The hamlet of Rothenburg ob der Tauber is one of Germany’s most visited small towns. It is also one of its best preserved: hundreds of years of poverty and neglect left the town in mint shape. In the summer, over 2 million visitors pack its tiny streets. But in the dead of winter, I had the town nearly to myself and was able to explore the many things to do in Rothenburg virtually alone.
At the crossroads of several important transit routes, Rothenburg developed into a trading center and flourished from the 12th to the mid-15th centuries. However, Rothenburg aligned itself to the Protestant cause in the 16th century, and found it itself on the wrong side of the 30 Years War. The town was conquered and that is where the myths and legends come into play.
According to legend, the town made a bet with an invading general that the town mayor could drink a massive goblet of wine (equivalent to about 7 pints today) in one gulp. He succeeded and the town was spared – but at a cost.
The town lost all of its wealth, which preserved it for future generations. There was no money for new buildings or renovations, so only the medieval town of Rothenburg ob der Tauber remains. The clock on the tourist information building commemorates the Master Draught – the mayor and his large gulp that spared the town.
The poverty of the past is long gone. Today, the city can be packed with tourists and Rothenburg’s attactions draw visitors far and wide. In recent years, the Japanese have developed an interest in the town and many of the signs can be found first in German and second in Japanese with English ranking a distant third.
The Rothenburg Christmas Market is one of the largest and best in all of Germany. The German Christmas Museum is housed in a building on the Herrngasse shopping street. It’s (conveniently) located next to the main store of the Käthe Wohlfahrt “Christmas Village” empire. Germany is an export economy and Käthe Wohlfahrt has made a mint exporting Christmas: nutcrackers, smokers, window decorations, ornaments and other souvenirs of the season, plus beer steins and cuckoo clocks.
During my visit, a fresh snow had fallen on Rothenburg making it a kind of living fairy tale. The weather was bitterly cold, which only added to the appeal. Just a few weeks after Christmas, it was like Rothenburg had become a living Christmas card – snow blanketed the squares and parks, odors of gluhwein were carried on the cold wind and locals greeted each other on the street. Tourists were running from shop to shop to warm themselves. Rothenburg is just perfect.
Top Things to do in Rothenburg
Here are few of the things in Rothenburg ob der Tauber that I enjoyed:
The Rothenburg Night Watchman Tour
Nightly during the summer and once a week during the winter, actors recreate the rounds of the Night Watchman. Wearing his characteristic hat, cape and carrying the tools of his trade, he weaves a story of the town’s history. It’s both informative and entertaining, and was the highlight of my trip to Rothenburg. Like many visitors to Rothenburg, we found our way to a pub after the tour and enjoyed the local brew: Turmbräu.
Medieval Crime Museum
I expected the Medieval Crime Museum to be a kind of shrine to dungeons and torture. Yes, torture plays a large role in the museum – the whole lower level and a large part of the 2nd floor are devoted to implements that would turn stomachs.
But to think this museum a kind of freak show misses the point. It’s really a museum to document the history of the law (and crime) in Europe, as well as the punishments of scofflaws. One doesn’t “enjoy” the museum, but I learned an awful lot.
St. Jacob’s Church
St. Jacob’s Church is the spiritual home of Rothenburg. The town embraced Martin Luther’s Reformation and St. Jacob’s became “the people’s church.” In a chapel upstairs behind the choir balcony is the church’s pride and joy: a hand carved wooden altar by Tilman Riemenschneider. In the center of altar is a cross with a glass orb that supposedly contains a relic – a few drops of blood from Jesus Christ.
The Käthe Wohlfahrt store
One of the main things to do in the village is shopping. The town is headquarters to the Käthe Wohlfahrt Christmas empire. This three level store keeps going and going and going. If there is an item to sell related to Christmas, Wohlfahrt has it.
Subscribers to our Facebook page will recognize the famous Christmas smokers (a traditional German Christmas incense burner) as our giveaway back in December. While it’s possible to buy online, visiting the store was much more gratifying. From within the Käthe Wohlfahrt store, I entered the German Christmas Museum.
The German Christmas Museum
This one floor museum illuminates Germany’s role in shaping modern Christmas traditions. Here, Christmas trees, Christmas cards and Christmas ornaments are all put in their historical places. For me, it was fascinating to see how our Christmas traditions have evolved over the years. It’s Christmas all year long here!
Eat a Schneeball
No trip to Rothenburg ob der Tauber is complete without trying the Schneeballen. In German, Schneeball is a snowball, but you’re not actually eating the snow. About the size of softball, Schneeballen is made from strips of pastry that are loosely wound together and then deep fried, before being coated with sugary goodness (chocolate or powdered sugar). And they are pure goodness. The Schneeballen is a part of Rothenburg’s heritage, and they are delicious.
While visiting, I was the guest of Rothenburg Tourism. As always, all opinions are my own.