Germany / Travel

Rothenburg: A Fairy-tale Village at the End of the Line

One of the basic requirements for successful travel is knowing that where you want to go, is in fact, where you’re going. As obvious as this sounds, travel blogs (including ours) are littered with stories of taking the wrong bus, train, road, or street, and ending up in the wrong place.

This is exactly the conundrum we faced at the ticket machine in the Nuremberg train station. The quaint, Medieval village of Rothenburg was where we wanted to go, but as it happens, there are two Rothenburgs. After some quick internet research we discovered that the city we wanted was Rothenburg ob der Tauber or Rothenburg on the Tauber River, not just plain Rothenburg.

But don’t be put off by all this transport confusion, if you want to see what a successful German village looked like in the Middle Ages, Rothenburg is the place to go.

Row of Houses

Rothenburg Street

Rothenburg has all the key ingredients for a successful 15th Century village. Their high-ground location enabled them to see if approaching visitors were friend or foe. A thick stone wall ensured that unwelcome guests stayed outside; the trade routes that passed nearby made it easy for the citizens to make a buck.

Photographers

The heart of old town is the Marktplatz, which hums with gawking, photo-snapping tourists, who are justifiably amazed at the view. A Gothic 13th Century City Hall dominates the plaza, and the 15th Century Councilors’ Tavern – the tallest, most attractive bar you’re likely to see, sits next door.

City Hall

These large, official buildings are impressive, but Rothenburg is the perfect place to ramble narrow, cobblestone streets and enjoy lovingly restored houses – from Medieval mini-mansions to cute cottages.

Wonky Door

Wonky Door 2

There were tons of fun architectural details. This door reminded us of some of our renovation projects. There doesn’t appear to be a 90º cut anywhere on the door, and the trim job on the bottom of the door is classic. Still, not bad for a 524 year-old house.

Short Door

Terri snapped this photo of me outside Bilbo Baggin’s house.

We’ve visited a few cities in Europe that have excellent Medieval old towns, but Rothenburg is the largest and best restored town we’ve seen. It’s off the beaten track and a bit tricky to get to – the bad news is that it takes 3 trains and 2 connections to get there (with only 4 minutes to change trains) – the good news is that it’s the end of the line, so there’s no confusion about where to get off the train.

Window boxes

Travel guides complain of the summer crowds, so a shoulder-season visit will be more pleasant. But even with the transport hassles and crowds, it’s a fairytale village that’s well worth the effort.

Happy Trails,
James & Terri

Train to Rothenburg

80 thoughts on “Rothenburg: A Fairy-tale Village at the End of the Line

    • Thanks Miriam. I suspect that a good deal of this preservation is a result of being off-the-beaten-track. Luckily, for hundreds of years, villages like Rothenburg had no reason to attract anyone’s attention. ~James

    • I agree Andrew. We visited a few nice villages on our recent trip. We particularly liked Bacharach on the Rhine. It was a tiny place, but was equally as charming, and the Rhine is beautiful in this area. ~James

    • If you get to this area, it’s worth the trip; easier by car no doubt, but part of the fun is getting there, and the train ride in is nice. The village would make Disney designers green with envy. ~James

  1. We were there in the late 80s and it was incredibly beautiful, if this is the Rothenburg in Bavaria that is home of the Museum of Torture. We don’t go in for that sort of thing, but my husband Thom’s ancestor, Joan DeWitt, regent of Holland for William of Orange, was featured in one of the exhibits there, so we felt we really ought to go see it. (He was, along with his brother, torn limb from limb by an angry mob, and hung from the lamp posts.)
    Wonderful photos for this post!

    • I don’t have much interest in torture museums either Noami, but to see an exhibit on a notoroius relative – how could you resist. I love to hear stories of infamous people in someone’s background. I don’t know of any scandalous folks in my background, but if there were, it would be a motivation to dig into the history of the person and the time. Tell Thom that I’m impressed. Any tale that involves William of Orange, a regent, and people being torn apart gets my attention. ~James

      • On that same trip, we went to the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam and happened upon a special exhibit in honor of the 300th anniversary of William and Mary’s coronation, and in it were suits of clothing Johan DeWitt wore, letters written in his own hand, busts and portraits, and all kinds of fascinating information. Much more informative than the Museum of Torture!

      • I didn’t know anything about Johan, but after a quick bit of online research, he sounds like an interesting character. In those days, absolute support for one group and absolute opposition to another could eventually (depending on who prevails) be hazardous to one’s health – as Johan discovered in Rothenburg. Thanks for this interesting story that has brought an unexpected aspect to this post. ~James

  2. We might be able to fill a whole blog with missteps, mistakes, wrong turns, etc. However, some of those wrong turns have presented us with sites and scenes we would have otherwise missed. Great pictures of a town we’d love to visit. Love the one of all the tourists taking pics — we would have been right there with ’em!

    • I couldn’t agree more Rusha. Chance favors the prepared mind. Once in Bangkok, we were looking for a certain Buddhist temple, and following the wrong tower on the skyline, we stumbled on The Golden Buddha of Wat Traimit, which is famous for its 10,000 lb solid gold statue. We hadn’t read about this temple and probably would have missed it. Of course, we have a post:

      https://gallivance.net/2013/06/29/the-day-the-monks-hit-the-lotto-2/

      If you get to Bavaria, you should definitely put Rothenburg on the see list. ~James

    • Laura, you would’ve gone crazy snapping photos in Rothenburg. In addition to being a beautiful, historical village, it’s a living-breathing place where real people live. The small cottages and their gardens are delightful, and when we were there, the flowers were in full bloom. It truly is a photographer’s dream. ~James

  3. I thought perhaps the crooked doorway was due to ingenious carpentry to accommodate an uphill climb, no? Love the colors and architecture…
    Fairy Tales Do Come True, It Can Happen To You..If you are among the very young at heart!!

    • Strangely Martha, this small cottage was on a relatively flat street. But after 540 years, who knows? It could be settling, earthquakes, termites, or all of the above. Living in New England, I’m sure that you know about the commitment that’s required when living in historic houses. Imagine taking care of a house this old. Great to look at, but no thanks! ~James

  4. What a gorgeous heritage town, thank goodness you ended up in the right one! Your photographs paint a lovely picture of a location that is definitely worth three train trips to get to, of course all the places off the beaten track usually are!

    • And don’t forget that this was 3 trains and 2 stops going and returning. Luckily, we only missed one of our 4 minute connections, which took a bit of a route shuffle. The confusion over town names was pretty funny. Standing in front of the ticket machine, I was saying to myself: “How can I have done my research and not known this before?” ~James

  5. Oh my, such a pretty place! I’ve never been there… one more place I need visit here in Germany! Great photos as always… loved the small door with you on the side, I think I would easily fit there, Im too short hahaha 😀

    • Allane, you should definitely put this on your visit list. We did it as a day trip from Nuremburg, and it was perfect. I’m sure that summers are wacky, so an autumn or spring trip would be best. Also, they have have tons of nice shops to visit. ~James

      • We weren’t on a tour, but were on our own Allane. We had visited years ago and it was really cold, so we couldn’t really appreciate it. But this time, the weather was perfect. I don’t remember the train schedule from Munich, but with some planning and a long day, you might be able to do it as a day trip. Enjoy. ~James

    • Thanks Florence. We really enjoyed Bavaria, and Rothenburg was a nice change from big city Munich. It’s a pleasant part of the world, that you and Mike would enjoy. I hope all is going well on your upcoming move. ~James

      • Only in the Old World can such fascinating sights be seen. Initially, I think I may have been more motivated to explore Germany than Florence. However, I think we share an equal desire to see Germany after you shared these sights in your latest story. Thanks for sharing a delightful experience. – Mike

      • In addition to Munich, Nuremburg, and Rothenburg, we visited Bacharach on the Rhine, which is fabulous. Cologne was fun, and Dusseldorf was OK, but not really worth going out of your way (we had a flight out). We did a short cruise up the Rhine, and it was great fun. Let us know when you’re going and we can make some recommendations. Watch this space and you’ll see posts on much of this trip … as usual. ~James

  6. After having ridden a hundred or so Italian trains recently the thought of a 4 minute connection has my eye twitching. Seems as though it was well worth a littl anxiety. The village looks straight out of a movie set. Thanks for including the door with no 90 degree angles. Being a renovator of such houses must induce headaches. 😊

    • I maintain that the Germans run the best, most efficient, most on-time train system in Europe. But, having said that, even D-Bahn has a hard time making 4 minutes connections. Of the four-4 minute connections, we only missed one. But hey – 75% ain’t bad. ~James

  7. That’s almost unbelievable. They must have very strict planning laws to have kept out the chain stores with their bland modern facades, and to deter all the people who want to replace windows and doors with nasty PVC ones totally unlike the originals. And no horrific colour schemes either. Wonder how they manage it.

    • Dorothy, I didn’t read anything about the zoning and building restrictions, but from the looks of this perfectly preserved village, I can say that there are some very strict controls in place. We’ve lived in a few historic neighborhoods in the US, and even for 100 year-old houses, the restrictions were pretty amazing. I can’t imagine how tightly the authorities control Rothenburg. But I will say that the results are wonderful, and people that want to live there know from the outset what they’re getting into. ~James

    • We were concerned about these 4 minute changes from the beginning, and knew that they could be a problem. And of course, they were. But to the D-Bahn’s credit, we only missed 1 of 4. ~James

  8. I also twinged at the reference to a 4 minute connection. This summer when I had to journey alone from Roth to Kranenburg at the Dutch border, I would have had to make 5 connections – some with only 10 minutes inbetween. I decided I’d rather drive alone for 6 hours on unfamiliar routes.

    Your photos show a storybook town right out of a fairy tale. We North Americans are so enthralled these finds! Yeah – the wee door got me too 🙂

    • Joanne if you ever make a train journey and successfully make 5 connections, please let me know. Then, I want you to buy a lottery ticket for me because you are one of the luckiest people on the planet. With trains, anything less than 15 minutes makes us nervous, and in big stations, we only feel good if we have 20-30 minutes. The 4 minute connections for Rothenburg were a short connection record for us. ~James

  9. I had to laugh at the door. The front door of our current apartment is slanted just like that. Strange stuff! I am fairly sure I read a book by Elizabeth Peters (a Vicky Bliss story) that took place in Rothenburg–although perhaps it was another German “R”, but I remember there was a scene with a chase on top of the walls. I’m off to check now. As always, great pictures!

    • I’m not sure about the book or the chase on the wall Dina, but it is possible to walk (or run) the entire wall around Rothenburg. It was built in the 13th – 15th Centuries and is approximately 1.5 miles around. We didn’t manage to make the walk, but I can imagine that the views are marvelous, particularly over the Tauber River Valley. ~James

    • It’s a special place, and I’m sure that you’ll enjoy it Jennifer. We daytripped from Nuremburg, which is east of Rothenburg. The thing that makes getting to Roth. a bit tricky is that it really is at the end of the line, and there’s only one way in and out, and the train originates in Steinach. So for you coming from Utrecht, the best route would be to Frankfurt, then Wurtzburg, Steinach, and then Rothenburg. You might be able to make it to Wurtzburg on one train, but I’m not sure. You can lessen the connection closeness by spending the night in Roth., which would be cool.

      bahn.com is easy to use, and will give you all the details. I hope you can make it. ~James

    • I wondered what the story was on this door Pam. The house looked like most of the other houses on a normal looking street (well, normal in a Medieval way). Did you have German relatives? There were so many cool architectural details in Rotenburg, and this was just one of many. ~James

      • Pam, if you can walk through this door without bonking your head, maybe you should start your search for relatives in Rothenburg. Bavaria is an interesting area, and its variety makes it a wonderful place to start a German trip. ~James

    • Thanks for the comment and for dropping by the blog. We saw the teddy bear shop, and they were certainly cute, but the prices – ouch. It’s an outstanding village and you’d enjoy going back. ~James

    • Thanks Virginia. As I said, this is the best preserved and largest Medieval village we’ve seen. City officials are doing everything that can be done to make sure it stays that way, and that’s lucky for travelers like us. ~James

  10. There is something organic about medieval towns, James. Being within castle walls forced a good use of space. Great photos.

    Sometimes it is good to wander without a destination in mind. I’ve been doing that on the Oregon coast for the past week. Peggy is off in Alaska helping with the grandkids and I am on a road trip. I stop wherever I find something of interest— waves, bridges, a huge blimp hangar built during WW II. Some days I have only made it 50 miles in eight hours. 🙂 I thought of you and Terri when I passed through Newport. –Curt

    • Your road trip sounds fun Curt, and the Oregon coast is the perfect place for it. When we moved to Oregon we had pretty much lived in the south and eastern part of the US (and overseas), so Oregon was a new experience for us. The coast there is so different from the east coast, and the “live and let live” attitude of the people was refreshing to see. In the end, our southern roots pulled us back east, but we’ll always cherish our time on the Oregon coast. ~James

  11. For me the wrong turns have often been the berry things that found be the best places. Goodness knows I’ve made enough of them. What a lovely place though. We have lots if crooked medieval houses here in Southampton but, mostly, they’re beside far more modern buildings.

    • Marie, when I lived in the London I developed an interest in English Medieval architecture. On our weekend trips I would always search out the buildings in the area. I thought it was particularly interesting that building innovations used by the nobles eventually trickled down to yeomen’s halls. ~James

    • Thanks Pit. We visited Rothenburg years ago, and it was freezing. And I must admit that my low tolerance for cold discouraged me from lingering. We visited on a sunny, warm autumn day, and it was perfect this time. Are you back in Germany for a visit, or staying for a while? ~James

      • Hi James,
        I’m sure Rothenburg must have been very pretty on a sunny autum day. We were there in spring last year and had one not-so-good day, but then a few really sunny ones: ever so lovely.
        Just now, I’m in Germany for three and a half weeks, then it’ll be back to Fredericksburg, Texas.
        Have a great time,
        Pit

    • I’m sure that there are other charming Medieval villages scattered around Europe Chris, but Rothenburg is the nicest one we’ve seen. As you can imagine, it’s popular with tours so it’s best to visit in the shoulder season. All the best in the New Year. ~James

  12. Terri & James, ah, Rothenburg is such a delight. My parents lived about 20 min. from there for four years and so we made frequent jaunts. I still remember my first trip when I was 11 or so; on a day in which the sky was cloaked in grey, we walked around the old city walls. It all felt so formidable then, but as an adult, Rothenburg has a quaint charm, almost like a dollhouse village.

    Though we’re not always fans of organized walking tours, there’s a fantastic one led there by a man dressed as though he is a night watchman (carrying lantern and all). Georg offered the perfect mix of humor and history: http://www.nightwatchman.de/index.php?&sprache=ENG

    • Tricia, even on a grey day, a visit to Rotheburg as an 11 year-old must have been magical. I could imaging sword-yielding knights around every corner. We didn’t manage to do the tour you mentioned, but Rick Steves recommended this guide as well. In addition to Rothenburg, the train ride in was very scenic. This is a beautiful part of the world, and I can imagine it was a fun place to live, for both you and your parents. ~James

    • Disney can certainly make it look good, but Rothenburg makes it look good and old – really old. Like you Leslie, I always think about the Disney villages and the real thing in Europe. Rothenburg really is the fairy tale, and is worth a visit. ~James

  13. I would love to go to Rothenburg again. Your photos and descriptions are great, now we can finally get a good look at this lovely city. My husband and I went there in March 1982. It was our first stop on a month-long tour of Europe, so we were pretty bleary-eyed, arriving in Frankfurt and then immediately planning to go to Rothenburg. We’d roughly mapped out an itinerary from our “Europe on X Dollars” a day book, (it’s so, so much better now with the internet to make plans, isn’t it?), but we didn’t see in the guide book that the train to Rothenburg didn’t run on Sunday, or we maybe had missed the last train. Fortunately, there was a bus.

    We did go to the Torture Museum. Horrifying. The Iron Maiden, the rack. Awful. I’m reading abook about “Peter the Great” now, which mentions just often torture was used.

    • Cathy, your trip sounds like our first visit there as well. We did it on a Eurail pass, and made the mistake of planning our visit a bit too late in the year. Consequently, it was freezing cold, and we couldn’t really appreciate the city. I think my constant shivering blurred my vision. Our guidebook was Rick Steves’ “Europe through the back door.” And after all these years, the trains to get there are still difficult. As I said in another comment, we missed one of our 4 minute connections (no surprise there), and had to do a bit of the old train station shuffle to get back to Nuremburg at a reasonable hour. But, if you get a chance to return, you really should. It’s a very special place, and our pictures don’t do it justice. ~James

      • We would love to return to Rothenburg. We didn’t send nearly enough time in the area. On that trip, we headed south to Italy sooner than we had planned, because it was so cold in Germany. We discovered that everyone in Germany had the same idea. We arrived in Italy during Easter week, and it was elbow to elbow everywhere … but warmer. We had a hard time finding a hotel. That’s when we decided we no longer wanted to leave hotels to chance on our next trip to Europe.

        I did see that you missed a connection. I remember being so bummed out that, even though we had Eurail passes, we couldn’t use them on our first stop, because there was no train that day. I don’t even remember how we found out that we had to take a bus becasue it was Sunday, and I think we almost missed that! I did find a dollar bill in the Frankfort train station, though! I guess no one else wanted it.

      • This is very funny Cathy, and brings back memories. I’d say fond, but at the time they were anything but fond. We took a similar tack. We were freezing our butts off and decided to head south. We ended up in Sorrento, and this is the hilarious part. We found a wonderful little hotel with a fantastic view, and it was cheap (operative term in those days). The sun went down, and the temperature started to drop, and I went looking for the heat. You see this coming of course. The hotel did NOT HAVE HEAT!! But the good news is that the hotel was so cheap that we could afford to buy a bottle of imported scotch. So we snuggled in bed under heavy covers, drinking scotch, and playing cards. This sounds romantic now, but at the time … not so much. But it makes a great memory. ~James

    • We haven’t been to Freiburg Jean, but your post will motivate me to visit. Years ago we visited Colmar, France which is about 25 km west of Freiburg, and it too is a little medieval gem. Check it out if you are in the area. ~James

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