If there's just one thing about Europe in general, and more specifically Germany, that stands out in our minds after years of travel to various destinations, it's the prevalence of palaces and castles that dot the countryside unlike you'll see almost anywhere else in the world.

Whether we're talking about 13th century fortresses turned noble places of residence, or examples of overt excess from the local ruling classes (often at the expense of their loyal subjects), today the grand and looming structures that harken back to a past we, and future generations, will likely never know. And it's for this very reason, and because of my obsession with antique architecture, that I'm so incredibly fascinated by and enjoy visiting these places, no matter their current state.

As part of our tour of south western Germany I wanted to make sure we made a stop at a place I'd know about for years, but only from the majestic photos in tourists brochures and video from travel shows. The location, Neuschwanstein Castle!

Neuschwanstein is a 19th century castle that sits high above the village of Schwangau in the very southern and central part of Bavaria, one of Germany's 16 states, and just a few kilometers from the German border with Austria.

The castle is actually one of two castles separated by just a few kilometers, and was built by King Ludwig II in the mid to late 19th century. The second castle, Schloß Hohenschwangau, was built in the early 19th century by Ludwig's father, King Maximilian II, and was the family's retreat away from the hustle and bustle of Munich, Bavaria's capital city.

Our visit began as we pulled into the tourist heavy town of Schwangau in the valley between the two royal residences. The town is one of those things that are left out when only looking at tourism photos or watching travel shows. Personally, I've never been to a true Bavarian town in the Alps, but I've seen plenty of depictions. However, nothing compares to seeing the real thing.

The small village, whose existence is no doubt due to the two castles (first as a service community and now as a tourist destination), is a quintessential Bavarian village. Tudor and mid 19th century style buildings are spread along a main and secondary road through the valley floor.

Each place is painted a combination of cream and the additional color palette of choice for that building, and no two are alike.

Today the buildings are full of shops, diners, hotels, and restaurants, but when the castles were operating royal residences, the town offered the support services and community establishments necessary to keep an area of such importance fully operational (think about the town of Downton Abbey).

After arriving, parking, and heading over to pick up our tickets for our castle tours, we experienced the good fortune of listening to Rick Steves. He said to pre-book your tour reservations as the line for day of purchase can get long. 

Boy was we right! We walked to directly to the front of will call without a person in front of us, while the "day of" line wrapped endlessly. I'm rather sure this seven euro advance purchase charge saved us about an hour standing in line.

The true advantage of this approach was that it gave us more time to enjoy the breathtaking town.

Our tours kicked off with the smaller and older of the two castles, Schloß Honenschwangau, the large yellow castle perched above and overlooking the village. Built in the early 19th century atop the ruins of a fortress dating to the 12th century...

...its perch above the valley floor offers panoramic views of the surrounding mountains and villages below. To say it was picturesque is a serious understatement.

We made the 10 minute walk up to the castle where we took in the gorgeous views of the Bavarian countryside and marveled at how bad us lowly peons have it in life. These royals, they knew what was what!

The tour of the castle itself was quite interesting. We toured the various rooms still outfitted in furniture and gifts belonging to King Maximilian II and his family, each with original artwork, essentially masterpieces painted right onto the walls, keepsakes, and a brief story of each room's purpose in the home.

Though photos were not allowed on the interior, we were able to snap a view of the views through the windows. All I can say is, "WOW!" It seemed every view was more stunning than the last. One area I was able to take photos of was in the neighboring structure where the castle's kitchen was located. Talk about an open concept kitchen!

As jaw dropping as each room of the house was, the most breathtaking aspects of the entire castle were the views from the castle windows looking out over the nearby clear blue lake and onto the mountains of Austria. The cool breeze, shimmering reflection of the sun, and wonderful smell in the air were simply amazing, I could have sat in front of that window for days.

After our initial castle tour concluded, we immediately headed down to the bus stop to catch a bus to the second castle. While the first climb was a simple 10 minute walk, the second would have been a much more substantial 30+ minute hike up a rather steep road. We didn't want to be a sweaty mess by the time we reached the castle, so the bus was a rather good decision.

The bus took us up the steep and winding road and dropped us at a secondary site near Neuschwanstein called Marienbrucke, or Queen Mary's Bridge. This bridge is a marvel of engineering for its time, as it straddles a waterfall amidst sheer rock cliffs and offers stunning views of the castle and valley below.

This bridge definitely lived up to its reputation, offering some beautiful and unique views of the castle.

The only problem? It was jam packed. With that many people, the wooden walk planks of the bridge bounce and sway, and the narrow passage acts as a bottleneck and prevents people from returning to the side they entered. It quickly went from a scenic overlook to a hoard of people stuck and pushing one another. After a photo or two, we quickly made our way off of the bridge as we both felt something bad was bound to happen. The views are stunning, but it's best to go to this bridge when it's not crowded...trust me.

Finally, after seeing our lives flash before our eyes, we headed over to Neuschwanstein for our tour.

Though not particularly old, especially when compared to the 12th and 13th century ruins you can find around Germany, Neuschwanstein was built by a king that possessed a tremendous appreciation for the romantic periods and employed a set designer to develop the overall vision for the cancel. And though it appears to be constructed from stone and is seemingly carved from the mountain, its construction is decidedly modern, using rebar and cement for the majority of the exterior.

If the castle looks familiar at all, but you've never heard of it or seen it, you might be thinking of Cinderella's Castle in Disney. It seems the Disney castle was inspired by this very castle, so I ask you, why go to Disney when you can see the real thing?

The castle tour was amazing, but like the first tour, no photos allow on the interior...except in the giant kitchen.

The castle itself was constructed over a 17 year period ending in 1886 (the same year our house was built). The grand construction and attention to detail was amazing. From mosaics to massive chandeliers, everything was more grand than can be imagined. One room had solid hand carved wood on every surface, and that room took four full time woodworkers two full years to complete!

There's a very interesting story about King Ludwig "The Mad" that I encourage you to look into. It shows how dedicated he was to building the castle, though he only lived in it for six months after being removed from the throne for questionable and politically driven reasons, before being found dead under suspicious circumstances just days after his ouster. For this reason, much of the castle is unfurnished and an entire floor is incomplete, with brick/white plaster walls and pine floors. Wendy told me her money is on the side that he killed himself, and that I'd probably kill myself too if I had worked on a house for 17 years only to be removed from it six months after moving in. You know, she's probably right.

Though interior photos were not allowed, I snuck one photo with my phone that I couldn't pass up. Please excuse the blurriness as I was covert and moving, but one of the massive and grand doors to the ball room that would have been able to fit four of our houses completely inside had an interesting detail I couldn't believe. See if you can tell from my horrible photo.

Do you see it, in the middle panel of the door? That's the beadboard wainscoting profile of our new stock for the master bathroom! It's identical, and I mean, exactly the same! Sure, it's done in walnut, on a massive door, in a king's castle in Germany, but the fact this profile exists in a building (of any kind) that completed construction at the time our home was built, well, that tells me we're doing something right! Serendipity (in the most far reaching form possible) I tell ya'!

If there's one thing I learned on our tour of Neuschwanstein castle, it's that everyone's home needs a scale model replica of itself within its walls. I think I need to get started on our home's model right away. Luckily, I think it will be a little easier than this one.

In all, the tour was good, the castle grand, and the scenery better than I ever could have imagined. And the best part were the horses we kept passing along the way, adding a certain ambiance to the whole endeavor that tour buses simply can't compete with.

However many times I've seen Neuschwanstien on television or in photos, our visit to the castles, their village, and neighboring Honenschwangau castle provided so much more context and helped to make this stop one of the true highlights of our vacation.

Have you ever visited Neuschwanstein, Honenschwangau, and Schwangau? If so, what were your thoughts? If not, does it seem like a place you'd like to see in person? After years of wanting to visit, I can say that it lived up to the hype I'd created in my mind.

Comments 9

Comments

10/4/2013 at 7:54 PM
Oooh, I definitely want to visit here, but I do NOT want to cross that bridge. I'm already terrified of bridges, but that thing? No way.
Wendy
10/5/2013
It was pretty terrifying! Especially when it was so crowded we couldn't get off of it. But it was well worth the view. :-)
Kelly
10/4/2013 at 10:06 PM
I visited both castles when I was 18--1979!
It was in June, but cold and rainy, and snowing at Neuschwanstein. Still amazingly beautiful, though.
Wendy
10/5/2013
Snowing in June?! That's crazy! We've seen photos of it in wintery conditions, and it was beautiful. :-)
JC
10/5/2013 at 11:53 PM
I had already heard about the "no interior photos" in regards to this castle, and I still think that's incredibly LAME. Why not? If they're worried about light damage, then they could limit photos to "no flash" photography only.

I know of this castle from having built the 3D puzzle of it over a decade ago. I believe that if you do a google image search there are a few photos that do show up from people who took photos w/o permission.

I thought it was funny and neat that you spotted the beadboard detail.
Alex
10/14/2013
I just checked out a handful of the photos online and they do a pretty great job of showing the opulence in almost every room. I also think the idea of not taking photos was very loosely enforced, as we saw a few people snapping photos all over the place with no repercussions. I guess we're just rule followers.
Kelly
10/6/2013 at 10:52 AM
There were no crowds with the inclement weather, so I guess it's a trade-off. Back then, in 1979, we were able to take pictures inside Hohenschwangau. Without digging them out to refresh my memory, the one thing that sticks out in my mind was a huge gold-and-gemstone casket (box) on a dining table (?). It was protected inside a clear case, but you could see it well. It was amazing. I have a picture of it.
Alex
10/14/2013
I know exactly the item you're talking about. It's still in the same location, and I think it was some sort of a gift to the king from another king in a different country. They sure had some amazing stuff.
10/7/2013 at 5:05 PM
Amazing.
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