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Rick Steves Snapshot Rothenburg & the Rhine
By Rick Steves
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- Rick's firsthand, up-to-date advice on the best sights, restaurants, hotels, and more in Rothenburg and the Rhine, plus tips to beat the crowds, skip the lines, and avoid tourist traps
- Top sights and local experiences: Tour breathtaking Neo-Gothic churches and hike to riverside ruins. Cruise along the Rhine past castles and vineyards, or take the scenic route through quaint countryside villages on the Romantic Road. Cheers with locals over a pint in a biergarten, and enjoy a hearty meal of bratwurst or schnitzel
- Helpful maps and self-guided walking tours to keep you on track
Exploring beyond Rothenburg and the Rhine? Pick up Rick Steves Germany for comprehensive coverage, detailed itineraries, and essential information for planning a countrywide trip.
This Snapshot guide, excerpted from my guidebook Rick Steves Germany, introduces you to some of the most romantic and historic parts of Germany—including the medieval walled town of Rothenburg ob der Tauber and the most picturesque stretch of the mighty Rhine River.
In Rothenburg, you can immerse yourself in the Middle Ages. Wander the town’s mysterious and well-preserved ramparts, marvel at its churches’ grand Gothic altarpieces, shudder at its creatively sadistic Medieval Crime and Punishment Museum, and do some of the best souvenir shopping in Germany. Along the Rhine, you can enjoy a self-guided tour of this scenic stretch of river—whether you’re on a speedy train or the deck of a slow steamboat—as you compare stately castles and silly legends. Listen for the intoxicating songs of the mythical Mädchen at the Loreley cliff. Hike to a pair of the best castles high above the river: the evocative ruins of Rheinfels Castle, and the well-preserved, fully furnished Marksburg Castle.
Then explore the other delights of this region. Würzburg is a university town with an impressive, fun-to-tour Residenz palace (with manicured gardens and a dazzling Rococo chapel), a hilltop fortress, atmospheric wine bars, and a bridge that’s perfect for strolling at sunset. Frankfurt is the country’s bustling banking center, with a skyscraping skyline, giving you a good look at modern Germany. The Mosel River Valley, near the Rhine Valley, harbors wine-loving cobbled towns, such as handy Cochem and tiny, quaint Beilstein. Nestled within a forest is my favorite European castle, Burg Eltz, which feels lived in, because it is. And busy Cologne, on the Rhine River, has a spectacular Gothic cathedral looming over its train station, making it a rewarding, quick stop that’s especially convenient for train travelers.
To help you have the best trip possible, I’ve included the following topics in this book:
• Planning Your Time, with advice on how to make the most of your limited time
• Orientation, including tourist information (abbreviated as TI), tips on public transportation, local tour options, and helpful hints
• Sights with ratings:
▲▲—Try hard to see
▲—Worthwhile if you can make it
No rating—Worth knowing about
• Sleeping and Eating, with good-value recommendations in every price range
• Connections, with tips on trains, buses, and driving
Practicalities, near the end of this book, has information on money, staying connected, hotel reservations, transportation, and more, plus German survival phrases.
To travel smartly, read this little book in its entirety before you go. It’s my hope that this guide will make your trip more meaningful and rewarding. Traveling like a temporary local, you’ll get the absolute most out of every mile, minute, and dollar.
ROTHENBURG & THE ROMANTIC ROAD
The Romantic Road takes you through Bavaria’s medieval heartland, a route strewn with picturesque villages, farmhouses, onion-domed churches, Baroque palaces, and walled cities. The route, which runs from Würzburg to Füssen, is the most scenic way to connect Frankfurt with Munich. No trains run along the full length of the Romantic Road, but Rothenburg (ROH-tehn-burg), the most interesting town along the way, is easy to reach by rail. Drivers can either zero in on Rothenburg or take some extra time to meander from town to town on the way. For nondrivers, a tour bus travels the Romantic Road once daily in each direction.
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, Japanese-speaking night watchmen, and, yes, even Schneeballen, Rothenburg is best. Save time and mileage and be satisfied with the winner.
Rothenburg ob der Tauber
In the Middle Ages, when Berlin and Munich were just wide spots on the road, Rothenburg ob der Tauber was a “free imperial city” beholden only to the Holy Roman Emperor. During Rothenburg’s heyday, from 1150 to 1400, it was a strategic stop on the trade routes between northern and southern Europe. Because of its privileged position, along with the abundant resources of its surrounding countryside (textile-producing sheep and fertile farmlands), Rothenburg thrived. With a whopping population of 6,000, it was one of Germany’s largest towns. But as with many of Europe’s best time-warp towns, Rothenburg’s fortunes tumbled suddenly. (In this case, it was an occupation/ransacking during the Thirty Years’ War, and a plague that followed soon after, that did the town in.) With no money to fix up its antiquated, severely leaning buildings, the town was left to languish in this state. Today, it’s the country’s best-preserved medieval walled town, enjoying tremendous tourist popularity without losing its charm.
Rothenburg’s great trade these days is tourism: Two-thirds of the 2,500 people who live within its walls are employed to serve you. While roughly 2 million people visit each year, most come only on day trips. Rothenburg is yours after dark, when the groups vacate and the town’s floodlit cobbles wring some romance out of any travel partner.
Too often, Rothenburg brings out the shopper in visitors before they’ve had a chance to see the historic town. True, this is a fine place to do your German shopping. But appreciate Rothenburg’s great history and sights, too.
Germany has several towns named Rothenburg, so make sure you’re going to Rothenburg ob der Tauber (not “ob der” any other river); people really do sometimes drive or ride the train to nondescript Rothenburgs by accident.
PLANNING YOUR TIME
Rothenburg in one day is easy. If time is short, you can make just a two- to three-hour midday stop in Rothenburg, but the town is really best appreciated after the day-trippers have gone home. Ideally, spend at least one night in Rothenburg (hotels are cheap and good).
With two nights and a full day, you’ll be able to see more than the essentials and actually relax a little. I’d suggest starting your day with my self-guided town walk, including a visit to St. Jakob’s Church (for the carved altarpiece) and the Imperial City Museum (historic artifacts). Then spend the afternoon visiting the Medieval Crime and Punishment Museum and taking my “Schmiedgasse-Spitalgasse Shopping Stroll,” followed by a walk on the wall (from Spitaltor to Klingentor). Cap your day with the entertaining Night Watchman’s Tour (at 20:00). Locals love “Die blaue Stunde” (the blue hour)—the time just before dark when city lamps and the sky hold hands. Be sure to be out enjoying the magic of the city at this time.
For nature lovers, there are plenty of relaxing walks and bike rides in the forested environs around the town.
Rothenburg is very busy through the summer and in the Christmas Market month of December. Spring and fall are a joy, but it’s pretty bleak in November and from January through March—when most locals are hibernating or on vacation. Legally, shops are only allowed to remain open 40 Sundays a year; this means that many close on Sundays during the slow off-season months.
Orientation to Rothenburg
To orient yourself in Rothenburg, think of the town map as a human head. Its nose—the castle garden—sticks out to the left, and the skinny lower part forms a neck, with the youth hostel and a recommended hotel being the Adam’s apple. The town is a delight on foot. No sights or hotels are more than a 15-minute walk from the train station or each other.
Most of the buildings you’ll see were in place by 1400. The city was born around its long-gone castle fortress—built in 1142, destroyed in 1356—which was located where the castle garden is now. You can see the shadow of the first town wall, which defines the oldest part of Rothenburg, in its contemporary street plan. Two gates from this wall still survive: the Markus Tower and the White Tower. The richest and biggest houses were in this central part. The commoners built higgledy-piggledy (read: picturesque) houses farther from the center but still inside the present walls.
Although Rothenburg is technically in Bavaria, the region around the town is called—and strongly identifies itself as—“Franken,” one of Germany’s many medieval dukedoms (“Franconia” in English).
The TI is on Market Square (May-Oct and Dec Mon-Fri 9:00-18:00, Sat-Sun 10:00-17:00; off-season Mon-Fri until 17:00, Sat until 13:00, closed Sun; Marktplatz 2, tel. 09861/404-800, www.rothenburg.de/tourismus, run by Jörg Christöphler). If there’s a long line, just raid the rack where they keep all the free pamphlets. The free city map comes with a walking guide to the town. The Events booklet covers the basics in English. They offer a variety of themed tours; ask when you arrive or check their website in advance. Also look for current concert-listing posters here (and at your hotel).
A fun pictorial town map, which also helpfully indicates some walking paths in the countryside beyond the town walls, is available for free when you show this book at the Friese shop, two doors west from the TI (toward St. Jakob’s Church; see “Shopping in Rothenburg,” later).
ARRIVAL IN ROTHENBURG
By Train: It’s a 10-minute walk from the station to Rothenburg’s Market Square (following the brown Altstadt signs, exit left from station, walk a block down Bahnhofstrasse, turn right on Ansbacher Strasse, and head straight into the Middle Ages). Taxis wait at the station (€10 to any hotel). Day-trippers can leave luggage in lockers on the platform. Free WCs are behind the Speedy snack bar on track 1. If killing time, you can pay to get online on one of the computers in the station’s Spielothek gaming room (long hours daily).
By Car: Driving and parking rules in Rothenburg change constantly—ask your hotelier for advice. In general, you’re allowed to drive into the old town to get to your hotel. Otherwise, driving within the old walled center is discouraged. Some hotels offer private parking (either free or paid). To keep things simple, park in one of the lots—numbered P-1 through P-5—that line the outside of the town walls (€5/day, buy ticket from Parkscheinautomat machines and display, 5- to 10-minute walk to Market Square).
For tips on getting here from Frankfurt, see “Route Tips for Drivers” on here.
Festivals: For one weekend each spring (during Pentecost), beer gardens spill out into the street and Rothenburgers dress up in medieval costumes to celebrate Mayor Nusch’s Meistertrunk victory (June 7-10 in 2019, www.meistertrunk.de). The Reichsstadt festival every September celebrates Rothenburg’s history (Sept 6-8 in 2019), and the town’s Weindorf festival celebrates its wine (mid-Aug). Check the TI website for specifics.
Christmas Market: Rothenburg is dead for much of the winter except in December (its busiest month), when the entire town cranks up the medieval cuteness with concerts and costumes, shops with schnapps, stalls filling squares, hot spiced wine, giddy nutcrackers, and mobs of ear-muffed Germans. Christmas markets are big all over Germany, and Rothenburg’s is considered one of the best. The market takes place each year during Advent. Try to avoid Saturdays and Sundays, when big-city day-trippers really clog the grog.
Wi-Fi: Free Wi-Fi (Network: rothenburg.freifunk.net) is available at varying strengths around town. As it requires no password, it’s not a secure signal—use it to look up info (train schedules, museum hours) but not to check email or make purchases.
Mailing Your Goodies Home: You can get handy yellow €2.50 boxes at the old town post office (Mon-Fri 9:00-13:00 & 14:00-17:30 except closed Wed afternoon, Sat 9:00-12:00, closed Sun, inside photo shop at Rödergasse 11). The main post office is in the shopping center across from the train station.
Bike Rental: A ride through the nearby countryside is enjoyable on nice days (follow route described on here). Rad & Tat rents bikes for €14 for a 24-hour day (otherwise €10/6 hours, electric bike-€28/day; Mon-Fri 9:00-18:00, Sat until 13:00, closed Sun; Bensenstrasse 17, tel. 09861/87984, www.mietraeder.de). To reach it, leave the old town toward the train station, take a right on Erlbacher Strasse, cross the tracks, and look across the street from the Lidl supermarket.
Taxi: For a taxi, call 09861/2000 or 09861/7227.
Haircuts: At Salon Wack (pronounced “vahk,” not “whack”), Horst and his team speak English and welcome both men and women (Tue-Fri 8:00-12:00 & 13:30-18:00, Sat 8:30-14:00, closed Sun-Mon; off Wenggasse at Goldene Ringgasse 8, tel. 09861/7834).
Swimming: Rothenburg has a fine swimming complex, with a heated outdoor pool (Freibad) from mid-May to mid-Sept (when the weather’s good), and an indoor pool and sauna the rest of the year. It’s about a 15-minute walk south of Spitaltor along the main road toward Dinkelsbühl (€3.50, kids-€2; outdoor pool daily 9:00-20:00; indoor pool Tue-Thu 9:00-21:00, Fri-Sun until 18:00, Mon 14:00-21:00; Nördlinger Strasse 20, tel. 09861/4565).
Tours in Rothenburg
▲▲Night Watchman’s Tour
This tour is flat-out the most entertaining hour of medieval wonder anywhere in Germany and the best evening activity in town. The Night Watchman (a.k.a. Hans-Georg Baumgartner) jokes like a medieval John Cleese as he lights his lamp and takes tourists on his rounds, telling slice-of-gritty-life tales of medieval Rothenburg (€8, teens-€4, free for kids 12 and under, mid-March-Dec nightly at 20:00, in English, meet at Market Square, www.nightwatchman.de). What’s almost as entertaining as the tour is watching the parade of tourists following this pied piper through town each night.
▲Old Town Historic Walk
The TI offers engaging 1.5-hour guided walking tours in English (€8, Easter-Oct and Dec daily at 14:00, departs from Market Square). Just show up and pay the guide directly—there’s always room. Take this tour for the serious side of Rothenburg’s history, and to make sense of the town’s architecture; you won’t get as much of that on the fun—and completely different—Night Watchman’s Tour. Taking both tours is a smart way to round out your overall Rothenburg experience.
A local historian can really bring the ramparts alive. Reserve a guide by emailing the TI (firstname.lastname@example.org; more info at www.tourismus.rothenburg.de—look under “Guided Tours”; €75/1.5 hours, €95/2 hours). I’ve had good experiences with Martin Kamphans (tel. 09861/7941, www.stadtfuehrungen-rothenburg.de, email@example.com) and Daniel Weber (to get rates listed above ask for Rick Steves discount, mobile 0795-8311, www.toot-tours.com, firstname.lastname@example.org).
Town Wall Walk
It’s free to walk along Rothenburg’s town wall, and 20 info plaques provide good English descriptions. (Ask at the TI for a pamphlet with narrated walk.) For details, see “Walk the Wall” on here.
Walks in Rothenburg
My self-guided circular “Rothenburg Town Walk” weaves the town’s top sights together, takes about an hour without stops, and starts and ends on Market Square. (Note that this is roughly the same route followed by city guides on their daily Old Town Historic Walk, described earlier.) It flows into my “Schmiedgasse-Spitalgasse Shopping Stroll,” which traces a straight shot from Market Square to Spitaltor, passing traditional shops and eateries on the way. Both walks are shown on the “Walks in Rothenburg” map.
Download my free Rothenburg Town Walk audio tour.
ROTHENBURG TOWN WALK
This loop walk, worth ▲▲▲, links Market Square to St. Jakob’s Church, the Imperial City Museum, the castle garden, and Herrngasse.
• Start the walk on Market Square.
Market Square Spin-Tour
Stand in front of the fountain at the bottom of Market Square (watch for occasional cars) and spin 360 degrees clockwise, starting with the Town Hall tower. Now do it again, this time more slowly to take in some details:
Town Hall and Tower: Rothenburg’s tallest spire is the Town Hall tower (Rathausturm). At 200 feet, it stands atop the old Town Hall, a white, Gothic, 13th-century building. Notice the tourists enjoying the best view in town from the black top of the tower (see “Sights in Rothenburg” for details on climbing the tower). After a fire in 1501 burned down part of the original building, a new Town Hall was built alongside what survived of the old one (fronting the square). This half of the rebuilt complex is in the Renaissance style from 1570. The double eagles you see decorating many buildings here are a repeated reminder that this was a “free imperial city” belonging directly to the (Habsburg) Holy Roman Emperor, a designation that came with benefits.
Meistertrunk Show: At the top of Market Square stands the proud Councilors’ Tavern (clock tower from 1466). In its day, the city council—the rich guys who ran the town government—drank here. Today, it’s the TI and the focus of most tourists’ attention when the little doors on either side of the clock flip open and the wooden figures (from 1910) do their thing. Be on Market Square at the top of any hour (between 10:00 and 22:00) for the ritual gathering of the tourists to see the less-than-breathtaking reenactment of the Meistertrunk (“Master Draught”) story:
In 1631, in the middle of the Thirty Years’ War, the Catholic army took this Protestant town and was about to do its rape, pillage, and plunder thing. As was the etiquette, the mayor had to give the conquering general a welcoming drink. The general enjoyed a huge tankard of local wine. Feeling really good, he told the mayor, “Hey, if you can drink this entire three-liter tankard of wine in one gulp, I’ll spare your town.” The mayor amazed everyone by drinking the entire thing, and Rothenburg was saved. (While this is a nice story, it was dreamed up in the late 1800s for a theatrical play designed—effectively—to promote a romantic image of the town. In actuality, if Rothenburg was spared, it had likely bribed its way out of the jam.) The city was occupied and ransacked several times in the Thirty Years’ War, and it never recovered—which is why it’s such a well-preserved time capsule today.
For the best show, don’t watch the clock; watch the open-mouthed tourists gasp as the old windows flip open. At the late shows, the square flickers with camera flashes.
Bottom of Market Square: As this was the most prestigious address in town, it’s ringed by big homes with big carriage gates. One of the finest is just downhill from the bottom end of the square—the Baumeister (“master builder”) Haus, where the man who designed and built the Town Hall lived. It features a famous Renaissance facade with statues of the seven virtues and the seven vices. The statues are copies; the originals are in the Imperial City Museum (described later on this walk). While “Gluttony” is easy to find, see if you can figure out what his companions represent.
Behind you, take in the big 17th-century St. George’s fountain. Its long metal gutters could slide to deposit the water into villagers’ buckets. It’s part of Rothenburg’s ingenious water system: Built on a rock, the town had one real source above, which was plumbed to serve a series of fountains; water flowed from high to low through Rothenburg. Its many fountains had practical functions beyond providing drinking water—some were stocked with fish on market days and during times of siege, and their water was useful for fighting fire. Because of its plentiful water supply—and its policy of requiring relatively wide lanes as fire breaks—the town never burned entirely, as so many neighboring villages did.
Two fine half-timbered buildings behind the fountain show the old-time lofts with warehouse doors and pulleys on top for hoisting. All over town, lofts like these were filled with grain. A year’s supply was required by the city so it could survive any siege. The building behind the fountain is an art gallery showing off work by members of the local artists’ association. To the right is Marien Apotheke, an old-time pharmacy mixing old and new in typical Rothenburg style.
The broad street running under the Town Hall tower is Herrngasse. The town originated with its castle fortress (built in 1142 but now long gone; a lovely garden now fills that space). Herrngasse connected the castle to Market Square. The last leg of this circular walking tour will take you from the castle garden up Herrngasse and back here.
For now, walk a few steps down Herrngasse and stop by the arch under the Town Hall tower (between the new and old town halls). On the wall to the left of the gate are the town’s measuring rods—a reminder that medieval Germany was made of 300 independent little countries, many with their own weights and measures. Merchants and shoppers knew that these were the local standards: the rod (4.3 yards), the Schuh (“shoe,” roughly a foot), and the Ell (from elbow to fingertip—four inches longer than mine...climb up and try it). The protruding cornerstone you’re standing on is one of many all over town—intended to protect buildings from careening horse carts. In German, going recklessly fast is called “scratching the cornerstone.”
• Careen around that stone and under the arch to find the...
▲Historical Town Hall Vaults (Historiengewölbe)
The vaults house an eclectic and grade-schoolish little museum that gives a waxy but interesting look at Rothenburg during the Catholics-vs.-Protestants Thirty Years’ War. Popping in here can help prep your imagination to filter out the tourists and picture ye olde Rothenburg along the rest of this walk. With helpful English descriptions, it offers a look at “the fateful year 1631,” a replica of the mythical Meistertrunk tankard, an alchemist’s workshop, and a dungeon—used as a bomb shelter during World War II—complete with three dank cells and some torture lore.
Cost and Hours: €3.50, daily 9:30-17:30, shorter hours Nov-April, closed Jan, weekends only Feb, tel. 09861/86751, www.meistertrunk.de.
• Leaving the museum, turn left (past a venerable and much-sketched-and-photographed door) and find a posted copy of a centuries-old map showing the territory of Rothenburg.
Map of Rothenburg City Territory
In 1537 Rothenburg actually ruled a little country—one of about 300 petty dukedoms like this that made up what is today’s Germany. The territory spanned a 12-by-12-mile area (about 400 square kilometers), encompassing 180 villages—a good example of the fragmentation of feudal Germany. While not to scale (Rothenburg is actually less than a mile wide), the map is fun to study. In the 1380s, Mayor Toppler purchased much of this territory. In 1562 the city sold off some of its land to neighboring dukes, which gave it the money for all the fine Renaissance buildings that embellish the town to this day.
• Continue through the courtyard and into a square called...
Green Market (Grüner Markt)
Once a produce market, this parking lot fills with Christmas stands during December. Notice the clay-tile roofs. These “beaver tail” tiles became standard after thatched roofs were outlawed to prevent fires. Today, all the town’s roofs are made of these. The little fences stop heaps of snow from falling off the roof and onto people below. A free public WC is on your left, and the recommended Friese gift shop (see listing under “Shopping in Rothenburg,” later) is on your right.
• Continue straight ahead to St. Jakob’s Church. Study the exterior first, then pay to go inside.
▲▲St. Jakob’s Church (St. Jakobskirche)
Rothenburg’s main church is home to Tilman Riemenschneider’s breathtaking, wood-carved Altar of the Holy Blood.
Cost and Hours: €2.50, daily April-Oct 9:00-17:00, Dec 10:00-16:45, off-season 10:00-12:00 & 14:00-16:00, on Sun wait to enter until services end at 10:45.
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- On Sale
- Feb 21, 2023
- Page Count
- 240 pages
- Rick Steves