During the first week of August, our small group took 2 days to travel the full length of Bavaria’s famous Romantic Road. We started our adventure in the southern most part of Bavaria, in small town of Fussen (near the Austrian border) and finished our journey the next evening in the imperial city of Würzburg, in central Germany.
We were surprised to learn that the Romantic Road was created as a tourism idea in the mid-1950s to improve the post WW2 economy of southern Germany. We also discovered that the target groups of that project were English-speaking allied soldiers and their families (majority of whom were stationed in central Germany). To this day, the Romantic Road tends to be much more popular with Americans and British than with the Germans who seem to prefer historic Porcelain Road and more picturesque and culturally relevant Black Forest trails.
We started our tour with a short de-tour to see some of the German Alps (a short 40 minutes detour to the east of the Romantic Road takes us to Zugspitze, Germany’s highest mountain and another tourist route, the German Alpine Road). On that de-tour, we have stopped at Oberammergau village famous for its Bavarian charm and the once-in-decade world-renowned Passion Play. Next, we drove to one of the most romantic, picturesque and most famous stops on the Romantic Road, the Neuschwanstein Castle. Our next stop was the historic city of Augsburg and the four medical walled towns of Donauworth, Nordlingen, Dinkelsbuhl and Rothenburg ob Der Tauber. We have finished our tour in the imperial city of Wurzburg.
Despite the modern roots of the idea, it is easy to see why this road is so popular. Our trip took us from the winding roads of the German Alps, to the rolling hills of central Bavaria, with spotless villages and livestock farms, to the flatlands and extensive valleys with the grain farms and patches of ancient forests. All along the route, we have come across countless monasteries, churches and cathedrals, testifying to the importance and the impact of Christianity on Bavarian culture and identity. We have also stopped by many well preserved castles, fortresses and palaces that dated back to the Middle Ages. Yet, in spite of all that natural beauty, arguably the highlights of the Romantic Road are her many walled, fully restored, medieval towns!
- German Alpine Road: If you like mountains, valleys, lakes, and old villages, this is an incredible sensory experience. Road is of high quality and easy to navigate. Mornings and evenings are best times for fully enjoying the beauty of this region.
- Neuschwanstein Castle: Arguably the best known destination in Germany. The medieval looking castle itself is fairly new (it was built later than the Eiffel Tower!) and it is mostly unfinished on the inside. The best use of your time here is to climb the hill and explore the courtyard of the castle (free) and take a walk around castle’s outer walls (incredible views of the valley and the lakes). The paid castle tour (must be pre-booked; best if online) is limited to one level and wing and it is very short (ca. 20 minutes; only 1/3 of the castle is actually finished). The village below the castle has only tourist attractions. Recommended time to visit is before 10 am or after 5 pm. Drive time from Munich is 2 hours.
- Augsburg and Wurzburg: These are the largest cities on the Romantic Road. Both cities have well restored, walkable, historical centers and have impressive museums for those interested in medieval history. Both cities have culinary must-dos: in Augsburg try a slice of sheet cake with layers of zwetschge plums, in Wurzberg try pork knuckle or sausages made of veal with spices. Augsburg can be done in 2 hours; the imperial city of Wurzburg needs at least 4 hours, and is a great place for an early dinner.
- Donauworth is a former free imperial town and has one of the one of the most beautiful streets in Southern Germany (Reichsstraße) with town hall, gothic church Liebfrauenmünster, Tanzhaus, Fuggerhaus and Reichsstadtbrunnen (a fountain); baroque monastery church Heilig Kreuz with famous cross particle. You need at least 90 minutes here; wonder though the back streets as well as major sites listed above. It is only 40 minutes north of Augsburg.
- Nordlingen is only 30 minutes north of Donauworth. This town is surrounded by the only completely conserved and accessible town wall in Germany. The belfry of the late-gothic St. George can be climbed. I really enjoyed my time in this enchanting mostly traffic free, former imperial town. Great place for outdoor meal or snack! We spent almost 2 hours exploring.
- Dinkelsbühl is a city made for exploring, and even if you get lost in the old town, the city walls and their giant gates are useful landmarks to get you back on track. The bulk of the architecture is from the city’s economic heyday off the back of the woolen cloth trade in the 15th and 16th century, and this goes for the magnificent Hezelhof, a half-timbered 16th-century patrician house enclosing a courtyard. Something unusual about the street plan is that it grew organically and was never planned. So no space was ever set aside for a market, which is why the Marktplatz is so small and the adjoining Weinmarkt has a long, rectangular shape. We happened to be here during the festival of the “Kinderzeche” (held every July to re-create trickery of town’s children in sparring this town from destruction by Swedish invaders). While the old town is very small, the opportunity to “get lost” in the medieval town keep us here for almost 3 hours.
- Rothenburg: The second most popular destination in Germany, right after the Neuschwanstein Castle. With imperial castle dating back to 1142, this was one of the most important city-states in the Middle Ages. The famous medieval center of Rothenburg remained untouched and unchanged by time. The town as discovered by poets and painters and become a symbol of the Middle Ages in Germany. The city is best done on foot. I plan to return here in December, to experience the town’s famous Christmas markets. If you can, plan to spend the night here – tourists leave town round 7 pm each day.
- Romantic Road: Most of the road has incredible scenery. However, most of stops named above have Disney-like feel (= romantic medieval towns, with fully restored buildings, towers, walls, and city squares, with shops and services for tourist rather than locals). Majority of our stops have little to offer in terms of authentic German experience. At times, I felt like driving on Route 66 in the US. There is an original route and a modern route (55 kilometers shorter and much faster but less authentic and less picturesque). For the best experience, explore all or some of the Romantic Road on your own, best with a rental car. Avoid organized day-trips from either Munich or Frankfurt.
Major disappointment: The best known walled town of Rothenberg on der Tauber. The town was actually crowded (unliked any of others stops on the Romantic Road) and appeared to be a typical tourist attraction with no real economy except touristy shops, attractions and food.
- Our favorite stops: Dinkelsbühl and Nordlingen. We found each town authentic, going about its daily life with few tourists exploring the town. Part of the charm of this region is the discovery of walking trails through the vineyards in the Tauber valley or the traditional villages and churches of southern Bavaria.
Selected resources that I found helpful preparing for this trip:
More updates soon.