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Castle Mespelbrunn

Castle Mespelbrunn

The small but perfectly formed Mespelbrunn Castle (Schloss Mespelbrunn) in western Bavaria has survived for hundreds of years unscathed, mainly due to its location, nestled in the Spessart forest. This is a famous German forest, with its fairy stories and myths immortalized by the Brothers Grimm. The Mespelbrunn Castle is one of those that takes your breath away as you come around the neatly clipped box hedges. I don’t think I will ever tire of that moment when a castle reveals itself. Sometimes referred to as a Wasserschloss (water castle), Mespelbrunn sits serenely in its own little lake, complete with resident swans. 

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History

In 1412, the Archbishop of Mainz gifted some land next to a pond in the Spessart to a knight named Echter, for his part in defeating the Czechs. At this point, the Spessart was literally thick with thieves and bandits, which inspired the second generation of Echters to build fortifications around the stately home. From this period, only the round tower remains, with the rest of the castle being rebuilt in the Renaissance style from 1551-1569. The most famous resident of the castle was Julius Echter, Prince-Bishop of Würzburg (1545-1617), who founded a hospital and re-founded the University of Würzburg in 1583. 

Schloss Mespelbrunn was never in a high traffic location, and this saved it during the Thirty Years War when armies of all sides were rampaging through the area. 

The lake runs on all sides of the Castle Mespelbrunn, like a very large moat.
The lake runs on all sides of the Castle Mespelbrunn, like a very large moat.
The doors to the Castle Mespelbrunn. You can see the little crate that holds the fish food on the lefthand side there.
The doors to the Castle Mespelbrunn. You can see the little crate that holds the fish food on the lefthand side there.

By 1665, the last male Echter died without leaving a male heir. However, Maria Ottilia, Echterin of Mespelbrunn, married into the Ingelheim family which were later elevated to Counts. The current Count Ingelheim lives in the castle with his family today. 

Still from the title sequence of Das Wirtshaus im Spessart, shot at the castle in 1958.
Still from the title sequence of Das Wirtshaus im Spessart, shot at the castle in 1958.

Completely unrelated to the actual history of the castle, a famous German musical called Das Wirsthaus im Spessart was filmed in the castle and a nearby town in 1958, which seems to inspire many coach tours.  

Inner courtyard at Castle Mespelbrunn
Inner courtyard at Castle Mespelbrunn
Door to upper levels of the castle, dated 1569.
Door to upper levels of the castle, dated 1569.

Mespelbrunn Castle entrance fees and opening hours

To do anything other than lean over the gate and take photos, you need to pay an entrance fee. 

Adults 5€

Children/students 2.50€

The castle is open from March to November 9am-5pm daily, but check their site for exact opening and closing dates as they change each year. 

It’s worth noting that it’s difficult to get to this castle other than driving. The parking lot is a short (level!) walk from the castle on a smooth gravel and then paved path. Unusually for a castle, this one is quite easy to access with a buggy or if you’re travelling with folks using mobility aids. However, there are stairs on the tour and you won’t be able to bring your buggy with you.

Your first view of Schloss Mespelbrunn from the gates.
Your first view of Schloss Mespelbrunn from the gates.

Is it worth doing the tour at Mespelbrunn Castle?

Yes definitely. Like most German castles, you cannot see the inside except on a guided tour. All tours are in German, so you will need to ask the ticket seller at the gate to give you an English pamphlet, which provides the text of the tour in English. Often the guides can answer any questions you have in English, or someone on the tour can translate. On the tour, you will see the Knight’s Hall on the ground floor, with suits of armour and heraldic symbols in stained glass. Moving upstairs, you get to see the dining hall, which I found the most impressive. It’s a bit of a hunting lodge theme, with wild boars’ heads and antlers mounted all over the place, as well as an impressive table setting. The current Count of Ingelheim and his family have special dinners here, even now. There’s also a small but interesting display of weapons, including some wicked-looking early crossbows. 

View from the castle entrance across the small topiary garden.
View from the castle entrance across the small topiary garden.
Shady benches outside the Knight's Hall at Schloss Mespelbrunn
Shady benches outside the Knight’s Hall at Schloss Mespelbrunn

There’s a tower room dedicated to honouring Julius Echter, Prince-Bishop of Würzburg and all his works. The main interest here was the shrunken head he was gifted by someone who had visited Africa. Moving through to a bedroom, it’s hard not to imagine sleeping here with the window open to the breeze, listening to bandits call to each other in the woods. No doubt no one would have kept their windows open for fear of dying of unseen miasma, but that’s just my romantic fantasy. 

The tour lasts about 40 minutes, and moves along fairly quickly. 

Regal swan glides across the lake at Schloss Mespelbrunn
Regal swan glides across the lake at Schloss Mespelbrunn

What else is there to do at the castle?

The small lake is also home to schools of fat and happy looking fish, which you can feed with little packets of proper fish food for 0.50€, that are sitting on a stand just outside the main castle doors. The fish get gratifyingly excited to be fed, and the water is quite clear, so this can take up a good half hour if you’re travelling with kids. There are a few resident swans floating around looking regal as well. There’s a small cafe in the old stable building, across from the castle. We stopped and had an excellent Apfelstrudel, and Eiskaffee, in their little garden. An Eiskaffee, if you’re not familiar, is a gloriously cold concoction of vanilla ice cream scoops in a large glass, with coffee poured over it, with unseemly amounts of whipped cream and maybe even chocolate sauce dribbled over that. Like an obscene version of an affogato. But delicious. 

Getting to Mespelbrunn Castle

Despite being only an hour from Frankfurt, this castle is still quite hard to get to without a car. There is a parking lot very close, and it costs 2€ per vehicle. 

If you’d like to get there by public transport, your best bet would be to take a train to the Aschaffenburg station and then a taxi to the castle, which would be a half hour journey. Do check the sections above for opening hours, as many reviews I’ve read online seem to involve people trying to visit in winter and disappointed the castle is closed. 

You should leave two hours for your visit, but know this small castle won’t take an entire day to explore. It’s a beautiful spot that isn’t overrun with visitors, so enjoy yourself and take your time. 

Quick bonus! If you’re looking to stay in the area, the beautiful Schlosshotel Mespelbrunn is short walk from the castle and is all kinds of beautiful.

Beautiful Schlosshotel Mespelbrunn
Beautiful Schlosshotel Mespelbrunn

PS – Looking for some day trips from Frankfurt? Or maybe another incredible castle to visit?

PPS – Need help with packing for Germany? I’ve got you covered for packing for your Germany trip in spring or summer.

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Schloss Schwetzingen

Schloss Schwetzingen

The summer palace of the Prince Elector Palatinate in Schwetzingen is beautiful, standing at the end of a tree-lined avenue in the small town of the same name. The buildings are only a gateway, though, to the truly magical gardens that lie beyond the gates. Impressively, the palace has retained its extensive gardens, lawns, and various outbuildings including a mosque. 

Water features at Schlossgarten Schwetzingen

History

The Prince Electors in Germany were powerful men who, as a group, chose the Holy Roman Emperor, and ruled over parts of the Empire themselves. When the Prince Elector Charles III Philip moved the court from Heidelberg to Mannheim around 1700, he started building work on a summer residence in Schwetzingen, as well as the main palace in Mannheim. He was particularly fond of music, and assembled an unusually large and skilled court orchestra. Mozart visited several times to perform at the summer palace, and definitely walked in the gardens.

The gardens are particularly interesting as they span two distinct styles prevalent in the 18th century. The highly structured and manicured French style dominates the initial views from the palace, but as you move further away from the central allé, you are presented with winding paths, woods, and streams. The gentler, more natural English style was taking over around the middle of the century, but instead of making over the entire garden, the court architect Nicolas de Pigage just combined the two. 

Beautiful tree tunnel in Schlossgarten Schwetzingen
Beautiful tree tunnel in Schlossgarten Schwetzingen

When to visit Schloss Schwetzingen

The summer is obviously a beautiful time to stroll in the gardens – everything is in bloom, and on a Saturday you will see many brides and wedding parties of all types having their photos taken. On hot days, escape the central area into the trees and many curling paths. There are endless pieces of statuary among the hedges and fountains. However, there are a few other times of year that are worth a visit as well. 

In the autumn, the changing leaves are spectacular all over the garden, but particularly beyond the Turkish garden, where the paths and a little river curls around a large garden folly that resembles a very small castle ruin. 

In the winter, after a snow fall, the gardens turn into Narnia. Many of the larger plants are tied up artfully with burlap and after a dusting of snow everything is transformed into some kind of sculptural snow topiary. 

Pink cherry blossoms at Schlossgarten Schwetzingen
Pink cherry blossoms at Schlossgarten Schwetzingen

Finally, possibly my favourite time to visit is in spring when the cherry blossoms come out. Just before you reach the Turkish garden is a large walled garden filled with cherry trees, and planted with bulbs. In spring the watery sunlight is trapped in this space, and it’s almost like a taste of summer. The cherry blossoms are a joy to witness, and we try to bring a picnic to enjoy on the grass. You can check their website for details on the progress of the cherry blossoms, they usually have a Blossom Barometer! The last half of March or early April is a good bet, however. 

Can you imagine trimming these hedges?

What to do at Schloss Schwetzingen

It is possible to see a few of the rooms inside the palace building, however like most German castles, you can only visit with a guided tour. English tours happen at the weekends at 2:15pm, though you can join the German tours that happen most days and read from a translated sheet. The tour lasts about an hour, and it’s interesting, but I would say you could skip it without missing too much. The real draw of this site is the gardens. I have yet to do a garden tour, but they do offer them once a week, in German. 

Tour options at a glance:

English tour of the palace rooms (1 hour): Saturday and Sundays at 2:15pm

German tour of the palace rooms (1 hour): Spring (March 25th – May 2nd) Monday – Friday, hourly from 11am – 4pm, Saturday & Sunday & holidays, hourly from 10:30am – 5pm

Summer (May 3rd – September 27th) Monday – Friday, hourly from 11am – 4pm, except Thursdays when tours run hourly until 7pm, Saturday & Sunday & holidays, hourly from 10:30am – 5pm

Autumn (September 28th – October 27th) Monday – Friday, hourly from 11am – 4pm, Saturday & Sunday & holidays, hourly from 10:30am – 5pm

Winter (October 28th – March 23rd) Fridays at 2pm, Saturday & Sunday & holidays 11am, 1:30pm & 3pm

German tour of the palace and garden: Spring, Summer & Autumn, Monday – Friday, 2pm, Saturday & Sunday & holidays, 12 noon, 2pm & 4pm

German tour of the garden: Spring, Summer & Autumn, Saturday, 3pm

The entrance price varies accordingly to which tour you’d like to take. I know, it gets a bit confusing. Just entrance to the garden, with no tour, is 6€ for adults and 3€ for children, with a family price of 15€ (applies to two related adults and children). The standard English tour included with your entry price will make it 10€ for adults and 5€ for children, with a family price of 25€. If you are planning to visit Heidelberg as well, do think about getting the Baden-Württemberg Schlosscard, as you will save if you visit more than one site. 

It’s worth noting that if you have a particularly wiggly child, the tour might be a challenge. I saw plenty of children on the tours however, so they are not discouraged by any means. As usual, you know your child best. However, there really isn’t much in the way of interesting things – no armour or weapons, no clothing displays or toys. 

Of course, if you are a larger group, you can arrange a tour yourself, in whichever language you prefer. I have arranged one before, and the staff are very helpful and quick to respond. 

The best approach is to wander where your heart takes you really. The gardens are designed to give you the sense they go on forever, and I love just wandering and taking in all the little scenes as they appear. It is endlessly beautiful to photograph in any season, so make sure all your batteries are charged. Wear comfortable shoes, because you will be walking and walking. My favourite places are the main allé and the Turkish garden, but ask me after my next visit and I will have changed my mind!

Garden restaurant at Schloss Schwetzingen

Where to eat near Schloss Schwetzingen

The gardens have a small restaurant at the end of the wind to your right as you enter the gardens, but I have never visited. The tables outside look lovely, but I always seem to come upon it as I am leaving. There is also a very small cafe directly across from the ticket office before you enter the gardens properly. However, for a better deal, you will want to eat before you enter. All along the avenue approaching the palace are restaurants that put out their tables, there is always room and it’s a beautiful spot to sit. On a warm summer’s day, visitors often remark that it feels more like Italy than Germany. If you’re looking for a sweet treat and a coffee, try Bäckerei Utz just past the bank on Carl-Theodor-Straße (that main road running up to the palace). If you’re lucky, you can buy some chocolate shaped like asparagus. 

Schwetzingen is the centre of Spargel (white asparagus) growing in this region, and you’ll see many references to it around the town. If you happen to visit in late spring or early summer, you will see Spargel on every menu, or even catch the Spargelfest. We witnessed the historic annual foot race involving wheelbarrows, aprons, gloves, hay bales, and shots of Schnapps. 

Endless beautiful views, really.

How to get to Schloss Schwetzingen

It’s very easy to reach Schwetzingen from Frankfurt, it’s one train to Mannheim and then a half hour bus to Schwetzingen that drops you straight in front of the palace. You can book your ticket right here, in English. 




If you’re travelling within Baden-Württemberg, like from Heidelberg, or going on to Stuttgart, you can buy a Baden-Württemberg ticket at the train station that will also get you a 10% discount on your entrance ticket to the Schloss Schwetzingen. If you’re travelling in a group, these tickets are often much cheaper. You can buy one right here: 




PS – Need help with packing for Germany? I’ve got you covered for packing for your Germany trip in spring or summer.

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Stay in a castle in the Netherlands? Yes please!

Stay in a castle in the Netherlands? Yes please!

There is something incredible about driving up to a castle, and knowing you will be staying there that night. For someone as castle-obsessed as I am, it gives me goosebumps. What if I told you that I found a castle you can stay in for 130€ a night for a family of four. Breakfast included. That’s the total, not per person. And it’s a 40-minute train journey from Amsterdam.

I know. I know!

You can get a good sense of the castle and grounds from this drone video my husband shot while we were there.

On our last visit to the Netherlands, we bounced around a lot, staying in a few hotels, and a couple nights in the StayOkay Heemskerk hostel – which is in the Assumburg Castle. There are pros and cons to staying in a hostel, and I’ll go through those too.

This post contains affiliate links. Should you click on one, I will get a small commission at no extra cost to you. 

The impressive Assumburg Castle and moat in Heemskerk, the Netherlands.
The impressive Assumburg Castle and moat in Heemskerk, the Netherlands.

A bit of history

The Assumburg Castle was built in the 15th century as a showpiece for the van Velsen family. At this point, castles were not necessary for defensive purposes, so this one is more on the fanciful fairy tale end of the castle spectrum, compared to the squat protection-from-cannons kind of buildings. Like most castles, it has been through several families and, consequently, several rounds of renovations. 

One of the great things about its current function as a hostel, is none of the furnishings or decorations are too fragile. The tables in the pub and restaurant rooms are big functional wood ones, and there’s just enough suits of armour and decorative swords around to make you feel like you’re in a castle. Which you are, for real. 

The gorgeous interiors of the Heemskerk hostel in the Netherlands.
The gorgeous interiors of the Heemskerk hostel in the Netherlands.

What you should expect staying in a hostel

Now, a hostel is not a hotel, and there are important differences. The rooms are barebones, in a sleepaway camp for kids type of barebones. The beds are all single indestructible bunkbeds, and the bathroom is very no-nonsense. There are cubbyholes for your belongings. You pick up your sheets and towels from a giant wooden wardrobe when you check in, and dump them in a giant wooden chest when checking out. No one cleans your room when you’re out. To a certain extent, I don’t mind this for a short stay because while it’s not cushy, there is literally nothing for rambunctious children to break. All the corners have been rounded off already. 

Was it noisy?

Well… I will be totally honest with you here and say yes. But not with partying 22-year-olds getting drunk. We had the misfortune of staying in the room below two different groups of traveling schoolchildren, so we had rooms full of 12-year-old boys above us. Was it loud? Oh yes. It ended around midnight though, and because I’m also a parent of an eight year old it didn’t really wind me up all that much. I was prepared for noise. If you have very small children, or a baby, this may not be the place for you. School-aged children and older will be fine, and having the run of a castle at night makes up for a lot. 

We hung out here with our wine (and Fanta) by ourselves for an hour or so one evening. How cool is that?
We hung out here with our wine (and Fanta) by ourselves for an hour or so one evening. How cool is that?

Dungeon, winding staircases, and moats

With all that said, it was pretty incredible to wander around the castle. The breakfast room has windows that look out across the moat to the formal gardens. So many of the rooms are open to hang out in on the ground floor, it makes it easy to have a bit of an adventure on a rainy morning too. There’s a tiny winding stone staircase in the corner of the bar that is terrifying, but quite fun to explore. As we were standing outside filming the drone footage for this post, a man came over for a chat, and he told us to ask the staff about the dungeon! When we did, they laughed and said to check out the fourth floor above our room. After dinner we climbed the stone staircase and on the fourth floor, there it was… a room under the eaves with a peephole in the heavy wooden door. There was a skeleton chained up in there! Hilariously no one had mentioned this beforehand. 

The prison door!
The prison door!

View from the breakfast room at Heemskerk StayOkay
View from the breakfast room at Heemskerk StayOkay

Eating at the castle

Breakfast featured the usual European spread of several kinds of bread, buns, butter and jam, boiled eggs, sliced cured meats, fruit, muesli, and yoghurt. There were welcome Dutch additions of excellent chocolate sprinkles and the squigy Suikerbrood (sugar bread), which my son was thoroughly in love with (of course). Everything, including the coffee machine, was serve yourself, and you were expected to scrape your plates at the end and stack them in the trays in the kitchen hatch. We chose to eat dinner at the hostel one night for 20€ for the grown-ups and half that for our son, and it was fine–an Italian buffet including two kinds of pasta and two kinds of sauce, meatballs, several salads, bread, soup, and tiramisu for dessert. We ordered wine from the bar in the next room, and brought it in to have with our dinner. After dinner, we spent the evening giggling and exploring the castle after dark. There are vending machines on the main floor if you’re desperate for a late-night snack.

StayOkay Heemskerk in the early spring
StayOkay Heemskerk in the early spring

Heemskerk

The hostel is located in the small town of Heemskerk, which is nice enough but not particularly interesting itself. There are a few restaurants and some shops for stocking up on snacks. It’s worth noting you’re not supposed to keep food in your room in the hostel. The castle itself is surrounded by formal gardens, which are managed separately from the hostel, so if you want to explore them, keep in mind they are open from 10am to 6pm, and in the summer until 9pm on Fridays. 

My son looking out to sea at National Park Zuid-Kennemerland
My son looking out to sea at National Park Zuid-Kennemerland

The dunes and beaches

Heemskerk is not far from the Nordhollands Duinreservaat (North Holland Dune Reserve). It’s one of the largest nature reserves in the Netherlands, and besides protecting many different plant and animal species, it’s also where drinking water for many of the surrounding regions comes from. To access the area, you need to purchase a ‘Dune Card’ which helps to fund the non-profit that takes care of this natural resource. It only costs 1.50€ for the day, or 5.50€ for a week. You can buy it online here ahead of time, or from the green vending machines in the park. To get to the beach in the reserve, you can take a train to Castricum, and then a bus straight down to Castricum aan Zee, which is next to the beach, about 35 minutes one way. 

We were heading south after leaving Heemskerk, so we visited the National Park Zuid-Kennemerland. We had lunch at Parnassia aan Zee, though the kitchen seemed a bit overwhelmed by the sudden influx of people the sunny day brought in, and we had to wait awhile for our food. It’s nicer than your average beachside concession though, this is a proper restaurant with soups, salads, burgers, cake, and coffee. There’s a lovely Greek-inspired terrace, though most of us who tried it first came in after the wind picked up. Judging by the parking and road infrastructure into this area of the park, it looks like it gets very very busy in the summer months, so if you’re here during high season be prepared. To get to this park from Heemskerk, you take a train to Haarlem and then a bus, followed by a 25-minute walk. It’s probably best to approach it by car if possible. 

Front door of StayOkay Heemskerk. Don't you want to be staying here?!
Front door of StayOkay Heemskerk. Don’t you want to be staying here?!

Getting to the castle hostel in Heemskerk

The hostel is a 25-minute walk from the main train station, which I’m sure you’d rather not do with luggage. Unfortunately the local bus doesn’t come very close to the castle, so you’re best bet would be to take a taxi once you arrive in Heemskerk station. If you’re driving, the parking lot is a bit of a walk from the castle, as it is surrounded by public gardens –– you won’t be able to drive up to the front door, even to unload. 

Getting to Amsterdam from Heemskerk

After the 25-minute walk to the train station in Heemskerk, there is a direct train to Amsterdam Centraal that takes about 35 minutes. There’s no need to book these kinds of regional trains in advance, the machines at the stations can be switched to English easily.  

Final thoughts

The StayOkay Heemskerk is an incredible deal for the price, but there are reasons why it is this cheap. We agreed after leaving that it was worth staying there, but one night is probably enough. Make the most of your time there and stay in for dinner so you can explore the gardens in the afternoon and the castle itself in the evening. It was fun to stay in a castle and not feel like we had to be careful of everything, or keep the noise down. If you’re traveling with a large group, this could be a great way to have a night in a real castle without breaking your budget entirely. 

Tell me what your favourite castle hotels are! You know I’ll add it to my spreadsheet…!

StayOkay Heemskerk hostel
Tolweg 9, 1967 NG Heemskerk, Netherlands +31 251 232 288

Rates range from 130€ – 150€ a night for a private room that sleeps 4, breakfast included, during high season. Triple rooms are 110€-127€. The private rooms book up fast, so book as early as possible.

 

PS – We had a great day in Amsterdam, but there were a couple of things we could have skipped

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Day trips from Stuttgart

Day trips from Stuttgart

As a budget airline hub, Stuttgart in southern Germany is easy to get to. Don’t just limit yourself to the town itself though – there are some incredible things to see you can manage in some easy day trips from Stuttgart. The best way to do this is with a Baden-Württemberg ticket from Deutsche Bahn:

Baden-Württemberg-Ticket


You get an all-day ticket to travel on all trains and most buses, and your own kids under 15 go free (up to 5 people in one group). Castles, palaces, gardens, half-timbered houses, and monasteries, it’s all super close to Stuttgart.

This post contains affiliate links. Should you click on one, I will get a small commission at no extra cost to you. Thank you for supporting my work!

The breathtaking Burg Hohenzollern
The breathtaking Burg Hohenzollern

Burg Hohenzollern

You’ve probably seen photos of this castle on Instagram, and for good reason. The Hohenzollern Castle is incredibly beautiful, perched on a hilltop with green fields spreading out below it. This is the ancestral seat of the Hohenzollern family, who still own and operate this castle. For castle enthusiasts, this is a relatively new one, constructed in the 1800s, but it’s gorgeous and not too busy. In spring and summer, you can get lunch from an outdoor cafe right in the castle courtyard. From Stuttgart, it’s about one hour by train, with a short local bus ride to the castle parking lot. If you are traveling on a Baden-Württemberg ticket, you get a discount on your castle entrance fee so be sure to present it.




The impressive palace at Ludwigsburg, an easy day trip from Stuttgart.
The impressive palace at Ludwigsburg, an easy day trip from Stuttgart.

Ludwigsburg Palace

Just north of Stuttgart is the impressive baroque splendour of the Residenzschloss Ludwigsburg and its surrounding gardens. Built during the 1700s, the palace and gardens were built in the French style, and served as the home of the Duke Württemberg. It’s the largest in Germany, and has survived intact through several wars. You can tour the interior rooms, and a highlight is the Baroque theatre the Duke had built in 1758 – in fact the oldest surviving castle theatre in Europe with its original stage machinery. As with most German castles and palaces, you can only see the interior rooms on a guided tour – just check with the staff when you buy your ticket when the next English language tour is leaving. If you don’t feel like a full guided tour, just wandering the gardens is incredibly impressive as well. From Stuttgart main station, Ludwigsburg is a quick 15-minute ride on the S-bahn, and a short walk from the Ludwigsburg station.

The massively picturesque town of Schwäbisch Hall makes a good day trip from Stuttgart.
The massively picturesque town of Schwäbisch Hall makes a good day trip from Stuttgart.
The Kloster Großcomburg satisfies that Rothenburg requirements without the busloads of tourists.
The Kloster Großcomburg satisfies that Rothenburg requirements without the busloads of tourists.

Schwäbisch Hall and Kloster Großcomburg

If you’re not in the mood for castles and palaces, try the half-timbered town of Schwäbisch Hall instead. Tucked into a valley around the river Kocher, this town has a surprisingly good museum, several good quality art galleries and endless picturesque corners to explore. I particularly love the covered bridges across the river. Keep an eye out for local festivals like the spring cheese festival, and the Christmas markets. Hop on a bus or take a short hike up to the monastery complex above the town, surrounded by 17th-century walls. This is a quiet spot to experience local history without busloads of tour groups piling up behind you. To get there from Stuttgart, it’s a one-hour train journey and a 20-minute bus ride.

The incredible Wiblingen Abbey library in Ulm
The incredible Wiblingen Abbey library in Ulm

Ulm 

This beautiful town makes for a great day trip. The Ulm Minster is one of the tallest churches in the world, and you can climb the tower if you’re feeling energetic. We particularly enjoyed the old town with its crooked half-timbered houses and pretty streets, and the Bread Culture Museum which has a terrific audio tour in English for both adults and kids. If you’re as keen on history as we are, you will want to make time to see the Lion-man at the Ulm Museum, a prehistoric mammoth ivory carving of a human figure with a lion head. It’s the oldest animal-shaped carving ever found, carved around 40,000 years old. A little way from the centre of town is the incredible Wiblingen Abbey library, which regularly features on those ‘Most Beautiful Libraries’ lists on the internet. Here’s my full post on a day in Ulm, but it was before I knew the Lion-man was there! I have to go back. You can catch a direct train from Stuttgart to Ulm, and it’s about an hour. 

The beautiful Tübingen
The beautiful Tübingen

Tübingen

This adorable university town combines fairy tale half-timbered houses with picturesque old town, Cambridge-style punts, and a few museums. You can take a punt (small boat you push with a pole) onto the river, but check the availability as boats fill up fast. There are a few beautiful parks, and if you are visiting on a Sunday, you can visit the Gomaringen Castle and see their displays of everyday Tübingen life in the 19th and 18th centuries. Just wandering around and taking in the old town is one of the best activities here, and as it’s only an hour train ride from Stuttgart, it won’t be a taxing day trip. 

The Hohenbaden castle ruins
The Hohenbaden castle ruins

Baden-Baden

This historic spa town on the edge of the Black Forest has been a favourite place to relax and rejuvenate since Roman times. There are many natural springs in the area, piped in to different spa complexes including the fancy Caracalla Spa. Johannes Brahms also liked to spend his summers here, and his house is now a museum. There are some excellent galleries here including Museum Frieder Burda for modern art, the Fabergé Museum, and the Kunstmuseum Gehrke-Remund where you can see many of Frida Kahlo’s works. Baden-Baden is very close to the French border, and has always attracted French people wanting to gamble, and it was quite the party town during the 19th century. Dostoevsky even wrote The Gambler while gambling in the casinos there. Just above the town is the Hohenbaden Castle, which has been in ruins since the 16th century, but there are still towers to climbs, and upper floors to visit, so it’s great fun if you’re a fan of castles. It’s free, and kids will love having free reign to run around (there are railings, but definitely keep them within arms reach on the upper floors). 

Schloss Lichtenstein looking regal on its cliff
Schloss Lichtenstein looking regal on its cliff

Schloss Lichtenstein

A gorgeous little jewel of a castle, Schloss Lichtenstein is one of those 19th-century castle recreations that were so popular with the German aristocracy in that period. The castle standing there now was completed in 1842 by the Duke Wilhelm von Urach, cousin of King Wilhelm. It’s modernity shouldn’t dissuade you from visiting it, however, as it’s dramatic placement on a stone cliff jutting out into the landscape is so impressive. There are many tours in English and the surrounding area is beautifully epic with forests topping sheer cliffs and little villages tucked into tight valleys. Getting there from Stuttgart is a little bit of an adventure, requiring train to Reutlingen, a bus to Honau, and about a half-hour walk, but the castle and grounds are not big so consider it part of the adventure. Read my full post on visiting Schloss Lichtenstein here.

You can organize and buy your train tickets right here, in English.

PS – Need help with packing for Germany? I’ve got you covered for packing for your Germany trip in spring or summer.

Stuttgart in southern Germany is easy to get to, but don't limit your exploring to the city. Here are some great day trips from Stuttgart that take in castle, palaces, gardens, and half-timbered towns.
Stuttgart in southern Germany is easy to get to, but don't limit your exploring to the city. Here are some great day trips from Stuttgart that take in castle, palaces, gardens, and half-timbered towns.

PS – Flying into Frankfurt instead? I have you covered: Great Day Trips from Frankfurt

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Heidelberg Castle: A Local’s Guide

Heidelberg Castle: A Local’s Guide

Living in Heidelberg, the castle is a constant presence. Every morning on the way to school, my son and I see it up on the hillside as we cross over the river Neckar. My son goes with his school to see plays there in the summer, and we even had his birthday party up at the Heidelberg Castle – which was possibly the coolest thing I’ve ever pulled off as a parent.

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My son's birthday party playing knight's tag up in one of the ruined castle buildings (with a guide).
My son’s birthday party playing knight’s tag up in one of the ruined castle towers (with a guide).

So let me share with you the best ways to experience this amazing castle in southern Germany, from someone who has been there many, many times.

Note: Heidelberg Castle is currently closed due to COVID-19 restrictions, but the gardens are open

Photo taken the time I decided to climb the stairs to the castle the same day I went to the gym. Never do this.
Photo taken the time I decided to climb the stairs to the castle the same day I went to the gym. Never do this.

What does ‘Schloss’ mean?

‘Schloss’ is a word you’ll see, along with ‘Burg’, used to describe what we would call a castle in English. A Burg is more of a fortress, a building or complex of buildings, used for active military use and defense. A Schloss tends more on the palace end of the castle spectrum. One word you don’t use with any castle is ‘Berg’ – this means mountain rather than fortress! You will notice that Schloss Heidelberg has a bit of both fortress and palace going on. This castle complex has been in use for such a long time, it started life more as a fortress, and then over the years became more decorative in function. Unfortunately, by the time the French rolled in during the 17th century, canons and explosives were the weapon of choice for sieges and not even those thick, sandstone walls could compete with that, fortress or not.

Planning your trip to the Heidelberg Castle

There are many bus tours that offer a trip to the castle as part of a day trip. If at all possible, spend a night in Heidelberg and experience a bit more. Reading posts about the castle, everyone wishes they had more time to explore the city as well. I’ve collected our favourite things to do in Heidelberg with kids, so start there! Unlike many other German castles, Heidelberg Castle is right in the town, so it’s easy to visit without a car. There is the famous stairway, but it is quite an uphill trek, and you will be doing lots of walking when you’re up there. I’d recommend getting the funicular railway from the old town – you can get a ticket which includes your entrance to the castle, and find out when the next guided tour leaves.

There’s a hiking route that begins at Heidelberg Castle, Joe at Without a Path has all the details on how to follow this beautiful route.
A tumbling down romantic ruin indeed.
A tumbling down romantic ruin indeed.

Heidelberg Castle history

Like many castles, this one has been built, destroyed, and rebuilt many times. There aren’t many records pertaining to the first castle structure higher up on the Königstuhl, but the current castle complex’s history seems to start around 1200. Ruprecht made the first enlargement that you can still see evidence of today, and in fact he and his wife Elizabeth of Hohenzollern (her family has some amazing castles too) are buried in the Church of the Holy Ghost in the market square.

Romantic Heidelberg stories started a long time ago!

Frederick V, who took the position of Elector Palatine in 1610, has a special place in the hearts of Heidelbergers. He married Elizabeth Stuart, daughter of James I of England and Scotland, and by all accounts he was quite besotted with her. Look for the Elizabeth Tor (gate) in the gardens, which was carved and created in pieces and then assembled in the garden overnight to surprise Elizabeth on her birthday. The extensive formal gardens that were started, but never finished, were also the work of Frederick, ostensibly to entertain Elizabeth. Unfortunately, he accepted the crown of Bohemia right at the beginning of the Thirty Years War, and could not hold it for more than a season. Frederick and Elizabeth lived the rest of their lives in exile, earning them the titles the Winter King and Winter Queen.

 

The Elizabeth Gate at Heidelberg Castle is just the thing to post on Valentine’s Day. The Prince Elector Palatine Frederick V had stonemasons build this garden arch in pieces, and then assemble it overnight as a birthday surprise for his wife, Elizabeth Stuart (yes, daughter of James I of England and Scotland) around 1613. I thought that was possibly the most romantic thing ever, don’t you think? // Das Elisabethtor am Heidelberger Schloß ist die perfekte Post am Valentingstag. Die Kürfurst Freidrich V. ließ diesen Gartenbogen in Stücken bauen und über Nacht als Geburtstagsüberraschung für seine Frau Elizabeth Stuart (ja, Tochter von James I. von England und Schottland) um 1613 zusammenbauen. Ich dachte, das wäre die das romantischste überhaupt, denkst du nicht? . . . . #gofurther #dreamoflivingabroad #showthemtheworld #familytravels #familytravelblogger #letsgosomewhere #letsgoeverywhere #wanderwithme #familytravelblog #tinytravels #exploringfamilies #takeyourkidseverywhere #almostfearless #fearlessfamtrav #familyadventures #familytraveltribe #havekidswilltravel #familygo #familytraveler #familyjaunts #castleheideblerg #mytinyatlas #living_destinations #myeverydaymagic #pathport #abmtravelbug #visitbawu #visitbawü #historynerd #valentines

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The keeper of the giant barrel of wine

Perkeo is another personality associated with the castle. Clemens Pankert was a buttonmaker in South Tyrol, where he met Prince Charles III Philip. When Prince Charles became Elector Palatine in the first half of the 18th century, he brought Pankert up to Heidelberg with him. It was here that he was nicknamed Perkeo, because his response to being asked if he’d like another glass of wine was always ‘perché no?’ (why not)? Perkeo was a dwarf, and was essentially an entertainer at court in Heidelberg, though apparently he knew a lot about wine besides how to drink vast quantities of it. He alone kept the keys to access the famous Heidelberg Castle wine barrel. The legend goes that he drank nothing but wine through his entire life, but when he was sick and he drank water, at the behest of a doctor, he died the next day. To be fair, most people didn’t drink water at that point, it was quite sensible! You will notice pubs and restaurants named after Perkeo around town.

Romantic ruins

I was surprised to learn on my first visit that none of the damage was the result of the Second World War. All those tumbling down walls and half-collapsed towers are the work of the invading French army in the 17th century, lightning strikes, and the local populace making off with stones. After that final disastrous war with the French in the 1600s, the Prince Elector began the monumental task of rebuilding the castle, when it was struck by lightning several times, setting the castle alight. This was just too much. If you visit Heidelberg in the summer, look out for the special fireworks and light show that commemorates the burning of Heidelberg Castle, as well as the wedding celebrations of Frederick and Elizabeth (yes, Heidelbergers still celebrate this!).

After the Elector Palatinate gave up on the constant rebuilding of the castle in the late 18th century and moved the court to Mannheim, the castle buildings fell into disuse. Heidelberg residents started to take the stones, metal, and wood to rebuild their own houses. But the pile of disintegrating red Neckar Valley stone was stirring the hearts of Romantic poets and painters, who started to arrive in droves, just to experience the atmosphere. Goethe, of course, and William Turner, are some of the most famous visitors, though Turner’s paintings of the castle involve quite a bit of creative license when it comes to the surrounding landscape. We can thank, ironically, a Frenchman for saving the castle ruin when the government of Baden wanted to knock it down. Charles de Graimberg volunteered as a castle guard in the first half of the 19th century, and his many sketches of the romantic ruins brought tourists to Heidelberg. His residence was near the entrance to the funicular down in the Altstadt, off the Kornmarkt, I point it out in my audio tour. 

There’s a wonderful animation of how the castle has looked at various points in its history made recently, it’s worth a watch.

Heidelberg Castle tour

There are audio guides available, and they will share with you much of the history I’ve detailed above, and more, including the story about the world’s largest wine barrel in the basement of the castle. However, it really is worth doing the guided tour of our partially restored castle ruins. Like most German castles, you can’t see the inside of the structure without a guided tour. It takes about an hour, and you tromp all over the place, so bringing kids along isn’t as much of a chore as you’d think. The guides are lovely, quite keen local historians, and they have lots of stories to tell that you won’t find in the guidebooks or on Wikipedia. If you think you only have time for either the audio tour or the guided tour, I would do the guided tour. Ask at the ticket desk when the next English language tour leaves. Do remember to wear warm clothes (if it’s autumn or winter) and sturdy shoes, as you will be climbing many imperfect steps, and the castle buildings are unheated.

Can you imagine dusting all those jars?
Can you imagine dusting all those jars?

German pharmacy museum

Tucked into the basements of one of the Schloss buildings is the German Pharmacy Museum. If you’re with older children, and you don’t read German, you will get more out of this corner of the castle with the audio guide. However, it’s also quite a fascinating place to wander through even without a guide, so if your travel companions are running out of steam, it’s still worth a quick visit. Inside, you’ll find several apothecary shops set up nearly in their entirety, as the museum has been bequeathed a number of shop interiors. It’s fascinating, seeing all the many drawers and jars and bottles that would have been the stock and trade of a pharmacist not all that long ago. There’s a Kinder Apotheke (children’s pharmacy) where younger kids can pretend to examine someone and give a prescription. It’s worth noting that it’s very cool down here on hot summer days, and heated in winter. Entrance to the museum is included in your castle entry ticket.

Half the joy of the Pharmacy Museum for me is wandering around in these vaults.
Half the joy of the Pharmacy Museum for me is wandering around in these vaults.

Restaurants at Heidelberg Castle and nearby

While there is a fancy Weinstube (wine tavern), little cafe in the basement, Backstube (bakery restaurant) in the castle courtyard, and a cafe with Bratwurst in the garden, I would suggest eating your main meal down in the town first. The cafe is adequate for a coffee and cake, or an ice cream, but the staff is disorganized and harried. I highly recommend Mahmoud’s for a great falafel or döner, tucked down a side street with a view of the beautiful red sandstone catholic church. If you’d rather do easy Italian, Vapiano (opening summer 2018) across from the big church in the main square has a solid and affordable kids menu. Hans im Glück, also in the main square, is a local burger chain that has a really neat interior full of birch trees. They don’t have a specific kids menu, but it’s easy to find something most children will eat. If you’re looking for dinner, Hans im Glück fills up fast, but you can make a same-day reservation online here.

Take a picnic

Most of the other restaurants in the square are tourist traps, best avoided. If the weather is good, your best bet will be to pick up sandwiches at a bakery, or a few big soft brezeln, and picnic in the gardens. We had a picnic after my son’s birthday party, and the staff told me it’s perfectly fine – so don’t panic if you don’t see anyone else doing it! The closest bakery to the foot of the funicular is the Mantei Backerei, but there are many further along the Hauptstraße (the main pedestrianized street with all the shops).

I’ve got a full post on the best restaurants and cafes in Heidelberg here, too.

Opening hours and getting to Heidelberg Castle

Note: Heidelberg Castle is currently closed due to COVID-19 restrictions, but the gardens are open

  • Entrance to the castle courtyard and Pharmacy Museum (doesn’t include the castle interiors, you need to go on a guided tour to see that) costs 7€ for adults and 4€ children, and this ticket includes the funicular railway up and down from the castle to the Old Town, on the opposite side of the big church from the Old Bridge (Alte Brücke)
  • The castle courtyard and the Great Barrel is open daily from 8am – 6pm, with last entrance at 5:30pm, with special times on Christmas Eve and New Year’s Eve, and closed on Christmas Day
  • The Pharmacy Museum is open daily from 10am – 6pm (1 April – 31 October), and 10am – 5:30pm (1 November – 31 March), with special times on Christmas Eve and New Year’s Eve, and closed on Christmas Day
  • Guided tours are about 1 hour in duration, and in the summer (1 April – 31 October) English language castle tours run every hour from 11:15am – 4:15pm on Mondays – Fridays, and 10:15am – 4:15pm on Saturdays, Sundays and holidays. In the winter (1 November – 31 March) English language castle tours run every hour from 11:15am – 4:15pm on Mondays – Fridays, and at 11:15am, 12:15am, 2:15pm, and 4:15pm on Saturdays, Sundays and holidays.
  • Guided tours cost an additional 5€ for adults, and 2.50€ for children, though there is a family rate of 12.50€

The great thing about the Heidelberg Castle is it’s right above the old town, so there’s no need for a tour bus out to a remote site. Heidelberg is very easy to get to from Frankfurt, it’s about an hour by train. From Munich (Munich-Heidelberg), it’s about three hours, so you would want to stay overnight here. That’s not a bad idea, as the comment I see most is ‘I wish I had longer to explore the city!’ when I’m reading comments from visitors. From the Heidelberg train station, you hop on one of the many trams just outside the station. There is a tourist information booth right outside the station as well, and the people there can help you get your bearings. Once you get into the old town, you will want to take the funicular up to the castle itself, the station is just around the corner from the Kornmarkt square.

You can drive to the castle, but there is very limited parking nearby. You can walk up to the castle, but I think it’s worth saving your energy for exploring the castle and grounds and taking the funicular instead.

Book a train right here, in English:

It’s worth noting that your train tickets are cheaper the earlier you book, up to three months ahead.

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Get the local's guide to how to visit the beautiful Heidelberg Castle in Germany. It's a beautiful ruin that has inspired writers and artists for centuries.

Love castles? Me too! Here’s my list of the best castles to visit in Germany that aren’t the super popular Neuschwanstein.

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