Rothenburg ob der Tauber, Germany

Before we made our way to Seefeld, Austria for Christmas, the prior week was spent leisurely traveling through Germany. I fell in love with the German Christmas markets last year and wanted to see more this year. One place that seemed to come up frequently in my research for its ambiance at Christmastime was a small town called Rothenburg ob der Tauber.

Rothenburg was a wealthy city in its medieval days and prospered until it was invaded during the Thirty Year’s War in the 1600’s. The invasion was quite unplanned. When Catholic forces needed a place to settle in for the winter, Protestant Rothenburg was the closest town and was overtaken swiftly. The city bribed its way to survival but never recovered and was preserved by its state of poverty. The town could not afford to upgrade over time to newer, more modern buildings so the medieval architecture had to make do. The city lived in these unfashionable conditions until the tides turned in the late 1800’s. Tourists were attracted by its reflections of the past. Inspired artists started selling paintings of the town, and its popularity spread.

The very buildings that were the shame of Rothenburg saved it from destruction during World War II. The town was going to be destroyed by American troops when an American general got wind of the plan. Remembering the drawing of Rothenburg that hung in his childhood home from his mother’s trip there, he pleaded that the town be spared. Subsequently the Nazis inhabiting Rothenburg were given the chance surrender the town to the Allies, and Rothenburg was saved.

From rags to riches, now the poor town that once couldn't afford new buildings has become a highly sought out destination for tourists to see this medieval gem. 

This is the oldest tower in the town, dating from the 1300’s. (It's my favorite picture of the city, featured in my end-of-the-year post.) The wooden door in its tower is from 1515!

Rothenburg would be beautiful any season to visit, but it really shines at Christmas. Its markets were some of my all-time favorites. Though its markets were not big, they also weren't overcrowded on the week days we were there which made them very enjoyable.

And then of course was Christmas central - the Käthe Wohlfahrt store. You have to wander inside just to see the barrage of lights and glittery ornaments. The store has elaborate mini-stores throughout Germany’s major Christmas markets, but the real deal is the flagship store in Rothenburg. Upstairs is the German Christmas museum. This fun, small museum teaches how many of our Christmas traditions started in Germany and spread. For example, take the tradition of decorating Christmas trees (which originated in Germany). During the Franco-Prussian war, Christmas trees were sent to German soldiers and the tradition spread to the rest of the world from there.

If you want a change in mood, head over to the quirky Medieval Crime museum (Kriminalmuseum). This museum is a bit all over the place and offers a lot of information to read (in German and English). It mostly details medieval laws and the methods of punishment used on lawbreakers. 

The museum has a considerable collection of “shame masks” which delinquents had to wear according to the type of bad behavior exhibited. This one was for women who were gossips - the ears meant they heard everything, the glasses were because they saw everything, and the long tongue signified that they blabbed their findings immediately. 

Don’t worry ladies, there were some laws in the woman’s favor. My favorite was that if a husband was unkind to his wife, he had to plow the fields. Except instead of the plow being pulled by an ox, he was strapped to the plow and his wife drove the plow.

Also worthwhile is going into the main church, St. Jakob’s (St. James in English). Before you go inside, take a look at its construction. The town outgrew the church and an expansion was needed. The only way to expand and not block off a major road was to simply extend over the road.

Inside, the high alter is quite pretty

The high alter by Friedrich Herlin (1466)

…but make sure you go upstairs to see the masterpiece of Tilman Riemenschneider. He was a skillful woodcarver who made the Altar of the Holy Blood, portraying the last supper in expressive detail. Judas, in the center of the alter, can be removed, leaving the viewer to figuratively stand in for Judas.

It’s well worth it to go on a walking tour of the city. The Night Watchman tour attracts a large group, but the entertaining night watchman handles the crowd well. The town gets quiet at night so it is a fun diversion. The daytime walking tour was a little longer and more informative, though each tour gave different pieces of the city's history. 

Besides the small attractions, the town itself is a sight to take in and enjoy. Ditch the tourists by walking up on the walls surrounding the city.

Parts of the wall were damaged during World War II. As you walk around, you will notice plaques hanging with names (and countries) of donors who contributed funds to help rebuild after the war.

Down below, walking around the city offers a glimpse into the medieval ages. Rothenburg was the first city in Germany to put codes in place to protect and preserve its history. One example you will notice is that stores and restaurants are not permitted to display plastic signs. Only metal signs can be used.

More noticeable is the dessert specialty of Rothenburg, called “Schneebälle” (snowballs). They are prominently displayed in windows like this one throughout the city.

I had read the opinions of many people that Schneebälle were not all that tasty, but of course I needed to try this local specialty myself. They are essentially fried dough balls that look like scraps of pie crusts rolled up into a ball. They come in a variety of flavors - coated in chocolate, dusted in cinnamon, you get the idea. Quite frankly, there is no flavor that makes these dry, fried dough balls taste worth the calories. As intriguing as they are, I say skip them and try any other pastry instead. But of course I say this yet curiosity will probably get the best of you too!

There is good food in the city though, for very decent prices. Our nice dinner was at Altfränkische Weinstube, a dimly lit, cozy restaurant in the north part of town. It has a romantic feel to it with a real fire burning in the winter. The only factor that slightly diminished the atmosphere was the odd stuffed animals that decorated our little alcove. Odd? Yes. But the food was delicious! 

Some furry friends kept us company as we enjoyed our dinner. 

Most tourists visit the town as a day trip and leave before dinner time. You should make a reservation though because this restaurant fills up with locals (and the smart tourists who stay the night). Order some spätzle (think of it as the German version of gnocchi but fashioned in short, stubby noodles) and a glass of Franconian white wine from the region, and you will see why this place is packed with happy diners. 

Most tourists take a day trip here, but it is well worth it to spend at least a night in this cute town!


STOP:  and eat at this restaurant for a nice dinner out - 

Altfränkische Weinstube

Klosterhof 7

91541 Rothenburg ob der Tauber, Germany

Open 6:00pm-10:30pm


German Christmas Museum

Herrngasse 1

91541 Rothenburg ob der Tauber, Germany 

Consult hours on their website, admission (as of January 2014): €4 for adults, €2 for children (ages 6-11)

Medieval Crime Museum

Burggasse 3

91541 Rothenburg ob der Tauber, Germany

Consult hours on their website, admission (as of January 2014): €5 for adults, €3 for children

St. Jakob's church

Klostergasse 15

91541 Rothenburg ob der Tauber, Germany

Hours: January-March and November 10am-12pm / 2pm-4pm; April-October 9am-5:15pm; December 10am-4:45pm

Admission (as of January 2014): €1.50 for adults, free for children


Night Watchman walking tour

Daily March-Christmas, English tour at 8:00pm, Price (as of January 2014): €6 for adults, €3 for students, free for children under 12 years old 

Lasts one hour, no registration required, meets in front of the town hall (in Marktplatz)

Guided Tour of the Old Town

Daily English tour at 2pm (not during Jan-March), Price (as of January 2014): €7 for adults, €4 for students, free for children under 12 years old 

Lasts for 90 minutes, no registration required, meets in front of the town hall (in Marktplatz)


Most tourists stop by for the day, but I strongly recommend spending at least one night, optimally two, to really enjoy the town. You need to stay at Hotel Spitzweg that might for all I know be run by Santa himself. The owner is a wonderfully friendly older gentleman who serves breakfast in the morning with a big smile and comes out with a cup of coffee towards the end to chat with his guests. He even sent us off with sandwiches for our journey by train to Cologne afterwards. The hotel is housed in a building that survived from the 1500’s and the rooms are decorated with painted antique furniture (and clean, modern bathrooms). 

Our super cute room

Hotel Spitzweg

Paradeisgasse 2

91541 Rothenburg ob der Tauber, Germany


Looking for more to do? Friday will feature a little-known about walk you can take from Rothenburg into an even older village.