Rothenburg ob der Tauber: Germany’s fairy tale town

When we decided to spend three weeks in Germany for our honeymoon, some people thought it was an odd choice. Most of our friends who have gotten married headed to the Caribbean or Disneyworld. The Germans we met along the way especially thought it was strange that we would come to Germany for this occasion.

Rothenburg ob der Tauber, however, could not have been a more ideal honeymoon destination was one of our favorite stops on our trip. It’s hard to imagine a more romantic or charming location.

Once an important medieval city, today the city offers a glimpse into the past as Germany’s best preserved walled-in town from that era. The little city is so incredibly picturesque, the perfect setting for a relaxed weekend in Bavaria away from the hustle and bustle of Germany’s bigger cities. The old city is encircled by stone walls, originally built in the 13th century as fortifications for a castle that is no longer standing. Two of the original gates of those walls are still intact.

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Getting to Rothenburg ob der Tauber:

We rented a car in Cologne and stayed in the Rhineland before stopping in Rothenburg. I highly recommend this route – driving in Germany is easy, safe, and affordable. You also can more easily access locations off the beaten track, as well as commute between destinations much more quickly. Our airbnb included a parking spot, and we left our car there for the entirety of our short trip.

You can also get to Rothenburg via train. It’s about 2.5 hours from Munich, an hour and a half from Nuremburg, or 3 hours from Frankfurt. There are also various bus tours that travel throughout the Romantic Road and stop in Rothenburg along the way.

Important — there’s another city in Germany called Rothenburg. Apparently tourists sometimes end up there by mistake looking for Rothenburg ob der Tauber. Make sure you have the right one!

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Marketplatz

Marktplatz (market square)

Marketplatz is the central square of the old city. It features the beautiful town hall building (built in the 13th century and expanded in the 16th century after a fire), as well as some nice cafes and restaurants. We enjoyed sitting outside, drinking cappuccinos, and people watching at a little cafe directly across from town hall.

Town hall in Marketplatz
Town hall in Marketplatz

Incredible views of the city from town hall

For the best view in Rothenburg, climb up the 200 foot tower in the old town hall (Rathaus). The climb is a bit precarious – to get to the very top, you have to climb up a ladder and sort of push yourself out onto the observation platform. The view is well worth it, however. Especially on a clear day, you can see not only the entire city but well past it into the mountains and Bavarian countryside.

Cost: €2

View from the Rathaus tower
View from the Rathaus tower
View of St. Jakob's Church from the Rathaus tower
View of St. Jakob’s Church from the Rathaus tower

Walking the old town walls

One of the highlights of our trip was walking the old city walls surrounding Rothenburg. The wall was built as fortification to protect the medieval castle, which is no longer standing. The whole thing is covered, and you get to walk through several gates and towers.

The walkable area is a little over a mile and a half. A lot of the walk surrounds residential areas, but it’s very scenic and an easy stroll, and you get some nice town views as well.

We went around 6 pm, when many of the day tourists were leaving the city. It was a great time to go – we were the only people walking for long stretches. I’ve heard that if you go midday, it can be a bit crowded.

Walking the walls of Rothenburg
Climbing up to the wall

Walking the walls of Rothenburg

 

Walking the walls of Rothenburg

Shopping

Given the amount of tourists coming through Rothenburg, it’s not surprising they have a sizable selection of souvenir shops. I actually found them to be pretty reasonably priced for the most part. We got some good deals on t-shirts and a little backpack purse after the strap on my purse broke.

The Kathe Wohlfahrt Christmas Village shop, specializing in all things Christmas, is definitely worth a look. There have some fantastic ornaments and nutcrackers, although they are a bit pricey. There’s also a Christmas museum upstairs, but we decided to skip it.

There are also some nice local shops, especially if you venture a little further from the central square. One of my favorite souvenirs from the trip was a hand painted wooden sign that they engraved for us in just a few minutes.

Engraved wooden sign that says Honeymoon 2016

Medieval torture museum

If you’re looking for something more unique to do, the Medieval Crime and Justice Museum houses an extensive collection of instruments of torture and public shaming, as well as various methods of execution from the Middle Ages – many of them incredibly gruesome. There was also an interesting exhibit on witchcraft when we visited.

Cost: € 7 for adults, € 4 for students

Night Watchman tour 

The Night Watchman tour is famous in Rothenburg – and a can’t miss if you’re still in the city in the evening. The tour is held every day at 8 pm, meeting on the steps of town hall in Marketplatz, and lasts about an hour. No reservations needed, just show up on time!

Hans Georg Baumgartner leads these tours as the Night Watchman, detailing the town’s medieval history. He’s incredibly entertaining and interesting. This tour is the perfect way to end a day in Rothenburg!

Cost: €8 for adults, €4 for students
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Rothenburg ob der Tauber was one of the highlights of our three weeks in Germany. It’s definitely worth the stop, and I highly recommend spending the night. Many tourists come just for the day or as a stop on the Romantic Road route, but there’s plenty to see to justify a longer visit. It’s also great in the evening when most of the tourists have departed.

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Berlin: 10 of the best things to do

Berlin is one of my favorite cities in the world, and easily my favorite city we visited during the three weeks we spent in Germany. The city has it all – fascinating history, beautiful architecture, fantastic food, and is pretty affordable for a major European city. I could easily imagine myself living here one day if the opportunity ever arose.

When looking for a place to stay, I recommend staying on the east side – it’s more affordable, has more interesting sites (in my opinion),  and has some really cool artsy neighborhoods. The west side is a bit more commercial and has more conventional city attractions like the zoo.

If renting an airbnb, one thing to keep in mind is that the city of Berlin recently passed a law banning people from renting out entire apartments, so you can only rent a private room. We rented the largest private room we could find in our budget (under $50/night), and it worked out great!

Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church
Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church was damaged in an air raid during WW2 and now serves as a memorial, signifying the destruction of war.

After spending a week in Berlin, here are the highlights from our trip:

1. Visit the Brandenburg Gate and the Reichstag building

The Brandenburg Gate and the Reichstag are two of the most famous sites in Berlin. I lumped these together, as they are really close to one another (about a 5 minute walk).

The Brandenburg Gate was built in 1791 by the Prussian king Frederick William II. The gate later became part of the Berlin Wall and served as the backdrop of several famous Cold War moments, including Ronald Reagan’s call to Gorbachev to “Tear down this wall!”

The Reichstag building is the home of the German parliament. It has a pretty interesting place in Nazi history. Hitler used the famous Reichstag fire to consolidate his power in Germany, and some historians believe that the Nazis themselves were behind the fire.

If you want to take a tour (free to the public), book ahead online — especially in the summer, when tours get booked up early. We failed to do this and missed out. I later heard that you might be able to get a ticket after you arrive if you go through the security check process and wait in line, but I’m not sure how reliable that is. Be safe and book in advance!

Even if you don’t take a tour, the architecture of the building alone definitely warrants a stop!

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Brandenburg Gate

 

Reichstag building
Reichstag building

2. See the East Side Gallery

I talked about the East Side Gallery and Checkpoint Charlie (next on this list) more extensively in my post The Berlin Wall: a photo essay. Without repeating myself too much, the East Side Gallery is an absolute cannot miss when coming to Berlin.

About a mile long stretch of the Berlin Wall was painted by artists from all over the world, making it one of the largest open air art galleries in the world. It’s also the longest intact stretch of the wall.

East Side Gallery
By French artist Thierry Noir in the East Side Gallery

3. Visit Checkpoint Charlie and its museum

Although the original checkpoint was torn down, there is a recreation of the famous Berlin Wall crossing in its place today. It’s guarded by two fake American soldiers, where cheesy tourists like me can pose for pictures.

There’s a really cool little museum next door that documents the many escape attempts – some successful and some not – of East Germans over the wall. It’s a bit cluttered, and there is more documentation than you could ever read, but it was worth the visit! There’s also a great second-story view out over the entire street.

If you’re not that interested in the history, however, I’d say skip the museum, but still visit the checkpoint. The gift shop on the ground floor is also a great place to  buy pieces of the Berlin Wall as souvenirs. Lots of tourist shops around town sell them as well, but the authenticity of many of those is questionable. You don’t need to pay the entrance fee to visit the gift shop!

Museum admission cost: €12.50

Checkpoint Charlie
Being the ultimate tourist at Checkpoint Charlie

4. Take a Fat Tire Bike Tour

Berlin is ideal for biking. The city was built on a swamp and is flat almost everywhere. It is also fairly spread out, so biking enables you to see much more of the city than you could just by walking. The city is also incredibly bike-friendly. Even having very limited experience biking on roads, I felt completely safe.

I cannot recommend the Fat Tire bike tours enough. Our guide Ronan was so knowledgeable about Berlin’s history, but also super funny and entertaining. The first tour we went on was so amazing (Berlin Wall & Cold War Tour), we decided to do a second (Third Reich & Nazi Germany Tour).

Both tours were great, but the Cold War tour was my favorite. Many of the sites associated with the Cold War are still standing – unlike WW2, when most of the city was destroyed. Ronan pointed out a lot of things I would have never noticed on my own, like Soviet propaganda art on the sides of buildings. Both tours also stopped at really great (and inexpensive) local restaurants for lunch. Fat Tire also offers a general city bike tour and some other specialty tours.

Sure, it’s a more expensive than renting a bike and doing a self-guided tour, but these two tours were among our favorite things we did not only in Berlin, but on our entire trip to Germany. I enjoyed the tours so much that I’ve booked a Fat Tire tour in London for when I visit next month.

Prices: €28.00

Fat Tire Bike Tour
After our second bike tour

5. Shop and dine in the Gendarmenmarkt area

The Gendarmenmarkt area has a bunch of great restaurants and shops. One of our favorites was Rausch Schokoladenhaus, a specialty chocolate shop that has chocolate sculptures of  some of Berlin’s most famous sites.

The square itself has a German church on one side, a French church on the other, and a concert hall in the middle.

Gendarmenmarkt
Gendarmenmarkt

6. Try different international restaurants

We visited Berlin on the third week of our trip to Germany. By that time, we were pretty tired of sausage and schnitzel.

Luckily, Berlin is known for its variety of international cuisine. We had some of our favorite meals of the entire trip in Berlin, most notably at Turkish and Cuban restaurants.

Most of the restaurants we ate at were also pretty reasonably priced too.

Turkish food
Amazing Turkish food at Rissani’s in Kreuzberg

7. Visit the Soviet war memorial

The Soviet Union suffered the largest causalities of any nation in World War II. In the Battle of Berlin alone, 80,000 Red Army soldiers were killed.  The memorial is located in Treptower Park and is quite striking. The vast spaces of the monument, as well as the statues, give you a sense of the great magnitude of the loss.

It was originally the largest war memorial dedicated solely to Soviet losses during the war, until the late 1960s when a bigger one was built in Russia.

Because the memorial also serves as a cemetery for several thousand Soviet soldiers killed in battle, remember to be respectful.

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Entrance to the Soviet War Memorial in Treptower Park

8. Take a Spree river cruise

Taking in Berlin on the water is a great way to spend an hour. There are several places on the river you can hop on a cruise, no need to book in advance. I recommend looking for one that has a tour guide. Some have only pre-recorded audio tours that are a little bit hokey.

Cost: around €15, but could be more depending on length and company

Spree river cruise
Boarding our boat

9. Relax by Weisser See

Weisser See is a lake on the East side of Berlin. You can swim in the lake, or just relax at one of the cafes on the lakefront.

Our airbnb was really close to this lake, and we enjoyed getting sandwiches and milkshakes at a cafe and watching the sun go down from the patio.

Weisser See lake
Weisser See

10. Take a day trip to Potsdam or Dresden

Berlin is a great launching point for a day trip to Potsdam or Dresden. Potsdam is about 15 miles from Berlin and used to be the home of Prussian Kings and the German Kaiser. With several beautiful palaces and gardens, Potsdam is known as the “Versailles of Berlin.”

If you want to venture a little further out, Dresden is about two hours from Berlin by car or coach. Dresden is a cultural hub, has beautiful architecture, and a fascinating history.

 

The Berlin Wall: a photo essay

Berlin is a unique city in many ways. Around 80 percent of the city was destroyed during World War II, resulting in a blend of rebuilt and modern architecture. Modern Berlin, however, is largely the product of what came next. Berlin became a focal point in the increasingly  tense post-war competition between the U.S. and the Soviet Union,  resulting in the almost overnight construction of the Berlin Wall in 1961.

The city remained divided for decades, with many Berliners separated from friends and family living on the other side. The wall came down in 1989, and Germany became whole once again in 1990. The reconciliation of east and west was cause for widespread celebration – many Berliners had believed they would never live to see the wall come down. But reconciliation also presented challenges resulting from the decades-long disconnect of the two sides and their different evolutions.

Today, Berlin is full of construction. Everywhere you look you see it. The city has been busily rebuilding and reuniting since 1990. Throughout the city, however, segments of the Berlin Wall remain as a reminder of both hardship and triumph.

Large stretch of the Berlin Wall
Outside of the Topography of Terror Museum

Having a lifelong interest in Cold War history, I was eager to see the wall when we arrived in Berlin. I wasn’t sure how much would be left or how prominent the remaining wall would be in the city.

Although I kept an eye out for it from the beginning, we didn’t see the wall until the second day after our arrival. The vast majority of it has been demolished, but long stretches remain in several designated areas of the city.

Sadly, I learned that a related site I was excited to visit is no longer standing: Checkpoint Charlie, a passageway through the wall and one of the most famous symbols of the Cold War where American and Soviet tanks stared each other down in 1961. The small building there today is a recreation, not the original.

Still, I got a kick out of seeing it. There’s also a great (although cluttered) museum, the Checkpoint Charlie Museum, right next door. Along with an extensive collection and documentation of the many escape attempts over the wall, you also get a great view out over the whole street.

Checkpoint Charlie
The rebuilt Checkpoint Charlie

The guard house is also stationed with two fake American soldiers. Tourists pose with the soldiers for a small fee. A little gimmicky, yes, but I’m not ashamed that I did it!

Fake American soldiers at Checkpoint Charlie

You are leaving the American sector sign at Checkpoint Charlie

One of my favorite parts of our time in Berlin was visiting the East Side Gallery. A long stretch of the wall was painted in sections by different artists from all over the world. At almost a mile long, it’s the longest remaining part of the Berlin Wall.

East Side Gallery

The entire thing is completely out in the open, only separated by some fencing in certain areas. The first time we saw it was when we rode alongside the gallery during a bike tour. The paintings were so striking we came back the next day to walk around and look more carefully.

East Side Gallery

East Side Gallery

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Musicians were playing in front of the East Side Gallery both times we visited.

East Side Gallery

East Side Gallery

The most iconic artwork on the wall: the Kiss

East Side Gallery

East Side Gallery

East Side Gallery

 

There are also some surviving watchtowers scattered around the city, as well a dedicated Berlin Wall Memorial that includes an intact stretch of inner and outer wall. The space in between was known as the “death strip.”

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Watchtower covered in graffiti
Berlin Wall Memorial
Berlin Wall Memorial

 

The various sites relating to the Berlin Wall were some of the most interesting and memorable parts of our trip to Berlin. Being able to reach out and actually touch such an important part of history is kind of mind blowing. And now I have a piece of it sitting on my desk – a tiny chunk of the wall that I bought at the Checkpoint Charlie museum.

 

If you’re visiting Berlin, check out my post Berlin: 10 of the best things to do