The World Heritage City of Bamberg is in Upper Franconia resting on seven hills. And if that sounds Roman, this seat of episcopal power is still called the “Rome of Franconia”, You’ll certainly get that impression on Domplatz, where the cathedral and its four towers are awe-inspiring and flanked by the solemn Medieval and Baroque palaces for Bamberg’s mighty Prince Bishops.
You could lose a day or more under the spell of this place buried in artefacts at the museums in the old courts or gazing at the view of Bamberg’s lower quarters from the Baroque rose garden on a terrace.
Down there, cross the River Regnitz you’ll be in the Inselstadt (Island City), which was Bamberg’s secular merchant settlement. To have a say in city affairs the merchants built themselves a town hall, right in the middle of the river and coated with frescoes in the 18th century.
Let’s have a look at the best things to do in Bamberg:
1. Bamberg Cathedral
Founded by Holy Roman Emperor Henry II in the early 11th century, Bamberg Cathedral has extraordinary Medieval architecture and priceless works of art.
Outside you’ll see that the cathedral has four towers, and that symmetry continues below where there’s a choir at each end, the eastern one Romanesque, and the western Gothic.
A must-see is the tomb of Henry II and his wife Kunigunde, carved from Franconian limestone across 14 years by the Renaissance master Tilman Riemenschneider.
Close by, atop a column is another staggering work of art, the Bamberger Reiter (Bamberg Horseman). By its astounding level of naturalism you would never believe that this sculpture is from the first decades of the 13th century.
There’s much more to discover, from the carvings on the three main portals, to two crypts, the marble tomb of Pope Clement II, the beautiful stalls in the western choir and the profusion of altars.
2. Alte Hofhaltung
This Renaissance complex comprises the residential and commercial building’s of Bamberg’s Medieval episcopal court.
The Alte Hofhaltung originated at the beginning of the 11th century when the diocese was founded and there are still vestiges of those first palaces and chapels in the inner courtyard.
Here, along with a host of smaller buildings, a Late Gothic timber-framed gallery lines the eastern corner.
To reach this space from the Cathedral Square you have to pass through the 16th-century Prachtportal (Magnificent Portal), on which there’s a relief of Mary in front of an image of the cathedral.
At her right arm is Holy Roman Emperor Henry II, who founded the Bamberg Diocese in 1007.
3. Historisches Museum
The history and culture of this World Heritage City is uncovered at the museum inside the Alte Hofhaltung.
The Gemäldegalerie (painting gallery) for instance has 100 works by masters like Brueghel and Lucas Cranach the Elder, and the 19th-century landscape artist Otto Modersohn.
There are also insights into bourgeois life in Bamberg in the 19th century, calling on portraits, furniture, textiles, jewellery, musical instruments and home appliances.
You can also go back a bit further to understand Bamberg’s complicated relationship with the Regnitz River, which wreaked havoc with flooding.
Since 2015 there has also been an acclaimed permanent exhibition about Bamberg’s Jewish community.
4. Altes Rathaus
Whether it’s true or not, there’s a fun back-story to Bamberg’s fabulous, fresco-covered old town hall: In the 14th century the Bishop of Bamberg refused to allocate land to the city’s residents for a town hall, so they decided to build it on stakes in the River Regnitz, at the boundary between the episcopal and merchant city.
The first reference to the town hall is from 1387, and the building was given a Baroque update in the middle of the 18th century.
That was when its famous frescoes were painted, and you have to try to spot where a sculpted cherub’s leg pokes out of the mural in 3D. Inside you can view the splendid Rococo Hall and the Ludwig Collection of fine porcelain.
5. Neue Residenz
In 1602 Bamberg’s prince bishops moved from the Alte Hofhaltung to a sumptuous new palace on the other side of the cathedral square where they would stay until secularisation in 1803. The Neue Residenz is the largest palace in the city and has two original Renaissance wings and then Baroque extensions built a century later.
There are more than 40 state rooms to tour, including the marvellous central Imperial Hall (Kaiser Saal), embellished by allegorical frescoes and chandeliers.
The palace is also a branch gallery for the Bavarian State Painting Collection, and among its most prestigious works is Hans Baldung Grien’s Die Sintflut (The Flood).
Behind the Neue Residenz is the palace’s spellbinding rose garden.
This started out as a Renaissance garden, but took on in its present Baroque form in the 1730s.
The Rosengarten’s regimented flowerbeds are planted with 4,600 roses and hemmed by low, closely clipped hedges.
There are statues throughout, and the garden’s straight paths meet at a fountain ringed with benches and lime trees.
Clipped lime trees also form the garden’s boundary, and from the balustrade to the north you can linger over vistas of the merchant city.
7. Diocesan Museum
In the diocesan chapterhouse, also on the Cathedral Square is a museum based on the lavish and fascinating collections of Bamberg’s cathedral treasury.
Many of the holdings were lost to secularisation, but the museum has enough riches to shed light on the wealth and power of Bamberg’s diocese.
The textiles and vestments are especially impressive, including the regalia worn by Holy Roman Emperor Henry II and Kunigunde, as well as the 11th-century Pope Clement II. The Guntertuch meanwhile is an 11th-century silk tapestry depicting the triumphal return of a Byzantine emperor from a successful campaign.
There are also portable altars, drinking vessels, candlesticks, a silver image of Mary for processions and a small army of Baroque and Gothic statues.
The highest hill in the city has been fortified since the 12th century, and at that time it was used as a refuge for Bamberg’s citizens during battles and raids.
But in the mid-13th century the Bishops of Bamberg acquired the property and it became their residence before it was damaged during the Second Margrave War in 1553. After that the Altenburg was a prison until it was restored by a friend of writer E. T. A. Hoffmann in the early 19th century.
Hoffmann was fond of Altenburg and was a regular guest in one of the towers on the wall.
The 13th-century keep is the main vestige of the Bishops’ residence, and has a 33-metre tower for awesome views of the seven hills of Bamberg and the episcopal city.
Near the top is an iron frame, a former beacon for sending signals to Giechburg castle, 20 kilometres to the east.
9. Obere Pfarre
This High Gothic church was founded in the 14th century and has a lot of architecture and fittings from that time, as well as a Late Gothic choir and Baroque decoration in the nave.
Outside, step around to the northern Brautportal “Bridal Portal”, which is a kind of open vestibule with carvings of the fable of the wise and foolish virgins on the jambs and the Coronation of Mary depicted in the tympanum.
The square tower on the southwest side of the church may look like it doesn’t quite belong, and was actually built as a city watchtower and then annexed by the church.
The imposing high altar from the 1710s, almost rises to the chancel ceiling, and embedded in the mass of sculpture and marble-effect columns is a carving of Mary and Child from 1250. Also look for the painting of the Assumption of Mary by Tintoretto in the right aisle.
10. Klein Venedig
Just after the Altes Rathaus you can go for an amble on the left bank of the River Regnitz.
On this side of the river you can pause to appreciate Bamberg’s old fisherman’s quarter.
Known as Klein Venedig (Little Venice), there’s a line of rickety half-timbered dwellings dating to the 17th century.
The scene is all the prettier as the mishmash of houses are reflected in the river and seem to jostle for position on the waterfront.
At the eastern end is the Altes Schalchthaus (Old Slaughterhouse), partially built over the water and with a sculpture of a cow above its portal.
This little neighbourhood is an apt setting for the traditional water jousts during Bamberg’s Sanderkwa folk festival.
11. Michaelsberg Abbey
Cresting one of the seven hills, you can spot the towers of this former Benedictine monastery from across Bamberg.
Michaelsberg Abbey was established in 1015 and was rebuilt in the following century by Bishop Otto.
The Romanesque architecture from that phase is still the basis of the abbey church, even after a fire at the start of the 17th century.
In the crypt, Otto’s tomb is the thing you have to see at the abbey.
This was produced in the 1430s and has abundant carvings on its sides showing, among others, Mary, St Stephen, John the Baptist and the Archangel Michael over a gilded background.
Otto’s image is on the plate at the top, and there’s a little passage through the tomb that you have to stoop to get through, believed to heal people’s back pains.
When this post was written in 2017, the abbey was closed for renovations.
12. Bamberger Kreuzweg
In the historic Sandgebiet is the oldest Way of the Cross in Germany.
The Bamberger Kreuzweg is made up of nine stations (from an original 14) from the Church of St. Elisabeth to the Church of St. Getreu.
It was all drawn up at the beginning of the 16th century by a knight who had business relations with the Michaelsberg Abbey.
Each station has a relief with a scene from the passion: They show Jesus taking the cross on his shoulders, meeting his mother, being helped by Simon of Cyrene, meeting the crying women, falling under the weight of the cross, dying, being mourned by Mary and then being laid in his grave.
13. E. T. A. Hoffmanns House
The influential Romantic author, E. T. A. Hoffmann lived at this narrow house on what is now Schillerplatz for just under five years from 1808 to 1813. The museum here now tries to convey the spirit of his writing and his personality with imaginative installations: The fairytale, The Nutcracker and the Mouse King is represented by a card theatre model, and there’s a loge with decoration that ties in with Hoffmann’s most famous opera, Undine.
The museum has a “magic garden” in the courtyard, which is a reference to his story, the Golden Pot and is peppered with famous quotes and motifs from his work.
There’s also an interactive music cabinet playing modern recordings of his musical works, while Hoffmann’s lodgings on the second floor are decorated as they would have been when he lived here.
14. Rauchbier (Smoke Beer)
Bamberg has its own style of beer that harks back to before the industrial age.
Just as it was hundreds of years ago, the malt for the beer is roasted over a beech wood fire instead of being dried an oven.
The smoke from this fire imparts a distinct flavour when the beer is brewed.
And since fire was the only way quick way of drying malt until fairly recently, Rauchbier must have a similar taste to all beer from before the 19th century.
The big Rauchbier labels in Bamberg are Schlenkerla and Spezial, two of seven breweries in the city.
Both brands pour their famous beverages, sometimes described as “liquid bacon”, at their own brewpubs.
Bamberg’s oldest quarter, the Sandgebiet puts on one of Bavaria’s largest folk festivals, drawing 300,000 people to the city in mid-August.
The Sandkerwa’s roots go back to a Medieval celebration for the Church of St. Elisabeth.
People pack the narrow old town streets near the river, which are lined with beer stalls, and pile into beer gardens like the one beside the Schenkerla tavern.
One tradition that dates from the 15th century is the Fischerstechen (water jousting), held on the Regnitz in Klein Venedig.
Here members of the old boatmen and fishermen’s guild try to topple each other from row boats using blunted lances.