The small town of Fussen is an easy day trip from Munich and serves as home to two of Germany’s most beautiful castles–Neuschwanstein and Hohenschwangau. Most people travel to Fussen just to see the fairytale Neuschwanstein Castle. However, the often overlooked Hohenschwangau Castle is equally worth your time. It has a lot more history behind it, and it’s two-thirds more complete!
Neuschwanstein Castle was built by “Mad” King Ludwig II of Bavaria in the late nineteenth century. Ludwig was in love with the idea of medieval castles with a fairytale, modern twist. He spent the majority of his adult life–and family money–building a variety of castles, but his most famous still remains the unfinished Neuschwanstein. At the time of Ludwig’s death, only about one-third of the interior was finished, but that didn’t deterred visitors. The over-the-top interior, coupled with the fanciful exterior, was drawing tourists before Ludwig was even cold in his grave.
Hohenschwangau and Neuschwanstein Castles are within a few minutes of one another and can easily be visited in one trip. Hohenschwangau served as King Ludwig’s boyhood home. The more historic of the two castles, it was originally built in 12th century. The castle was ruined by Napoleon Bonaparte and later rebuilt by Ludwig’s father, King Maximilian II in the 1830s. Neuschwanstein, Ludwig’s castle-in-the-sky dream from boyhood, began construction in 1868 and continued until Ludwig’s mysterious death in 1886. While it looked medieval, it is was actually designed by a set designer using iron and brick with a sandstone veneer to create the faux appearance of authenticity.
To alleviate the stress of transportation worries or discovering all of the castle tours for the day had sold out, I pre-booked our tour tickets and our trains to and from Fussen before we left for Germany. The ride was a little over 2 hours, which included a transfer in Buchloe. Since we arrived early, we first decided to get a little look at the town of Fussen. From the train station, we headed left and walked a few blocks to the town center. We followed the helpful City Tour informational plaques that are spaced throughout town. They explained the more important points of interest in English and provided a sort of self-guided tour. Some highlights were the Seven Stones fountain (built in 1995 to celebrate Fussen’s 700th birthday), the views along the riverbank, and the city’s pedestrianized cobblestone streets.
After exploring Fussen, we hopped on one of the busses to Neuschwanstein which departed from the parking lot next to the train station (#73 or #78, 1-2 per hour, 10 min ride–buy a round-trip ticket from the driver). The bus dropped us at the tourist office below the castles. It was only a one minute walk from there to the ticket office. The line to get tickets was already crazy. My husband, with very little patience for long lines, just looked at it and shook his head. I laughed and dragged him over to the reservations pick-up line which only had two couples waiting ahead of us. It was more than worth the small fee to pre-book the tickets!
The only way to get into either of the castles is through a pre-booked guided tour. I STRONGLY recommend booking your tickets ahead of time online. The line to purchase tickets at the castles can be insane–and they often sell out. While it does cost an extra €1.80 (per person, per castle), it will be the best €3.60 you spend on your trip! Information on booking can be found here. I recommend the King’s Ticket which includes pre-paid admittance to both Hohenschwangau and Neuschwanstein.
Tickets must be picked-up at least one hour prior to your first tour’s start time. The ticket has your entrance time printed on it. You are required to be at the turnstile in the respective castle’s courtyard at that time. If you are not there when your group number is called, your ticket will not be valid. They are very strict about this. There are no refunds and no time changes on the day of your tours. The entrance time is written on your ticket as “Einlasszeit.” When your number lights up on the board, simply go to the turnstile.
After picking up our tickets, we headed over to see the lake. The lake below the castles was beautiful in an unassuming way. The fall leaves were just beginning to turn, and the fog was lifting. The friendly geese were swimming in the shallows enjoying the quiet of the morning before the hordes of tourists descended on the area. It was quite peaceful, and it was easy to understand why Ludwig loved it here so much. It did feel a bit fairytale-like.
From there, we walked up to Hohenschwangau Castle. The walk was uphill, but it didn’t take long (less than 10 minutes), and the road was paved. (Note: Shuttle busses were available, as well.) The views on the walk up were also breathtaking. It was a fairly grey day, but the air around Hohenschwangau, which resides at a significantly lower altitude than Neischwanstein, was relatively clear.
The 30 minute tour of Hohenschwangau Castle provided a window into Ludwig’s eccentric life. The interior is still original to its 1830s remodel by Ludwig’s father with romantic paintings and a lot of gold-gilded moldings. Unfortunately, inside both Hohenschawangau and Neuschwanstein, photography was forbidden. You’ll just have to go and visit yourself to get a glimpse of the fanciful interior!
After Hohenschwangau, we had to head back down to the main ticketing area to catch the shuttle bus up to Neuschwanstein. We grabbed a quick snack from a food vendor and headed over to the long line for the shuttle busses. The line took much longer to wait in than we had counted on. We made it up in time for our tour, but it was cut much closer than expected. Our plan had been to take the shuttle bus up and see the view of the castle from Marienbrucke (Mary’s Bridge) where it dropped us above Neuschwanstein. However, the fog was so thick, that we couldn’t see the castle from the bridge. It was disappointing, but we understood that the weather wasn’t always going to cooperate in Germany in October. From there, we hiked downhill the 10 minutes to Neuschwanstein’s courtyard to await the call for our tour.
Transportation Up to Neuschwanstein Notes:
Your options for getting up to Neuschwanstein Castle are to hike (30-40 minutes up a steep hill), take a shuttle bus (leaves every few mins from in front of Hotel Lisl, just above the ticket office and to the left) or take a horse-drawn carriage (leaves from in front of Hotel Muller, just above the ticket office and to the right). The shuttle bus will drop you off near Mary’s Bridge (Marienbrucke) which provides some picture-perfect views of Neuschwanstein from above–on a clear day. However, it also leaves you with a steep, 10 minute downhill walk to the castle. I don’t recommend paying for the round-trip ticket since you’d have to hike back uphill to take the shuttle bus. You’d be better off just walking down from Neuschwanstein at that point. You can take the horse-drawn carriages up and/or down (there are strict regulations on how many times the horses can make the trip and they appear well cared for), but beware that they can’t seat that many people and you may wait quite a while. I recommend the shuttle bus up and hiking down if you are in relatively good shape and the line appears long for the horses.
Neuschwanstein was impressive–so impressive that Walt Disney designed Sleeping Beauty’s Castle at the Magic Kingdom after it. While much of the interior was never completed, what was finished spared no expense. The tour included the castle’s 15 completed rooms still outfitted with their original furnishings and wall paintings. We went through the king’s over-the-top throne room, gilded bedroom, and the lavish Hall of Singers. It was quick, only lasting 30 minutes, but it felt long enough. After the tour, we had the option to watch a 20 minute video about the king’s life (next to the café, alternated between English and German), but we decided to skip it since we had already read quite a bit about him before our departure for the trip. Then, we had the opportunity to finish our visit in a room dedicated to the castle’s planning. It was filled with drawings of the castle plans, a model of Neuschwanstein, and designs for Falkenstein—another castle dreamed up by Ludwig which was never built.
Our tour complete, we headed back to the courtyard to catch the horse-drawn cart back down the hill. The line was moving slowly, though, and we had a train to catch, so we decided to simply hike back down. It was surprisingly fast when headed with the slope rather than against it! Once at the bottom, we caught the bus back to the train station without incident, and from there, our train back to Munich.
Neuschwanstein and Hohenschwangau are fairytale castles incarnate. We hope to someday make it back on a clearer day to get some better views of the fanciful Neuschwanstein, but what we did get to see did not disappoint. It’s no wonder that Walt Disney found this location to be such a magical inspiration!