The Wartburg near Eisenach, Thuringia, Germany.

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Top choice in Thuringian Forest & the Saale Valley

When it comes to medieval castles and their importance in German history, Eisenach's Unesco-listed Wartburg dominates the landscape. This huge medieval castle, 40,000 tonnes of sandstone on a craggy hill, has featured in a millennium of German history, and is where Martin Luther, excommunicated and under papal ban, translated the New Testament, in the process codifying the written German language. Allow at least two hours: one for the guided tour, and the remainder for the museum, Luther's rooms and the views.

According to legend, the first buildings were put up in 1067 by the jauntily named local ruler Ludwig the Springer in an effort to protect his territory. In 1206 Europe’s best minstrels met here for the 'Battle of the Bards', a medieval version of Pop Idol later immortalised in Richard Wagner’s opera Tannhäuser. Shortly thereafter, Elisabeth, the Wartburg's most famous châtelaine, arrived. A Hungarian princess, she was married off to the local landgrave at age 14 and later chose to abandon court life for charitable work, earning canonisation quickly after her early death, aged 24, in 1235.

In 1817, students organised the first Wartburg Festival, an early popular expression of German nationhood held in the splendid top-storey Festssaal, which is still used for ceremonies and recitals. Despite 19th-century modifications reflecting romantic notions of history (such as the splendid mosaics of 'Saint Eisabeth's bower') much of the 12th-century structure remains intact. In fact, the principal palas is one of the finest Romanesque buildings surviving in northern Europe.

To walk to the Wartburg from the Markt, head one block west to Wydenbrugkstrasse, then turn southwest along Schlossberg through the forest via Eselstation (this takes about 40 minutes, and some parts are rather steep). A more scenic route is via the Haintal (50 minutes).

From April to October, bus 10 runs hourly from 9am to 6pm from the Hauptbahnhof (with stops at Karlsplatz and Mariental) to the Eselstation, from where it’s a steep 10-minute walk up to the castle. In winter bus 10 runs hourly, 10am to noon and 2pm to 4pm.

Lonely Planet's must-see attractions

Nearby Thuringian Forest & the Saale Valley attractions

1. Reuter-Wagner Museum


This museum, housed in the 1866 villa once owned by writer Fritz Reuter, hosts the most extensive collection on the composer Richard Wagner’s life and…

2. Predigerkirche

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The crypt and several other rooms of this 13th-century Dominican church house the Thuringian Museum's exquisite collection of medieval sculpture,…

3. Lutherhaus

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The religious reformer Martin Luther lived here as a schoolboy from 1498 to 1501, in one of Thuringia's oldest and most handsome half-timbered houses. Now…

4. Bachhaus

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Comprising two 15th-century houses knocked together in the early 17th century, this is Johann Sebastian Bach's actual birthplace, and an international…

5. Georgenkirche

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Dominating Eisenach's central square, this is the baptismal church of St Elizabeth and Johann Sebastian Bach. It's also where Martin Luther sang as a boy…

6. Stadtschloss

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Dominating the northern side of Markt is the baroque facade of this former ducal residence, now housing tourist and municipal offices and the Thuringian…

7. Automobile Welt Eisenach

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Housed in the 1936 Automobilwerk Eisenach (AWE) factory, this museum celebrates a history of auto-manufacture dating to 1896, when the first 'Wartburg' …

8. Rathaus

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Hauptmarkt is dominated by the picturesque Rathaus, with its colourful Renaissance facade and 35m-tall tower. It started out as a storage house in 1567,…