Five historic enclaves just steps from Munich
As well as being the largest federal state in all of Germany, Bavaria is the birthplace of many of the country’s most famous traditions and the setting for some of Europe’s most historic events. Not far from its capital, Munich, is a territory full of contrasts, where you’ll find all sorts of architectural gems, lovely natural spots and fairy-tale Bavarian villages, along with poignant places marked by its Nazi past. Here’s a route to explore the secrets of this picturesque state.
1 Neuschwanstein Castle
Neuschwanstein Castle holds the record as the most photographed building in Germany. And it’s no wonder. This fairy-tale castle, located on the Pöllat Gorge in the Bavarian Alps 125km from Munich, is a neo-Gothic fantasy that pays tribute to mediaeval fortresses. Built between 1869 and 1886 by order of King Louis II of Bavaria, it was designed by the monarch himself under the influence of German Romanticism, making the building an authentic fantasy setting aimed at imitating his idea of the ideal castle for a mediaeval gentleman. The monarch (known as Märchenkönig: the Fairy-Tale King) was only able to enjoy the castle for 172 days, as he died on 13 June 1886, after having been deposed from power due to his alleged psychiatric problems. Just a month and a half after the king’s death, the castle opened its doors to the people. It can still be visited with a guide.
If you’ve decided to visit Neuschwanstein, you can’t leave without visiting the town closest to the castle: Füssen. This ancient town is just a kilometre from the border with Austria and 130km from Munich and is one of the best spots for enjoying traditional Bavarian culture and architecture. As you stroll its cobbled streets, you’ll find the Füssen Museum, located in Benedictine St Mang Abbey, a mediaeval and Baroque architectural jewel and home to one of Europe’s best collections of violins and lutes. For centuries, Füssen was one of the largest manufacturing hubs for these instruments. At one time, there were more than 80 expert luthiers. The historic centre is also home to Hohes Schloss, one of Bavaria’s best-preserved mediaeval castles. On the hill, in the heart of nature, stands Hohenschwangau, the castle where Louis II of Bavaria grew up and where he found the inspiration for designing Neuschwanstein. Hohenschwangau can be visited by booking a guided tour in Füssen, although you should remember that the castle closes at 15:30 (at nightfall) in the winter.
3 Bavarian Sea
The ‘Bavarian Sea’, so called due to its 80sqkm area, is an impressive freshwater lake located some 70km from Munich that is known for its diverse offering of activities. As well as being one of Bavaria’s best lakes for sailing, it’s the perfect place to enjoy a dip or some paddle-surfing. From autumn to winter, it’s very common for tourists and locals to visit the lake to ride their bikes along the shore or take a walk through the countryside at the foot of the Alps. However, the most outstanding thing about Lake Chiemsee is its islands. The largest is Herreninsel (Island of Men), where you’ll find a castle commissioned by Louis II of Bavaria – It’s also the location of the King Ludwig II Museum, dedicated to the monarch – whose architecture was designed to imitate the Palace of Versailles, including the design of its gardens. There is another island: Fraueninsel (Island of Women), a picturesque spot known for being the smallest municipality in all of Bavaria: only 300 people live permanently here, and there are no cars. In addition, you won’t want to leave Chiemsee without trying some of the local dishes, whether it’s the traditional smoked fish of Fraueninsel or the famous Viennese schnitzels served in some restaurants on the shores of the lake, in villages such as Prien am Chiemsee.
Another great opportunity for enjoying Bavaria’s natural wonders is climbing Germany’s highest peak, Mount Zugspitze (90km from Munich). Soaring 2,962m high, this mountain marks the border between Austria and Germany. When the visibility conditions are right, it offers a 360° panorama of more than 400 alpine peaks spread across four countries. Visiting the summit is very easy thanks to its modern cable car. This wonder of technology crosses the world’s highest height difference in a single section (1,945m) and covers the longest freespan (3,213m) thanks to the tallest lattice steel aerial tramway (127m). In Zugspitze, you can visit its glaciers, enjoy sledding expeditions or visit the Mariä Himmelfahrt chapel, which holds the record for being the highest altitude church in the entire country.
5 Dachau concentration camp
Just 30km from Munich, the ‘intellectual’ capital of Nazism, Hitler’s regime opened its first concentration camp just 50 days after he became chancellor in early 1933. With the aim of eliminating political opposition, he held clergy, intellectuals, aristocrats and politicians in an abandoned gunpowder factory. Initially, they were simply considered workers. However, Dachau would become the model camp on which the design of the rest of the concentration and extermination centres was made, especially after the SS took control of the camp and made it the regime’s second largest, surpassed only by the Auschwitz-Birkenau complex. From 1936, the SS began to incarcerate members of ethnic and sexual minorities there. After the beginning of World War II, it became a prison for prisoners of war and a site for the execution of Soviet soldiers (more than 4,000 were killed there), and also served as a facility for medical and field experiments for multiple German companies.
More than 200,000 prisoners were held in Dachau, of whom some 750 were Spaniards. The camp was liberated by the US Army on 29 April 1945. In subsequent years, it was used as a refuge for released prisoners, a prison for Nazi criminals and a refugee reception centre. Beginning in the 1960s, it was restored and converted into a monument, thanks to the initiative of the survivors themselves. Today, you can tour it, guided by the permanent exhibition, Path of Remembrance, which shows visitors how the prisoners lived, from their arrival in the camp until the camp was liberated.