Rothenburg ob der Tauber: Disney in Real Life

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…

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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.

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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.

rothenburg-ob-der-tauber-germany-422There 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.)

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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.

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St. Jakob’s Church is stunning. Definitely not to be missed.

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In terms of the things we did not have the time to see, here are just a few of the highlights:

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.

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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.

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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.

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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!

10 replies
  1. Jon cesena
    Jon cesena says:

    Crazy! I used to live there, right behind the Christmas museum, and I never knew my favorite Disney movie was based on the village!
    It is a great town and there are some real hidden gems there!!!

    Reply
  2. Sandra Hutchison
    Sandra Hutchison says:

    It’s been years since I was in the Bavarian and Bayern areas of Germany. My 27 y.o. daughter was just 3 weeks on one of our trips. People were staring…
    Have you traveled down the rest of the romantic road and the other picturesque villages as well? I love Mittenwald. We saw a man & wife coming out of a church in their traditional wedding dress. What a treat! Also, travel down the road that takes you through Rhineland. Wine country.

    Reply
    • Tom Bricker
      Tom Bricker says:

      Unfortunately, we barely scratched the surface on Romantic Road (and really, Germany in general). We really want to head back, and hope to see more. It was all so picturesque!

      Reply
  3. Skyler Petersen
    Skyler Petersen says:

    Your disneytouristblog brought me here. I love seeing the real life inspirations for Disney movies and Epcot is one of my favorite places! Someday I hope to travel abroad, but in the meantime I’ll keep living vicariously through your blogs!! Thank you!

    Reply
  4. Patricia
    Patricia says:

    Rothenburg was hands down my favorite town in Germany. I’m thrilled to see your gorgeous photos and read your commentary on this little jewel.

    Thanks so much for sharing!

    Reply
  5. Ashley
    Ashley says:

    My family visited Germany around Easter back in 1984 b/c my aunt was stationed there. We spent a day in Rothenburg and had a very good time. However as I was only 8, the things I remember doing were climbing the wall’s very steep steps (although we didn’t do the whole loop) and shopping in Katy Wolfahrts (which I’m sure I misspelled). Everyone came out of there with a bag of Easter & Christmas ornaments & decorations.

    Reply
  6. Joanne
    Joanne says:

    I am so excited to read your Trip reports from Rothenberg, Neuschwanstein Castle, as well as Oktoberfest! We are planning to do those areas on our own before a Danube River trip this September. Your pictures, as always, are other-worldly and your information helps me frame some of my plans, This November in WDW I noticed the sign in Germany near the small train exhibit that said “the Romantic Road”, sealing the deal on visiting that part of Germany! Thank you so much for your perspective and time in sharing what looks like a fabulous trip!! And thanks too to John who added good recommendations as well in his comments above!

    Reply
  7. John
    John says:

    Hi Tom,

    Big fan of your articles and photos over at the disneytourist site.

    My wife and I have visiting Rothenburg 4 times since 2013, including 3 trips at christmas, and i would definitely recommend a 2 night stay if you ever find yourself back there. (On a side note, its a bit dis-spiriting, if inevitable that you took better photos in 3 hours than i did over several days:) ) The hotels are similar to ones you mentioned in your European trip reports, ie small and quaint, not quite as modern as American hotels or hotels in larger cities in Europe but very comfortable and charming. We most recently stayed in the Eisenhut, which you have a photo of above and it’s is by far the fanciest we have stayed in in RodT (Make your own waffles at the breakfast buffet, need i say more) In terms of places to eat i’d recommend the Goldener Greifen, literally next door to where you ate. Great german comfort food and they brew their own dunkel beer.

    . While there’s not a ton of things to do there to fill 2 days (never mind 4 trips) it’s a real smell the roses kind of place, which really benefits from a slower pace to take in all the details. (much like Animal Kingdom, which i think RodT put on their brochures.)

    As to how it came to be in such a well preserved state, the nightwatchman goes into detail on that in his tour (which I thoroughly recommend). Basically it was once an important and prosperous city (not a village, you might end up in the stocks at the medieval crime museum for that one) at the crossroads of two trade routes, but it’s population was decimated during the 30 years war and it didn’t really recover, so it didn’t grow much in the next 250 years, then it became popular with artists, which led to tourism.

    It also survived WW2 relatively intact (45% destroyed counts as relatively intact apparently) there’s an interesting story behind how it was saved which the nightwatchman also goes into.

    Anyway sorry about the long post but there aren’t many of us in the middle of the venn diagram of Disney obsessives and RodT fans.

    Reply
  8. Marie in Texas
    Marie in Texas says:

    Thank you so much for sharing your wonderful photos and thoughts! I am a big Disneyland fan so I am familiar with your talent in capturing amazing imagery. What a pleasant surprise to find more of your work showcasing a destination I have been pondering over for our next trip! As usual, every one of you pictures has captured gorgeous details! I am in love! I am also now thoroughly convinced that Rothensburg has earned a spot in the itinerary for our next European adventure in late August 2017.

    Reply

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