The tasteful decorations lining Rothenburg’s cobblestone streets combined with the stunning Christmas Market create a picture perfect holiday scene.
The town is home to Germany’s Christmas decor maven, Kathe Wohlfarcht, who some say is responsible for catapulting the holiday to a pretty much year-round celebration here. Maybe it’s the gluhwein but everyone from locals to tourists also seemed in good spirits. It’s surprisingly quiet for such a popular destination and one that is easy to fall in love with.
The town feels like stepping into a Disney movie probably because Rothenburg is the inspiration for the village in Pinocchio.
(The hanging signs over each store, cafe or service provider date back to the Middles Ages when most people couldn’t read. The above iron sign with swords is actually an armor shop! )
Rothenburg is a walled city located on a plateau overlooking the Tauber River, hence its official name of Rothenburg ob der Tauber (Red Fortress above the Tauber).Why red? Probably because a number of the roofs here are red.
Its rich history dates back to the Middle Ages. Long story short, the city was saved from total destruction during World War II. The Allies, with an eye toward preserving the town’s beauty and historical significance, offered the mayor the opportunity to surrender peacefully (against Adolf Hitler’s wishes). He agreed.
To speed up repair of the war damage the town did sustain, Rothenburg solicited donations from around the world and thanked donors with commemorative bricks that can be seen today in the town’s wall. Residents have fought (successfully) to keep developers out and history alive.
Our guide said that this is one of the most photographed streets in Germany.
The narrow streets prevent major road traffic, which accommodates tourism quite well. It’s the kind of town you could just wander for ages, finding little shops and cafes around corners without getting too lost because it’s not that big.
Our ship (I was on Uniworld’s Classic Christmas Markets river cruise) docked on the Main River at Kitzingen where we boarded a bus to Rothenburg. The journey took an easy 45 minutes or so and was well worth it.
As we entered the town from the bus my heart began to pound as we walked up the cobblestone streets past what felt like a gazillion local boutiques. Would I have enough time to hit them all?
Kathe Wohlfarcht Store(s) and Christmas Museum
Stepping into the main Kathe Wohlfarcht store is overwhelming, in a good way. I spent an hour inside marveling at more stunning Christmas ornaments and decorations than I’d probably ever seen in one spot.
They don’t allow photographs otherwise I would have taken a gazillion (the one above is courtesy of Tourism Germany). The store prepared my VAT refund forms which was helpful and English was not a problem. Electronic decorations also come with voltage options.
Upstairs inside the store is a small Christmas Museum. You’ll pay a small fee to enter but it’s worth spending a few minutes browsing the history of Christmas as well as trees (behind glass) filled with beautiful centuries-old ornaments demonstrating how they have evolved throughout the years.
Go directly to this store as soon as it opens to avoid crowds. There is even another Kathe Wohlfarcht store across the cobblestone street to ease crowding, not to mention several others sprinkled around town. Her decorations are that popular and I totally get why.
Rothenburg Christmas Market (Reiterlesmarkt)
The Rothenburg Christmas Market is just steps away from the main Kathe Wohlfarcht store and much less overwhelming, despite the tourists, than the Nuremberg Christkindlesmarkt. Perhaps it’s because the stalls are spread throughout the town square as well as in various nooks and crannies. I liked how approachable each booth was–the vibe here is pretty relaxed.
Of course, I drank gluhwein and took home the mug as a souvenir.
Franconian Food and Wine
Unlike the other markets where I grabbed a sausage on the go, I chose a local sit-down restaurant for lunch because my feet were exhausted from power shopping.
We’d passed a number of shops selling Franconian wine, which comes in a flat-bottomed bottle called a Bocksbeautal that keeps it from tipping over, basically. So, I wanted to try a glass.
It was paired with Franconian sausage, of course. I wish I could remember the name of the restaurant.
Rothenburg is famous for a centuries-old dessert called a schneeball (snowball) which is sliced shortcrust pastry dough rolled up into a ball and deep fried in a special shape-preserving device. Then, it’s dusted with powdered sugar, dipped in chocolate or covered with other toppings. They’re a bit bigger than my fist but also come in mini versions. Both delicately crumble after you take a bite.
Do me a favor and eat a schneeball if you’re ever in Rothenburg because they’re delicious. I bought a big tin to take home because they keep for several months apparently. The original version is dusted powdered sugar.
Shop the Many Local Shops
Plan time to wander! I looked at bookstores, home decor shops, a huge stuffed animal store (great for kids’ souvenirs), luggage and even that armor retailer. Though there were tourists visiting the markets, it was so easy to browse these little local shops. This town heaves with character and Christmas happiness while lacking major chain stores and coffee shops. The term “shop local” definitely applies here.
Rothenburg, our third-to-last stop, is where I started photographing holiday-themed window boxes. Stay tuned as I plan to make a gallery of them.
I adored Rothenburg because of its small-town charm, love of Christmas, medieval history and lovely people. Go, if you can, at any time of the year.
Everyone on our river cruise raved about this stop in particular. Totally wiped out from a full day shopping, I ended the day with dinner (always four courses) delivered to my stateroom.
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*I was a guest of Uniworld on the Classic Christmas Markets cruise and highly recommend it!