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The Danube
The Danube

Urban planning strategies that encourage city center living—and 20,000 university students—bring vitality to the old center of this medieval Danube town.

The buildings are remarkably intact. Allied bombs touched only the southern fringe of the city, and its relative prosperity during the Middle Ages was followed by centuries of decline, when the city couldn't afford to tear down or build. Call it "preservation through poverty." At the same time, the impoverished city was of no interest to wars that ravaged nearby towns. In fact, most buildings were untouched until recent - and thoughtful - restoration.

But Regensburg is no museum. In the early 1950s, city leaders decreed that commercial use would be confined to the first two floors of any historic building. (And tax breaks are given to owners who open their building's courtyards to foot traffic.) More than 14,000 residents live in the upper floors. In 1965, the University of Regensburg was founded; today, many of the areas 20,000 students make their homes downtown alongside thousands of Baby Boomers who were once urban pioneers. The concentration of downtown residents, a lively student presence, and the prosperity of nearby high-tech giants, has created a livable, upscale environment.

Even so, tourism has just recently arrived in Regensburg, perhaps due to the attraction of nearby Nürnberg and Munich. Still, the city has been gearing up for visitors for years, giving today's guests the best of both worlds: a strong tourism infrastructure without an overwhelming tourist presence.

Regensburg was established around 500 BC as Radasbona, a Celtic settlement. On the same site in 179 AD, the Romans founded Castra Regina, a garrison to guard the Empire's frontier at the Danube's northernmost point. Visitors can still walk the perimeter of the original Roman garrison and in places see the remains of its walls.

The city became a bishopric in 739, finished the great stone Danube bridge in 1146, and became a major trade center. Its merchants built elaborate patrician homes in the form of Italian fortresses (19 of which still stand), St. Peter's Cathedral plus a multitude of churches and monasteries.

When heavy taxation ended prosperity, new construction stopped and old buildings had to be maintained rather than demolished. Preservation through poverty.