Munich, Bavaria & the Black Forest
Hilltop castles and green energy, beer halls and luxury cars, Alps and edgy art – southern Germany blends thigh-slapping tradition with clear-headed modernity like nowhere else on earth.
Alpine Air & Munich Flair
Bavaria is definitely a place for those who prefer their air fresh rather than freshened. Though the Alps only tickle Germany’s underbelly, locals know how to get the most out of their peaks, stringing cable cars up the vertical reality of the Alps; marking out entire atlases of cycling, hiking and cross-country skiing trails; even running a train up the inside of the Zugspitze, Germany’s highest mountain. Yet all this is just a short ride from the urban joie de vivre of Munich, a sassy, sophisticated and self-confident city with a nonchalant, slightly Mediterranean feel.
King of the Castle
Southern Germany is famed for its castles, from medieval fortresses to the 19th-century follies commissioned by Bavaria’s most celebrated king, Ludwig II. Mad about Versailles (and some claim just plain mad) he ‘single-handedly’ launched Bavaria’s tourist industry and even stirred Walt Disney with his story-book Schloss Neuschwanstein. You could spend a month zigzagging between sugary palaces, stuccoed baroque residences, wind-cracked Gothic ruins and vista-rich chateaux. Palace fatigue? Then retreat to a cosy tavern and raise a tankard to this marvellous corner of Europe.
Of Cuckoo Clocks & Lederhosen
If you’re in search of strapping Alpine types in Lederhosen, buxom wenches juggling platters of pork, tipsy oompah bands and lanes of Hänsel-and-Gretel cottages, you’ll be pleased to hear that Germany’s south keeps all its clichéd promises. Nowhere is this truer than on the Romantic Road, a 350km-long route from Würzburg to the Alps stringing centuries of quaint walled towns along a ribbon of history and tweeness. And if you think the folksy fuss is just for the tourists you’d be wrong – many Bavarians keep a pair of Lederhosen or a Dirndl in their closets for special occasions.
The Germans have a word for it – Gemütlichkeit – that untranslatable blend of cosiness, well-being and a laid-back attitude. Nowhere does this mood permeate deeper than in the prosperous south where it awaits you in a region of fairy-lit beer gardens, Alpine views, medieval towns and rousing hilltop castles. But there’s another facet to Gemütlichkeit: it’s also a marble-smooth autobahn of luxury cars speeding to gourmet restaurants and chic Alpine spas, Munich's high-brow cultural scene robed in black, and cappuccinos at dawn on intercity expresses. The two southern Germanys coexist side by side, an incongruous mix but reassuringly predictable.
These are our favorite local haunts, touristy spots, and hidden gems throughout Munich, Bavaria & the Black Forest.
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.
With its lacy spires, cheeky gargoyles and intricate entrance portal, Freiburg’s 11th-century minster cuts an impressive figure above the central market square. It has dazzling kaleidoscopic stained-glass windows that were mostly financed by medieval guilds and a high altar with a masterful triptych by Dürer protégé Hans Baldung Grien. Square at the base, the tower becomes an octagon higher up and is crowned by a filigreed 116m-high spire. On clear days you can spy the Vosges Mountains in France.
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.
'Ooh, it’s so big'… First-time visitors gush as they strain their neck muscles gazing up to the Münster. It is. And rather beautiful. Celebrated for its 161.5m-high steeple, this Goliath of cathedrals, the world’s tallest, took 500 years to build from the first stone laid in 1377. Note the hallmarks on each stone, inscribed by cutters who were paid by the block. Those intent on cramming the Münster into one photo, filigree spire and all, should lie on the cobbles.
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.