How to Visit the Magical Castle That Inspired Walt Disney
Once upon a time, a Bavarian king was stripped of his powers after his empire was conquered by Prussia. King Ludwig II was so distraught that he no longer held any authority, he commissioned an extravagant castle where he could live like royalty in his own fantasy world. Many people believed the king was insane, dubbing him "Mad King Ludwig."
Construction of Neuschwanstein Castle began in 1869, but was halted by the sudden, mysterious death of the "mad king." He had only lived in his unfinished castle for just 172 days before his demise.
Just weeks after Ludwig's death in 1886, the castle opened to the public. It quickly became one of the most visited castles in the world. In 2017 alone, almost 1.5 million visitors toured Neuschwanstein.
After seeing all of the enchanting photos of this real-life fairytale castle, I knew that I had to see it for myself. That's why, on a vacation to Germany earlier this month, I made the day-trip to Hohenschwangau to see the castle that's believed that have inspired Walt Disney.
Before You Go
If you want to visit Neuschwanstein Castle, the first step is making an advanced reservation for the guided tour. This must be done at least two days ahead of your arrival, but it's recommended that you book as soon as you know your travel plans to get first dibs on your desired time. Requests are prioritized by date, and confirmations for later months will be delayed: So don't fret if your confirmation doesn't arrive right away.
I made a reservation for a date five weeks out and a received an email two days later with my reservation details. I had requested a 3pm tour but was given a 1:50pm time. It's also important to note that you will need to purchase your tickets at the ticket office, and they must be picked up the same day, no later than an hour and a half before your scheduled tour. So, for me, I had to be at the ticket office by 12:20pm for my 1:50pm tour.
The Neuschwanstein Castle is a perfect day trip from Munich, Germany. Trains leave hourly from Munich's main train station, Munich Hauptbahnhof. While the castle is in a tiny village called Hohenschwangau, you'll need to book your ticket to Füssen, a charming little town just a 10-minute bus ride away.
Tickets for the train can be purchased through the GoEuro website. Choose between a first-class ticket, which gives you an assigned seat in a comfy leather chair, or a second-class ticket. The latter does not guarantee a seat. If you purchase a second-class fare, make sure to arrive at the train station early to snag a seat before they're all occupied.
Another option is the Bayern ticket, which may be available depending on the time you're traveling to Hohenschwangau. Bayern tickets offer huge savings on transportation within the state of Bavaria and to the first stop across the border (such as Salzburg, Austria — another great day trip from Munich). The ticket is valid on weekdays after 9am and could be used on regional trains, local buses and trams until 3am the following day. For $25, you'll be able to use your Bayern ticket for round-trip transporation between Munich and Füssen, as well as on the bus rides between Füssen's train station and the castle. Make sure to book your entire group on one ticket, because each additional traveler is only $7! You can book up to a maximum of five people on each ticket.
Since the Bayern ticket becomes available at 9am and it takes a little over two hours to get to the castle, this is a good argument for trying to schedule a tour for later in the day.
Once you exit Füssen's train station, you'll see the No. 78 bus waiting in the parking lot. The bus is clearly marked for the Hohenschwangau castles, and with all the tourists rushing to board, you really can't miss it. Flash your Bayern pass (or purchase a round-trip ticket from the driver), take a seat and enjoy the scenic ride to the castle.
Within 10 minutes you'll find yourself in Hohenschwagau, where you can pick up your tickets. Bypass the painfully long ticket line, and head to the entrance of the ticket office for the much shorter queue for advanced reservations. Here, you'll purchase the tickets, which cost €13 per person plus an additional €2.50 service fee for each (about $18 total). Children under 18 are free, and there is reduced pricing available for students, senior citizens and large groups.
In addition to the Neuschwanstein Castle, there is another castle named after the village called the Hohenschwangau Castle. A combination ticket that grants admission to both castles is available for €25 (or $29).
There's a good reason why you need to pick up your tickets at least an hour and a half before your tour time: There's a mile-long trek up to the Neuschwanstein Castle from the ticket office. The walk up the mountain is not terribly steep, but if you'd rather hitch a ride Cinderella-style, take a horse and carriage up the mountain for €3.50 ($4). You'll will, however, have to wait in a rather long line for the ride. Very unprincesslike.
The carriage ride ends outside a gift shop and restaurant slightly downhill from the castle. If you have time to kill before your tour, stop into the restaurant for a quick bite to eat. I ordered a hot bowl of goulash, which came out in under 10 minutes and brought me back to life after the cold journey up the mountain.
The view from the top is really impressive. The castle is nestled in the foothills of the Bavarian Alps and flanked by the rugged mountainside. Pause to admire the storybook-worthy panorama before heading to the entrance for the tour. Unfortunately, you'll have to stash away your cell phone and camera, as no photos are allowed inside.
Personally, I found the tour of the castle to be the most lackluster part of the whole experience. Of course, if you go all the way there you should definitely go inside, but the exterior views — and the journey — are far more impressive.
Though Neuschwanstein was inspired by medieval castles it was built in the late 19th century. So in the grand scheme of castles, it's relatively modern. And since King Ludwig II died before the castle was completed, many of the rooms remain unfinished. The rooms that you will be able to see on the hurried, 30-minute tour include the king's bedroom, dressing room and throne room, among others.
At the end of the tour, there's a room with a large screen showing a 15-minute film depicting what the castle would have looked like if it had been finished. This includes a 3D rendering of additional exterior towers and images of what the unfinished rooms may have looked like once furnished.
The guided tour is just a small part of this magical adventure. Outside the castle, there's a path that guides visitors to Marienbrücke (translation: Mary's Bridge). From the bridge, visitors can enjoy the most popular, picture-perfect view of the castle. You'll have to fight for a spot on the bridge for a photo opp during the summer (beware of selfie sticks!) but in the winter, there's a chance the path to the bridge may be closed due to weather. I was there on an exceptionally snowy day and the pathway was in fact closed. That did not, however, stop crowds of tourists from climbing around the gate or taking an alternative pathway up to the bridge.
I had really been looking forward to the view from the other side of the bridge, and no one seemed to be enforcing the bridge closure, so I followed the herd out to Marienbrücke.
After a 15-minute walk, I made it to the bridge. At this point, the snow had really picked up and the view of the castle in the distance wasn't great. I continued on the path past the bridge to find the ultimate photo spot that I had seen on Instagram.
The Not-So-Secret Lookout
It's a little tough to find, but I was guided by a group of tourists in front of me that were in search of the same look-out point that floods social media. We followed a track of snowy footsteps off the main path and up a steep hill. Eventually, we found ourselves at what I believe is truly the most breathtaking location in the area. The not-so-secret spot had a short line of people waiting for their castle selfie. I may have been a human icicle by the time I reached the site, but it was worth it for the 'gram.
Taking the path back from Marienbrücke offers a fantastic view of the back of the castle. In fact, the back and side views of the castle are the only angles you will be able to get, unless you're splurging on a helicopter ride or traveling with a drone. Since the front of the castle peers out from the perch of the mountain, you won't otherwise be able to get that front-facing shot: the one that's most reminiscent of Cinderella's castle.
After a long day of walking, take the horse and carriage down the mountain. The line is considerably shorter than the one going up. Grab a warm mug of glühwein (if you're also visiting during the winter) to enjoy on your descent. As great as it was to experience Neuschwanstein in the snow, I believe visiting a day after snowfall would make for a better experience and much greater visibility, if you can swing the timing.
Finish the trip off with dinner in the town of Füssen before heading back to Munich. Be sure to try my favorite German dish, allgäuer käespätzle — essentially a German-style mac and cheese topped with crispy onions.