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11 German Palaces and Castles that are Straight Out of a Fairy Tale
11 German Palaces and Castles that are Straight Out of a Fairy Tale

There aren’t any castles or palaces in the western hemisphere, not proper ones anyways. But this doesn’t keep these noble buildings from being an integral part of American fantasy and folklore. Disney, for instance, has captivated audiences with films set in palaces and castles for nearly a hundred years. And despite castles being a definitely not-American architectural phenomenon, their presence in the fairy tales that we still cherish today inspire a persistent sense of nostalgia and wonder for these buildings.

German palaces and castles are the enduring legacy of the region’s history of feudalism. Though the cultures and heritages that make up modern Germany can be traced back further than Common Era, Germany as a nation state is actually almost a century younger than the United States. Prior to unification, the region consisted of hundreds of fiefdoms. The German castles and palaces that can still be visited today are a fascinating glimpse into the distinct cultures and medieval history of a country that is today by all measures decidedly modern.

What is a castle? What is a palace? What is the difference?

As an architectural work and from a historical and archeological perspective, castles exist only in Europe and the Middle East and were built by European nobility during the Middle Ages. Castles are always fortified for protection and would serve as the private residence of a nobleman or lord.

Palaces are a broader category describing ornate homes, and they can also be found throughout Asia. But as far as European palaces go, palaces were also built during the Middle Ages for the same purpose as castles: private residence for nobility.

The difference between a castle vs a palace is that palaces are not fortified for protection, while castles are. The German word Schloss can be used to describe both kinds of buildings.

Visiting German castles and palaces

With hundreds of palaces and castles throughout Germany, no matter where you are in this country there is bound to be one nearby. We’ve made a list of 11 must-see German palaces and castles that feel like something out of a fairy tale. Some are feel like a time machine into a medieval world, others can be found in bustling city centers. But each one is worth a visit:

German Castles to visit:

1. Lichtenstein Castle, Honau

The word Lichtenstein means “shining stone” in German, and this castle was built with every intention of being a sparkling gem. One of Germany’s younger castles, was built in the Gothic Revival style in 1842. A medieval castle lays in ruins just a few hundred meters away, and served as the setting inspiration for Wilhelm Hauff’s famous novel. Seized by the romantic nostalgia of the novel, architect Carl Alexander Heidelhoff erected this castle as a homage to the bygone era. This castle has sparked imitations as far away as South Africa. Visitors are offered a striking view of the river valley below as well as guided tours.

2. Heidelberg Castle, Heidelberg

heidelberg castle germany

Heidelberg is a quaint university city nestled in the Neckar Valley, and a highly popular tourist destination. Famous for being the birthplace of German Romanticism and the backdrop for the works of Schiller, Goethe, and Eichendorff, Heidelberg is also the only German city that was not bombed during WWII. While every other city in Germany underwent major rebuilding after the war, Heidelberg boasts a full city center of buildings that are hundreds of years old.  The ruins of the Heidelberg Castle sit on a mountain overlooking the city. First built in the 13 century, the castle features an apothecary museum showcasing the medicinal arts of the time. Tours inside Heidelberg Castle will also show you the world’s largest wine barrel.

3. Neuschwanstein Castle, Schwangau

neuschwanstein castle

The most visited castle in all of Germany, this Romanesque Revival castle attracts more than 1.3 million tourists yearly. Built in 1869 by King Ludwig II of Bavaria in patronage to the composer Richard Wagner, this highly romantic castle is likely Germany’s most famous. It’s mountaintop perch and striking views of the Bavarian country side have inspired lots of creative works. This is the castle that on which Disney’s Sleeping Beauty is based, and the castle can also be seen in movies Chitty Chitty Bang Bang and the Great Escape. A quick day-trip from Munich, Oktoberfest goers often make it out to Neuschwanstein during the festivities.

4. Cochem Castle, Cochem

cochem castle germany

Cochem is a tiny town of 5,000 residents that sits in the Mosel River Valley. Its famous castle dates back to the 13th century, and boasts some fascinating medieval historical interest. One tower of the castle is known as the Witches Tower, where women suspected of witchcraft were thrown from a window to see if they’d survive, thereby proving them to be witches. The castle changed hands many times since its construction, but remains a hauntingly beautiful relic for this otherwise sleepy town.

5. Hohenzollern Castle, Bisingen

Hohenzollern Castle

Perched atop a mountain in the famous Black Forest, Hohenzollern Castle feels like something out of a fantasy novel. On foggy days during the fall, the castle appears to be floating in the clouds. Built, destroyed, and rebuilt several times since the 15th century, this castle has endured many changing eras. American visitors may be interested to find within the castle museum a letter penned by George Washington to a Hohenzollern descendant thanking him for his contribution to the American Revolutionary War.

6. Braunfels Castle, Braunfels

This thirteenth century castle has, like many German castles, undergone many makeovers and and destructions since its inception. Now in the Neo-Gothic style, the Braunfels castle features elaborate hunting imagery in the form of paintings and artifacts. Open air plays and operas are held during the summer months in the castle garden. In fall the surrounding foliage is brilliantly colorful.

German Palaces to Visit:

1. Schwerin Palace, Schwerin

schwerin castle

Schwerin Palace takes luxury to the next level. Not only is it an ornate palace, but it is also located on its own private island. Often called the Neuschwanstein of the North, the palace now serves as both a public tourist destination and the parliament for the Mecklenburg region. The palace is supposedly haunted by a well-meaning but troublesome spirit called Petermännchen. Only a few feet high and carrying a bunch of keys, this little ghost plays pranks, rewards the honest, and scares away liars and cheats. Statues and paintings depicting him can be found throughout the palace.

2. Mannheim Baroque Palace, Mannheim

mannheim baroque palace

Mannheim is not the kind of idylic European town that one might picture as home to a giant palace, especially in contrast to its neighbor Heidelberg. An industrial center bombed to rubble during WWII, Mannheim was rebuilt on a New York City-style grid without any old-timey neighborhoods to be seen. But in the middle of this very modern industrial city and university town sits a sprawling Baroque Palace. Part museum and part university building, the palace is a great example of old-meets-new and urban planning. It is also the second largest Baroque style palace in Europe after Versailles. Unhappy with his status as second largest, Karl Philip III made certain that his palace had one more window than Versailles.

3. Sanssouci Palace, Potsdam

Sanssouci Potsdam

Built in the Rococo style, Sanssouci Palace was the summer home of the legendary Friedrich the Great, King of Prussia. Located in Potsdam, a quick trip from capital Berlin, Sanssouci is considerably modest as palaces go. It is only a single story and features only 10 main rooms. The sprawling gardens featuring wine grapes and fountains, however ensure that there is no mistaking the palace as anything but utterly regal. The first Prussian King to be a child of the Enlightenment, Friedrich insisted that art and nature coexist in his estate. The terraced gardens with many ornaments and public spaces are a testament to this.

4. Nymphenburg Palace, Munich

Nymphenburg Palace Munich

Another Baroque style palace featuring a huge pavilion, the Nymphenburg Palace dates back to the 17th century. It has come to be one of the most famous sites in Munich, and some 300,000 yearly tourists enjoy feeding the swans that swim in the palace’s giant reflection pools. The palace is still home to the modern Duke of Bavaria.

5. Schleissheim Palace, Oberschleissheim

scheleissheim palace

Built in 1704 and modeled after Versailles, the Schleissheim Palace is located 14km outside of Munich. The complex is actually three different palaces with distinct styles that become flashier as you move to the more recent. The palace complex also features a beer garden with seating for up to 1,000 guests. The Schleissheim beer garden is one of the most scenic places to take part in Munich’s annual Oktoberfest festivities.

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