Summer is one of the best times to visit this region, when the vineyards are lush and green and the roses are in bloom. Or travel there during autumn, when the grape harvest is in full swing and the villages are filled with the aroma of pressed and fermenting grapes. From March through November, 250 wine festivals are held in this region, and during any time of the year you can stop for a tasting at hundreds of local wineries.
Würzburg is the region's largest metropolis, an historic city where one can spend several days seeing the major sights. Highlights include the ornate Residenz (the palace of the prince-bishops), a stunning example of Baroque design and its Hofkeller (Court Wine Cellar) in a labyrinth of man-made stone vaults; the Marienberg Fortress and the Main-Fränkischesmuseum, which holds the world's largest collection of sculptures and woodcarvings by Tilman Riemenschneider; and the new Shalom Europa (opened in 2006), the cultural center of the Würzburg Jewish community, with exhibits on 900 years of Jewish life in the city, including a unique collection of gravestones.
Würzburg's Christmas markets are a special attraction in December, with the main market held at the Marktplatz (Market Square) during Advent, and a medieval market at the Marienberg Fortress on the first weekend in December.
To tour the wine region beyond Würzburg, head eastward out of the city on Highway 13 to Sommerhausen, a pleasant wine village and artists' colony on the north side of the river. Stop at Gebhart's Weinatelier on the main street for a good selection of Franconian wines and local food products. Or sit in the shaded courtyard of an old winery, sipping some of the white wines for which the town is famous. Sommerhausen is also known for its special Christmas market, held on every Saturday and Sunday during Advent, with paintings, jewelry, pottery, glassworks, and traditional holiday crafts by local artists.
Across the Main River, Ochsenfurt is one of many attractive walled towns in this area, with an impressive Rathaus (town hall), a large Gothic church, several streets of handsome half-timbered houses, and museums showcasing local costumes and artifacts of daily life from the past. Back across the river, a few kilometers along the small riverside road toward Kitzingen, chow down on a "meter-long Bratwurst" in Sulzfeld, the village where this coiled sausage was invented. (If 39 inches of Bratwurst is too much for you to eat, you can always order a half-portion.)
Kitzingen is a larger town on the river, featuring the Deutsches Fastnachtmuseum (German Carnival Museum), full of Fastnacht/Fasching (Carnival) masks, costumes, posters, and documents. Indulge in coffee and cake at Rösner Backstube, in the half-timbered "Poganietz Haus," one of the oldest buildings in town (1580)—then go upstairs to the pastry shop's private Conditorei Museum (yes, they spell it with a "C") to see the collection of historic old cookie, candy, cake, and ice cream molds.
At Kitzingen cross the river on Highway 8 to Iphofen, another medieval walled village surrounded by vineyards, with a baroque Rathaus, narrow winding streets, and the Knauf Museum filled with fine replicas of ancient art from Egypt, Greece, Rome, and Asia. Then head to the tiny village of Mönchsondheim, home of the Kirchenburg open-air museum, where all the old buildings are located on their original sites, as part of the village itself. Inside you'll find several interesting exhibits on Franconian clothing, local trades, and rural life in centuries past.
Return to Iphofen and take Highway 8 back across the river, then turn right on the little riverside road to Dettelbach, a walled wine village bristling with more than 30 stone towers. Stop at Café-Konditorei Kehl or Café Achtmann for the local specialty, freshly baked Musskatzinen, soft little honey-spice cookies that are equally delicious with coffee or wine. Take them with you to a wine-tasting at Weinkeller Apfelbacher, just outside the city walls. The largest winery in Dettelbach, Apfelbacher has been owned by the same family for 400 years. Ask the friendly proprietors for a tour of their wine cellars, too.
Leave Dettelbach on Highway 22 in the direction of Schwarzach. Cross the river again, and turn left on the riverside road to Volkach, a major wine village with several good hotels and restaurants. The massive Rathaus on the central square has a large tourist office on the ground floor, with plenty of information about this entire section of the wine country. In the vineyards just northwest of Volkach, walk up the incline, past the Stations of the Cross, to the pilgrimage church "Maria im Weingarten" (Mary in the Vineyards), with its unique Riemenschneider woodcarving of the Madonna and Christ Child encircled by scenes from the Nativity.
Starting at Würzburg and driving westward along the river road (on the north side of the Main), you'll soon arrive at Veitshöchheim. (Or take a boat excursion to Veitshöchheim from the Alter Kranen boat landing in Würzburg, a 45-minute trip each way.) The main attraction in this pretty village is the rococo garden at the prince-bishop's residence, one of the few (and finest) rococo parks in Europe. The small Jewish Culture Museum and Synagogue are worth a visit, too.
Following Highway 27 from Veitshöchheim, continue along the river in a northwesterly direction to Karlstadt, a large walled town facing the ruins of Karlsburg, a castle directly across the water. Known for its many streets of well-preserved medieval and Renaissance houses, Karlstadt also has a recently restored Gothic church and a very good local historical museum. Forty-five kilometers (28 miles) farther along the same road, past a southward-turning bend of the river, you'll come to Marktheidenfeld, a popular base for tourists to enjoy outdoor sports (boating, swimming, hiking, bicycling, golf) in this area, including walks in the nearby Spessart Forest.
The Franconian wine country can be explored by car, bus, or boat; by bicycle across more than 1,000 kilometers (620 miles) of car-free trails; and along numerous hiking routes throughout the region. Although there is no official "Franconian Wine Route" you'll occasionally see road signs saying "Bocksbeutelstrasse," referring to those typical Franconian wine bottles, leading to the vineyards and wine villages. And wherever you pause on your journey through this pleasant part of Germany, you can always count on finding a glass of fine Franconian wine to satisfy your thirst and revive your spirits.