of preserving history, rather than concocting a facade that is ultimately hollow. Everything in Rothenburg seems to have a real history, and wasn’t just concocted for the sake of making the village a tourist attraction.
Perhaps architecture would’ve changed over time, and there is a certain kitsch-factor to it all, but what you see and experience is no less compelling. To the contrary, it feels like a very substantive experience, like a time capsule of authentic culture. The best comparison in the United States I can think of is Williamsburg, VA, if only the residents there had gone to greater lengths to preserve their history rather than recreating it.
Maybe this type of thing doesn’t interest anyone else, but I find it incredibly interesting. As someone who spends a lot of time fixating on the themed environments and entertainment of the Disney parks, it’s really fascinating for me. This is about as close as a ‘real world’ analog to a theme park could come while still maintaining a distinct aura of realism.
As noted above, Rothensburg does attract hordes of tourists. This could be off-putting for a lot of visitors looking for a hidden gem or quaint village away from the crowds. If that’s how you feel, I would still recommend visiting Rothenburg. It’s really that solid of a destination. However, instead of visiting during the middle of the day when the crowds are heavy, time your visit in the late afternoon and evening. Shops close early (I believe most were closed by 5 p.m. when we visited) but restaurants stay open late, and you can wander the streets anytime. We found that by 7 p.m., even during a fairly busy tourist time, the streets were virtually empty (aside from a crowd gathered for the Night Watchman Tour). This would be the perfect time to wander in solitude, soaking up the charm of Rothenburg ob der Tauber without the crowds.
Overall, I found Rothenburg ob der Tauber an incredibly photogenic, old world town that was more than worthy of its reputation. Like so many other popular tourist destinations, there’s a reason this attracts big crowds, and being overrun with people has the potential to spoil a place that is predicated on intimate charm, but nothing could spoil Rothenburg. This town is an absolute treasure, and a place I recommend without hesitation. We’ll definitely be back!