109km (68 miles) SE of Würzburg

Few cities in the world conjure such disparate images of beauty and horror. During the 15th and 16th centuries, Nürnberg enjoyed a cultural flowering that made it into the center of the German Renaissance, a northern Florence. The great Albrecht Dürer is one of many artists who produced masterpieces in the city’s studios. Koberger set up his printing press here, and Regiomontanus built an astronomical observatory. Workshops turned out gingerbread, handmade toys, and the world’s first pocket watches, the Nürnberg eggs.

The art and architecture that elevated Nürnberg into one of Germany’s great treasure-filled beauties turned out to be the city’s Achilles heel. So enamored was Adolf Hitler with the Nürnberg’s huge swaths of half-timbered houses, steeped and gabled rooftops, and cobbled lanes and squares that he chose to stage his massive Nazi rallies in what he considered to be the most German of German cities. Think of the “Heil Hitler-ing” masses and goose-stepping soldiers in Leni Riefenstahl in “Triumph des Willens” (“Triumph of the Will”); the film also happens to capture footage of the Führer’s plane flying low over Nürnberg’s maze of medieval lanes and stone towers. Attached to the city, too, are the infamous Nürnberg laws, the 1935 legislation that stripped Jews and other non-Aryans of their German citizenship and basic rights and set the stage for the Holocaust. As the ideological center of the Third Reich, the city was a choice target for Allied bombers, and on January 2, 1945, 525 British Lancasters rained fire and destruction on Nürnberg, leaving most of the historic center and surroundings a smoldering ruin and killing 60,000 Nürnbergers.

Nürnberg has regained its vitality, prosperity, and much of its handsome pre-war appearance. What’s new blends in with the reconstructed old. In the Altstadt, surrounded by medieval ramparts, Gothic churches and sway-backed medieval houses rise above lively squares and line the banks of the Pegnitz River. The Hauptmarkt is the stage for Germany’s largest and most famous Christmas market (said to have originated when Martin Luther began giving his children Christmas presents). Amid these prosperous surroundings is a reminder of the city’s day of reckoning for its World War II past: the Justice Palace, where the War Crimes Tribunal sat in 1946 and tried 21 leading Nazi war criminals for conspiracy and crimes against world peace, the rules of warfare, and humanity.