Over two million tourists flood this medieval village in Bavaria every year. Signs welcome the tour buses in German, English, and Japanese and the village is lit by camera flashes. The whole of the Romantic Road is well-visited, but why is this town so inundated?
The answer is that it's the most well-preserved medieval town in Germany. It is insanely touristy, but even those averse to the beaten track should stop here. The museum-quality Altstadt (old town) is still surrounded by medieval ramparts and stories of its charm halted its destruction in the midst of WWII. The town is worth the trouble - especially at Christmas. Cross the medieval walls and back into history with this guide to Rothenburg ob der Tauber.
History of Rothenburg ob der Tauber
The Rothenburg Castle was built above the River Tauber in 1070. A town developed around it, officially founded in 1170. A castle needs protection and walls and towers were added in the 13th century. Several towers can still be explored, though the castle is long gone. Its placement along the river and agricultural grounds allowed it to grow in wealth and influence.
This promising future changed rapidly. The influential Jewish community was driven out in 1521, depriving the town of prosperity and power. A Peasant’s Revolt in 1525 took its toll. And then the town was weakened by the Thirty Years' War. The townspeople embraced Lutheran Protestant Reformation which clashed with the Catholic Lord of the town. Rothenburg refused to quarter Johann Tserclaes' troops in October 1631 and the Catholics laid siege. The town was quickly defeated and plundered, which happened again and again.
Further exacerbating their misfortune, the Plague arrived in 1634. Time marched on, but Rothenburg was totally broke and missing much of its population leaving it frozen in time.
This changed in the 1880s with the Romantic era. Artists like Carl Spitzweg rediscovered forgotten Rothenburg. Their depictions of the enchanting town brought tourists. Once again, Rothenburg was filled with people.
This image of picturesque Germany was re-purposed to fit Nazi ideologists' depiction of the perfect German town in the 1930s. Regular day trips were organized for party members and - once again - its growing Jewish population was expelled.
This romantic image actually helped save the town during World War II. As bombs fell upon the village on March 31, 1945, 37 people were killed, over 300 buildings were destroyed and over 2,000 feet of the walls came down. This was detrimental to the Germans, but also affected U.S Assistant Secretary of War John J. McCloy. He had heard stories of the beauty of Rothenburg from his mother and didn't want to see the town destroyed. He ordered a stop to the artillery and instead negotiated its surrender.
The local military commander, Major Thömmes, agreed - ignoring the orders of Adolf Hitler. American troops occupied the town on April 17, 1945, and McCloy was subsequently named Honorable Protectorate of Rothenburg.
It turns out McCloy wasn't the only one who cared about the future of Rothenburg. Donations to rebuild the town poured in from around the world. The rebuilt walls feature commemorative bricks with names of the donors.
The town still inspires people's imaginations. It is said to be one of the inspirations for the village in the 1940 Disney movie Pinocchio. Filming was also done in Rothenburg for Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows – Part 1 & 2 (the scene in which Grindelwald steals the Elder Wand).
Visitor Info for Rothenburg ob der Tauber
- Location: Halfway in between Frankfurt and Munich
- There are several Rothenburgs in Germany. If you are buying a train ticket or looking for info, be specific - "Rothenburg ob der Tauber".
- The train station is east of the town wall which is about 15 minutes from the Marktplatz.
- By car, take autobahn A7, exit 108 and follow signs to Rothenburg.
- Tourism website
- What to do in Rothenburg
- Top Tip: While many people visit, not everyone stays the night. Outlast the tour buses to enjoy a much quieter Rothenburg.