The ‘Definitive’ Guide to King Ludwig’s Bavarian Castles

We are now 3 weeks in to our Bavarian stay, and we are officially ‘settled’ into Bavarian lifestyle. What does ‘settled’ look like, you ask? Perhaps Nate has taken to wearing lederhosen and welcoming everyone with a cheerful Bavarian greeting of “Grüß Gott” (say that 10 times fast)?

Nate ‘settling’ into Bavarian life…

No, not so much. The unglamorous truth is that ‘settling’ in to Bavarian life is much the same as settling into life in the US. We take care of the pets. We walk down the street to get a delicious 5 euro pizza. We pull weeds. We work. We walk down the street to get a delicious 5 euro pizza. We exercise. We read. We walk down the street…(you get the point). We drink coffee from the ‘world’s best coffee maker’ (who needs Starbucks?).

world’s greatest coffee maker

We have dinner on our deck and enjoy sunsets (like the one below), much like we would in Seattle.

beautiful Bavarian sunsets!

We never utter the word ‘vacation’, because that introduces a ‘letting it all go’ attitude. Instead we put a high value on keeping the rhythms of life to keep us centered. One of the beautiful aspects of visiting a region for 5+ weeks is that you can choose your own adventure each day. If you wake up not ‘feeling’ a day trip that you’ve planned, there is no pressure at all to go. If it’s raining when it’s supposed to be sunny, there isn’t a feeling of disappointment from missing out out on one of your few opportunities. If you want to watch an entire season of Modern Family in the space of a week, you can do that without feeling guilty (we may or may not have done that). Because of these aspects (and more that we’ve described in this post), house sitting is (and likely always will be) our preferred method of travel.

Though life has a similar rhythm to it as it does in Seattle, when we go out on day trip adventures there are a few things that continually stand out to us. In no particular order, they are:

  • The Bavarian countryside is spectacular. Farm, forest, and small villages dot the landscape in a way that comforts the soul.  All the houses are well kept, the villages are clean, the farmland is lush. Driving through the bucolic landscape, you feel transported to another time and place when life was simpler.
  • Bike paths connect every town to each other in a much more comprehensive way than exists in the US. The paths are typically several yards (or meters) off the road, wide, and well travelled. It is quite impressive!
  • Germans are not known for smiling, but once you get a Bavarian on a bike they are absolutely beaming. Even if you are not a biker, the fun they appear to be having makes you want to jump on the nearest bike and ride to the next town.
  • Listening to German radio is an interesting experience for two reasons: 1) Since pop music is predominantly English, the music and the resulting banter between radio hosts is a highly entertaining mix of English and German, and 2) no matter what the station, one in every 5 songs is “I Can’t Dance” by Phil Collins.

The Fairy Tale King

In a few weeks we’ve completed several day trips, and I expect that future posts will cover each experience. For now, however, we’re going to focus on the castles of the most famous king in Bavarian history, King Ludwig II.

When you think of the history of Bavaria, it’s hard not to think of Ludwig II, its most extravagant ruler, otherwise known as the ‘Fairy Tale King’ or ‘Mad King Ludwig’. From the moment he ascended to the throne (as a teenager!), it was clear he wasn’t interested in government affairs, ruling the people, creating an heir to the throne – you know, the thing kings do. No, Ludwig II was a dreamer and an artist; he wanted to live a life of seclusion, spend his time daydreaming, and architect over-the-top mansions in dramatic settings. One could drum up a skosh of compassion for him – he was in fact a man-child born into royalty and ‘forced’ into the kingship, while in his heart of hearts he just wanted play with his toys (Don’t we all at some point? Except you can see that his toys had a bit more….gold).

How would you like to ride around in this?

The political landscape at the time allowed him to act as a figurehead while building some impressive palaces. The Fairy Tale king left no expense on the table. I mean, check out the detail on a single wheel of his gold carriage!

Ludwig’s wheel of gold

Ludwig’s story does not have a happy ending. He wanted to keep building and building, but there was a problem – he was accumulating a tremendous amount of debt with no plans to pay it off. He didn’t see it as a problem, so he tried to borrow more money from other monarchs throughout Europe. His government ministers had no way to restrain him (sound familiar to anyone in the US?), so they had him declared insane (which later evidence refutes) and deposed him. A few days later he and his doctor were both found dead on the shore of Lake Starnberg. To this day the cause of death for the 40-year-old monarch remains a mystery.

Ludwig’s Castles

Terra and I have taken four day trips to see five castles that Ludwig is associated with (of the five castles, he grew up in two and built three later in life). I’ve organized the information below by day trip to help those of you visiting Bavaria in the future decide which one to go to if you have limited time. Note that we have access to a car (thanks Romain and Aude), which I think is essential to getting the most out of these day trips (with the exception of Nymphenburg).

Day Trip to Schloss Herrenchiemsee

Where is it?
Herrenchiemsee is 1.5 hours southeast of Munich by car on an island in, you guessed it, Lake Chiemsee. As with the other castles Ludwig built, it is easy to see why he chose this place for one of his lodgings. The lake is situated in the foothills of the Alps; the combination of lake, islands, and mountains makes for a phenomenal, unforgettable setting.

Lake Chiemsee

What is special about the Castle? 
Ludwig was obsessed with King Louis XIV of France (the Sun King) and, in particular, the French Baroque architecture style that makes up Versailles. So he did the most natural thing imaginable – he tried to copy Versailles. Except he tried to make the copy a little more impressive than the original by, for example, making the Hall of Mirrors a few meters longer.

Herrenchiemsee in all its glory!

We think this style is quite gaudy, so for us the interior of these castles is typically not the highlight, as we prefer the exterior architecture, the gardens, and the overall setting. That said, the interior is very cool. If you’ve ever been to Versailles you know that you are fighting with a million people taking pictures of this and that, and your pictures end up being shots of other people taking pictures (see below)!

hoards of people in Versailles

The experience of touring Ludwig’s castles is very different, and more…German (think orderly). You can only enter the castles with a tour guide at a specified time and you can’t take any pictures inside. On the plus side, you’re able to get an uncluttered look at everything.

Only about 30% of the interior of Herrenchiemsee was ever finished, as construction was halted when Ludwig died. Interestingly, the cost associated with just that 30% exceeded both of the other palaces (Linderhof and Neuschwanstein) combined. Another tidbit – Ludwig only spent 10 nights of his life here!

What else to do on a day trip?
There are endless opportunities for things to do here. For a small fee you can get a day pass for the ferry boat that can take you to several different places. This includes another island with a famous monastery and multiple little towns that line the shores.

Alternatively, you can rent a bike and ride around the lake, or hop on/hop off the ferry at different locations as you wish. It’s ideal for a day trip because of the combination of active (walking, biking) opportunities while you take in castle grounds and the natural scenery as well as idyllic places to eat along the waterfront.

For our Seattle friends, think of the beauty of Bainbridge or Whidbey Islands combined with  classical castles, monasteries, and cute little Bavarian towns everywhere. And as with other European day tripping adventures, you can do this very cheaply. While we do recommend seeing the inside of the castle if that sounds interesting to you, we could as easily have skipped the interior, saved a bit of money, and had just as great of an experience (in fact we did this at Neuschwanstein).

Overall day trip ranking: 10/10
This was our favorite castle, and for overall day trip experience we’d put it at a tie with Linderhof (reviewed next). I can’t imagine spending any amount of time in Bavaria without travelling here.

Ludwig had quite the imagination

Day Trip to Schloss Linderhof

Where is it?
Linderhof is 1.5 hours southwest of Munich by car in the foothills of the Alps. As with Ludwig’s other castles, the surrounding scenery is spectacular. This palace is situated in the foothills, whereas Herrenchiemsee was in flat terrain (an island though!) with a view of the mountains.

spectacular scenery surrounding Linderhof


What is special about the Castle?
This is where Ludwig spent most of his time (roughly 2 weeks out of every month) and is the only one of his palaces that was completed. As with Herrenchiemsee, the interior was inspired by the Sun King, and the interior has the gaudy, over-the-top feel to it. This palace is also much smaller, and as we were touring with about 20 people (and at least one screaming infant) we felt very squeezed into the rooms.

The grounds were spectacular, and we got a fair amount of exercise walking up and down the hills.

spectacular view!

As we strolled through the forested grounds we came across various interesting buildings, such as a hunting lodge built around a gigantic tree and this ornate Moorish kiosk.

Moorish Kiosk on the grounds of Linderhof

What else to do on a day trip?
Where to start! You are smack in the middle of the Alps so there are a lot of fun activities around Linderhof. We chose to go to the mountain town of Oberammergau. What a fun place! We started at an incredible alpine park where we went up on a chair lift with amazing views, visited a bier garden at an epic spot at the top of the mountain, and traveled back downhill on a sled where we exceeded speeds of…well, let’s just say that I was going so fast they didn’t even capture my speed (part of that is true). Later we went down to Oberammergau and had our best Bavarian dishes of the trip. Finally, some Bavarian food that we loved!

view from the beer garden at the top of the mountain

Afterwards, we stopped by Ettal Abbey (pictured below), an amazing monastery in the town of Oberau. The monks happen to make great beer and liqueurs, and we couldn’t leave without purchasing some of the latter!

amazing monastery…


and amazing drink…

The experience at Linderhof was great, but what we did beyond Linderhof is what turned this into a truly special day trip.

having a great time on the ride up!

Overall day trip ranking: 10/10
While Linderhof wasn’t necessarily our favorite castle, the overall experience may have been the best. In a pretty short amount of time we were able to explore the castle and grounds, have a great experience on the mountain, and visit the monastery, all without feeling rushed.

Terra in the gardens

Day Trip to Schloss Neuschwanstein

Where is it?
Neuschwanstein is 1.5 hours southwest of Munich by car in the foothills of the Alps (very close ‘as the crow flies’ from Linderhof, but over an impassable mountain range). Again, the surrounding scenery is spectacular. Unlike the others, at Neuschwanstein you feel like you are in the middle of the Alps.

looking out from near the castle

What is special about the Castle?
Wow, what a setting! Sadly, Neuschwanstein is probably most famous today because it served as a model for Disney’s Sleeping Beauty Castle. And, as a result, the tourists come in droves. This castle does represent a significant departure from the French Baroque style of the first two; instead it is a Gothic style palace which is befitting of the dramatic surroundings.

most famous view of the castle – complete with a UFO on the right hand side of the picture


Ludwig didn’t come close to completing the interior, which is one of the reasons we opted not to go inside (the other was that it required a 5 hour wait).

a view from the side of Neuschwanstein

What else to do on a day trip?
To get to Neuschwanstein, you go to a town called Hohenschwangau first and then walk up to the castle. On the other side of the town lies a palace built by Ludwig’s father, Schloss Hohenschwangau, which is fashioned in the Southern Spanish style. This was an impressive castle in its own right and well worth checking out. One can imagine Ludwig as a child looking out from Hohenschwangau toward the mountain that he would eventually build Neuschwanstein on.

Hohenschwangau Castle

Overall ranking: 9/10
The setting couldn’t be beat. But the hoards of tourists really do take away from it. Also, it didn’t seem that there was as quite as much to do in the area as with the first two castles.

so many tourists…

Day Trip to Schloss Nymphenburg

Where is it?
Nymphenburg is right in the middle of Munich! Well, technically it’s on the West side of the town, an easy subway ride from the town center. When it was initially built (in the late 17th Century) it was in the middle of the countryside, but Munich has grown so much that it surrounds the castle grounds.  Needless to say, the castle grounds are expansive (88 square miles!) and have several little palaces and huts to visit as well.  Interestingly, they are influenced by the Chinese style, all carefully and beautifully placed in the massive forest surrounding the palace.

Schloss Nymphenburg

What is special about the Castle?
Nymphenburg is where King Ludwig II was born, so you could say it is where his obsession with lavish palaces began. We were surprised at how expansive and lovely the grounds were; it was easy to feel like you were in the middle of the countryside despite being in the heart of Munich.

It must be noted that the museum next to the castle is an absolute must, as it currently contains an exhibition of all the carriages that he and his family used. Ludwig certainly left no expense when it comes to getting around!

toys of King Ludwig II

What else to do on a day trip?
Well, you are in Munich, so the sky is the limit as far as day trip opportunities go. There is a large botanical garden next door that we didn’t get to see but heard rave reviews about.

Overall ranking: 9/10
If you like gardens and castle grounds, Nymphenburg is an absolute must for a trip to Munich. You could get lost for an entire day in the peaceful surroundings.  While not cultivated like the French gardens of Versailles, you get a feel of the wild, natural hunting forests and fields of the kings of the past.

on the grounds of Nyphenburg

As you can see, we’ve had a great time exploring the palaces associated with this amazing king. We have a few additional pictures below. Until next time!

this guy is saying something very important in German


Mother Goose and children at Nymphenburg


viewing Neuschwanstein from a distance


Terra and the gardens at Linderhof


signs encouraging us not to do something in German

beautiful alpine lake