This article covers the royal Bavarian castles that are within manageable driving distance from Munich, as well as Nuremberg and Rothenburg-ob-der-Tauber which each deserve in-depth exploration, plus a quick note on the Romantic Road.
Bavarian Royal Castles
Schloss Neuschwanstein ♥♥ is probably the most iconic sight not only of Bavaria but of Germany as a whole. Set amidst magnificent mountain scenery above Schwansee, the fairy-tale castle was built in the second half of the 19th century as a pet project of the eccentric Bavarian King Ludwig II. The views of the castle and of the surrounding area are fantastic from a number of vantage points, but especially from Marianbrücke ♥♥♥. Hiking on mountain paths around the castle is free of charge.
Ironically, as you get closer and closer to Neuschwanstein, the feeling of this castle being a Disney decoration set gets progressively stronger. It is still a sight to behold, but it clearly lacks the aura of being a lived-in ages-old royal residence. We had been advised that the interior, while opulent, is rather kitschy, and contended ourselves with checking out the courtyards and spending time seeking different perspectives of the castle from mountain paths.
Not far from here is another majestic royal residence, Schloss Hohenschwangau, which can be seen from many vantage points as well.
Schloss Linderhof ♥♥♥ impresses in a wholly different way than Neuschwanstein. The main palace is considerably smaller and less dramatically positioned; however, the surrounding delightful gardens, with fountains, romantic gazebos, and little pavilions, enhance the feeling of a majestic retreat.
The timed guided tour ♥ of the palace interior is quite short and may not be worth the long wait, should that be a condition for getting in. The rooms are all sumptuously decorated and wonderfully appointed, but if you toured other European palaces before, the brevity of this tour may be the deciding factor against going for it.
I’m quite positive that you can walk around the gardens for free, but if you want to look inside a couple of other attractions, you’ll need to get an entry ticket. The two most interesting points are the pleasingly decorated Marokkanisches Haus ♥ and the Venusgrotte ♥♥, whimsically equipped to function as an opera house.
The Franconian capital is a very pleasant town, with plenty to offer.
The atmospheric main square of the town, Hauptmarkt ♥♥♥, is presided over by the grand Frauenkirche ♥♥. The clock in its gable dates from 1509 and displays a procession of Electors paying homage to the Emperor each day at noon.
On the same square is the town’s star attraction, Schöner Brunnen ♥♥, a fountain very deserving of its name. It is surrounded by a Renaissance grille that includes the famous golden ring that needs to be turned three times for your wishes to come true. As our friends who live in Nürnberg showed us, there are actually two rings: One that all the tourists touch (gleaming gold) and one that locals know to be the real one (considerably less obvious).
Kaiserburg towers above Nürnberg to the north. From its terraces, great panoramic views ♥ over the rooftops of Nürnberg open up. The complex of three castles has some interesting buildings and should be worth a visit.
There are many fine buildings around the banks of the river Pegnitz. One of the most famous ones is Heilig-Geist-Spital, whose wing spans the river. The former hospital is now part a nursing home and part a restaurant, rather than a touring sight.
One of the defining features of Nürnberg is the prevalence of multistorey roofs ♥♥. You will see them everywhere in the historic center. They originated in response to the method of real-estate taxation adopted in Franconia in Medieval times: the tax took into account the number of house floors; roofs and attics were exempted from the tax, so it is no surprise that people started building multiple floors into the higher parts of the buildings.
On Lorenzer Platz ♥, one of the most impressive churches in town, St Lorenz-Kirche ♥, stands. There is quite a number of interesting artifacts inside, including brilliant stained-glass windows. Outside the church is the Fountain of the Virtues ♥ and not far is also the Fountain of the Sins ♥. Both are quite evocative, the latter probably more so.
There are several other places worth looking into in Nürnberg, among them Kirche St Sebaldus, Mauthalle, Germanisches Nationalmuseum, reputedly delightful Spielzeugmuseum, and the house of the native son Albrecht Dürer.
One place deserving of recommendation: Wirtshaus Hutt’n ♥♥ (on Burgstraße), a small typically Franconian eatery that serves excellent traditional food and has a great selection of beers, including our favorite kellerbier.
This picture-perfect town is like a time capsule. If you grew up on fairy tales of Andersen or the Grimm Brothers, Rothenburg is exactly what you might have imagined for the setting of those stories, with narrow cobbled streets, pretty houses, and gilded craftsman shop signs above every door.
The historic core of Rothenburg, completely surrounded by walls, is very compact. Many of the gates and towers are interesting sights in themselves. The central town square, Marktplatz ♥ is where Rathaus ♥ stands. The town hall curiously consists of two parts, one Gothic, the other Renaissance. Its tower is worth a climb for excellent views over the rooftops.
St Jakobs Kirche ♥ boasts several beautiful altars, one of which is curiously located on an upper level. There are a couple of other churches and minor museums in Rothenburg, but you are unlikely to prioritize them over simply walking all around town and finding a picture spot literally at every step. You may linger for a while in the pleasant Burggarten ♥, which provides a magnificent view of the river valley.
There are many intriguing shops along Herrgasse and Obere Schmiedgasse. The most popular is Käthe Wohlfahrt Christmas store ♥ – you won’t regret checking it out.
Night Watchman’s tour ♥♥ is a fun way to learn more about the city’s history, as long as you do not mind walking around with a crowd of up to a hundred people. The guide, dressed and equipped as a watchman should, gives one tour in German and one in English every night in-season, starting and ending on Marktplatz. The delivery is somewhat too theatrical, but you certainly get your money’s worth on this tour.
In the “memorable stays” category, Hotel Altes Brauhaus, within ancient city walls, is just a few hundred meters from Marktplatz. Our room was #8 on the top floor. It was surely one of the biggest rooms in the hotel, quite spacious, with sleeping accommodations for 3 people (even though we did not need it), and features such as exposed beams. Views over the city rooftops from the windows. Adequate breakfast, although we erred in going down for the morning meal after a big group of Japanese tourists left, and had considerably less choice than expected.
One place deserving of a dining recommendation is Restaurant Reichskuchenmeister (around the corner from Marktplatz), one of the best culinary experiences that I remember in Germany.
Romantic Road (Romantische Straße)
This route traverses Bavaria from North to South, starting in Würzburg and ending in Füssen. We drove for a significant portion of it, taking in quintessentially Bavarian landscapes and sights. Most of the towns and villages along the route either offer some interesting attractions or are simply pretty enough to invite a traveler to stop and linger. We did stop at a couple of such small towns, and in Feuchtwangen even looked into an interesting local church (which I now assume is Johanneskirche) with a beautiful altar and nice stained-glass mosaics.