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.
A compact Old City and an extensive pedestrian zone make Regensburg perfect for walking. Early morning is the best time to start your exploration. The stores are dark and the streets are silent, except for the bells and chimes that echo from church to church. Overhead, one after another, windows turn bright and the city awakens.
With a day of walking ahead, the first stop should be the Haus Heuport for a fortifying breakfast. If it's sunny, sit out front and people-watch in the plaza. Otherwise, find a window table upstairs in the massive main dining room, formerly the ballroom of a patrician castle. The view couldn't be better: the west façade of St. Peter's.
The cathedral is built on the site of the former Romanesque cathedral and reveals how Gothic styles evolved from its construction dates of 1276 to 1525. The evolution of stained glass is more distinct; the mosaic style of the medieval windows excites the spirit with their rich colors and powerful images. The painted 19th-century glass seems flat and lifeless in comparison. Recognizing a dying art and the impact of acid rain and car exhaust on limestone and green sandstone the Bavarian Government created a cathedral stonemason school. In summer, visitors can watch the stonecutters work in the cathedral garden.
Today's visitors see the cathedral in a new light. Since the first stone was laid, smoke from stoves and fireplaces had coated the cathedral with dense black soot. In 1997, careful sandblasting revealed its true colors for the first time in centuries. (Tours in German available May-Oct. for about $6-7)
The former merchants' district lies to the west of St. Peter's. The cobble-stoned district contains tempting storefronts - an enticing mix of merchandise from antique to kitsch, from fashionable to obscure. A meandering walk passes two of the city's most striking patrician castles: the 13th-century Kastenmayerhaus with its four-story tower, and the Goldener Turm, with its imposing golden tower and Renaissance courtyard. The route leads quickly to the Altes Rathaus, a complex of buildings and courtyards. Construction started with a 13th century patrician castle and ended with the Baroque town hall finished in 1723. Special points of interest along organized tours of the Rathaus include one of the last original torture chambers in Europe and the Imperial Hall, where the Perpetual Diet—in many ways Germany's first parliament—met for nearly 150 years. (Tours daily 9am-4pm; in English from May-September, daily except Sunday at 3:15pm, admission about $5.)
The Altes Rathaus also houses the city's Tourist Information office and is the meeting place for 90-minute tours of the Old City. (In English on Wed. and Sat. at 1:30pm from May-Oct. or by special arrangement. Cost is about $6-7)
A two-minute walk north crosses the 16th century Italianate Fish Market to the Danube and to the Steinerne Brücke, an architectural achievement as impressive today as when it was built in the early 12th century. Resting on 16 massive pillars, the stone bridge stretches more than 1,000 feet across the river. As the only river crossing within miles, the bridge played a central role in the city's growth as a trade center. Today, it provides a panorama of the Old City's spires, towers and steep-sloped roofs - dominated, of course, by St. Peter's.
From the banks of the Danube, it's a short walk past the former Hotel Zum Weissen Lamm (where Goethe once stayed en route to Italy) and the Oskar Schindler Haus to the Porta Praetoria. The archway leads into the Bischofshof, the former bishop's residence built between the 13th and 16th centuries, past the 13th-century parish church of St. Ulrich, and into the Domplatz.
The nearby Neupfarrplatz provides a unique view of ancient and medieval Regensburg. Recent construction uncovered the foundations of a former Jewish settlement. Due to their contribution to the Regensburg's mercantile growth, the Jews and local citizens lived peaceably together within the city walls. In 1519, however, following years of economic decline, the town council banished the Jews and razed their houses and the synagogue. Archaeologists found cellars, walls, wells, steps and roads and gained a better insight into the Jewish quarter. And, when they probed deeper, they found that the ghetto had in fact been built over Roman ruins.
Today, visitors can descend two flights of stairs adjacent to the Neupfarrkirche and see the simple excavation from vantage points along a metal walkway. Beyond the walkway and recessed lighting, there's nothing artificial about the site: no explanatory signs and no protective glass. It feels far less like a museum than a private look into two layers of the past.
No visit to Regensburg is complete without a visit to the Schloss Thurn und Taxis, a former Benedictine abbey acquired by the Thurn and Taxis family in 1812 as their private castle. While still the family's ancestral home, three main sections are open to the public. The palace, with its magnificent furnishings, paints a vivid picture of court life in the 19th century.
It also houses the Thurn and Taxis Museum, a branch of the National Museum of Bavaria, with an extensive collection of jewelry, watches, porcelain place settings, dueling pistols and other family treasures. Finally, the royal stables (Marstallmuseum) display the family's coaches and carriages, much of them used in the family business: a monopoly on private and official mail throughout Western Europe from the early 16th century to 1867.
"Regensburg is so beautifully situated, the surroundings were bound to attract a city."
-Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
The countryside around Regensburg invites exploration into a hilly landscape of cliffs, rivers, forests and woods. No car is needed. Just six miles down the Danube—about 45-60 minutes by boat—the Walhalla rises 358 steps above the river. This Doric marble temple erected in the style of the Parthenon between 1830 and 1842 for King Ludwig I stands as a monument both to the glory of the heroes of the German-speaking world and to the excess and nationalism of the period. (Boats leave from the Steinerne Brücke and cost about $12 round-trip; one-way ticket, about $8). Allow three hours. The climb to the temple is strenuous; some may prefer to go to Walhalla by taxi (about a $30 ride) then descend to the river and return by boat.
In the opposite direction, a four-hour upstream journey ends at the Kloster Weltenburg, Bavaria's oldest abbey. The boat runs from Regensburg only 11 times each year. Otherwise, travel 30 minutes by train to Saal, continuing 10 minutes by bus to Kelheim, connecting there by boat to Weltenburg. The train/bus-connection runs almost hourly, and tickets cost about $7 each way. Most of the trip covers the relaxing stretch between Regensburg and Kelheim, a medieval village at the confluence of the Altmühl River (here part of the Main-Danube Canal). From there, cameras start clicking for the scenic 30 minutes to Weltenburg.
Shortly after Kelheim, the Befreiungshalle (Liberation Hall) looms atop the Michelsberg, a classical rotunda built by Ludwig I to commemorate Bavarians who had died in the Wars of Liberation against Napoleon. From here, the river narrows and curves between limestone cliffs, and the captain points out unusual stone formations. It narrows further as the boat passes the gorge of the Donaudurchbruch, where the Danube broke through the limestone plateau millennia ago.
Moments later, the walls of the abbey appear, the boat docks, and it's a five-minute walk to the inner courtyard for lunch and a half-liter of Asam Bock (a dark beer from the world's oldest monastic brewery). The adjacent abbey church belies its drab exterior with brilliant paintings, stucco and statuary that epitomize the Baroque period.
Boats also make the six-hour voyage from Kelheim up the Altmühl Valley past medieval towns, castle ruins and craggy cliffs to the postcard-perfect village of Berching. (about $20 one-way, $26 round-trip). Consider Berching to be an undiscovered Rothenburg, its peaceful and walkable, with little traffic and few tourists. The town is ringed by 30-foot walls and protected by towers and turreted gates. Visitors can walk along the top of the wall or explore the maze of alleys and passageways. A perfect stopping point along the wall is the Wehrmauer-Stub'n (Badturmgasse 2), an intimate, out-of-the way restaurant that attracts more locals than tourists. When innkeeper Hans Danler learned that one of his guests that evening was American, he brought his wife out, introduced her, and gave the American a huge embrace that was almost as endearing as the venison steak with Spätzle and wild mushrooms.
Shorten the trip back by taking a half-hour bus trip to Neumarkt and connecting with German Rail for the 50-minute ride to Regensburg.
Perched on the Oberer Wöhrd, a small island that divides the Danube, the Sorat Insel-Hotel is just a five-minute walk across the Steinerne Brücke. This short distance yields two key benefits: a perfect panorama of the Altstadt rising above the Danube and refuge from the bustle of the city.
Once a factory that forged and gilded metal for churches across Europe, the hotel takes great advantage of its building's massive wood beams and sturdy brick walls.
The lobby is an airy three-story atrium, and the rooms and suites are spacious, brightly decorated and with all modern conveniences. A large fitness center includes a sauna and a solarium. Most of the rooms offer south-facing views of the Altstadt and the Danube. Number 301, on the eastern corner, has windows on two sides, also allowing downstream views of the Steinerne Brücke and the fast-flowing river. Like other top-floor rooms, it has the added touch of the original slanted ceilings.
Its Brandner restaurant features exotic fare like ostrich filet, French pigeon and wild boar. A lobby bar overlooks the river. In-house parking is about $12 per day. One room is wheelchair accessible.
Daily Rates: Singles from about $131, doubles from about $157
Rating: Quality 13/20, Value 14/20
Hotel Bischofshof am Dom
Once the palace of the bishops, Bischofshof may contain the oldest hotel room in Europe. One side of Number 119, the Porta Praetoria suite, is part of the wall from the ancient Castra Regina, making it 1,822 years old—sort of. The remainder of the hotel, while not as ancient, is unquestionably historic. A walk along the arcade has changed little over the centuries: Gothic columns and arched, double-arcade windows, filled with flowers and overlooking the cobblestone courtyard with its fountains and chestnut trees.
Rooms 117 and 118 offer superb courtyard views with the added bonus of the cathedral in the background. In Number 321, in the newly renovated south wing, the cathedral is almost close enough to touch.
The Bischofshof has arguably the best service and most professional staff in Regensburg, making guests feel like the royalty who have stayed there through the centuries. The hotel restaurant ranks among the city's finest.
Daily Rates: Singles from $82, doubles from $147, suites available from about $170
Rating: Quality 15/20, Value 17/20
Hotel Münchner Hof
The Hotel Münchner Hof is ancient, its cellar dating from the 9th century. Therefore, when the hotel underwent extensive renovations four years ago, the owners followed strict preservation guidelines. The result is modern rooms and public spaces built in, around and under remnants of medieval architecture. Many rooms have Gothic beams running through walls and ceilings. Others have doorways built into 14th-century stone arches. All are spacious and well outfitted: blond-pine floors, high wooden ceilings, wrought-iron chandeliers, and bathrooms with space-age, pod-like showers and with faux-marble tiles.
The staff's genuinely warm and friendly nature rounds out an overall relaxing experience.
Most guestrooms overlook the Tändlergasse, a narrow and charming medieval street lined with shops and boutiques and perfect for people-watching. (Number 411 provides enough height for both perspective and distance from street noise.) Those overlooking the courtyard have little view but almost total quiet. The adjoining restaurant features popular Bavarian specialties at reasonable prices.
Quality and service can be uneven and, paradoxically, is best when the restaurant is crowded. Perhaps locals know the chef's night off. In any case, the restaurant is under new management since this article was written.
Daily Rates: Singles from around $75, doubles from about $98
Rating: Quality 12/20, Value 15/20
In its three incarnations, the Altstadthotel Arch has evolved from a 12th-century patrician home to an 18th-century private mansion to a warm and inviting family-run hotel. Renovations in 1996 retained much of the lush atmosphere of the past, while also providing modern amenities.
The entrance is off the Haidplatz, through a courtyard and up a wide wooden staircase. Rooms (each named for a local street) are spacious (especially the two-room suites) and decorated in rich colors. Views aren't a major factor in choosing a room, since there's a choice of a back alley or the small courtyard. Rooms on the third floor, however, have maintained much of the older architecture including the original wooden beams and offer great views of the Old City.
Daily Rates: Singles from around $85, doubles from about $100; suites from about $145
Rating: Quality 13/20, Value 13/20
Regensburg is a culinary destination for Bavaria and beyond. The city's relative wealth helps fuel the restaurant scene, as does the presence of so many downtown residents. Perhaps because tourism is still building, travelers will find prices much lower than in comparable establishments in major cities. Visitors who time their trips can enjoy regional dishes that take advantage of the tender asparagus (spring) and wild mushrooms (late summer) that dominate the city's restaurants.
Bischofshof Restaurant am Dom
The Bischofshof Restaurant am Dom extends the reputation of its hotel with professional and cordial service, a peaceful setting and reasonable prices. In fact, given its deserved gourmet reputation, the restaurant is a downright bargain.
The extensive menu changes often and consists of a number of regional dishes, like roast pork knuckle with dumplings and cabbage salad; venison with horseradish, creamed vegetables and steamed potatoes; and medallions of veal with Spätzle and salad. Even with an appetizer such as fresh tomatoes and mozzarella with basil and a dessert like peach Melba, a three-course dinner can come in under $33 (Fixed-price meals are hearty but as inexpensive as $14.
Wine by the bottle can double the cost of dinner, although the prices are quite reasonable for quality wines like Regensburger Landwein Müller and Wüzburger Stein. Beer comes from the original brewery of the bishop (more than 350 years old).
Contact: Restaurant Bischofshof am Dom, Krauterer Markt 3, D-93047 Regensburg, tel. +49/0941/59086.
Rating: Quality 16/20, Value 18/20
Since it's hidden at the end of an alley off the Haidplatz, most of the clientèle at the Dicker Mann is local. The restaurant fills the first floor of an old house with tables spread through sprawling rooms. With the turn-of-the-century Empire furniture, old paintings on the walls, and dried flowers on each table, one gets the sense of dining at grandmother's. Perhaps because of the homelike setting, its not the place for a quick meal. Service was unrushed, but few guests seem to be in any hurry.
Bavarian specialties dominate the menu. A typical dinner: rich potato soup, tender slices of veal served with wild mushrooms in an onion cream sauce, and apple strudel served warm, swimming in vanilla sauce, dusted with confectioners sugar and cinnamon. Cost: about $23. For about $12, a lighter appetite can get a Brotzeitbrett, a substantial wooden platter with potato/pickle salad, fresh tomatoes, coarse bread, and slices of ham, roast beef and chicken.
Contact: Dicker Mann, Krebsgasse 6, D-93047 Regensburg, tel. +49/0941/57570.
Rating: Quality 13/20, Value 14/20
Nine centuries ago, workers on the Steinerne Brücke received their meals at a riverside kitchen. That same kitchen - the Historische Wurstküche—serves up more than 100,000 Regensburger Bratwurst each day to locals and visitors. On a sunny day, guests can wait an hour or more to sit elbow-to-elbow on slat benches. When the weather doesn't cooperate, the kitchen building itself offers several tables of indoor seating but smoke permeates every fiber of clothing. The Danube overflows its banks almost annually—to clean out the kitchen, Regenburgers joke—and signs nearly to the ceiling mark the dates and levels of especially cleansing floods.
Outside, waiters weave their way through rows of trestle tables, take orders, and race to the grill, where white-bonneted cooks tend to the charcoal and to the finger-sized sausages: turning them, serving them, adding new ones. Like assembly-line workers, the waiters hold out plates for the right count of sausages followed by ladles of fresh sauerkraut and sweet mustard and race back to drop off orders and pick up new ones. With the river, bridge and Old City as backdrops, its lunch theater at its best. You'll get your fill for about $10.
Contact: Historische Wurstkche, Thundorferstrasse 3, Regensburg 93047, +49/0941/59098. No credit cards.
Rating: Quality 6/20, Value 18/20
If it's mid-morning, get to Uli's before the line starts - although that may be well before opening time on Saturdays. It's a Regensburg institution—or perhaps addiction. The nondescript shop lies at the base of a seven-story patrician house built in 1260. Inside, only one dish is being prepared: steamed dough with vanilla sauce. One size and one price, about $5, fit all. During any visit to Regensburg, a trip to Uli's is required - and may result in return visits. Yes, they're that good. (Closed Sunday and Monday.)
Contact: Uli's Dampfnudelküche, Am Watmarkt 4, D-93047 Regensburg, tel. +49/0941/53297