Half-timbered houses that date to the 1300s line the streets around the Kaiserberg castle in Nuremberg, Germany.

Half-timbered houses that date to the 1300s line the streets around the Kaiserberg castle in Nuremberg, Germany. (Robin Hoecker / S&S)

A trip from the Holy Roman Empire to the center of Nazi party politics can be made in a fiberglass swan.

The bird-shaped paddle boats churn along the Dutzendteich lake, just outside the city center of Nuernberg, Germany, and within view of where imperial kaisers once held their parliaments and Adolf Hitler held his first rallies.

The lake is one of many places in Nuremberg that tell the story of the city’s complicated existence — a regal and dark past swirled with a progressive present and a bright future.

Amid timber-framed buildings, cobblestone streets and a hilltop castle, modern Nuremberg is an economic powerhouse in the state of Bavaria, filled with endless shopping possibilities, lip-smacking local cuisine and scenic hideaways around every corner.

Visitors confront the city’s rich history from the moment they step outside the glass doors of the main train station and look up at the massive Königstor. One of four stone towers along the 3-mile-long defensive wall that dates to the Middle Ages, the gate allows passage into the heart of the old city.

Overlooking the old city’s red roofs and steeples, the Kaiserberg castle has become a symbol of Nuremberg's imperial past. The 11th century castle, rebuilt several times, was the site of the Holy Roman emperors’ parliament meetings and housed every German kaiser on his first night in office. Today, the area is used for outdoor theater and open-air movies. Part of the castle now is a museum, and the adjacent imperial stable serves as a youth hostel.

Around the castle stand tightly packed, half-timbered houses that date as far back as the 1300s. With their white plaster and brown-painted beams, the buildings look like they could be made of Lebkuchen, the gingerbread for which the city is famous.

Although typically associated with Nuremberg's well-known Christmas market, handmade gingerbread rounds can be bought and consumed at a number of stores along Königstrasse, the main street that dips and rolls through the old town.

Locals may tell you that it’s the longest pedestrian zone in Europe — although other cities, including Heidelberg, Venice and Copenhagen, also claim that title. Nonetheless, the smorgasbord of stores along the street, which rolls from the train station and rises up to the Kaiserberg castle, is impressive.

Some shopping highlights are the many gingerbread bakeries that pump out sweet smells to attract weak-willed passers-by, and the Senfladen, which offers 180 kinds of mustard. For fans of the Middle Ages who want to dress the part, a store at 10 Albrecht Dürer Strasse sells everything from suits of armor to machetes and daggers from around the world.

A large outdoor produce market takes place every Saturday at the main square, or Hauptmarktplatz. The plaza also contains the golden Schöner Brunnen, or “beautiful fountain.” People line up at the gate of the well to spin a golden ring three times, which, legend says, brings luck.

Shopping, castle-hopping and museum visits can be exhausting. Luckily Nuremberg offers plenty of options to refuel the tired and hungry.

Aside from gingerbread, Nuremberg's other famous food is its finger-length sausages, called Nurembergers, traditionally roasted and served on a mountain of sauerkraut. They can be found on menus all over the city.

A good assortment of traditional restaurants are clustered between the Albrecht Dürer House, home of the famous 16th century painter, and the Kaiserberg castle.

Another good restaurant is the Bärfusser brewery on the south end of the old town. A traditional German beer hall, Bärfusser’s basement ceiling echoes with the sound of clinking dishes as patrons chow down on heaping plates of meat and potatoes.

Venetian-style gondolas wait not too far from the restaurant, ready to float visitors up the tranquil waters of the Pegnitz River, which cuts through the city.

Enjoying the pleasures of modern Nuremberg can easily melt hours into days. However, a visit there cannot be complete without learning about the city’s dark past.

Wooed by the city’s imperial tradition, Hitler chose Nuremberg as the center of his National Socialist movement. Nazi party rallies took place at the Dutzendteich in 1927 and 1929. Up to 1 million people traveled to the city to attend the rallies, which could last for a week. The racial purity laws that paved the way for the Holocaust were proclaimed in Nuremberg in 1935.

As Hitler rose to power, he and architect Albrecht Speer planned and began building massive structures to represent their quest for world domination. The unfinished buildings and the 11 acres of surrounding grounds at Dutzendteich, which became known as the Nazi Party Rally Grounds, tell the story of the Nazis’ rise and fall.

The Congress Hall is the largest remaining piece of Nazi architecture built on the grounds. Its grandiose style is intended to make individuals feel small, according to the Documentation Museum exhibit housed within its brick walls. Other structures included the altarlike Zeppelin Grandstand, constructed in the main rally area and equipped with a platform from which Hitler delivered his speeches.

Hitler could not realize his grand plan of world domination, and Speer could not complete the buildings. Construction stopped in 1939 with the start of World War II.

Invading U.S. soldiers blew the swastika off the Zeppelin Grandstand in 1945 and its columns were removed, symbolizing the dismemberment of the Nazi regime. The rest of the half-completed structures remain standing, however, as a reminder of the city’s, and country’s, dark past.

The transformation of the space shows how Nuernberg has overcome its history.

The Franken Stadium, formerly the site of Hitler Youth rallies, was renovated into a soccer stadium and hosted games during the 2006 World Cup.

The 2-kilometer-long and perfectly straight Great Road, originally built for Nazi marches, was used as a runway by the Americans after the war and is now a municipal parking lot.

The Documentation Museum, similar in style to the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C., opened in 2001 in the north wing of the Congress Hall and helps visitors and locals understand the area’s complicated history.

The museum includes a section and a short film on the 218 days of the famous Nuremberg Trials, where 21 leaders of the Nazi party were tried in 1945-1946 for crimes against humanity.

The city has tried to continue this tradition of justice by awarding a human rights prize every other year, proving that learning from the mistakes of the past is key to improving the future.

The lesson is one that residents and visitors to this fascinating city cannot easily forget.

Click here for more photos of Nuremberg by Robin Hoecker Know and Go

Points of interest and things to do in Nuremberg, Germany:

Kaiserberg Castle: Visitors can lounge in the gardens, look over the city from the castle walls, and walk along sections of the ramparts without paying admission to the castle museum. Museum entrance is 6 euros for adults, 5 adults for children and others qualified for reductions. It is open 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. April through September, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. the rest of the year.

Gondola rides: Catch the boats near the Trödelmarkt, just west of the Fleishbrücke bridge. A half-hour ride up the Pegnitz River costs 50 euros total for up to five people.

Nazi Party rally grounds: Take the S2 three stops from the main train station to Dutzendteich; fee is 3.60 euros round trip. The Documentation Museum on the grounds is open 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday through Friday, and 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. Admission is 5 euros for adults, 2.50 euros for children and others receiving reductions; a family ticket is 5.50 euros. Admission includes a very helpful audioguide, available in English.

Bärfusser Brewery: The restaurant at Hallplatz 2 serves a half-liter of home-brewed beer for 2.70 euros; most meals come in heaping portions and cost less than 10 euros.

Senfladen: Choose from nearly 200 kinds of mustard at 27 Bergstrasse, near the Albrecht Dürer House and the Kaiserberg.

Information: Visit, available in English.

— Robin Hoecker

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