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Driving Germany's Castle Road With Kids

This 365-mile castle-hopping trip combines what's best in two of Germany's most scenic routes: the less-touristed, pastoral east-west Burgenstrasse and the much more trodden north-south Romantische Strasse. The drive takes in several medieval jewels, including the towns of Heidelberg and Rothenburg, as well as Neuschwanstein, the outlandish inspiration for Cinderella's castle at Walt Disney World.
Perfect age group: Four- to 12-year-olds, especially those in the castle/dungeon/frog prince phase. (Our Samantha, 3 and 1/2, loved every turreted mile.)
How long: At least seven days.

DAY 1. FRANKFURT TO HEIDELBERG, 44 MILES
Drive your rental car south from the airport on A-5 into the heart of Heidelberg's Altstadt (Old Town). Check into the Romantik Hotel zum Ritter St. Georg (178 Hauptstrasse, Heidelberg; 49-6221/1350; doubles from $135, plus $25 per child); it's in an ornate Renaissance-era building right on the Marktplatz, the town square.

Take the cable car up the mountain to see Heidelberg castle, with its 18th-century Grosses Fass (one of the world's largest wine barrels, with a dance floor on top) and the pharmacy museum. Back in town, stroll along the Hauptstrasse, the major shopping street, stopping to watch the mimes. End the day by crossing the Neckar River on the Alte Brücke and walking up the narrow Schlangenweg (Snake Path) to the Philosophen Weg (Philosopher's Way) for a spectacular sunset cityscape.

DAY 2. HEIDELBERG TO HEILBRONN, 51 MILES
Drive east through the Neckar River valley on Route B-37 for 31 miles to Obrigheim, and then head south on B-27 another 13 miles to Bad Wimpfen. Visit the sweet Puppen & Spielzeugmuseum (a doll and toy museum) and the Schweine-Museum (devoted to pigs), with its amusing pig-themed gift shop. Pick up B-27 again and follow it for seven miles into Heilbronn. Check into the Insel Hotel (Friedrich-Ebert-Brücke, Heilbronn; 49-7131/6300; doubles from $116, plus $25 per child), perched on an island in the Neckar River right in the town center.

Walk a few blocks to the Altstadt and the Rathaus (town hall) to see the incredibly detailed mechanical clock: it shows the day of the week, the month, the position of the moon, and the current zodiac sign--not to mention the time.

DAY 3. HEILBRONN TO ROTHENBURG, 54 MILES
Take B-39 east four miles to Weinsberg, then 11 miles to Ohringen. Follow the signs for seven miles through Neuenstein, with a stately castle on a hill, to the medieval town of Waldenburg, and then go nine miles on B-19 to Schwäbisch Hall. Stop here to see St. Michael's church on the Marktplatz; notice the intricately carved altars and lovely artwork, along with the broken skulls and bones stacked in the medieval ossuary. Finally, follow the signs for 33 miles on country roads (without route numbers) through Braunsbach, Langenburg, Blaufelden, and Schrozberg before finally ending up at the stone gates to Rothenburg ob der Tauber, an ancient town of turreted fortifications and winding cobblestone streets.

Check into Hotel Eisenhut (3 Herrngasse, Rothenburg; 49-9861/7050; doubles from $112, plus $41 for each child over 10), composed of four lovely antiques-filled town houses built in the 15th and 16th centuries. See the Puppen & Spielzeug Museum, with the largest doll and toy collection in Germany, and the Kriminalmuseum, whose 10,000 grisly devices include iron maidens, a spike-covered chair, and, for gossips, some hilarious metal masks of shame, sporting long, pointed tongues and big ears.

DAY 4. ROTHENBURG TO NÖRDLINGEN, 44 MILES
Leaving the Burgenstrasse, turn onto the Romantische Strasse by heading south on B-25. Travel 25 miles to Dinkelsbühl, another medieval town worth exploring. Then head 19 miles to Nördlingen. Check into the Maritim Hotel Klösterle (1 Beim Klösterle, Nördlingen; 49-9081/88054; doubles from $92, plus $25 for each child over 12), a monastery for barefoot friars in the 1200's.

Explore the town on foot; you can even walk the entire circuit on top of the town walls, past 11 towers and five gates. On ground level, look in front of one of the Kornschrannen (two former corn market-halls) for the brass fountain depicting two men with various animals around its base. When you push the button on the pig's back, a stream of water shoots from its mouth. At 10 p.m., listen for the town crier's "So g'sell" ("All's well").

DAY 5. NÖRDLINGEN TO SCHWANGAU-HORN, 104 MILES
Continue south for 19 miles on B-25 to Donauwörth. Pick up B-2 and go 25 miles to Augsburg. Then take B-17 for 40 miles to Schongau for a stop at Märchenwald, with a great playground, a petting zoo, miniature trains, and a forest walk where mechanical figures act out German fairy tales inside little cottages.

As the Bavarian Alps pop into view, continue on B-17 for 20 more miles through Schwangau and on to the village of Schwangau-Horn, one mile farther. Here, check into the Hotel Rübezahl (31 Am Ehberg, Schwangau-Horn; 49-8362/8327; doubles from $56, plus $10 for each child ages five to nine and $15 for each child ages 10 to 16), a country inn with marvelous views of Neuschwanstein and Hohenschwangau castles, both dramatically illuminated at night.

Take the bus to Neuschwanstein, stopping first for the magnificent views from Marienbrücke, a narrow, 305-foot-high bridge spanning the Poellat Gorge. On the half-hour castle tour you'll see the gold-steeped throne room, a lavish opera hall, and the grotto room, a re-creation of a cave, right down to the stalagmites and stalactites. Then return by horse-drawn carriage and tour neighboring Hohenschwangau.

Drive less than a mile to the Tegelberg cable car, which takes you to a platform 5,640 feet high from which you can watch hang gliders. (An alternative suggestion: if you can swing it, stay an extra night in Schwangau-Horn so you can visit Neuschwanstein first thing in the morning in order to avoid the considerable lines.)

DAY 6. SCHWANGAU-HORN TO MUNICH, 68 MILES
Return north on B-17 for 36 miles to Landsberg. Take A-96 for 32 miles into Munich. Drive to the Altstadt and check into the Hotel Platzl (10 Sparkassenstrasse; 49-89/237-030; doubles from $174, plus $26 for each child over 14). Explore the Old Town, noting the Neues Rathaus's Glockenspiel at Marienplatz, with its jousting knights and dancing coopers. Around the corner from the hotel is the historic Hofbrauhaus beer hall and restaurant, a cavernous family-friendly establishment filled each evening with the sounds of a lively brass band.

KID-FRIENDLY FOOD IN GERMANY

  • Don't miss hotel breakfast buffets (usually included in the room price): soft-boiled eggs, cereal, yogurt, bread, cheese, fruit, hot chocolate.
  • For lunch, buy cold cuts for sandwiches at any butcher shop.
  • Look for Kinderteller--"child's plate"--on menus.
  • Konditorei serve pastries and Eisbecher (ice cream sundaes) with a dazzling number of toppings.
  • Bratwurst is the answer for the hot dog-deprived.

A FEW WORDS OF ADVICE

  • Take along a child's car seat if you need one; some European versions are cloth-covered Styrofoam.

  • Before your trip, get a Burgenstrasse (Castle Road) brochure and map from the German National Tourist Office (212/661-7200); many roads are not well marked.
  • Keep change on hand for the automated ticket machines in most town parking garages.
  • Don't stop in blue zones without a parking disk (Parkscheibe), which you set to show meter maids the time you arrived; the disks are available at tourist offices, gas stations, and hotels.
  • Einfahrt indicates a motorway entrance; ausfahrt indicates an exit; ich habe mich verlaufen means "I'm lost."

KATY KOONTZ is a freelance writer living in Knoxville, Tennessee.

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