Much has been said about the Neuschwanstein castle. It is one of the most visited places in Europe and definitely the most photographed place in Germany. The whimsical mirage-like image of this mountaintop castle has inspired Disney’s Sleeping Beauty castle and you either hate it or love it. There is so much hype about this monument, that one expects a grandiose fantastic castle upon their visit, while in reality, it is an elegant gray stone structure – that can seem quite nondescript from outside, when not viewed from certain vantage points. We visited the Neuschwanstein Castle last December and found it to be very impressive. Well, I have to admit, that we did not go expecting something straight out of a fairy tale and focused instead on getting to know more about its patron, the unfortunate King Ludwig II.
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A dreamy romantic or a ‘Mad King’
One of the most legendary figures in Bavarian and German history, King Ludwig II of Bavaria was born in Nymphenburg Palace, just outside Munich, on August 25, 1845. Bayern/Bavaria, at that time, was a sovereign kingdom that was separate from Prussia and the other German states. His parents were the 36-year-old Maximilian II of Bavaria and the 19-year-old Princess Marie of Prussia. Unfortunately, Ludwig’s parents were neither very close to each other nor to their first son. Ludwig grew up in a cold, spartan environment and spent much of his youth in the Hohenschwangau Castle. There he was surrounded by swan images and icons, and the nearby Schwansee, or Swan Lake. As a 12-year-old boy, Ludwig was already fascinated with Wagner’s Lohengrin and its Swan Knight. Thus, he turned out to be a somewhat odd but handsome young man who had problems relating to women and people in general. Ludwig was not yet 19 when he ascended the Bavarian throne upon the death of his father in 1864. It was globally a difficult time. The long Civil War in America was approaching its end and in London, the dominant Karl Marx was already working on volume one of his Das Kapital. The young shy king’s first year did not go down well and it made him start withdrawing from Munich and into his beloved mountains in the Bavarian Alps — where he would build several castles and related structures. In May of that year, Ludwig met his idol and muse, Richard Wagner for the first time. Thus started a very close and stormy relationship. While the king was attracted to the composer’s talent, his libertine tendencies and anti-Semitic sentiments were frowned upon by the royal patron. However, the love for the artist and his music was too strong for the king and he was caught in a toxic chain.
The tragic, violent end of Ludwig II
Theirs remained an on-and-off patron-artist relationship with a nonending exchange of correspondence and the king physically distanced himself from the composer for many years. Despite the strain, the king was deeply affected by Wagner’s death in 1883. Meanwhile, the lonely King Ludwig II started refocussing his artistic passion on building fantastic castles and his projects drained the royal exchequer. He withdrew more and more from his people, hired theatrical set designers instead of architects to build his castles, and grew corpulent. He lost his looks, his popularity fell, and when his castle building caused the virtual bankruptcy of the Bavarian state, his ministers accused him of insanity. They deposed him on grounds of mental illness, set up his uncle as regent, and had him committed to the custody of Lake Starnberg castle. The day after his imprisonment, Ludwig II was found dead in Lake Starnberg. Although the death was officially declared to be suicide by drowning, most historians are divided in their opinion about it. Ludwig was a strong swimmer, the water was less than waist-deep where his body was found and there was no water found in his lungs at the autopsy.
Neuschwanstein Castle, a lonely king’s dream
That perspective helped us a lot because King Ludwig II was an extremely interesting character who met with a mysterious tragic death and the Neuschwanstein Castle was his dream. So, you can understand, that a lot of the enigmatic king’s personality could be felt in this castle and the monument revealed glimpses of what went inside the royal head and heart; his aspirations, his frustrations, his passions, and his desperate attempts of trying to prove himself. In fact, the entire area around the Neuschwanstein Castle is like an old minstrel’s tale. It was here that the Bavarian king – then prince – spent lonely childhood days gazing at the alpine beauty of the mountains and having common farmers as friends; grew up frustrated by royal pressure to carry on his dynasty with loveless wedlock and hard, economic decisions; had his desires for ‘art for art’s sake’ thwarted. It was here, that he literally built castles in the air and it was here that he was found dead under mysterious circumstances.
How we planned our slow travel trip
There’s a lot to see and feel in and around the Neuschwanstein Castle and if the Schloss itself disappoints you, then its patron’s aura won’t. Well, to be honest, owing to its insane popularity, access to the Neuschwanstein Castle is time-consuming and tiring. Most people wait in long lines for hours before being able to buy the tickets or get up to the castle or get in, and the heavy crowd doesn’t help the situation much. We managed to avoid all of these annoyances since Bavaria was open to a handful of non-EU visitors at that time and there were not many people. We arrived early and bought a combination ticket of Hohenschwangau and Neuschwanstein castles along with a one-way horse carriage transfer. It was a good decision since we had ample time to explore the nearby sun-yellow Hohenschwangau Castle, where Ludwig II spent his childhood; have breakfast by the tranquil Alpsee, and go up to the Neuschwanstein Castle in one of the carriages drawn by traditional South German cold-blood horses.
Theater set designers as master planners
Once up there, the stunning views of the valley below mesmerized us and then a guided tour took us through the whimsical dream castle of King Ludwig II. To say that Neuschwanstein Castle was theatrical would not be an understatement and the king followed the Germanic Middle Age practice of rebuilding an existing ruin, here. Construction plans began when the king’s architects, Eduard Riedel and Georg Dollmann, started working from drawings by theatre designer Christian Jank. The actual work started in 1869 and the king was able to move into the (still unfinished) Pallas in 1884. King Ludwig II made many changes to his architects’ plans and it was he, who incorporated the massive jaw-dropping throne room.
This castle embodied passion
The exterior of Neuschwanstein is Romanesque and dull. The magic, however, begins inside, where the decorative themes are inspired by Wagner’s operas Tannhäuser and Lohengrin. It’s a dizzying, intoxicating feeling of being sucked into operas and if you are a Western Classical music buff, then you can almost feel the power of Wagner’s compositions there. If you can imagine scenes from music, then the interiors of the Neuschwanstein Castle feature those scenes and the castle feels like one giant opera set. From the Byzantine-style Thronsaal (Throne Room) that was inspired by the church of Hagia Sophia in Istanbul to the most impressive Sängersaal (Minstrels’ Hall), whose frescos depict scenes from the opera Tannhäuser, two things dominate the interiors of the Neuschwanstein Castle: Wagner and love – perhaps for the man or his compositions or beauty for beauty’s sake.
Feel the legendary Bavarian king there
However, like so many romantic dreams, the Neuschwanstein Castle was an unfinished dream. Similar to many of Ludwig’s grandiose schemes, it was never completed and the king spent just over 170 days in residence there before he was found dead. Today, this coffer-depleting monument is open to the public and one can see some of its completed sections. These include Ludwig’s Tristan and Isolde–themed bedroom, dominated by a huge Gothic-style bed crowned with intricately carved cathedral-like spires; a gaudy artificial grotto (another allusion to Tannhäuser); the Thronsaal (Throne Room) with an incredible mosaic floor containing over two million stones; and magnificent views across the valley below from almost every window. King Ludwig II was often quoted to be saying: “I wish to remain an eternal enigma to myself and to others” and our tour of the Neuschwanstein Castle gave us exactly that feeling; the feeling of being in contact with an elusive soul that tragically remained forever trapped within itself, unable to come out, be accepted, loved, or even understood.
Neuschwanstein Castle Information
Neuschwanstein Castle is located near a little town called Hohenschwangau in the Bavaria region in South Germany. It is close to the Austrian border.
How to Reach
- Reaching Hohenschwangau – There are no direct flights to this area. The closest airports are Munich in Germany and Innsbruck in Austria. The closest town and railhead is Fussen. Either base yourself at Fussen or visit Neuschwanstein on a day trip from Munich. From Munich HBF, take the train to Fussen (which is about 2 hours one way). There are several departures for Fussen, so choose the direct train. Once you arrive in Fussen, walk to the parking lot, where there is Bushaltstelle or Bus Stop for bus numbers 73 (direction Steingaden/Garmisch-Partenkirchen) and 78 (direction Schwangau). These go to Neuschwanstein and are timed to be ready and waiting for train arrivals from Munich. You will be dropped off at Hohenschwangau.
- Getting up to the Neuschwanstein Castle – Go past the ticket office at Hohenschwangau and you will find a path leading up to the Neuschwanstein Castle. Cars and bicycles are not allowed on the road to the castle. However, shuttle transfers are available from the nearby Hohenschwangau Palace. These do not operate in winter. These buses do not go directly to the castle. Instead, it will drop you off around the Marienbrücke (Mary’s Bridge) from where you still need to walk 10-15 minutes downhill. The prices for the shuttle are € 2.5 for the uphill trip, € 1.5 for the downhill trip, and € 3 for a return trip. It is also possible to go up in a horse-drawn carriage. However, it will not take you to the entrance gate of the castle. From the drop-off point, the castle is 5-10 minutes uphill walk. Tickets can be bought from the horse carriage driver. The uphill ride cost € 7 and the downhill ride is € 3.5.
- Money-Saving Transportation Tip – It makes sense to buy the Bayern pass for this day trip from Munich, especially if you are traveling in a big group. This pass covers the return train journey between Munich and Fussen as well as the bus ride to Neuschwanstein and can be bought at any Deutschebahn kiosk. Please note that this pass will not cover the shuttle at Neuschwanstein Castle.
Best Time to Visit
The area around Neuschwanstein is gorgeous throughout the year. The summer is the peak time and it can get extremely crowded and touristy. Winter is stunning, especially with views of a snow-clad castle from the Marienbrücke. Autumn is shoulder time when the changing colours add much beauty to the surrounding views. Spring is the wettest and the leanest season for Neuschwanstein Castle visitors.
Entrance Tickets: which one to buy
Visiting the hiking trails and the surrounding area of Neuschwanstein Castle is free of cost. However, you will need to buy an entrance ticket if you wish to see the castle from the inside. The entrance ticket for each castle costs around € 13 with an addition of € 11 for the museum. There is a combo ticket for both castles on one day for around € 25.
Things to Remember when buying the ticket
- You cannot buy tickets at the castle. Make sure that you have the tickets before hiking or going up to the castle.
- The castle tickets can be bought online or at the Ticket Center for that day.
- It makes sense to buy tickets in advance for a small additional fee. During the peak season, the tickets are mostly sold out or you might have to wait in queue for hours to buy your ticket.
- If you wish to buy a ticket for the day, make sure to come as early as 8 am.
- Online customers need to pick up the official castle ticket at Ticket Center Hohenschwangau. There are separate windows for travelers to pick up the ticket. You cannot print these tickets at home.
- Double-check your tour time while purchasing or picking up your ticket. You might not get your preferred time slot.
- Arrive at the castle at least 30 minutes before the start of the tour.
- Because of the limited number of entries and a regulated number of tours, you will not be permitted to enter late or join a later tour if you miss your time slot.
How long do I need for visiting Neuschwanstein Castle?
The castle tour takes roughly 35 minutes. However, the entire experience of reaching Hihenschwangau, picking/purchasing the ticket, going up to the castles, touring both the castles and the time between the tours take around 6 hours. This is without a proper sit-down meal at a restaurant.
Where to Stay
Most travelers stay in Munich and visit Neuschwanstein as a day trip. Alternatively, you can stay in nearby Fussen, Schwangau, Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Hohenschwangau, Pfronten, or like us at Hopferau. There are plenty of hotels, guesthouses, and Airbnbs available that suit all styles and budgets.
Things to Do around the Neuschwanstein Castle
- Hohenschwangau Castle – This is where Ludwig II grew up staring at the site where the Neuschwanstein Castle stands today. It is smaller and less grandiose with a more lived-in feel. Opt for an English-speaking tour to enjoy this castle the most.
- Linderhof Palace – Only 1 hour/60 km drive from Neuschwanstein Castle, this is one of the most beautiful castles in the area. Entrance is possible only with guided tours. The adult ticket costs € 8.5.
- Wieskirche – Located in Steingaden, this grand Rococo church is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and has stunning interiors.
- Fussen – This charming Bavarian town has a lovely old city center, a fortified hilltop castle, and an amazing heritage museum.
Neuschwanstein Castle Travel Tips
- Book your castle tour ticket ahead of time to avoid disappointment.
- Make sure to keep ample time between the tours and your transportation to and fro Hohenschwangau.
- Pick up your castle ticket at least 1 hour before your preferred tour time.
- Make sure to arrive at the ticket center to pick up your tickets at least 1 hour before your preferred tour time.
- Reach the castle entrance at least 30 minutes before the tour starts.
- Photography inside the castles is not allowed without prior permission.
- Touring these castles will include a lot of walking so wear comfortable shoes.
- To know about the best Neuschwanstein Castle viewpoints, click on this link.
P.S – This blog post is part of the series called the Cologne Diaries, which highlights a new theme, emotion, and beauty of an expat life in Cologne. For more exotic fun, check out my Cairo Chronicles in the Expat Life category.
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