The Spot In Europe Often Written Off As A Tourist Trap Is One Of Rick Steves' Favorites

Rick Steves is clearly an expert on everything European. He's built his entire business — aptly named Rick Steves' Europe — on providing travel insights and in-person tours to people visiting the continent. After several decades of zipping through every nook and cranny, from the U.K. to Ukraine, Steves has uncovered some of the best spots in Europe, including some hidden gems and destination dupes.

However, the travel guru isn't afraid to highlight the tourist traps that some may scoff at — at least not when they're actually worth the hype. That's the case with Germany's Rothenburg (also known as Rothenburg ob der Tauber), a touristy town that welcomes more than 2 million visitors per year. In a 2014 Facebook post, Steves spoke affectionately of the destination, writing, "Rothenburg is one of Germany's most touristy towns. And I absolutely love it. For years I searched for the elusive 'untouristy Rothenburg.' There are many contenders, but none holds a candle to the king of medieval German cuteness. Even with crowds, overpriced souvenirs, Japanese-speaking night watchmen, and, yes, even Schneeballen, Rothenburg is best."

In a separate blog post, Steves explains that he first fell in love with Rothenburg long ago when he backpacked through Europe. Though he notes that the town has changed since then, he argues that its traditional charm still prevails — and if you visit Rothenburg, you might agree with him.

Visit Rothenburg for a true medieval experience

According to Rick Steves, Rothenburg is "Germany's best-preserved walled town," and it's hard to argue with him. The walls around the area date back to the 14th century, and while there have been some repairs and renovations over the years, they're still an authentic remnant of Rothenburg's medieval past. Even older is the town's castle, built in the year 1142. Saint James' Church (also known by its local name, Jakobskirche) is another historical structure, dating back to the 14th century and containing an impressive collection of old religious artworks.

Note that you don't have to go out of your way to experience the town's history. Every alleyway and cobblestoned street looks like it was plucked out of an old fairytale, and it's so well-maintained, you'd think you stepped into a medieval-themed amusement park instead of a real, living town. One of the most storybook-esque spots is Plönlein, an intersection of two roads marked by a charming yellow house. Surrounding it are old towers and colorful timber-framed buildings.

If you become overwhelmed by the crowds of tourists, follow the trail to Tauber Valley, starting near the castle gardens (consider renting a bike to maximize your exploration). The valley is home to more historic sites and castles, as well as fresh rivers and relaxing vineyards, where you can take a break with a glass of wine.

The people are just as charming as the town

Rothenburg's historical, Instagrammable scenery might be what attracts most people, but as Rick Steves points out in a blog post, the destination's magic is all thanks to the fun and friendly locals who call it home. Just as Mickey and Cinderella help bring Disney parks to life, the shopkeepers, hotel staff, and restaurant chefs inject Rothenburg with a unique and quirky flavor.

The people of the German town have always played a massive role in protecting its reputation, even going so far as gulping down an entire gallon of wine in one sitting. As legend has it, Rothenburg ob der Tauber was under siege in the 1600s and about to be destroyed by a rival named Count of Tilly. Rothenburg's people provided a gallon of wine as a peace offering, but rather than accepting, Tilly suggested one of the townspeople drink the entire jug to spare Rothenburg from destruction. According to the story, Rothenburg's mayor accepted the risky challenge — and, thankfully, succeeded.

Whether the legend is fact or fiction, Rothenburg's locals make a real mark on the town today. The area's residents and workers are known to be friendly and welcoming of visitors, and crime, including pickpocketing, is uncommon — rare for such a touristy spot. To connect with the townspeople, Steves suggests exploring the city at night, when the locals loosen up and mingle after work.

Planning your trip

Rothenburg ob der Tauber is located in the state of Bavaria, about a two-hour drive southwest of Frankfurt. If you plan to visit Germany without a car, Rothenburg can also be reached by train. There are numerous Intercity Express trains available that will take you in the direction of the town before you transfer to one of the area's smaller train lines. Alternatively, travel north from Munich, either driving nearly three hours or taking a slightly longer journey by train (just like from Frankfurt, you'll have to make some transfers before reaching the town).

Rothenburg might seem like the perfect day-trip destination, but Rick Steves suggests staying overnight to experience the town's evening atmosphere, when the hordes of tourists disperse. You'll have plenty of accommodations to choose from, many of which are located in old buildings yet outfitted with refreshed and contemporary interiors.

Be mindful of the season when booking your trip. Rothenburg is known for its Christmas spirit, and while its German Christmas Museum is open all year, the local Christmas market only opens during the winter. If you must visit during the warmer months, be aware that the summer season can get especially crowded, though the weather may be more comfortable for those who can't bear the cold.