If you follow me on Instagram (and if you like castles, you really should because I am obsessed) you know my family and I visit a lot of them. The thing is, southern Germany is wall to wall with castles. I didn’t know that until I moved here, and if you look at Pinterest, you’d think the only one is Neuschwanstein. Oh no, my friends, there are more. So. Many. More. It’s also worth noting that the entrance fees of the castles on this list are half of what you’d pay for Ludwig’s folly, and they will all be much less busy.
A bit of history
Germany has only been a country for a short period of time really, and before the 19th century, it was a land of hundreds of little principalities, duchies, Free Cities, and more types of city states than you can rattle a sword at. Even more confusingly, due to the mind-bendingly complicated inter-marrying of all these ruling families, lots of these kingdoms would include little islands of land scattered across the countryside. Each of these places would have a castle or two, to show they were the boss, to serve as a reminder you had better pay your river tax, and defensible places for the Duke or Prince Elector or whomever to hole up when the going got rough, or to lavishly entertain other Dukes and Prince Electors. That explains the truly incredible number of castles.
Not all castles are all that old
There was a bit of a trend in the 19th century, everything medieval was cool. People wrote cheesy approximations of medieval music, and other people with too much money and rotting castles no longer needed for defence, built incredible monuments to castley-ness. That doesn’t make them any less interesting to visit, in fact they are often stuffed full of CASTLE things – crenellations on all available surfaces, over-elaborate knights halls – the whole bit. Neuschwanstein falls into this category, as do a couple of the ones on my list. These castles are often built right on top of an older castle site. The stone was there, right?
Guided tours – don’t miss them!
As with most German castles, you won’t be able to see interior rooms without going on a guided tour, and sometimes these are only available in German. There will always be an info sheet with the translation available, so don’t skip this! You will miss some amazing views, interiors, and furniture. Often the guide will speak some English anyway, and can answer questions.
On to the list! Five castles to visit that aren’t the super busy Neuschwanstein:
This is a favourite of the river cruises, and our local castle. It is in ruins, but what ruins! They have inspired generations of writers and artists – Turner, Mark Twain, and Goethe. A portion of the castle has been restored with period furniture, and you can visit it on a guided tour. My favourite stories of Heidelberg Castle come from Princess Elizabeth Charlotte’s time there as a child, though she’s more famous as Liselotte, sister-in-law of Louis XIV. She loved the castle at Heidelberg, and urged her family to restore it when she was living in France. In her letters, she reminisces about climbing the cherry trees in the gardens early in the morning, and eating fruit until she was too full.
You can easily visit on a day trip from Frankfurt or Stuttgart, and if you do, I have a list of kid-friendly things to do in Heidelberg here besides visit the castle.
Above the Neckar river, and a short drive from Heidelberg, is Hornberg Castle. This one is surrounded by vineyards, and you can buy their wine in the same shop you buy your entrance token. It is also the largest and oldest castle in the Neckar valley. Again, this one is partially ruined, but is in the process of restoration. The original castle was built in the 12th century, and as you clamber around the ruins, each section is labelled with when it was built. There’s quite a bit left to see here, including a few guard towers with intact ‘toilet’, and an oubliette complete with (hopefully) fake skeleton at the bottom.
This one wins for most unnerving approach road. Winding up some very tight switchbacks up to the top of the crag looking over the Rhine, Sooneck Castle is a bit of a half-rebuilt deal. The Duke liked the idea of romantic ruins, so half of the castle is picturesquely tumbling down, and the current caretakers have made some beautiful plantings – climbing roses, sprays of tiny white flowers, and vines. Very picturesque. When we visited, an American high school group was there, and the photo taking was intense.
There is a tower that is intact, and you can visit it on a tour. There are no English tours, and the translation sheet is hilariously bad, but it’s quick and the views up top are beautiful. This castle is in the middle Rhine region, and would be a short trip from Koblenz or Heidelberg.
This castle is all over Pinterest and Instagram, and understandably so, as it’s very cute. A short drive from Stuttgart, Lichtenstein Castle is not actually in the country of Lichtenstein, but was named after a famous Romantic German novel that was inspired by the original medieval castle on the same site (got that?). In any case, ‘Lichtenstein’ in German is roughly translated as ‘shining stone’ – and you will noticed immediately that the castle is built on an outcropping of white rock. The current castle was built in the 1840s and is full of Gothic Revival castleness. Again, you will need a tour to see the inside, but the tours are only in German. There is a useful brochure with the details in English. My favourite spot? Inside the dining hall, there’s a large gilt grate that allowed the music from a small orchestra to filter down so Duke Wilhelm von Urach could dance with his guests.
This is my favourite German castle, and I’ve dedicated a whole post to it over here. The tl;dr version is this: it is one of only three Rhine valley castles to have survived unscathed the many wars that ravaged this countryside, and is one of the most beautiful. The interiors are breathtaking. My favourite is the bed chamber with wall paintings preserved from the 15th century. Incredibly, the same family has owned the castle for the past 33 generations, and they still have quarters there. In fact, the Countess puts huge vases of fresh flowers in the public rooms every day. Burg Eltz is a short trip from Trier, Koblenz and Cologne.