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.