Travel in Germany: The Bavarian town inside a giant crater

Travel in Germany: The Bavarian town inside a giant crater
A view of the Bavarian city of Nördlingen. Photo: Mike Stuchbery
A small city that stands inside a gigantic crater with an ancient, thick wall that protects it from invaders - sounds like something from a fantasy novel, right? Mike Stuchbery explores Nördlingen.

The big bang

Nördlingen is a city that’s played a significant role in Germany’s history over the centuries. 

Around 14 million years ago, the region in which Nördlingen lies was the site of a close encounter of the extra-terrestrial kind. An asteroid with a diameter of 1.5 kilometres impacted with the explosive force of 1.8 million Hiroshima atom bombs. The explosion would leave a crater 24 kilometres wide, and up to 150 metres deep. Ejected materials from the event can be found as far away as the Czech Republic.

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To this day, buildings made from stone within the Nördlinger Ries contain tiny diamonds created in the blast, that glitter in the sunshine. You can see examples of stone, and learn more about the catastrophic event that shaped the area at the RiesKraterMuseum. You can even buy your own little piece to take home!

Aerial view of the Nördlinger Ries Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Standing tall

Nördlingen’s status and wealth has long depended on its position along a number of ancient trade routes between larger cities. Beginning in the 13th century, it was the site of a large market fair that would bring craftsmen and traders streaming in, Merchants would settle in the newly-declared Free Imperial City in magnificent stone buildings, many of which still stand.

These proud inhabitants would reinforce their city with the Stadtmauer, or city wall that exists to this day – in fact, the walls are often used by locals to get around the town. Around the city exists a number of large gates to let traffic through, each with its own style. Subsequently, it’s very hard to get lost.

Nördlingen’s wealth and importance is also shown by the church that dominates the city’s skyline. The St-Georg-Kirche with its striking church tower known as ‘Daniel‘, can be seen from almost anywhere in the city, and has served as its watchtower over hundreds of years. Inside, the church is a treasure house of medieval and Renaissance art and well worth an hour of your time.


Interior of the St-Georg-Kirche Photo: Mike Stuchbery

Tough times

The good times couldn’t last forever. As religious strife swept throughout Europe in the late 16th and early 17th centuries, Nördlingen could not help but be impacted. It was the site of not one, but two of the most significant battles of the Thirty Years War – one in 1634, and one in 1645. The first battle led to chaos across what is now southern Germany, after Catholic Imperial forces triumphed over Protestant Swedish forces. The  Nördlingen battlefield is only a short distance away from the city.

Inside the city walls, things weren’t doing much better. Starting in the late 16th century and extending into the 17th, witch trials were held in the city. Local women, including the celebrated innkeeper, Maria Holl were accused of witchcraft and tortured until they confessed. Holl managed to withstand 62 days of torture before she was released, and you can still find a memorial, the Maria Holl Brunnen, outside where her old inn once stood. The prison used to contain these alleged witches is part of the town’s historic Rathaus – look under the stairs, on the side of the building facing away from the street. 

The Maria Holl Brunnen (Left) & the prison used to hold alleged ‘witches’ at the city’s Rathaus (Right) Photos: Mike Stuchbery

A real hidden treasure

Today, a great deal of Nördlingen’s historic architecture still stands, and it welcomes visitors wholeheartedly. Overshadowed by other similarly historic cities in Bavaria, like Rothenburg ob der Tauber and Dinkelsbühl, you won’t find quite so many tourists in the streets, and you will have an easier time getting around. 

If you’re planning a day trip to town, we recommend Wengers Brettl, for filling, local dishes served in a family-run restaurant. For a real taste of the city’s medieval past (albeit, with 21st century furnishings), the Hotel NH Klösterle is situated in the very heart of the town, located in a 13th century monastery.

Nördlingen can be reached by rail from Aalen, Augsburg or Munch via Deutsche Bahn’s ‘Fugger Express’ Regio trains. The nearest domestic airport is Augsburg, and the nearest international airport is Munich. 

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  1. A really great place to stay and explore – the town itself and also the surrounding countryside. I must say I personally found it more interesting than the nearby ‘crowd pleaser’ towns of Rothenburg and Dinkelsbühl, although those are worth a visit too.
    I went in July – probably better than going now, especially with Covid starting to bite in Germany once again! Maybe plan it for next summer?
    It’s possible to walk around virtually the entire town along an elevated walkway in the roofed town wall. It took me about 45 minutes. There’s even a town museum within it and a cafe butting up to it! The Ries Crater Museum is also very good, with well organised exhibits and an excellent video about the meteor impact.
    It’s also possible to walk up various flights of steps to near the top of the Daniel tower for superb views of the town and surrounding countryside. You can see the crater rim if you know where to look.
    The local people were very friendly during my 7 day visit and I really enjoyed my time there.

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