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Athens to Zagreb – we all feel like we know the capitals of Europe. Yet we don’t know that Regensburg, Germany was once such a capital city. This often overlooked town on the Danube River made a big impression on me.
We’re passionate about visiting UNESCO World Heritage sites and Regensburg received this designation in 2006. The city is recognized by UNESCO for its perfectly preserved old town (and the medieval architecture located therein) and for its cultural importance from the High Middle Ages right through the Holy Roman Empire.
Regensburg is Europe’s forgotten capital city. During the Middle Ages, the Imperial Diets (General Assembly) met for nearly 1,000 years in the city of Regensburg (called Ratisbon). From 1663-1803, Regensburg was the Parliamentary seat of the entire Holy Roman Empire. So, from 788 to 1806, Regensburg was one of the most important cities in Europe and essentially the (ancient) old capital of Germany.
Yet today, the city is practically bucolic – a quiet town frequented by river cruise tourists in the summer and largely ignored in the colder months. In all of my many trips to Germany, I’ve always wanted to visit this UNESCO World Heritage city. Finally, after 10 years, I made the trip to Regensburg. And it poured rain. And it was cold. Yet the weather could not dampen my spirits as I fulfilled my dream.
Things to do in Regensburg
Visit the Regensburg Cathedral
Given the pouring rain, I spent a lot of time in churches – and Regensburg has many of those. Visiting churches is one of the top things to do in Regensburg. The city’s skyline is dominated by the twin, gray cross-topped spires of Dom St. Peter (St. Peter’s Cathedral). First begun in late 8th century, the church was rebuilt after a fire in 1273, and the current cathedral was completed in 1520.
In the late 1880s, this once-baroque church was refashioned into a Gothic cathedral by King Ludwig I of Bavaria. The Regensburg Cathedral is the finest such example of Gothic architecture in southern Germany.
See the Porta Praetoria
However, what I found most fascinating is that the cathedral was atop the hill just above the Porta Praetoria, a stone gateway and tower dating from 179 A.D. The city of Regensburg was actually a Roman military outpost called Castra Regina, and this was the northern gate of the fortifications. The fortifications in Regensburg were ordered constructed by Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius to house his Legio III Italica (the Italian Third Legion of the Imperial Roman Army).
Wander Along the Roman Walls
All over Regensburg, you’ll see remnants of the Roman walls that have been incorporated into other buildings. This is because Regensburg is actually one of Germany’s oldest cities. Even before the Romans, the Celts had a city named Rabasbona along the banks of the Danube here. Each great power to establish rule over this area has recognized the strategic importance of Regensburg: this is the most northern point on the Danube River.
Be Awed at the Old Chapel
By the far, the most intriguing building in Regensburg is the Alte Kapelle (The Collegiate Church of Our Lady, the Old Chapel). This is a rococo church (with a little early baroque in the mix). The defining characteristic of the Old Chapel is the gold leaf – everywhere. It’s like someone vomited gold leaf, but it makes it one of the most intriguing of all the Regensburg churches.
Originally built in the mid-800s, it was rebuilt by Emperor Henry II and overseen by the diocese of Bamberg (also a UNESCO World Heritage city). The pews are closed off by an imposing iron gate, but I was able to stand at the back and take in this golden beauty while listening to the pouring rain outside. For me, the Alte Kapelle is the highlight of the churches in Regensburg and not to be missed. A final notable church is St. Emmeram’s Basilica, part of the old Benedictine monastery.
Watch the Boats on the Danube River
One of the best things to do in Regensburg is actually walk along the banks of the Danube River and take in the sights. Rows of river cruise boats are lined up here waiting for the busier summer months, but nobody was sailing in the cool early spring. Despite the weather, the bratwurst and sausage vendors were out in force – it made a cheap and quick lunch. The ducks on the Danube were hoping I’d throw them a bite!
The Danube is one of Europe’s most important rivers (and its second longest), and one of the most popular river cruising destinations. Starting in southwest Germany, the Danube snakes it’s way over 1,770 miles across southern Germany before traveling through Austria, Slovakia, Hungary, Croatia, Serbia, Romania, Bulgaria, Moldova, and Ukraine before emptying in the Black Sea. Historically, Regensburg, Vienna, and Budapest were some of the most important cities along the Danube River.
Wander Across the Old Stone Bridge
It seems that all roads in Regensburg lead to the Steinerne Brucke (Stone Bridge). This bridge dating from 1146 was the only bridge crossing on the Danube between Ulm and Vienna for over 800 years. The bridge was so well constructed that it served as the model for other bridges in Europe, including the London Bridge and the Pont d’Avignon. I encountered a bridge covered in scaffolding and undergoing repairs, however, it did not diminish the views of the Regensburg skyline that could be seen from it.
Learn at the Bridge Tower Museum and the Regensburg UNESCO World Heritage Visitor Centre
At one end of the Old Stone Bridge, The Bridge Tower Museum has an excellent exhibit that tells the story of Regensburg’s famous Old Stone Bridge and the development of the town. The museum has some good artifacts relating to the construction of this strategically important bridge.
The museum also serves as the Regensburg UNESCO World Heritage Visitor Centre. The visitor center explains why Regensburg is honored with a UNESCO World Heritage Site designation.
Climb the Brückturm Clock Tower
However, the other reason to visit the Regensburg Bridge Tower Museum is to climb to the top of the Brückturm clock tower. This is the last of the surviving bridge towers in Regensburg (historically there were at least three towers along the bridge). The views from the tower are spectacular!
Eat at Bratwurst at Germany’s Oldest Restaurant
On the banks of the Danube is the Regensburg Sausage Kitchen. This restaurant lays claim to being the oldest restaurant in Germany, and also the oldest continuously open to the public restaurant in the world. The restaurant on this location has been open since the year 1146.
These days, the Regensburg Sausage Kitchen serves up about 6,000 bratwursts to visiting tourists and locals. The sausages are served in even-numbered combinations with six, eight, or 10 being the most common. Sauerkraut and their own famous Regensburg Sausage Kitchen Mustard come included.
There are a lot of things to do in Regensburg. I was easily able to fill a whole day exploring the city. Had it been better weather, just sitting on the banks of the Danube with a picnic would have been a delight.
Best Hotels in Regensburg, Germany
We recommend the following Regensburg hotels:
Bohemian Hotel – Our top pick for where to stay in Regensburg. It’s a beautiful blend of antiques and modern facilities while being located in one of our favorite parts of the city. There’s a large public parking lot nearby if you are coming by car. Many of the rooms are tastefully themed to coincide with a period of the city’s history.
Hotel Goliath am Dom – The Hotel Goliath is arguably the finest hotel in the city. Rooms are elegantly decorated and there is a room terrace for breakfast with views of the cathedral. The hotel is located in the heart of the old city and just oozes charm and romance.
Altstadthotel Am Pach – This hotel has a great location in the heart of the old city. The hotel building is over 1,000 years old. The rooms have been remodeled to provide comfort, although they lack some charm for a building so old. This is a great location in the city.
Have you ever been? We’d love to hear your favorite things to do in Regensburg!