The history, architecture, and culture of medieval and Renaissance Bavaria are preserved in several impossibly cute town centers, and it was a wonderful place to welcome the new year. And of course, the beer everywhere was wunderbar.
Bavarian food, in particular, is perfect for cold weather – hot and hearty and delicious. Most travelers visit Europe in the summer; but those who venture to visit somewhere like Bavaria in the off-season are rewarded with picturesque vistas, lower prices and, best of all, far fewer crowds. Here, four towns we fell for—and you will too.
1. Rothenburg ob der Tauber
Rothenburg is remarkable for (among other unique features) the 13th-century wall that surrounds much of the town’s medieval center. Visitors can walk the two miles of covered ramparts, looking down over the roofs and streets or through the “archers’ slits” to the countryside. Seventy watchtowers appear along the wall, some of which overlook the lovely expanse of the Tauber river valley far below. Steps lead down from the wall every hundred yards or so, enabling visitors to stroll along the fairy-tale streets and visit beer gardens, churches, shops, and museums, including the cheery Käthe Wohlfahrt Christmas Museum and the grim Museum of Medieval Crime and Punishment. Most of the current wall dates from the 13th century, but a sizeable portion of it (and the part of the town within the wall) was destroyed in World War II. Allied soldiers then convinced a German commander to surrender the town, defying Hitler’s orders but saving the rest of the town from destruction. The town square sports a 17th-century clock with a mechanized drinker that commemorates the time during the 30 Years War when the town was saved from being destroyed by an attacking army because its mayor, essentially on a dare from the conquering general, quaffed a tankard of wine – almost a gallon! – in a matter of minutes.
The historic center of Bamberg is a UNESCO World Heritage site, due to its well-preserved medieval architecture and city layout. Its many old bridges crossing the Regnitz River add to its charm. The city grew up over centuries around seven hills, like Rome, leading to the nickname “the Bavarian Rome.” Bavarians, though, like to reverse this, instead wryly referring to Rome as the “Italian Bamberg.” Bamberg is also known as one of the prime sources for the much-sought-after Rauchbier (“smoked beer”), made with beechwood-smoked malts. This type of beer is an acquired taste – be sure to acquire some!
Regensburg sits where the River Regen joins the Danube, and as such arose as a center of commerce and culture since Roman times. The old town was fortunate to avoid bombing in the Second World War; consequently, its medieval center earns it a place on UNESCO’s World Heritage list. Among its many river crossings is an iconic 12th-century stone bridge with 16 arches. At one end of the bridge is the equally old Historic Sausage Kitchen, a restaurant founded in the mid 1100s and operated by the same family since the early 1800s. Grilled sausages are their specialty of course, and they’re delicious. The cathedral here is monumental, displaying the vast wealth and influence that the town enjoyed since the 13th century. The exterior face contains countless ornate sculptures depicting fantastic beasts and biblical figures as well as actual monarchs and church leaders throughout the centuries. The interior is a yawning vault of towering stained glass windows, titanic stone columns, and walls full of carved statuary. Down an unremarkable alley a block away, a modest marker (on a house now owned by a local architect) commemorates the industrialist Oskar Schindler, whose subversive efforts saved the lives of more than a thousand Jews during the Holocaust. After the war, Schindler lived in Regensburg for a time.
Though close to the sprawling metropolis of Munich, the bustling town of Landshut retains a medieval charm. Its cobbled center street is a vast car-free zone, allowing pedestrians and cyclists to enjoy many blocks of shops and historic sights without concern for motor traffic. Just up the hill overlooking the town, the walls and towers of Trausnitz Castle have flexed the muscles of Bavarian aristocracy since the 1200s. Amid the charming pastel-colored houses on Landshut’s streets, the massive brick spire of Saint Martin’s Cathedral looms large. Completed in 1500, it is the tallest church in Bavaria, and it is the largest brick church in the world. Inside, a 16-foot-tall Gothic crucifix hangs high from the vaulted roof in front of the altar, and the colorful stained glass windows in the nave depict figures from the Bible and lively scenes of real life in Bavaria. Landshut is worth visiting under any circumstance, but it is especially convenient as the last stop before leaving Germany from Munich’s airport, an easy half-hour drive away.