Neuschwanstein Castle, or Schloss Neuschwanstein in German, is one of the world’s most famous castles, most notable to Americans for inspiring Disneyland’s Sleeping Beauty Castle. To be perfectly honest, this was our big motivation for visiting, and because of the epic landscape opportunities of the castle.
In this post we’ll share our experience visiting the castle on our recent trip to Europe, but first, let’s begin with a quick history of the castle. The castle’s official website does a much better job detailing this, as do countless sites, including Rick Steves’.
Neuschwanstein Castle was commissioned by King Ludwig II of Bavaria as a retreat. He desired to build on a beautiful plot of land situated adjacent to (and above) Hohenschwangau Castle–his father’s castle–where he had spent his formidable years. In addition to its practical purpose and as an homage to the neo-Gothic style of the past, the castle’s location also offered a strategic location.
King Ludwig paid for the palace out of his personal fortune, rather than by use of Bavarian public funds. Given to its difficult-to-reach location, construction stretched over multiple years–longer than Ludwig expected. By this time, he was beginning to retreat out of public view, having been dubbed “Mad King Ludwig” for his extravagant and eccentric tastes. Shortly after being declared unfit to rule (it’s unclear to me whether he actually suffered any mental health issues or if this was political posturing), he was found dead in a lake (it’s also unclear whether that was suicide or murder).
Neuschwanstein Castle was incomplete at the time of King Ludwig’s death, and remains incomplete to this day. However, what was finished of the castle opened to the public some 7 weeks after his death, and has since become the most-visited castle in all of Europe, with 1.4 million annual visitors. For a relatively small, unfinished castle, the 6,000 visitors it sees on busy days is a serious burden.
It also creates intense demand and long lines for guided tours, which are the only way to see Neuschwanstein Castle. Unfortunately, because there was a good amount of spontaneity in our trip, we did not have the ability to make advance reservations for such a tour.
Instead, we elected to arrive one night for sunset, hiking behind Neuschwanstein Castle to get a nice view, and then return the following morning first thing to queue up for a standby tour…
Our trip to Neuschwanstein Castle started out with the long commute from Switzerland. Our goal was to make it to the castle about an hour before sunset, which we easily accomplished even after briefly getting lost. There’s more to the story than that, but you wouldn’t believe it if I told you.
Actually, you probably would–no self-respecting person would make up something like this. In any event, it’s something mildly embarrassing I’ll have to save for my tell-all posthumous autobiography. I won’t care then, and no one will read that, anyway.
Research had indicated that we could park down the road from the paid parking and walk up to Neuschwanstein rather than paying for parking and paying for the bus. This was met with some trepidation by our party especially as signs by the bus stop warned of the walk, but ultimately cheapness won the day, and we made the free hike.
This ended up being a reasonably smart move, as the lines at the bus stop were fairly long, and the walk wasn’t even remotely bad. It ended up taking less than half the time than the signs warned (they probably exist for those “lucrative” bus fares) and with a cool, fall breeze was pretty comfortable. A bus probably would’ve been slightly faster, but a 15-minute walk is not bad. Plus, we were already spending plenty of money on this trip and eating poorly, so a little exercise didn’t hurt.
When we got up to Neuschwanstein Castle, we continued along a path that led to Queen Mary’s Bridge (or Marienbrücke in German). I don’t recall exactly how long this took as we spent most of the time conversing, and we couldn’t move as quickly as we would’ve liked, anyway, due to the herd of people in front of us.
The view from Queen Mary’s Bridge was nothing short of breathtaking. This bridge has just reopened from refurbishment after our visit, and I didn’t think anything of it. However, other people I know (*ahem*) were practically terrified of standing on the bridge.
I’m not bringing this up to boast about how brave and tough I am for being willing to stand on a bridge. I mention it because I don’t know whether this is a common fear, but something that might be worth knowing in case any of you reading this have an irrational bridge phobia. 😉
For most people, this is going to be the picture-perfect spot. You’d practically have to try to take a poor photo from this location, and even my basic iPhone photo turned out pretty nicely, I think:
Naturally, we were not satisfied with this spot. We wanted a sunset vantage with Neuschwanstein Castle and more of the landscape in view. For this, we assumed a higher perspective would be necessary to open up the frame. After crossing the perilous bridge, we decided to continue on to find such a spot.
In my research, I hadn’t found any information about where to go for such a perspective, but upon arrival it became visually clear: hike farther up. This is where things got a bit dicier. While there is a defined trail that continues on past Queen Mary’s Bridge, this loops around to the other side of Neuschwanstein Castle.
In other words, you could get the face of the castle in the frame and shoot into the sun, but that perspective would not offer a vantage showing the illuminated backside face of the castle. With this in mind, we went into “choose your own adventure” mode, and scrambled up a makeshift trail that had been cut out of a hillside by others who came before, presumably with the same idea in mind.
I’ll preface what follows with a standard disclaimer: scrambling up a hillside is dangerous anywhere, and a pretty lousy idea if you’re in a foreign country without medical insurance, etc. etc. etc. (Do as I say, not as I do…)
Okay, with that said…this was a fantastic idea. After a short and easy scramble (that I wouldn’t even call remotely dangerous) we found a wide open view with Neuschwanstein Castle, Hohenschwangau Castle (the latter is the bright spot on the left side of the photo below), and a seemingly infinite view into the German countryside in the frame.
What we were treated to for our troubles was, as the kids would say, a sunset that would not quit. Without question, this was the best sunset of the trip. Pretty convenient timing, as this ranked right behind Mont Saint Michel as my #2 must-photograph scene on the trip.
As sunset gave way to dusk, we figured we should probably head back down to Queen Mary’s Bridge. While photographing the sunset, we had slowly crept up, getting to about the highest point above the castle that is (safely) accessible. This wasn’t too challenging on the way up while there was still daylight, but in the dark, it might not prove so easy.
It didn’t take too long to get back to Queen Mary’s Bridge, and once there, we paused for a few more photos before putting our cameras away and starting the long walk back to the car. Even though it was entirely downhill, the air was cool, and there were no crowds around, it felt interminably long–much longer than the way up. I guess the sense of excitement and anticipation clouded over the distance heading up.
Or, it felt a lot longer because we made a wrong turn somewhere, and realized we had walked easily a half mile down a different road past where the car should’ve been. On the plus side, our error did reveal a great perspective of Neuschwanstein Castle with the stars above. You could say the stars aligned to get us lost (if you liked dorky puns), so I’d be able to get this shot:
Light pollution from Neuschwanstein Castle made this a bit of a challenge to capture and edit, but I still think it’s a neat shot.
We had booked a hotel in Oberammergau, Germany, which is a quaint town about 45 minutes from the castle. The idea here was to stay closer and have the option to photograph sunrise at the castles if we so desired.
We stayed at Hotel Alte Post. Like virtually every hotel on the trip, this one had a town of charm and even though its furnishings were dated, it was still maintained incredibly well.
I’ve found it fascinating how many nice hotels outside of the United States are not nearly as current as U.S. hotels, but manage to impress just as much thanks to their character.
Of course, this is easy to say when there are antlers inside of your room. (There were also antlers above the door leading into the room.) Hilton, Hyatt, Marriott, etc., take note: your antler game is severely lacking.
Below is a look out of our hotel room window at the streets of Oberammergau. When we do this again, I’d love to spend a day exploring this city. There were a ton of little shops, cafes, etc., that looked like they’d be worth checking out.
Even though we weren’t up in time for sunrise, we did return the following morning around the time Neuschwanstein Castle opened for tours. Unfortunately, even this was too late, and by the time we arrived the return time for the tour was mid-afternoon.
Mark had previously done this tour and indicated that Neuschwanstein Castle was potentially overrated on the inside (a perspective that seems uncommon, but is perfectly reasonable and one you can likewise find online). With there being virtually no wait time for Hohenschwangau Castle, we elected to do that tour instead. (It was excellent, by the way.)
My only regret about the experience is not also capturing photos from the normal loop trail showcasing the front of Neuschwanstein Castle. If time and sleep were no issue, I think we would’ve done that the following morning, but this was towards the tail-end of an exhausting trip, and none of us had the stamina for that by this point.
Hopefully, we’ll return to Neuschwanstein Castle at some point in our lives. Not because we feel like we missed out big time by not seeing its interior (to the contrary, we saw a surplus of castles this trip, and I’m completely okay with not doing the interior), but because I have ‘bucket list photos’ that I want to capture at Neuschwanstein Castle. When we do go back, we’ll probably take the tour, too…
Finally, I wanted to address some myths about the Disney connections to Neuschwanstein Castle, since I guess you could say Disney is my “expertise” when it comes to travel.
First, Neuschwanstein Castle was the inspiration for Sleeping Beauty Castle at Disneyland in Anaheim, California. It did not serve as direct inspiration for Cinderella Castle in Florida (or Tokyo). Looking at the backside of Disneyland’s castle reveals the obvious inspiration.
Second, there is no documented record of Walt Disney ever having visited Neuschwanstein Castle. The individual who Neuschwanstein Castle inspired was Disney Legend Herb Ryman, who was hired by Walt Disney in 1954 to create the original conceptual map for Disneyland. This map was what was shown to investors during the initial pitches for Disneyland’s financing. It was Ryman, not Disney, who is known to have visited Neuschwanstein Castle during the conceptualization of Sleeping Beauty Castle.
With that said, it is likely that Walt Disney also visited Neuschwanstein Castle at some point in his life. Walt Disney and his wife, Lillian, traveled extensively throughout Europe, and Walt also spent time in Europe during the filming of his live action productions. It thus stands to reason that he might’ve visited one of Europe’s most popular attractions. However, unless I am overlooking something, there are no definitive historical records of such a visit. Rather, speculation and supposition have been treated as fact.
In any event, Neuschwanstein Castle is a must-visit place not just for Disney fans, but for anyone heading to Bavaria. The exterior is absolutely stunning, and worth the time by itself. For Disney fans, seeing the inspiration for Sleeping Beauty Castle at Disneyland makes it even more compelling. Next time, we definitely want to spend more time hiking around the mountains here and (hopefully) taking a tour of the interior, even without that, we were pretty satisfied with the experience. If you’ve ever visited Neuschwanstein Castle (or are interested in going), we’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments!