The Middle Ages in Europe was the period between the fall of the Western Roman Empire in the fifth century and the Renaissance and Age of Discovery in the 15th century.
In Germany, the Middle Ages saw the beginnings of towns, mostly located around fortified castles but granted a certain independence in terms of trade and lawmaking. Expanding horizons led to prosperity, the construction of houses, and development in the arts.
These 10 superbly preserved or restored medieval towns in Germany reflect the rich history and culture of the Middle Ages. The picturesque architecture, museums, and theatrical productions they offer will take you back to the time of knights in shining armor, troubadours, and the construction of the great cathedrals -- but also to devastating wars and plagues.
1. Rothenburg Ob Der Tauber
Rothenburg ob der Tauber in Middle Franconia, a part of Bavaria, is the quintessential German medieval town. It’s also an example of successful reconstruction, since sadly, nearly 30 percent of the town was destroyed or damaged during World War II.
Founded in 1170, Rothenburg became a free imperial city in the late Middle Ages. Strong defenses were imperative, and that’s why the town has a large wall totally surrounding it. It’s more than 3 miles long and features 42 towers. You can enter through the Klingenturmtor and walk as long as you’d like, enjoying the views of the town and the Tauber.
Make your way to the market square and admire the town hall with its Gothic back and Renaissance facade. The town is perhaps best known for its charming half-timbered houses clustered close together on narrow lanes, so be sure to stroll along Schmiedgasse or Herrngasse, where most of these are located.
The town’s oldest church is Saint James Church, with a masterpiece of Tilman Riemenschneider decorating the altar. You can learn about the darker side of the Middle Ages by visiting the Medieval Crime and Justice Museum. And if you’re looking for something extra special, consider a nightwatchman tour.
Pro Tip: If you can, visit Rothenburg around Christmas. The town’s Christmas market is one of the prettiest in Germany.
You’ll find medieval glory on a much grander scale in Goslar, located in Lower Saxony at the foot of the Harz Mountains. A UNESCO World Heritage site, Goslar derived its enormous wealth from the silver mines that were in operation there from the 10th century. Once the seat of the German emperors of the Holy Roman Empire, the city is still dominated by the Kaiserpfalz, the imperial palace. Visit the lavish rooms and learn all about their history.
Another must-see is the World Heritage Rammelsberg Mining Museum. It provides an in-depth look at the history of silver mining in Goslar, which began in the Middle Ages.
The wealth of the citizens of Goslar accounts for the size of the townhouses and the splendor of the churches. Highlights are the market square, the Zwinger battery tower, and the 12th-century Neuwerkkirche. For a lovely time, be sure to take a hike along the Liebesbankweg!
Pro Tip: Everywhere in Goslar, you’ll find references to Harzer Roller. This refers to two things: the canaries that were kept in the mines to warn miners of imminent explosions, and a very strong, fresh cheese that’s shaped like a sausage.
Quedlinburg, also located in the Harz Mountains, is another UNESCO World Heritage site. The town’s mountaintop castle looks down on between 1,300 and 2,000 half-timbered medieval houses. It’s one of the largest collections of these homes in all of Europe, and, best of all, it’s in original condition, since Quedlinburg did not suffer any bomb damage during World War II. The outer ring of the old town is made up of beautiful art deco buildings, so you’ll find different forms of architecture in close proximity.
A highlight is the Fachwerkmuseum im Standerbau, a 13th-century townhouse and the only museum of its kind in the world.
Pro Tip: Quedlinburg is a popular tourist destination, so if possible, avoid visiting during the summer months. The streets are steep and often slippery, so good walking shoes are a must.
This Bavarian city is located at the confluence of three rivers: the Danube, the Naab, and the Regen. The old town is a UNESCO World Heritage site and the largest medieval old town north of the Alps, with nearly 1,500 listed buildings.
The town’s .25-mile stone bridge over the Danube, constructed between 1135 and 1146, is a masterpiece of medieval engineering. The bridge opened up commerce with Northern Europe and Venice and made the town quite wealthy. Regensburg became famous for goldwork and fabrics. The rich competed with each other to build the most lavish houses with the highest possible towers.
Make your way to Haidplatz, where jousting tournaments once took place, and examine the Golden Cross house. Another structure to see is the colorful Goliath House. Visit the Regensburg Museum of History in a former Minorite monastery for an overview of the city’s history.
Ulm, founded around 850, is also located in Bavaria and on the Danube. Its most remarkable building is the Ulmer Munster, constructed in 1377, which features the world’s tallest steeple.
As with Regensburg, Ulm’s river location brought trade and wealth to the area, which became famous for textile production. Visit the Fishermen's Quarter for a look at medieval architecture and marvel at the crooked house that still stands.
Arts and crafts flourished in Ulm during the Middle Ages, as documented in the wonderful Museum Ulm. Another highlight of the town is the Krone Inn, a lavish building where emperors and kings would stop during their travels.
Pro Tip: When you’re in Ulm, be sure to try a specialty of Baden-Wurttemberg: Schwabische Maultaschen, a kind of ravioli swimming in a tasty broth.
Located in Bavaria in the foothills of the Northern Alps, Mittenwald is as romantic as can be. During the Middle Ages, the place was a thriving stop on the trade route to Venice. The merchants decorated their townhouses with Luftlmalerei, a form of mural art depicting scenes from daily life.
In 1684, Matthias Klotz brought the art of making musical instruments, especially violins, back from Italy, and soon half the population of Mittenwald was engaged in the craft. You can learn all about it at the fabulous Geigenbaumuseum.
Pro Tip: You are allowed to get a bit tipsy, so try Mittenwald’s famous Enzian schnaps -- with caution!
Augsburg, located at the convergence of the Lech and Wertach Rivers in Swabia, became very wealthy during the Middle Ages because of the trade routes with Italy. Silver, arms, and cloth were the products that accounted for the wealth of the citizens. Most famously, Augsburg became a banking center due to the dealings of the Fugger and Welser families.
One highlight of Augsburg is the Fuggerei, founded in 1513. It’s the world’s oldest social housing complex and accommodates poor families for very little rent to this day.
Another is its medieval canal system, which was so advanced for the time that it is now a UNESCO World Heritage site.
Cochem, located in the Moselle Valley, is nestled in a river loop overlooked by the enormous medieval castle of Reichsburg. The castle dates to the 12th century but was renovated in the 1870s to include a four-story octagonal tower. Don’t miss out on a guided tour.
If you can, visit during the first week in August, when medieval markets, plays, and reenactments take place within the castle. You can enjoy a medieval meal, too.
Cochem’s old town is another jewel of medieval architecture. Three massive gates guard the entrance to the town, and the town wall is still partly intact. The largest gates are Enderttor and Martinstor.
Within, pressed against the riverbank and flanked by a promenade, you’ll find the most picturesque half-timbered houses; some of them have been converted into shops where you can buy a bottle or two of the region's famous wines.
Monschau is a small resort town located in the Eifel Mountains of North Rhine-Westphalia. The medieval houses in the town center have remained much the same for more than 300 years. The half-timbered houses, some leaning precariously together, line small cobbled streets that are a joy to walk along. No house is without its flower boxes!
The Monschau Castle that overlooks the town dates to the 13th century and has seen a lot of history and battles. The best way to take it in is by making your way to the marketplace and taking the little town train. The 30-minute ride stops at all the town’s highlights, including the castle.
Located on the Rhine in Rhineland-Palatinate, Worms was an important free imperial city that flourished during the Middle Ages. The proof is the marvelous Worms Cathedral, one of the finest examples of Romanesque architecture in Europe. Numerous legends of the Middle Ages, including the Nibelungenlied, are closely connected with Worms. Learn more by visiting the Nibelungen Museum.
Worms was also a center of Ashkenazic Judaism during the Middle Ages and the seat of one of the area’s oldest synagogues, the Worms Synagogue, built in 1175. Visit the Jewish Cemetery to learn more about this part of the city’s history.
Pro Tip: Worms and the famous local wine, Liebfrauenmilch, are inseparable. Indulge in a a wine tasting at the Liebfrauenstift-Kirchenstuck Vineyard.