If you haven’t been to Rothenburg ob der Tauber yet then WOW get off your computer and go pay it a visit ASAP. It may have taken the top spot of my favorite town in the world. Even if it’s not number one, it’s definitely a close contender.
When I was preparing to go to Rothenburg (literally the night before I was going), I was conflicted on what to expect there. Articles gave me conflicting information and ultimately I was unsure what to expect. So here’s my best attempt at telling you how to make the most out of a trip to Rothenburg.
HOW TO GET TO ROTHENBURG OB DER TAUBER
First of all, the most important thing to know is that there is more than just one Rothenburg in Germany. There are about three. The one that you want to go to is Rothenburg ob der Tauber (red fort on the Tauber River).
If you’re arriving by train, be sure to search for Rothenburg ob der Tauber. Long distance trains don’t go to the city so you must make a connection in nearby Steinach beim Rothenburg ob der Tauber. There is a regional train that runs directly from Steinach to Rothenburg back and forth all day. For some reason, there’s only one train leaving per hour. So if you miss your short connection (which I almost did), you’ll be stuck in Steinach for another hour. There is the possibility of taking a taxi to Rothenburg, but even though the train trip was only 14 minutes I can’t imagine how expensive a taxi would’ve been. So pray to God that you make your connections and come via train. The Rothenburg Bahnhof is about a 10-minute walk to the inner city and personally I recommend walking because the walk is just so beautiful.
People who are driving the length of the Romantic Road typically arrive in Rothenburg with their cars. Some hotels have parking spaces for their guests but those lots are typically small and they make you park your car outside of the city walls. Even if your hotel makes you park outside, the town is so small that it won’t be too far from where you’re staying.
However you choose to get to Rothenburg, I highly suggest that you arrive as early in the morning as possible. If you’re spending the night in town, then wake up super early to see the city before everyone else wakes up. I woke up at 3:30 a.m. and caught the earliest train I could to Rothenburg so that I could have the city to myself. Best thing I ever did – I can sleep when I’m dead.
WHAT TO DO IN ROTHENBURG
WALK THE WALLS
One of the reasons that Rothenburg ob der Tauber is so famous is because it is the best example of intact medieval town walls. Although they were partially destroyed during World War II (damn you Nazis for creating WWII) a decent amount of the town’s historical sites were preserved. Legend has it that some American general had heard his mother talk about the beautiful town of Rothenburg and thus the Americans spared Rothenburg from any further damage.
Today, the town has been completely restored to its original beauty, which includes the old town walls. Rothenburg’s town walls are massive and you can walk 180° along them. Unfortunately, the walls are NOT wheelchair or even handicap accessible. The steps up to the walls are extremely steep, uneven, and very dangerous. At some points I had to literally crawl up them on my hands and knees.
If you follow my advice and get there early, you won’t have to deal with the crowds and will have the walls all to yourself. I was the only person on the walls for about 45 minutes and even then, I only encountered two couples. It wasn’t until I was trying to get off of the walls that a group of 60 obnoxious tourists who were clearly on a guided tour tried to squeeze past me loudly.
That’s another thing. The walls are very narrow and at some points it’s only wide enough for one skinny person. Even if you don’t climb the walls (which you should do unless you’re physically unable), you can admire them from below. There are a variety of Biergartens along the base of the walls so you can still admire this medieval architecture feat.
GET AN AERIAL VIEW OF ROTHENBURG
Only one of the original towers is open to tourists for climbing. It’s called Rödertor and is probably the gate under which you entered if you came from the Bahnhof. There are 123 steps up to the top and for some twisted reason, you don’t pay the €2 fee UNTIL you’ve climbed all of those steps. I personally believe that this is the best view of Rothenburg. The tower provides 360° views all over Rothenburg and the surrounding countryside. Since it’s so high up the tower gets incredible breezes that will help you cool off after climbing all of those steps. It’s the best tower to climb because it’s on the edge of Rothenburg so you can see the entire city in one expansive view.
Conversely, some people elect to climb up the Rathaus tower at the city hall. It also costs €2 to climb but since it’s in the middle of the city, you can only see half of the city at once. Plus I’ve heard that they only let one person up at a time. It’s for those reasons that I personally suggest climbing up the Rödertor.
Guess what another way to get an aerial view over Rothenburg is?? You guessed it… the walls! It won’t provide as good of views as the towers, but if you’re trying to be cheap then you can still get a decent idea of the city from above. If you climb the walls at different times during the day, you can see what the city looks like with different lighting.
TAKE A WALKING TOUR
Walking tours are a great way to see a new city with a knowledgeable guide. Many cities offer free walking tours. Typically, the guide expects a little bit of payment at the end if you enjoyed their tour but it’s still cheaper than an expensive private tour.
If you, like me, are trying to be cheap, take a Rick Steves walking tour. They’re free and are as good as, if not better than a guided tour. Many of Rick Steves’ books provide walking tours in them for just about every city. If you don’t have any Rick Steves books, first of all what are you doing? Second of all, he has an app that you can download on your phone and then download the walking tours for free. You can choose to get the audio guide tour that you listen to or you can just read the transcript of his audio tour and use that as you walk around the city. For Rothenburg, Rick Steves’ walking tour was a little over an hour long but I took longer. After all, if you’re on a self-guided tour you can take things at your own speed.
GET YOUR PICTURE AT PLÖNLEIN
This is the postcard-perfect money shot in Rothenburg. It’s the picture that you have probably seen countless times when researching what to do in Rothenburg. There’s a reason why – it’s absolutely gorgeous and so picturesque. The only issue is that it can be swarmed with other tourists vying to get the same shot that you want. My recommendation? You guessed it… get there early!
I went there directly after I got off the train. I was being followed by hoards of schoolchildren but I walked as quickly as I could because I had woken up before dawn so that I could get my own picture there. Thankfully, there was only one other couple there who had had the same idea about taking a picture without anyone else in it. I had even brought a tripod so that I could get the picture I wanted. I was very appreciative that this nice couple took pictures for me and I took pictures for them.
All roads lead to Rome, and all roads in Rothenburg seem to lead back to Plönlein. For some reason I kept returning back there as I meandered through the cobblestone streets. Another reason I kept returning is that there was a free water fountain nearby and hell be damned if I was going to pay for water while I was there. As you can see from the below pictures, the famous intersection just gets busier throughout the day, especially if a riverboat cruise is in port that day.
If you still think that this place looks familiar, did you know that it was used as inspiration for Pinocchio and Beauty and the Beast? It’s easy to see why Disney used this place as inspiration – it’s absolutely breathtaking.
Now that you’ve hurried to get the picture in front of the famous Plönlein house, you can move on to see in the real heart of the city. Marktplatz is the aptly named Market Square where all of the business used to go down centuries ago. There is the old town hall, the new town hall, and the mansions of the have-been rich and famous. The white building at the north end of the square is the modern tourism office. Back in the day, it’s where the councilmen would go to have a drink. Every hour between 10:00 and 22:00 the clock on the front of it puts on a little show.
According to legend, Rothenburg was about to be invaded. The mayor of town invited the leader of the attackers into town for a drink. Weird flex but okay. The mayor then told the attacking leader that if he could finish a 3-liter tankard of wine in one gulp, then the attacker would have to leave Rothenburg unharmed. Well this mayor must’ve had a lot of practice because he drank the wine in one constant pull and Rothenburg was saved. So every hour, little clock people come out and their statue reenacts the wine drinking that spared the town. It’s cool to see once but in my opinion it’s a little underwhelming. But you should still see it and then turn around and watch all the other tourists marvel at the little wooden dudes.
In Rothenburg ob der Tauber, it’s always Christmastime. No literally, it always is. Käthe Wohlfahrt is a massive store that sells every Christmas item that you could imagine. There are several other Käthe Wohlfahrt stores throughout Germany but this is the flagship store that started it all.
This specific store is massive and it immediately transports you to Christmastime the moment you walk in the door. The fact that it’s one of the few places in town to have AC also evokes the feeling of Christmas. Although the store is beautifully decorated, pictures of the inside aren’t allowed. Therefore, behold the picture that I took inside.
A gift from Käthe Wohlfahrt is the ideal souvenir to take home from Rothenburg and Germany. The store has a ton of cuckoo clocks, ornaments, and those little wooded moving scenes that are so popular in Germany. Additionally, they offer worldwide shipping so if you’re traveling with limited space you can still select the perfect souvenir for your home.
Schneeballen are little ‘snowballs’ that are a treat of the region. They’re fried dough that are covered in a variety of sweets such as chocolate, sugar, nuts, and whatever else you can think of. These sweet treats are one of the big hits of Rothenburg, but everyone who has tried one hasn’t liked them. Since I had heard nothing but awful reviews I decided to save my €2 and not get one. But here they are in case you want to sample some when you’re in Rothenburg.
STROLL THROUGH THE BURGGARTEN
On the fringes of the town is a beautiful garden. It’s called the Burggarten and is the site of the first castle fortress from where Rothenburg grew. Today, it’s a peaceful garden with spectacular views over the surrounding countryside and Rothenburg. If you don’t want to sit and eat at a restaurant, this is the perfect place to take some food and a bottle of wine for a picnic. Based on the direction of the sun, I recommend getting here in the later afternoon so that Rothenburg is glowing in the sun. Otherwise it’s a bit harder to see because the town is backlit against the sun.
If you have the time, stroll all the way to the far end of the garden. You’ll pass a chapel and a monument that is dedicated to the Jews of Rothenburg who were killed. You will also see a beautiful rose trellis that is a very romantic place to stop. But finally, if you keep on going, you will reach the end of the garden and the edge of the cliff.
Rothenburg was built on a cliff to better protect itself from invaders. Overall it worked fairly well… until the Bubonic Plague came along and the rats didn’t give a damn about cliff fortresses. Locals say that this location is the best ‘make-out spot’ and it’s easy to see why. The rolling green hills and the river far below are stunning during all times of year.
Across the river gorge is a lot of agriculture and, according to a plaque, some sort of plain. I didn’t see any plain anywhere because I was looking for a large expanse – apparently the plains, along with everything else, is smaller in Germany. But just over the river, at the plain, is Baden-Württemberg. I had no idea that Rothenburg ob der Tauber was THAT close to the state border, so even though it’s technically in Bavaria, Rothenburg still holds true to its Franconian roots. It’s like the Texas of Bavaria. Which is ironic because Bavaria is the Texas of Germany.
SEE THE BLOOD OF CHRIST AT ST. JAMES’S
The spires of St. James’s Cathedral are visible throughout the city of Rothenburg ob der Tauber. And if you’re familiar with Europe and churches, you may be wondering why such a tiny town has such a MASSIVE cathedral. I know I sure was confused.
As it turns out, this church was built because it’s a pilgrimage site. And the pilgrims came here because there is a vial that supposedly holds a drop of Jesus Christ’s blood in it. So they literally built half of the church around this supposed blood. Personally, I don’t think that it’s Christ’s blood. After extensively studying European history, I’ve learned that most of these ‘holy relics’ came from when the Europeans went berserk during the Crusades. Which basically means that at some point when the Crusaders were terrorizing the Holy Land, some local said “hey this blood belongs to Jesus even though he died 1200 years ago isn’t this cool?” and the Crusaders ran with it. Even though I am a believer and I am a Christian, I’m also a realist who knows that there’s 0.0000001% chance that most “holy relics” are what they’re actually purported to be. Nevertheless, it’s pretty cool to think that people have been coming here for centuries from around the world to worship his blood.
The church itself costs €2 to enter, €1,50 with a valid student ID. I hate having to pay to go inside churches but this one’s low entrance price plus getting to see Jesus’s “blood” makes the price worth it. Plus, if it’s hot outside, the church will give you a cool place to rest your feet.
JOIN A NUNNERY
Okay so you shouldn’t ACTUALLY join the nunnery mostly because it’s no longer operational and today the building is used as a museum. But it is the most comprehensive museum about Rothenburg’s history so if you have the time, pay a visit! The attached gardens are another beautiful place to wander around and take time away from the throngs of tourists. Back in the good ol days before modern medicine, the nuns would grow herbs in the garden to try and create concoctions to heal diseases. Today you can still see some of the herbs that would’ve been grown in a traditional garden. They’re labeled by name, but don’t touch, pick, or even smell them. Some of the herbs are poisonous, as labeled by the amount of crosses on each plaque. I guess the more crosses it has, the more likely you’re going to need a cross!
Rothenburg ob der Tauber is one of those cities where getting lost is one of the best ways to see it. After you’ve seen the important sites and done what you’ve wanted to do, just to get lost in the quaint streets. You might keep winding up at the Marktplatz and Plönlein but at least you’ll be able to see a lot of the city.
THINGS TO KNOW BEFORE YOU GO
WEAR STURDY SHOES
Considering Rothenburg ob der Tauber has been around for centuries, its cobblestones have also been around for centuries. And they look like it. The roads and sidewalks are uneven and if you think THOSE are bad, the walkways and stairs along the walls are twice as bad. So if you choose to wear cute sandals or heels, walk at your own risk cause it’s not gonna be comfy.
FREE BATHROOMS AROUND TOWN
Rothenburg did an amazing job of realizing that tourists have to pee. A lot. Thankfully, they decided to provide free water closets around the town. One of them is at the Burggarten and is tucked away by the tower. Thank you Rick Steves for telling me about it! There is also another free bathroom right outside of the town hall near St. Jakob’s Cathedral. I kept hitting up those bathrooms every time I encountered them because I knew where they were and I was NOT about ready to pay for a bathroom.
FREE DRINKING WATER
One of the great things about Germany is that most of the water mostly everywhere is safe to drink. And considering I’m cheap and like to get a few germs in me for immunity, I typically fill up water bottles in sinks cause the water is fine. Thankfully, I was able to find a water fountain in Rothenburg. It’s just a little bit north of Plönlein and conveniently located right by some benches for you to refuel yourself.
Rothenburg ob der Tauber is definitely doable in just one day. I managed to see virtually everything in the city except for a few small churches. I would have liked to stay longer to capture the city during golden hour sunset but that was the only thing I missed. In my opinion, Rothenburg is a great day trip destination from Frankfurt or Munich. I traveled from Augsburg with almost a 3 hour train ride each way and had no problems.
If you enjoy a slower pace of travel, then try and spend at least one night in Rothenburg. Anything more than 2 days is a bit extensive and I wouldn’t recommend staying any longer. If you are coming on an organized tour where your time in Rothenburg is limited to a few hours from 10:00-3:00… good luck. That’s the busiest time of the day and you’ll be fighting with every other day tour. So if you can, try and get there as early as possible in the day and/or stay as late as you can. When you have a bit of Rothenburg to yourself away from the crowds, you’ll be glad you sacrificed your sleep.