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Rothenburg is still Germany's best-preserved walled town. In the Middle Ages, Rothenburg was Germany's second-largest city with a population of 6,000. (Rolf Richardson / Alamy)

Rothenburg: The Best of Medieval Germany

In the country’s best-preserved walled city, tourists get a taste of medieval history and some of the best modern shopping

smithsonian.com

Twenty-five years ago, I fell in love with a Rothenburg (ROE-ten-burg) in the rough. At that time, the town still fed a few farm animals within its medieval walls. Today its barns are hotels, its livestock are tourists, and Rothenburg is well on its way to becoming a medieval theme park.

But Rothenburg is still Germany's best-preserved walled town. Countless travelers have searched for the elusive "untouristy Rothenburg." There are many contenders (such as Michelstadt, Miltenberg, Bamberg, Bad Windsheim, and Dinkelsbühl), but none holds a candle to the king of medieval German cuteness. Even with crowds, overpriced souvenirs, a Japanese-speaking night watchman, and, yes, even with Schneeballs, Rothenburg is best.

In the Middle Ages, when Frankfurt and Munich were just wide spots in the road, Rothenburg was Germany's second-largest city, with a whopping population of 6,000. Today it's Europe's most exciting medieval town, enjoying tremendous tourist popularity.

To avoid the hordes of day-trippers, spend the night. In the deserted moonlit streets, you'll risk hearing the sounds of the Thirty Years' War still echoing through turrets and clock towers.

A walking tour helps bring the ramparts alive. The tourist information office on the Market Square offers tours led by a local historian — usually an intriguing character. After dark, there's another, very entertaining walking tour led by Rothenburg's medieval "Night Watchman." A thousand years of history is packed between the cobbles. The two tours are completely different and both are well worthwhile.

For the best view of the town and surrounding countryside, climb the Town Hall tower. For more views, walk the wall that surrounds the old town. This 1.5-mile walk atop the wall is at its most medieval before breakfast or at sunset.

Rothenburg's fascinating Medieval Crime and Punishment Museum, all unusually well-explained in English, is full of legal bits and diabolical pieces, instruments of punishment and torture, and even an iron cage — complete with a metal nag gag. Some react with horror, others wish for a gift shop.

St. Jacob's church contains the one must-see art treasure in Rothenburg: a glorious 500-year-old Riemenschneider altarpiece, by the Michelangelo of German woodcarvers. Pick up the brochure that explains the church's art treasures and climb the stairs behind the organ for Germany's greatest piece of woodcarving.

To hear the birds and smell the cows, take a walk through the Tauber Valley. The trail leads downhill from Rothenburg's idyllic castle gardens to the cute, skinny, 600-year-old Toppler Castle, the summer home of the town's mayor in the 15th-century. While called a castle, the floor plan is more like a fortified tree house. It's intimately furnished and well worth a look. On the top floor, notice the 1945 photo of a bombed-out Rothenburg. From here, walk past the covered bridge and trout-filled Tauber to the sleepy village of Detwang, which is actually older than Rothenburg and has a church with another impressive Riemenschneider altarpiece.

Warning: Rothenburg is one of Germany's best shopping towns. Do it here, mail it home, and be done with it. Lovely prints, carvings, wine glasses, Christmas-tree ornaments, and beer steins are popular.

About Rick Steves
Rick Steves

Rick Steves is a travel writer and television personality. He coordinated with Smithsonian magazine to produce a special travel issue Travels with Rick Steves.

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