History has twice been exceptionally kind to beautiful BAMBERG, which for centuries until secularization in 1802 was the capital of an independent Catholic prince-bishopric within the Holy Roman Empire. Though occupied twice by the Swedes during the Thirty Years' War, the city was spared the wholesale destruction visited on so many German cities by that conflict. And by some miracle, it came through World War II with barely a scratch too. It thus preserves a wonderfully complete historic townscape, notable not just for its many highlights – the four-spired Dom, the splendid Baroque Residenz or the absurdly picturesque old Rathaus on an island in the river, for instance – but also for its many quaint corners and quiet, narrow lanes, worth exploring for their lost-in-time appeal and atmospheric, traditional brewery-owned Gaststätten. Add to this the architectural opulence that resulted from the disdain shown by the Schönborn dynasty of prince-bishops for anything remotely resembling a vow of poverty, and it's no wonder that UNESCO put Bamberg's entire historic centre on its World Heritage list in 1993.
Bamberg is split neatly into three by the parallel courses of the River Regnitz – a short tributary of the Main – and the Main-Donau canal, both of which run south– east to north– west through the city. The Gärtnerstadt in the east is of relatively little interest to visitors; Inselstadt between the canal and river is the handsome, secular city centre; while for centuries spiritual and temporal power in Bamberg had its seat in the Bergstadt – built, like Rome, on seven hills – on the west bank of the Regnitz. Compact enough to be explored fully in a few days, Bamberg is nevertheless a tempting place to linger, thanks to its unique atmosphere and history, hilly views and smoky, distinctive Rauchbier (smoked beer). Moreover, the university and a sizeable US presence – there's an American army barracks here – ensure the city never feels parochial.