Rothenburg ob der Tauber (pop. 12,000) is one of the best preserved historic towns in all Germany and a tourist magnet. It epitomizes the typical Teutonic medieval fortified town, with colourful timber-framed houses, stone ramparts and jumbled cobbled streets. Few places capture more the spirit of the Romantic Road than Rothenburg ob der Tauber. Local authorities have made the town mostly pedestrian to protect its historical character.
Rothenburg's history started in 1070, when the Count of Comburg-Rothenburg decided to erect a castle on top of a hill overlooking the River Tauber. The last Count, Heinrich of Comburg-Rothenburg, died heirless in 1116, bequeath the castle and the adjoining Gebsattel village to the Comburg convent. Emperor Henry V had other plans to the future of the county. He stepped in, overruled the will and appointed his nephew Konrad von Hohenstaufen (who'd become King Conrad III of Germany) as the new Count of Comburg-Rothenburg.
In 1170, Rothenburg was granted city rights soon after the completion of Staufer Castle (named after the Hohenstaufen Dynasty). In 1274, Rothenburg was elevated to the rank of Free Imperial City by King Rudolf of Habsburg, which it would keep until the dissolution of the the Holy Roman Empire by Napoleon in 1806.
In the 14th century, Rothenburg grew to a population of 5,500, making it one of the 20 largest cities in the Holy Roman Empire at the time. The Teutonic Knights started the construction of St. James' Church in 1311, which would last until 1484. The Staufer Castle was destroyed by an earthquake in 1356. The St. Blaise Chapel is the only remnant standing to this day. Rothenburg prospered during the late Middle Ages, attracting quantities of pilgrims to the Holy Blood pilgrimage in St. James' Church.
The 17th century marked a sudden decline of the city. the In October 1631, at the height of the Thirty Years' War, the Belgian Catholic Jean t'Serclaes, Count of Tilly, attempted to quarter his army of 40,000 soldiers in Rothenburg, which had converted to (Protestant) Lutheranism. The local citizens refused entry to the Catholic troops, but were soon crushed by a brief siege. Three years later the Black Death wiped out a big chunk of the remaining population, and Rothenburg was left out as an impoverished backwater. The lack of growth and money was ironically a boon for the preservation of the town's architecture, which hasn't changed much since the 1600's.
Artists of the Romantic movement rediscovered Rothenburg in the 1880's. The Nazi seized Rothenburg's Romantic image to their profit, hailing it as "the most German of German towns" and organizing day trips there from all across the Reich. On 31st March 1945, the Americans sent 16 air planes to bomb Rotherburg, sadly destroying 306 houses, 6 public buildings, 9 watchtowers, and over 600 metres of city wall.
All Rothenburg is a pleasure for the eyes. Visitors shouldn't head for specific sights as they would do in cities like Cologne or Berlin but sample the atmosphere here and there, bathing in the omnipresent visual exuberance.
The town is centred around the Markt (market square), with the Gothic Rathaus (town hall) serving as a rallying point. Climb to 220 steps to the top of its 60-metre-high tower to contemplate the River Tauber meandering across the landscape. Entry is 5 €, a bit steep, even for a climb. Immediately north of the town hall is the Jacobskirche (St. James's Church), renowned for its Holy Blood altarpiece carved between 1500 and 1505 by the famous Würzburg wood carver Tilman Riemenschneider.
Rothenburg's pride is its intact ramparts, circling around the city for 2.5 km. The western section, overlooking the Tauber, is the most impressive. Check the 14th-century double-decker bridge (Doppelbrücke) over the river. The Röderturm, the eastern city gate at the end of Rödergasse, is sometimes open to the public and provides a nice viewpoint.
There are a few museums in town. The popular Medieval Criminal Museum (Mittelalterliches Kriminalmuseum) features instruments of torture and punishment devices, and explains the history judicial punishment in Germany over the last 1000 years. The Imperial City Museum (Reichsstadtmuseum) is housed in an old convent and has a range of local art, mostly religious exhibits, including the Rothenburger Passion (1494) by Martinus Schwarz. It also has a very important collection of weapons as part of the Baumann Foundation.
The other museums are the Schäfertanz Museum, the Doll and Toy Museum (Puppen- und Spielzeugmuseum), Christmas Museum (Weihnachtsmuseum) and the Craft House (Handwerkerhaus).
A bit of trivia: people who have played the video game The Secret of Monkey Island (1990, Special Edition 2009), which incidentally served as the inspiration for the Walt Disney film series Pirates of the Caribbean, will remember the street scene in Melee Town with the clock tower, which is none else than Rothenburg's Siebers Gate and the intersection of Untere Schmiedgasse/Plönlein with Kobolzeller Steige.
How to get there
Rothenburg ob der Tauber is located about 60 km south of Würzburg (40min) via the E43 motorway. Access is also relatively easy from Heidelberg/Mannheim (1h40min) or Nüremberg (1h) using the E50, or from Fankfurt-am-Main (2h) taking the E41 to Würzburg.
Rothenburg can be accessed by regional train from Würzburg with a change at Steinach. The whole trip takes about one hour (12.2 €). Trains from Nüremberg (1h15min, 18 €) or Stuttgart (2h45min, 38 €) both require a change at Ansbach then at Steinach. You can check exact train timetables and fares on the Rail Europe website below.
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