This is essentially part two of "Why You Should Care About the Holy Roman Empire" - in which I outlined how the HRE began. But now I'm going to talk to why it matters to you, the expat or tourist in Germany. But first, a (brief) continuation of the history.
Within the HRE, there were countless kingdoms, duchies (lands ruled by dukes), counties (lands ruled by counts), and various tracts of land owned directly by the church or the Empire itself. Kings, dukes, and counts often chafed at the power of the Emperors and many wars were fought as a result. (For Games of Thrones fans, think of the Emperor as being the guy who sits on the Iron Throne - and the various kings and dukes as being like the Starks of Winterfell in rebellion against them). Control of the empire passed through several different families in the early centuries, including local Swabians like the Hohenstaufen dynasty. By 1450, however, the Hapsburg family had gained control of the Empire and didn't relinquish it until Napoleon put an end to the HRE entirely in the early 19th century (which then made the Hapsburgs "only" in charge of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.)
Enough with the history, though. Why does this matter to you? Because of Free Imperial Cities. Here's my equation for travelers in Germany: Imperial city + economic decline in the 17th century - Allied bombing in WWII = Great place to visit!
Like I mentioned before, while local lords owned much of the land in the HRE, some of it belonged directly to the Empire. These places were known as "Free Imperial Cities" or Freiei Reichstadt in German. These cities were not beholden to a local petty lord - the only outside power they answered to was the Emperor himself. As such, the citizenry had much more control over their lives than those living under the thumb of a lord. Imperial Cities also enjoyed many special privileges as a result of their status, which meant more trade and wealth during the high middle ages, which the townsfolk used to build beautiful buildings and impressive fortifications (important because local lords of neighboring lands often went to war with the Empire, and the wealth of Imperial Cities made them a tempting target.) Because of the HRE's association with the Roman Catholic Church, they were fertile ground for religious orders, so many of the grandest churches and monasteries were built in Imperial Cities.
However, eventually most of the Imperial Cities went through a decline, starting with the spread of Martin Luther's Reformation in the 16th century, which meant that in much of Germany, the religious orders were kicked out and many churches vandalized and no longer places of pilgrimage. Another factor in the decline was the resulting Thirty Years' War and following plagues, which killed off as many as half the population of Germany. Most cities never fully recovered from that war. To make matters worse, most Imperial Cities gained importance as market towns because they were on heavily trafficked trade routes, but by the 1700's, overland trade was losing out to sea-based trade.
This was all bad for the citizens of these towns, but great for travelers who want to enter a well-preserved bit of medieval history. Because the towns became impoverished, they didn't tear down existing buildings to make way for more fashionable and modern Baroque and Classical buildings as in the now-ascendant capital cities like Berlin, Munich, or Stuttgart. The result is a large town center with buildings almost exclusively from the cities' golden period of 1200-1500.
As for the Allied bombing, well, that's fairly self-explanatory. But a surprising number of former Imperial Cities did manage to escape WWII relatively unscathed, largely because they hadn't been centers of political or economic power for centuries at that point. (Cities that retained their importance throughout the centuries, like Frankfurt, weren't so lucky.)
If you look at the list of Imperial Cities, you'll find that they include some of the most famous towns for tourists to visit, such as Rothenburg ob der Tauber, Nuremberg, and Colmar.
But the secret is, nearly all the cities on the list remain beautiful, evocative "hidden gems" that isn't on the typical tourist itinerary. I'm talking about places like Bad Wimpfen, Ravensburg, and Esslingen, which may be known to people who have lived in Germany for a time but can't be found in a Rick Steves' guidebook.
Although I've only been to about a third of the Imperial Cities so far, my educated guess is that most of them are well worth a visit by anyone who seeks to get off the beaten path and experience a beautifully-preserved city (just make sure you check the "Allied bombing part before you go - Heilbronn didn't fare so well in that regard.)
And if you'd like to understand more about how Free Imperial status created a dynamic and exciting medieval city, be sure and check out my tour of the Free Imperial City of Esslingen, which debuts next Sunday!