The Essential Guide to Franconia

A highlight of Bavaria—and Germany in general—Franconia is beloved for its picturesque landscapes, medieval towns, and rich beer and food traditions. Formerly a separate duchy of the Holy Roman Empire, the region is dotted with dense woodlands, national parks, and grapevine-covered hillsides, as well as castles, palaces, and UNESCO World Heritage sites like the old town of Bamberg and the Würzburg Residence.

Bamberg, Germany
Famous for being Southern Germany’s hub of the Enlightenment during the late 18th century (Hegel and Hoffmann both lived here), Bamberg is also home to a superbly preserved medieval town center, which was declared a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1993. Here, visitors find an endless array of architectural styles, from Gothic and Renaissance to Baroque and neoclassical, all spread through three distinct areas: the episcopal town, the island town, and the market gardeners’ town.

The Romanesque-Gothic cathedral of St. Peter and St. George is Bamberg’s most prominent building (it’s home to the famous Bamberg Horseman statue, the tomb of Henry II and Cunigunde, and the only papal grave in Germany), but the New Palace and the Alte Hofhaltung Palace are also must-sees, as are the town hall, the tanners’ cottages, and “Little Venice,” a former fishermen’s village with half-timbered houses and tiny gardens. If you’re a suds fan, be sure to sample Bamberg’s famous smoked beer before leaving.
Residenzplatz 2, 97070 Würzburg, Germany
The former residence of Würzburg’s prince-bishops, this UNESCO World Heritage site is one of the most important Baroque palaces in Europe. It was—remarkably, given its scale and level of detail both inside and out—built almost entirely within a single generation. Court architect Balthasar Neumann oversaw the construction, while leading architects from Germany and France created the fabulous ornamentation. Woodcarvers, sculptors, and artists from Italy—including Giovanni Battista Tiepolo, regarded as one of the greatest fresco painters of the 18th century—also contributed to the design.

Rebuilt after World War II, the palace now features a bevy of architectural styles, from German and Viennese Baroque to French château. Inside, the White, Imperial, and Garden halls are can’t-miss attractions, as are the grand staircase and ceiling fresco by Tiepolo and the Mirror Cabinet. Before leaving, be sure to take a walk in the court gardens, which feature fountains, charming yew trees, and a group of cherub statues by Johann Peter Wagner.
91541 Rothenburg ob der Tauber, Germany
Rothenburg ob der Tauber has several significant churches, but the most famous one, for good reason, is St. Jacob’s. A short stroll from the town’s main square, the cathedral was built in stages, between 1311 and 1484, in the High Gothic style, and is famous for its high altar, religious artworks, and pair of distinctive towers, both of which are nearly 200 feet tall. Inside, visitors will find several paintings, including a depiction of pilgrims stopping here en route to Santiago de Compostela in the 15th century. The Altar of the Twelve Apostles is one of the most important of its kind in Germany, with an intricate altarpiece that depicts Christ on the cross surrounded by four angels, and the Holy Blood altarpiece in the west gallery is almost as impressive, with early 16th-century wood carvings by Tilman Riemenschneider and a glass vial that purportedly contains a drop of Christ’s blood.
Hofer Str. 20, 95326 Kulmbach, Germany
Located 20 miles northwest of Bamberg, the small but pleasant town of Kulmbach has been known for beer since medieval times. Today, it’s home to Kulmbach Brewery, which owns the Bavarian Beer Museum in the former Alte Mönchshofbrauerei monastery. A multimedia institution, the beer museum features interactive displays that allow visitors to see, smell, taste, and even hear all aspects of the brewing process, while learning about the history of beer, the development of brewing, and the changing architecture of breweries themselves. Also on offer are beer tastings, beer-barrel tapping tests, and other programs and workshops, plus an excellent restaurant that offers great German cuisine and a beer garden with a children’s playground.
Mainkai 1, 97070 Würzburg, Germany
German for “Old Millwheel,” Alte Mainmühle is located at the foot of Würzburg’s oldest bridge, offering sweeping vistas over the Main River to the Marienberg Fortress and surrounding vineyards. In addition to this picturesque setting, the restaurant offers traditional charm in spades, from timber-heavy dining rooms to a fireplace and double balcony with views of the bridge and fortress. On the menu, you’ll find a great selection of local beers and Franconian wines, plus a variety of seasonal cuisine, often prepared with a modern twist. Expect everything from potato-crusted zander and boiled veal in horseradish sauce to vegetarian options like potato-and-sauerkraut dumplings served with melted onions.
Opernstraße 14, 95444 Bayreuth, Germany
Bayreuth’s majestic Margravial Opera House, which was declared a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2012, is one of Germany’s finest examples of Baroque court-theater architecture. Commissioned in the 18th century by Margravine Wilhelmine of Brandenburg-Bayreuth—daughter of the Prussian king and sister of Frederick the Great, and a talented musician in her own right—the theater was designed by renowned Italian architect Giuseppe Galli Bibiena, who modeled it after the opera houses of Vienna and Dresden. Today, it’s the only existing venue where opera fans can enjoy an authentic Baroque experience, complete with the original wood and canvas materials in the auditorium. Other highlights include a large stage portal framed by columns, detailed sculptures in the loge, and impressive 3-D paintings created as backdrops.
Schloßgasse 26, 63739 Aschaffenburg, Germany
Completed in 1614, Johannisburg Palace is one of the most important Renaissance castles in Germany. Located along the Main River, the immense, four-winged complex served as the second residence of the archbishop-electors of Mainz until 1803. Today, it’s home to innumerable cultural and historical treasures, including a unique collection of cork architectural models called Bringing Rome Across the Alps. The State Gallery displays early German and Dutch paintings, with a special emphasis on Lucas Cranach the Elder, while the Princely Apartments offer a fine array of neoclassical furnishings. In the Palace Church, modern technology brings the Renaissance altar to life in a new way, using light and sound installations to highlight the 31 alabaster sculptures and almost 150 relief figures. Also not to be missed is the Palace Museum, showcasing the history of Aschaffenburg, as well as the gardens, where the fruit trees and flower beds are particularly splendid in summer.
Maximilianstraße 33, 95444 Bayreuth, Germany
Set on Bayreuth’s market square inside one of the oldest buildings in town, this charming tavern dates back an impressive 600 years. Run by two families, Wenk and Bauernfeind, since 1999, it features a purely Franconian ambience of regional food, beer, and wine, all presented with a warm welcome and friendly service. Dishes like grilled beef, roast pork, and local trout are cooked to perfection, portions are big, and waiters are dressed in typical Bavarian attire. There’s also a streetside terrace that’s great for people-watching.
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