You may think you’ve never heard of Neuschwanstein, but it’s one of those places you almost certainly know without realising it. If you’ve ever watched Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, you’ll know it as Baron Bomburst’s castle in the fictional kingdom of Vulgaria. And if you’re familiar with Disney’s archetypal fairytale castle, Neuschwanstein was the inspiration for it. It’s a place I’ve always been intrigued to visit, and when we were in Germany for a general aviation trade show last month, I was overjoyed to find that this incredible castle was an easy drive from our hotel. Snapping the photo below really was a dream come true!
But let’s start at the beginning. We drove there straight from the airport, having picked up a hire car (always my preferred mode of transport when abroad, except in Italy!). Driving in Germany is a pleasure, so even if you’re not used to driving in Europe you won’t have any problems. The journey from the airport through the Bavarian landscape was wonderful; snowy Alps on the horizon, growing ever closer as we neared the castle. And then suddenly, there it is, perched improbably in the Alpine foothills and looking every bit as spectacular as you might expect. Needless to say, the photos don’t do justice to it at all.
Like seeing any famous landmark for the first time – the Eiffel Tower, say, or the Athenian Acropolis – one’s first thought is “I can’t believe I’m really here”. I’d seen the castle so many times in photos and on film that to see it in real life was surreal.
You can just see the turrets of Neuschwanstein – pronounced “Noish-van-stine” – peeking out above the treeline from the car park.
The castle towers above the little town of Hohenschwangau, and it’s a fairly long and winding route up to it. You can either walk this or you can pay a small sum (€4 up, €2 down) to ride in a horse-drawn carriage up to the castle. We chose to walk, as it was a lovely day and the walk was welcome fresh air after an early start and flight.
A side note: Neuschwanstein isn’t the only castle to dominate the skyline of this little village. This is (the somewhat less impressive) Hohenschwangau Castle, which I’ll come back to in a bit.
After collecting our tickets from the ticket office (I’ll include lots more information about these at the end of this post), we bought a panini, some sweets and a bottle of water from one of the shops near the start of the route up the hill, but there are some places where you can get food up by the castle as well. The walk up to the castle is picturesque, taking you up through the forest past waterfalls and glimpses of the views beyond.
Before you know it, you’re at the foot of the castle. With this filter applied, it looks a bit menacing! The style, for those with an interest in architecture, is Romanesque Revival, and construction began in 1869.
Because the path is so winding, you get to see the castle from lots of different angles and, if you’re anything like me, you have to stop to take photos at a rate of about half a dozen a minute.
The views get better and better the higher you get.
We owe the existence of Neuschwanstein to the fantastical vision of the eccentric King Ludwig II of Bavaria, who indulged in several grand architectural projects of which Neuschwanstein is only the most famous. He grew up in Hohenschwangau Castle, the yellow castle on the right of this picture (the one I mentioned earlier). Another interesting fact: while Neuschwanstein stood in for the outside of Baron Bomburst’s castle in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, it was Hohenschwangau where they filmed the interior castle scenes.
Neuschwanstein (which means ‘New Swan Stone’) replaced two earlier ruined castles that Ludwig would have known as a child.
The really famous view of Neuschwanstein is from the Marienbrüke bridge, pictured here from inside the castle. As you can see, it’s not really for the faint-hearted!
It’s surprisingly easy to miss this bridge unless you’ve done your research and know about it. It’s about a 15-20 minute walk from the castle itself up a winding path to the bridge, and as we had a bit of time before our tour, we did that first. The path is the one you can see on the left of this picture.
The views on the way up were amazing.
The walk is rewarded with the most awe-inspiring view of the castle and the open landscape beyond. I’m not exaggerating when I say that it was one of the most impressive things I’ve ever seen. One wonders how on earth they managed to build on such seemingly precarious foundations.
There is another hiking trail leading away from the bridge that apparently gives another great view, but it was a bit unstable after recent rain, and the view it affords of the castle and gatehouse would’ve been spoiled by the scaffolding currently shrouding the gatehouse (thankfully not visible from the angle in the photo above), so we’ll save that for the next time. When it was time for our tour, we went back to the castle and waited in the courtyard for our ticket numbers to come up. Our guide was a chap called Herr Schubert, who conducted us on a fascinating half-hour circuit of the state rooms. Only about 15 of the rooms in the castle are finished (out of more than 200), and unfortunately photography wasn’t permitted inside, so you’ll have to make do with some views out of the windows to accompany this commentary (click the room links here to see some official photos).
Ludwig personally supervised every aspect of the castle’s design and decoration, so walking around it, everything you see is the result of his creative decisions and all the more interesting for it. He was obsessed with Wagner, and the completed rooms in the castle have friezes depicting the legends told in his favourite operas. Indeed, the castle is practically a shrine to Wagner, who pretty much owed his later career to the support and patronage of Ludwig, whom the composer described thus: “Alas, he is so handsome and wise, soulful and lovely, that I fear that his life must melt away in this vulgar world like a fleeting dream of the gods.” This photo from the castle’s cafe – housed in one of the incomplete rooms – gives you a sense of what the Wagnerian friezes are like in the finished state rooms.
Contrary to what you might expect from the grandeur of his designs, Ludwig was very much an introvert, and this is evident in aspects of the castle such as the dining room, which is a small and intimate room rather than a grand banqueting hall because he liked to dine alone. Despite spending enormous sums of his own money on his construction projects (which racked up massive debts), and avoiding matters of state as much as possible, he was incredibly popular with the general public, with whom he would often stop to chat when he was journeying around in the countryside. To this day, the Bavarians apparently remember him as “our cherished king”.
However outlandish his architectural schemes may have seemed, it’s difficult to visit Neuschwanstein without developing considerable sympathy for the eccentric king branded ‘mad’ by his political opponents. He was very shy; gay, yet under pressure to produce an heir (he never did) and stay true to his Roman Catholic faith; and unsurprisingly, he felt more comfortable exercising his creativity on his own than he did on the political stage. Unpopular with ministers because of unwillingness to participate in state business and because of his out-of-control spending, a plot was hatched to get him off the throne.
Ludwig stayed in the unfinished castle for only eleven nights before being carted off against his will having been ‘diagnosed’ as clinically insane by a panel of psychiatrists who hadn’t even met him, let alone examined him. He died, aged 40, in mysterious circumstances the very next day. That was in 1886, and the castle was opened to the public a mere six weeks later.
Nobody knows what really happened to Ludwig; the official verdict was suicide by drowning, but no water was found in his lungs. Whatever the truth, it was a sad end for a man who had frequently declared, “I wish to remain an eternal enigma to myself and to others.” Visiting Neuschwanstein, you can’t help getting caught up in his story, and it really illuminates your experience of visiting the castle to know something about the fascinating man who built it. I can’t recommend it highly enough, and if you’d like to find out how to visit, keep reading.
How to visit Neuschwanstein Castle
First things first: getting there. Many people visit Neuschwanstein as a day trip from Munich, two hours away, but we were flying to Memmingen – a Ryanair route from Stansted – which is only 50 minutes from the castle. Arriving by hire car, there’s plenty of parking and it costs €6 for the day.
If you don’t want to go inside the castle, you can walk up to it and around it to admire the views/take photos without having to pay a penny. You only need a ticket if you want to go into the castle (recommended), and you can only do this on a timed guided tour. The ticket office in the town below the castle is the only place you can get tickets on the day, so don’t forget to get these before walking up to the castle!
Although you can get tickets on the day, because it’s such a popular attraction, you might have quite a wait for an available time slot and it might be sold out completely for the day you visit, so I booked tickets online in advance here. Tickets are available for Neuschwanstein (€13), Hohenschwangau (€13), and a combination ticket for both castles (€25). There are other combinations available that include a museum – more information here – but we just went to Neuschwanstein.
Although you book online with a credit card to secure your tour place, you still have to collect the tickets and pay in person at the ticket office, and you will be given a final time for collecting your tickets before your tour entrance time (a minimum of 1.5 hours before the start of your tour, to allow you time to get up to the castle – it doesn’t actually take that long though).
My final word of advice is rather mundane compared with Ludwig’s story, but you’ll thank me for it: wear comfortable shoes, as you’ll be doing a lot of walking! Next time, I want to do even more walking along the hiking trails for yet more views of this breathtaking place.