From the cloud-shredding Alps to the fertile Danube plain, the Free State of Bavaria is a place that keeps its clichéd promises. Story-book castles bequeathed by an oddball king poke through dark forest, cowbells tinkle in flower-filled meadows, the thwack of palm on Lederhosen accompanies the clump of frothy stein on timber bench, and medieval walled towns go about their time-warped business.
But diverse Bavaria offers much more than the chocolate-box idyll. Learn about Bavaria’s state-of-the-art motor industry in Ingolstadt, discover its Nazi past in Nuremberg and Berchtesgaden, sip world-class wines in Würzburg, get on the Wagner trail in Bayreuth or seek out countless kiddy attractions across the state. Destinations are often described as possessing ‘something for everyone’, but in Bavaria’s case this is no exaggeration.
And, whatever you do in Germany’s southeast, every occasion is infused with that untranslatable feel-good air of Gemütlichkeit (cosiness) that makes exploring the region such an easygoing experience.
These are our favorite local haunts, touristy spots, and hidden gems throughout Bavaria.
A pocket-sized trove of weird treasures, Schloss Linderhof was Ludwig II’s smallest but most sumptuous palace, and the only one he lived to see fully completed. Finished in 1878, the palace hugs a steep hillside in a fantasy landscape of French gardens, fountains and follies. The reclusive king used the palace as a retreat and hardly ever received visitors here. Linderhof was inspired by Versailles and dedicated to Louis XIV, the French ‘Sun King’.
Appearing through the mountaintops like a mirage, Schloss Neuschwanstein was the model for Disney’s Sleeping Beauty castle. King Ludwig II planned this fairy-tale pile himself, with the help of a stage designer rather than an architect. He envisioned it as a giant stage on which to recreate the world of Germanic mythology, inspired by the operatic works of his friend Richard Wagner. The most impressive room is the Sängersaal (Minstrels’ Hall), whose frescos depict scenes from the opera Tannhäuser.
King Ludwig II grew up at the sun-yellow Schloss Hohenschwangau and later enjoyed summers here until his death in 1886. His father, Maximilian II, built this palace in a neo-Gothic style atop 12th-century ruins left by Schwangau knights. Far less showy than Neuschwanstein, Hohenschwangau has a distinctly lived-in feel where every piece of furniture is a used original. After his father died, Ludwig’s main alteration was having stars, illuminated with hidden oil lamps, painted on the ceiling of his bedroom.
On good days, views from Germany’s rooftop extend into four countries. The return trip starts in Garmisch aboard a cogwheel train (Zahnradbahn) that chugs along the mountain base to the Eibsee, an idyllic forest lake. From here, the Eibsee-Seilbahn, a super-steep cable car, swings to the top at 2962m. When you're done admiring the views, the Gletscherbahn cable car takes you to the Zugspitze glacier at 2600m, from where the cogwheel train heads back to Garmisch.
Officially called the KZ-Gedenkstätte Dachau, this was the Nazis’ first concentration camp, built by Heinrich Himmler in March 1933 to house political prisoners. All in all, it ‘processed’ more than 200,000 inmates, killing at least 43,000, and is now a haunting memorial. Expect to spend two to three hours here to fully absorb the exhibits. Note that children aged under 12 may find the experience too disturbing.
This commanding palace and its lavish gardens sprawl around 5km northwest of the Altstadt. Begun in 1664 as a villa for Electress Adelaide of Savoy, the stately pile was extended over the next century to create the royal family's summer residence. Franz Duke of Bavaria, head of the once-royal Wittelsbach family, still occupies an apartment here.
Home to Bavaria's Wittelsbach rulers from 1508 until WWI, the Residenz is Munich's number-one attraction. The amazing treasures, as well as all the trappings of the Wittelbachs' lifestyle over the centuries, are on display at the Residenzmuseum, which takes up around half of the palace. Allow at least two hours to see everything at a gallop.
The vast Unesco-listed Residenz, built by 18th-century architect Balthasar Neumann as the home of the local prince-bishops, is one of Germany’s most important and beautiful baroque palaces. Top billing goes to the brilliant zigzagging Treppenhaus (staircase) lidded by what still is the world’s largest fresco, a masterpiece by Giovanni Battista Tiepolo depicting allegories of the four then-known continents (Europe, Africa, America and Asia).
Munich's main repository of Old European Masters is crammed with all the major players who decorated canvases between the 14th and 18th centuries. This neoclassical temple was masterminded by Leo von Klenze and is a delicacy even if you can't tell your Rembrandt from your Rubens. The collection is world famous for its exceptional quality and depth, especially when it comes to German masters.