Anyone charmed by medieval history will be in dreamland in the UNESCO city of Regensburg, where 1,500 listed monuments have stood the test of centuries. In the days of the Holy Roman Empire, Regensburg hosted the Imperial Diet, and you can stand in the very place where some of Europe’s most powerful men would assemble.
Patrician families tried to outdo each other by making their home the tallest in the city, leaving the townscape a Romantic sea of towers, while the city was a ecclesiastical centre and has more churches than you could possibly manage in one trip.
Regensburg balances its weighty culture with the highest concentration of bars of any German city, and an easy-going, almost-Mediterranean ambience on its squares.
Let’s have a look at the best things to do in Regensburg:
1. St Peter’s Cathedral
Seen as the pinnacle of southern German Gothic art, Regensburg cathedral is the kind of monument that can keep you enthralled for hours.
Fair to say there’s a lot going on at this completely preserved building, from the statuary and ornamentation on the main portal, facade and towers to the intriguing building elements like the Eselsturm, a vestigial Romanesque tower from the old cathedral on the north side.
Also older than the current building is the cloister, which, unusually, is disconnected from today’s cathedral.
In the vast nave and choir inside you’ll be met by one of the most complete sets of Medieval stained glass of any church in the German speaking world,. Also look out for the silver high altar from the 17th and 18th century and the tomb of Margareta Tucherin, sculpted by the early Renaissance master Peter Vischer the Elder.
A triangular square in the centre of the old town, Haidplatz was the scene of jousting tournaments in the middle ages.
The dominant building is the fortress-like Goldenes Kreuz (Golden Cross), a patrician house, the oldest elements of which date to the 13th century.
The list of famous figures to stay at this building is long, and includes the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, who was here on three separate occasions in the 1530s and 40s.
Also striking is the Neue Waag, a former burgher house that was acquired by the city in the 15th century and turned into the weighing house.
The arcades on the lower floor, now glazed, are from 1575. And lastly, in the centre there’s the Justitiabrunnen (Justice Fountain) from 1656, a former drinking source was originally fed by a conduit leading from the village of Dechbetten in the west of the city.
3. Alte Kapelle
Officially known as the Basilica of the Nativity of Our Lady, this collegiate church is exceptionally old.
In fact it’s the oldest Catholic place of worship in Bavaria and was first established in the 800s by Charlemagne’s grandson, Ludwig the German.
The building we see now was built by Henry II, the Holy Roman Emperor at the beginning of the 11th century.
Some 400 years later the Alte Kapelle’s was extended with a High Gothic choir, and in the 1700s the interior was totally overhauled by Anton Landes a master of the Wesobrunner School, to create one of Germany’s most sumptuous Rococo churches.
The complexity of the gilded stuccowork and grandeur of the frescoes adorning the walls and ceiling of the nave and choir is mesmerising.
4. Altes Rathaus
Regensburg’s bright yellow old town hall dates back to the 1200s and is part of a complex incorporating the Baroque new town hall.
As well as being a wonder to behold, the Altes Rathaus is suffused with history, as from 1594 to 1806 it was the venue for the Holy Roman Imperial Diet (assemblies). That legacy is laid bare at the museum in the historic rooms inside.
The Diet would meet in the 14th-century Imperial Chamber (Reichsaal), which has barely changed since the Renaissance and has a wooden ceiling, 16th-century decoration on its walls, as well as the Kaiserthron, the Emperor’s throne.
This is just one of a series of rooms to marvel at, like dungeons that have an interrogation room containing genuine torture devices.
5. Thurn und Taxis Palace
From 1812, several buildings for the St Emmeram Monastery were converted into an opulent palace by the Princely House of Thurn und Taxis, a noble family that had made their fortune in the postal business.
The estate was actually a gift to the family in compensation for losing their monopoly on the Bavarian postal system.
The residence the family built here is held as one of Germany’s outstanding examples of Historicist architecture, adjoined to genuine Medieval elements like the abbey’s Romanesque and Gothic cloister.
Touring the palace you’ll pass through a sequence of theatrically decorated chambers like the lofty Neo-Rococo ballroom, the Throne Room and the monastery’s old library, which is adorned with an 18th-century ceiling fresco.
The Royal Treasury meanwhile abounds with invaluable porcelain, ceremonial weapons and furniture.
6. St Emmeram’s Basilica
The complex’s Benedictine abbey became a parish church, and you can add it to the long list of religious buildings that you have to see in Regensburg.
The plan of the 11th-century Romanesque church is based on a far older building dating back to the 700s.
The north portal was sculpted in 1052 has a relief depicting Christ, Saint Emmeram and Saint Denis.
Inside there’s an intoxicating blend of Romanesque architecture from the 1000s and later Renaissance and Baroque updates.
One of the prettiest pieces of decoration is the painted wooden ceiling in the western transept, telling the story of Benedict of Nursia.
7. Old Stone Bridge
An accomplishment of Medieval engineering at more than 300 metres long, Regensburg’s 12th-century pedestrian bridge over the Danube is said to be the model for other famous Medieval bridges in Prague and Avignon.
The construction took the place Charlemagne’s older wooden bridge, and right up to the 1930s it was the city’s only crossing.
At the highest point of the hump is a statue, the Bruckmandl, which was installed in mid-1500s.
It depicts a half-naked man, shielding his eyes.
Under, there’s an inscription reading “Schuck, wie heiß”, (how hot!) and this is believed to be a reference to the summer the bridge was started in 1135, which was famously toasty.
The low water levels on the Danube made for swifter progress.
8. Scots’ Monastery
On the western cusp of the old town is a former Benedictine Abbey with a fascinating tale to tell.
The Scots Monastery was set up in the 1000s by Irish missionaries, and right up to the 19th century was run by Irish and then Scottish monks.
A lot of what you see is from a Romanesque 12th-century overhaul, and that goes for the abbey’s most enigmatic and captivating feature.
The northern Schottenportal (Scots’ Portal) takes up a full third of the northern facade.
The jambs, tympanum and sets of arches flanking the portal are loaded with statues and ornamental sculpture.
The easiest part to interpret is the tympanum above the doorway, where you can make out an image of Christ.
Above in a frieze is another depiction of Jesus, flanked by the 12 Apostles.
To the sides are much more puzzling images like sirens, eagles, crocodiles and a dragon eating a lion.
9. Regensburg Museum of History
In a Medieval Minorite monastery you can track Regensburg cultural history from the Stone Age to the 1800s.
The building itself is a joy, particularly the Gothic cloister, where there’s a well and liturgical statues.
The museum is replete with artefacts from all eras, starting with prehistory and Roman times on the ground floor, which has inscribed stones, ceramics, jewellery, a Bronze Age clay object symbolising a loaf of bread and the skull of a decapitated woman from the 200s.
The first floor guides you through Medieval and Early Modern life in the city, with maps and models, furniture, reverse glass painting, textiles and votive panels.
And then on the second floor there’s Renaissance liturgical art by the Danube School and artists like Albrecht Altdorfer, as well as arts and crafts specific to Regensburg.
10. Porta Praetoria
There’s an interesting fragment of Roman history on Unter den Schwibbögen, one street in from the Danube and parallel to the river.
Built with rough hewn stone blocks is the Porta Praetoria, the gateway for the northern wall of the Castra Regina, the Roman camp that would become Regensburg.
The gate dates to the 2nd century and is in a vital strategic position, facing the point where the River Regen flows in to the Danube.
Porta Praetoria was absorbed into later buildings and it wasn’t until 1885 that its great age was identified.
On Goliathstraße there’s an attention-grabbing Medieval patrician house, dating to 1260 and built on what was the southern wall of the Roman camp.
The obvious attraction here is the monumental mural of David and Goliath on the wall, painted in 1573 by the Salzburg artist Melchior Bocksberger.
The name of the building doesn’t actually come from the mural, but the Goliards, an international group of young clergy who wrote satirical poetry in the Middle Ages and had a hostel in this part of the city.
The house now has a restaurant named David on its upper floor, looking out over Regensburg’s rooftops.
12. Patrician Towers
In Medieval times in Regensburg the best way for noble families to show off the wealth and might was to build a tower.
This sparked a competition as families sought to build the tallest in the city.
Centuries later the cityscape is still a forest of towers, a consequence of this battle for attention.
We’ve already seen some lofty houses, like the Goliathhaus and the Goldenses Kreuz.
But the tallest of all is the Goldener Turm on Wahlenstraße, dating to 1260, rising to 50 metres and now used as student accommodation for the university.
Located exactly where the Roman Castra Regina used to be, Neupfarrplatz is also on the site of Regensburg’s historic Jewish quarter.
The city was one of the first in Germany to have a Jewish community, and by the 1100s and 1200s it had become one of the most significant in Europe.
But when the Jews were expelled from the city in 1519 the quarter was demolished to be replaced by this square.
But excavations in the 1990s brought a lot of this forgotten history to light.
Now there’s a monument on the square showing where the old synagogue use to stand.
Document Neupfarrplatz is an underground attraction showing you around the Second World War bomb shelters, but also the cellar and tunnel system under the old Jewish quarter.
In display cases are some of the treasures unearthed in the excavations, like a hoard of 624 guilders, buried around 1388.
14. Museum of Danube Shipping
For a change of pace there’s a enlightening museum about the history of transport on the Danube on the riverside in the old town.
The exhibition is inside two historic tugboats: The Ruthof/Érsekcsanád is steam-powered and dates back to 1923, while the Freudenau has a diesel engine and was launched in 1942. In the larger Ruthof/Érsekcsanád information boards walk you through the story of shipping o the Danube, from primitive dugout canoes to modern day logistics.
You can also see the preserved facilities on board the boat like the bunkering, steam boiler, engine room, bridge, the boat’s kitchen and the crew’s quarters.
15. St. Ulrich
The 13th-century Church of St. Ulrich was deconsecrated in 1824 but was never actually demolished.
So, following a large renovation the building was reopened as Regensburg’s diocesan museum.
There was already some liturgical art in situ as the church’s walls are coated with frescoes from the 1200s and 1500s.
The museum’s exhibition is presented in chronological order, from the 1000s to the 1900s.
Among the works are sculpture, paintings and gold assembled from Regensburg’s churches and monasteries.
Some of the wonders worth your time are a mitre from the early-1200s, a larger than life-sized crucifix from around the same time and an ivory chalice.