The Best Castles to See in Germany
What is a vacation to Germany without a peek at its famous castles? Capturing important moments in history from as far back as the 11th and 12th centuries, Deutschland's palatial monuments are as striking to us today as they were to the royal families and military leaders who once inhabited them.
Today, these castles are some of the most popular German attractions, drawing visitors from across the globe to their treasure-filled armories and enchanting grounds. Neuschwanstein Castle, in Bavaria, has the distinction of being one of the most visited castles in the entire world, luring in more than 1.5 million tourists a year with its two-story throne room and ornately-furnished chambers.
Turrets and towers rise from all across the German countryside, crowning Alpine mountains and overlooking vast parklands, forests, and charming villages. You can find them just outside popular cities, or floating on island lakes. German castles represent a vast range of architectural designs, including the bucket list-worthy medieval Burg Eltz Castle and the Renaissance ruins of Hedelberg Castle. What they all have in common, of course, is their vivid depiction of a moment in German history.
Having survived centuries and World Wars, many of these castles remain important parts of German life. They now serve as government buildings, museums, landmarks, hotels, and—in more than a few cases—incredible private homes.
Few structures from the Middle Ages survive, but this gorgeous castle endured wars with little damage—in fact, it’s looked pretty much the same since the 15th century, when it accommodated three noble families. Today, it’s still under the ownership of one of the original households (the Eltz’s), who have had it for 33 generations. And we’re not the castle’s only admirers: back when Germany’s national currency was the Deutsche Mark, its spires featured prominently on every 500-mark bill printed between 1961 and 1995.
Althoff Grandhotel Castle
This former hunting chateau was originally commissioned as a "grander" version of Versailles. After alternating as a military hospital, boarding school, and refugee center, in 2000 it was ultimately remodeled as a grand hotel, and is currently a member of Leading Hotels of the World. Its 120 rooms and suites are tastefully done with leather upholstery and wooden desks. The hotel also boasts views of the Rhine Valley and a 3-star Michelin restaurant, Vendome. All this just 12 miles away from Cologne.
Nicknamed the Sleeping Beauty Castle, families love this ivy-covered, rose-filled estate for its fairytale looks (its actual address is on the Fairy Tale Route) as well as its offerings. In addition to housing a hotel, restaurant, and an open-air stage for theater performances, it also sits next to Tierpark, Europe’s oldest wildlife park with 80 different species including bison, wild horses, and penguins.
This Norman castle makes quite a first impression. Strategically hidden from view, travelers first approach through dense forest, when suddenly the branches and treetops give way to soaring stone ramparts and watchtower. Wartburg is in fact one of the best-preserved medieval German fortresses in the world, dating back almost 1,000 years. Martin Luther is said to have spent six weeks here translating the New Testament into German, and Wagner used it as a refuge while composing his famous Tannhauser opera.
Framed spectacularly against the Bavarian Alps (with Germany’s highest peak, Zugspitze, just 30 miles away), this pastoral gem hosted the international G7 summit in 2015. A major fire in 2005 meant that much of the original structure had to be rebuilt, but the premises have since been restored. Travelers, especially families, can plan an entire vacation here, as the site hosts two world-class spa hotels, complete with restaurants, yoga facilities, a hammam, outdoor pools, a concert hall, and guided nature excursions.
Built on an island inside Lake Schwerin, this neo-Renaissance castle is completely surrounded by water, connected to the mainland by a single bridge. The first records of Schwerin date back to 793, when the site was used as a military fort, though the castle we see today wasn't built until 1857. Instead of Grand Dukes and Prussian officers, Schwerin Castle now houses the State Parliament, as well as a museum, porcelain collection, and concert venue.
Fronted by English and French-style gardens, and neighboring the Saale river, this candy-colored palace contains not one but three distinct castles, each corresponding to a different epoch. Visitors can freely wander the Rococo and Renaissance castles, while the Old Castle (dating back to 1573) is available on special guided tours only. The famous German poet Goethe used to visit here, and there’s even an exhibit devoted to his work.
Looking for an easy day trip from Frankfurt? This grand estate, and one-time royal palace, is a worthy contender. In the late 1800s, Empress Victoria (Queen Victoria of England’s first child) decided to build a neo-Gothic castle for herself that combined German Renaissance and English Tudor styles. The result is impressive: visitors today can browse the halls filled with antique paintings and tapestries. Now, there is also a golf course, several restaurants, and a whiskey bar with live jazz.
Overlooking the Salzach River, this hardwearing 11th-century citadel, capped with lustrous red tile roofs, was once a gruesome site of torture and executions (there’s even a museum with various iron implements on display). At 3,422 feet, it’s the longest castle in the world, and features a magnificent collection of late Gothic panel paintings, along with a cycle illustrating the history of Bavaria.
This gravity-defying cliffside castle, which contains two immense banquet halls and an artificial indoor cave, was originally commissioned in the mid-1800s by King Ludwig II to represent the ideal (or, at least, his ideal) medieval fairytale castle. So swept up, in fact, was Ludwig in his own fantasy that he hired a theatrical set designer—rather than an architect—to design it. The result: an unmistakably grand silhouette that shines like a crown amid the somber Bavarian Alps. Not that we’d expect anything less from a man once quoted as saying: “I want to remain an eternal mystery to myself and others.”
Despite its roots back to the 14th century, this castle was subsequently left to ruin, and would have stayed that way—that is, if owner Count Wilhelm hadn’t seized the opportunity to have the entire medieval structure rebuilt in 1842. Inspired after reading the novel Lichtenstein, the Count based his design around the original castle walls, which rest on a plummeting cliff edge. Inside, visitors can browse original paintings, stained glass, and military armor from medieval times.
One of Germany’s most visited castles, this neo-Gothic hilltop abode was rebuilt three times over the course of eight centuries. The current iteration, the work of late 19th-century King Frederick Williams IV of Prussia, contains a letter from George Washington, in which the former American president commends Baron von Steuben (a descendent of Hohenzollern) for his service in the American Revolutionary War.