Germany's Romantische Straße (Romantic Road) is a thematic route through western Bavaria and is more about the stops than the road itself. This is 355 km (220 miles) of breath-taking castles, medieval villages, and perfect pastoral countryside.
When driving the Romantic Road, everyone knows to walk the walled town of Rothenburg ob der Tauber. The UNESCO site of the Würzburg Residenz is legendary. And the end point of Schloss Neuschwanstein in Füssen is one of the top destinations in all of Germany.
But these destinations can be overrun by tourists. Buses offload their cargo and thousands of people descend on these quaint sites, detracting from their charm. That's why you should head off-the-beaten-path and visit the hidden towns on Germany's Romantic Road.
Rothenburg ob der Tauber is a postcard perfect town with its storybook buildings and wonderfully preserved city wall, but the signs in English and Japanese can disrupt the illusion that you've walked right into the Middle Ages.
Just 30 minutes away is Dinkelsbühl, with many of the same charming elements and thousands less visitors. It also has an intact city wall and adorable half-timbered houses.The big bonus is that you don't have to elbow through 100 people taking a picture.
The city's beginnings are rooted in a 10th century fortress. Like surrounding towns, it prospered with the cloth trade, but suffered during the Thirty Years' War. Frozen in time, Bavarian King Ludwig I protected it by forbidding the destruction of the town’s wall and towers. It also escaped serious damage during World War I and II .
Visitors should walk the wall and check off each of its sixteen towers. There are four entrance gates (Wörnitztor is the oldest and the gate you enter from the Romantic Road) leading to the Old Town with the impressive Münster Sankt Georg. From the towers, visitors have panoramic views of the city. In the Market Square there are bakeries and shops and the Deutsches Haus's intricate wood facade.
For a guided tour, visit the Tourist Information Office which arranges walks in the mornings and afternoons from April to October. If you want things to get even more scenic, go for a carriage ride through the Old Town.
It was ruled for generations by the House of Oettingen-Wallerstein, eventually included in the Kingdom of Bavaria in the early 1800s. They built a fantastic castle that sat atop a huge rock until 1648 when it was destroyed in the Thirty Years' War. The castle has been rebuilt nearby, but the real attraction is the massive 65-meter (213-foot) Wallerstein Rock.
Located on the western end of the liebliches Taubertal ("lovely Tauber valley"), Tauberbischofsheim is one of the oldest towns in the area. It is among the first stops on the Romantic Road heading south from Würzburg.
Nestled into the countryside, its major landmark is Kurmainzisches Schloss (castle) which also holds the Tauber-Franconia Rural Museum. Look for the Türmersturm (tower), symbol of the town. And as you wander, look out for the Glockenspiel on the town's Gothic Rathaus (town hall).
Whenever you hear a German town with the name "Bad", you know a spa is involved. Bad Mergentheim is one of the largest towns in the Tauber valley and is indeed known for its restorative waters.
Solymar is a world-class spa destination — whether you take the Romantic Road or not — and a drink from the salty waters of Trinktempel (Drinking Temple) are supposed to cure stomach and intestinal problems. These spa facilities led to a boom in tourism and even protected it during war time as it was used as medical facilities to care for wounded soldiers.
The city is also famous as home to the Order of Teutonic Knights from 1526 until 1809. They were located in the Deutschordenschloss, a 12th-century castle that was expanded in the 16th century. They erected the impressive Rococo Schlosskirche (Castle Church) with two massive towers. Both buildings are still open to visitors with the castle holding the Deutschordensmuseum Bad Mergentheim (Teutonic Order Museum).
Landsberg on the Lech in southwest Bavaria was once an influential stop on the Via Claudia Augusta, a Roman trade route from Italy to Augsburg. Travelers were able to ford the River Lech here and fortifications were developed. It survived wars, plague, and notoriety.
Landsberg Prison is where Adolf Hitler was detained in 1923 after his failed coup and began his memoir, Mein Kampf. The town was a National Socialist stronghold with plans for a center for youth parades which — like so much of the Nazis plans — was never realized. One plan that did come to fruition is the construction of the largest concentration camp on German soil on the outskirts of town. Of the estimated 30,000 people that arrived at the camp, 14,500 of them died from labor, diseases, or death marches.
Because of the town's close association with the darkest time in German history, it is fitting that it is also home to the European Holocaust Memorial. It was created from the remains of earthen bunkers that held prisoners in the camp. The memorial is accessible at all times and guided tours are available on appointment.
Weikersheim is just a small village, but it hosts a magnificent landmark. Schloss Weikersheim is a grand Renaissance palace from the 12th century. The ideal country estate, visitors can walk where the royals walked with a tour of the Schloss as well as the Baroque garden full of fanciful statues.
Within the town, there is a grand market square, and if you venture into the surrounding area, visit the many vineyards that stretch out into the next towns.
Creglingen is a funny little town, known for its funny little things. For example, it has a Fingerhutmuseum (Thimble Museum) which claims to be the only one of its kind in the world with over 3,500 items on display.
Among its beautiful half-timbered houses, it also has the Lindleinturm Museum. This quirky landmark is one such half-timbered house, seemly placed by a giant atop a medieval bastion. It is now a tiny museum open to the public — maximum six people at a time.
More well-known than either of these attractions, Creglingen is world-famous for Herrgottskirche and the Marienaltar. The church was built in the mid-14th century after a farmer found an undamaged communion host in a field. The 1510 alter is a masterwork of late-Gothic sculpture, Tilman Riemenschneider, and was kept in excellent condition as the wings were kept closed until 1832.
Nördlingen was first mentioned in 898. The town features another impressive city wall, but where it is unique is that the city was built within one of the world's largest craters.
This is noticeable in the intact wall's almost perfectly circular design. Visitors can walk the entirety of the wall and admire every angle of the town. While we've already mentioned two towns with intact city walls, that doesn't mean this is a common feature. Along with Rothenburg ob der Tauber and Dinkelsbühl, Nördlingen is the only other one.
If you want to hear more about the crater, Rieskrater Museum has exhibits with meteorites, rocks, and fossils with the ability to book trips into the field. Though they aren't visible to the naked eye, you should also keep an eye out for the tiny diamonds lodged within the graphite used in local stone buildings.