"This will be easy to see," said Annelise, our guide, flipping off the lights in the chilly sandstone beer cellar that had been converted to an air-raid shelter during World War II. A small plaque on the wall glowed with electric-lime phosphorescence. It was, she told us, an emergency exit sign for the 50,000 civilians who had fled -- two to a square meter -- to these cellars-cum-bunkers during Allied firebombings.The sign was a small but poignant reminder of how hundreds of years of beer brewing in Nuremberg -- a city that was 90 percent destroyed during the war -- linked past and present.Just over an hour by direct train from Munich, Nuremberg (population 510,000) is Bavaria's often-overlooked second city. Of course, the locals say Bavaria has little to do with the place; a greater allegiance is owed to the smaller administrative district of Middle Franconia, which has its own dialect, history and cuisine. Not to mention beer.Many outsiders think of Nuremberg only in terms of its World War II significance. This was where Hitler spoke at huge rallies throughout the 1930s -- one of which, in 1934, was recorded for the propaganda film Triumph of the Will -- and where the military tribunals of Nazis were held after the fighting ended.But the city has much more to offer than somber history, including a magnificent Holy Roman Empire-era castle, a rich brewing and beer tradition, perhaps the best gingerbread in the world, and, if you happen to visit in December, Germany's most celebrated Christmas market.Nuremberg's compact old town is beautifully reconstructed in medieval half-timbered style, and it is filled with museums and museumlike antiques shops. Highlights include the home of 16th-century artist Albrecht Durer, with a free audio guide narrated by an actress playing his wife. No matter what your age, don't miss the Toy Museum, with exhibits on the craft- and engineering-based toys that Nuremberg has long had a reputation for, including a fascinating display on German children's toys of the 1930s and 1940s. At the City Museum Fembohaus, the star exhibition is the Renaissance-era merchant's home that houses the museum. And the tiny executioner's house reveals the day-to-day life of the city executioner of 1600, Franz Schmidt, built into a bridge over the Pegnitz River, which flows through town.Or go for a leisurely walk around the castle district, on the northern edge of the old town, meandering along cobblestone streets beneath the old city walls. Overlooking Nuremberg from a small hill, the castle itself -- a stone and half-timbered redoubt made up of a number of separate buildings and iconic towers, some dating to at least the 13th century -- reminded me of a modest version of the castle in Prague.Don't forget to sample Nuremberg's famous culinary treats: Nurnberger bratwurst and Nurnberger lebkuchen. These foods are protected under European Union law, meaning they can't be labeled "Nurnberger" unless produced within the region using traditional means.Short and thin -- about "the size of a finger," in the words of one waitress -- the Nurnberger bratwurst is a sausage often served three to a bun (Drei im Weggla). Some of the best I had came from open-air grill stands. But also consider heading to Historische Bratwurstkuche zum Gulden Stern, a half-timbered restaurant that claims to be the oldest sausage kitchen in the world, and try Nurnberger Bratwurst on a plate of pungent sauerkraut cooked over a beech-wood fire (7.20 euros for 6, 12.30 euros for 12).Lebkuchen is a type of gingerbread made with ground hazelnuts, almonds and walnuts; sweetened with honey; and spiced with cloves, ginger and cardamom. The most decadent, called Elisenlebkuchen, is made without flour. There are bakeries all over town selling lebkuchen, but some of the best comes from the Dull family and cost around 9.50 euros for a small bag.Central Nuremberg has plenty of accessible restaurants and beer halls that are authentic in style and selection. But I found the food uninspiring and the servers a bit world-weary. However, search a little deeper, or try the places tucked into the small side streets, and there are local culinary treasures to be found.Schaufelewartschaft, for instance, is the kind of place that alone makes Nuremberg worth visiting. The simple wood tables, the beer of the day and the bucolic photos on the wall of inquisitive-looking pigs peering at the diners below cast a country-kitchen aura of whimsy.The namesake dish, schaufele, a Franconian specialty of roasted pork shoulder, was like a geological cutaway: lighter meat striated with fat sitting below, and barely clinging onto, a submerging tectonic plate of scapula, followed above the bone by a darker, denser meat layer deposited with veins of slow-cook-induced fat-turned-jelly, all capped by an inch of pure pork-fat crust. Served with a fist-size potato dumpling (9.50 euros) and sitting in a pool of red-brown beer-and-pork stock, it made this eater well versed in the ways of southern German cooking almost giddy.That this dish is so delectable makes sense. The restaurant was opened in 2005 by a club of 36 pork-lovers whose name translated to English is "friends of the Franconian schaufele."Night life in Nuremberg takes place in the beer halls and stuberl, or pubs, which are liberally sprinkled around the city center. Local cocktail lovers squeeze into fashionable clothes and then into the small, shiny Bar Nuernberg. On the other end of the spectrum is the gritty and even smaller Kloster, which is explicitly welcoming to anyone who isn't racist, homophobic or sexist; it's part kitsch, with a dark interior decorated by religious paintings and sculptures, and a twist of modern gothic.And if sipping a beer, snacking on sausages in a roll and standing in the center of a medieval city under the stars, with the nearby castle illuminated for display, doesn't transport you to another time, I'm not sure what will.
If you go
Trains leave Munich Central Station regularly throughout the day headed to Nuremberg. The direct InterCity Express service will take just over an hour for 54 euros, or about $70, per person.
Where to stay
There are dozens of hotels within walking distance of Nuremberg's old town.
Hotel Drei Raben (Konigstrasse 63,49-911-274380, hoteldreiraben.de/english/index.html) is regularly voted one of the best hotels in Germany. Its quirky, boutique design includes 22 individually themed doubles and suites based on different figures, myths and stories from Nuremberg's history. Prices start at around 150 euros for a double, including free Wi-Fi and breakfast buffet, but vary widely during peak dates.
Gideon Hotel (Konigstrasse 45, 49-911-6600970, gideonhotels.de) is a simple, modern choice in the heart of the pedestrian zone of the city. Clean and bright, and decorated with minimalistic-style furniture, the hotel recently listed rooms starting at 89 euros per night, including free Wi-Fi.