Driving the Romantic Road through Germany
It seems impossible that a route billed as the “Romantic Road,” winding through medieval villages and tiny Bavarian towns with half-timbered homes and cherry-red flowers in window boxes, could remain romantic for half a century—yet it has. Germany came up with the idea of a scenic route from the River Main to the Alps in the 1950s, when it needed a bit of post-war positivity; it’s said the earliest visitors were “friends and families of American soldiers stationed in the large bases in Bavaria and Baden-Württemberg.” Americans still flock here, as do Asians, Europeans, and even Germans themselves, and though main attractions can get crowded, there are more than enough quiet corners of castles and cobblestoned alleys in 12th-century towns for everybody.
The Trip: Three days, 285 miles
Starting in Munich, head southwest toward Füssen at the beginning (or end) of the Romantic Road, and from there, go north to the wine city of Würzburg.
What to Drive
For the love of all that is good and muscle-bound, please rent a fast German car. A BMW, an Audi, a Mercedes—doesn’t matter. Just pick one and don’t let the rental car company try to give you something compact. You’ll be on the Autobahn for the initial stretch of the drive out of Munich, and you’ll feel safer in a ride with a big engine when everyone else is going 120 mph. Plus, who goes “wooo!” in a Geo on the Autobahn?
Day 1: Follow the commuters zooming south out of Munich on A96 toward Füssen and, nearby, King Ludwig II’s Neuschwanstein Castle in Schwangau, known as the real-life inspiration for Disney’s Sleeping Beauty palace. The 19th-century Romanesque Revival up on the hills does set the fairy-tale tone for this 285-mile ride, though before that, the drive is all highway, all business. You can either start the touristing straight away, prowling around the pastel-colored town of Füssen and taking selfies in front of the castle’s gates and spires. Or, you could check in first to Hotel Das Rübezahl, a spa hotel at the base of the Alps with a welcoming fire going in the lobby, a glass of sparkling wine on arrival, and views of the castle from bedroom balconies. If you don’t make it to the castle until the next morning, we wouldn’t blame you.
Day 2: There’s a lot to do between Füssen and Rothenburg ob der Tauber (“on the Tauber river”), which is about 150 miles away as the highway flies. Take the more meandering route, about a three-hour ride (without stops) on B17 and A7, for a full Romantic Road experience. After passing a handful of villages, heading slowly around traffic circles, you’ll wonder if the locals care you’re here—it all seems so peaceful and quiet. Best to keep passing through until your first stop, about an hour and a half north, in Augsburg, Bavaria’s oldest city (and originally a Roman town). Grab a bite outside at a cafe on the Maximilianstrasse, to take it all in, before heading to the Fuggerei, a walled Roman Catholic housing complex for the poor built in the early 1500s by Jakob Fugger. It still serves as subsidized housing to this day, and you can take a tour of one of the homes, peeking into the spartan but welcoming living room, bedroom, and kitchen. There’s also a complicated history of the Fuggerei’s rebirth following a WWII bombing raid, made all the more real by the mini-museum’s setting in a bunker.
Take a breath and get back on the road. You can swing by Harburg Castle, or choose Dinkelsbühl as your next overnight, but we decided to push on a little farther to Rothenburg. So glad we did—we could have a stayed a full weekend here. After checking in to Burg-Hotel—another impossibly pretty place in a monastery garden, with views upstairs of the Tauber Valley—we happened upon the free sundown walking tour of the town, getting started in the market square. It took us to the outer wall, and along backroads where restaurants were just starting to turn their lights on. The Alt-Rothenburger Handwerkerhaus is a fun detour to see a 700-year-old house and the remains of artisans’ workshops—coopers, weavers, cobblers and potters. It all looks like a film set or a Disney theme park—but then again, film sets and theme parks are made to look like this.
Day 3: After lingering in Rothenburg for a late breakfast, drive out for the last, hour-and-change stretch to Würzburg outside Frankfurt, where the wine impresses as much as the city’s focal point—the Residenz, an 18th-century Baroque palace. A meal of asparagus, filet mignon, and lots (and lots!) of local riesling at Bürgerspital restaurant caps off a drive that actually lives up to its billing.
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By Laura Dannen Redman ©2019 Condé Nast Traveler