Europe is filled with castles, but none quite invoke the fairytale romance we all imagine as children than the spellbinding castles of Bavaria. Two castles stand out among all the world’s top castles: Neuschwanstein Castle and Hohenschwangau Castle.
Hohenschwangau is perched above Swan Lake, and was the childhood home of King Ludwig II of Bavaria. The castle was built by his father, King Maximilian II of Bavaria, and is all original, decorated with scenes from medieval legends and poetry, the walls reading like giant storybooks. Translating roughly to “castle of the village of the swan,” this beautiful castle should be visited first before you set your eyes on nearby Neuschwanstein Castle, which is even more impressive.
The Golden Castle with Storybook Rooms
Hohenschwangau is painted a bright golden hue and accented with Bavarian blue and white striped flag curtains. The interior is even more spectacular, with softly painted fairytale paintings showcasing blushing ladies and knights on horses. These rosy pantings make up a life-sized open storybook crowned with fancy script—as you walk from room to room the story unfolds in image and text, all painted along the walls. There are chandeliers full of jewels, ceilings studded with gold stars, a stairwell lined with antler trophies, and secret passageways—plus dazzling views of the alps and the lake below.
The king’s bedroom contains two secret doors—one leading directly to the queen’s room and one to a bathroom. The ceiling features trees, stars, and the moon. The stars were lit from the other side with lanterns, as was the moon, which could be adjusted so its shape changed with the moon’s cycles. The queen’s room looks like nothing else in the castle—it’s completely outfitted in Turkish style with furnishings gathered from the king’s frequent trips to Constantinople.
The minute you see Neuschwanstein Castle for the first time, you’ll recognize it instantly as the inspiration for Disney’s Sleeping Beauty castle. Holding the record for the most frequently photographed sight in all of Germany, it’s truly an unforgettable experience to glimpse the white spires of Neuschwanstein Castle rising among the peaks of the alps.
Neuschwanstein, which translates literally to “new swan stone,” or “new swan on the rock,” was built by Ludwig II right within sight of Hohenschwangau Castle. The castle is truly breathtaking. A lavish retreat where Ludwig II could withdraw into his own dream world, it’s characterized by soaring fairytale towers and opulent rooms filled with images inspired by the operas of Richard Wagner, to whom the castle was dedicated.
Neuschwanstein is a 45 minute uphill ascent from Hohenschwangau Castle via a trail shared with horse drawn carriages ready to whisk away those who don’t want to hike up to the top. On the way, you’ll encounter unforgettable views of the castle rising out of the woods, its narrow turrets invoking a dreamlike sense of awe. You’ll then cross into a large courtyard before entering the castle and climbing upwards into a chamber lined with ottoman arches and regal lanterns, leading to the throne hall.
The Throne Hall
The king’s throne hall is dripping with gold and has the appearance of a Byzantine church. The throne (never built due to Ludwig II’s sudden death) was supposed to sit under the gold-domed ceiling where a church altar would normally be. The ceiling depicts Jesus on a rainbow, with kings right below him, indicating how Ludwig II saw his position. Every surface of the room is filled with art—the floor is covered in mosaics, the walls are painted with intricate designs and everything seems to sparkle with an overwhelming abundance of gold. In the center of the room hangs a 2,000 pound chandelier shaped like a giant crown and piled high with candles and mountains of jewels.
The King’s Bedroom
While the king’s bedroom in Hohenschwangau is painted with bright colors, this one is filled with rich wood paneling, intricate carved wood, and golden chandeliers. The top of the canopy bed is piled with wood carvings reminiscent of Gothic church spires and under the roof of the bed is a painted sky of gold stars.
Inspired by the Tannhäuser saga, King Ludwig had an artificial cave built right in his castle. Little waterfalls trickle down the rocks, which are lit by colored lighting. The entrance doors to the grotto are perfectly camouflaged into the cave walls to give an illusion of solitude. The only natural light comes from a balcony overlooking the entire valley. In the king’s time, court musicians would sit on the other side of the ceiling and play music through a hole, filling the cave with song.
The Enchanted Theater (Singer’s Hall)
The palace theater is lined with hanging golden crown chandeliers filled with candles and jewels. The wood ceiling is painted with intricate patterns and every square inch of the walls are decorated in colorful designs broken up only by paintings, candelabras, and ottoman arches. This room has wonderful acoustics and was built so King Ludwig II could sing, although he was too shy to perform. One wall features a stage with a background painted like a fairytale forrest, set behind arching columns. Other embellishments include dragon sculptures, stained glass, balcony seats up top, and murals depicting the saga of Percival and the Holy Grail.
King Ludwig II
Ludwig II is also known as “Mad King Ludwig,” “The Swan King,” and “The Fairytale King.” A huge patron of the arts and of composer Richard Wagner, Ludwig II was obsessed with building extravagant palaces, his masterpiece being Neuschwanstein. Construction begun on Neuschwanstein in 1869 and cost a fortune, ending abruptly upon his mysterious death, when Ludwig II was found drowned in waist deep water, although he had always been an avid swimmer since childhood. Sadly for him, he only got to live in Neuschwanstein for about 6 months before he died.
Beer Break in Schwangau
Once you’ve worked up an appetite castle hopping, head to Schloss Brauhaus, a brewery located nearby in the village of Schwangau. This local brewery is the perfect place to stop for a traditional hearty German meal and to sample some local brews or learn more about the beer making process on a brewery tour.
For those traveling to the Bavarian castle region by train, the quaint town of Füssen is where your train will come in. It’s also the southernmost stop along the Romantic Road. Füssen makes a perfect base for those who want to explore the castles at a more leisurely pace instead of as a day trip from Munich, which takes around 2 hours each way by train. Alternatively, if you have a car there are small towns just across the Austrian border that are also good for exploring the castles. Either way, make a point to stroll through sleepy Füssen after your castle trek. The city is beautifully situated at the base of the alps and the architecture is classic storybook German with wrought iron signs, colorful buildings, cobblestone streets, and a skyline of clock towers and castle walls.
Bavaria has just about everything: good beer, dreamy castles, picturesque villages, and plenty of history and culture. Be sure to visit this region when you head to Germany, and keep in mind that not too far away are neighboring Austria, Switzerland, and just a little further south—Italy. That’s the great thing about Europe—there are so many great spots in such a small geographical area. Bon Voyage!
Click here to read Part 1 of “A Week in Bavaria” featuring Munich, Germany.