Around 25km southwest of Munich, glittering Lake Starnberg (Starnberger See) was once the haunt of Bavaria's royal family but now provides a bit of easily accessible R&R for anyone looking to escape the hustle of the Bavarian capital.
At the northern end of the lake, the affluent, century-old town of Starnberg is the northern gateway to the lake district but lacks any lasting allure, meaning most visitors head straight on to other towns or sites along the lake's edge. The train station is just steps from the lakeshore, where you'll find cruise-boat landing docks, pedal-boat hire and lots of strolling day-trippers. Besides Lake Starnberg, the area comprises the Ammersee and the much smaller Pilsensee, Wörthsee and Wesslinger See. Naturally, the region attracts water-sports enthusiasts, but it also has enough history to satisfy those who enjoy exploring the past.
It's about an hour's walk (5km) from Starnberg (starting on Nepomukweg and following the shingle) to Berg on the northeastern lake shore, where King Ludwig II spent summers at Schloss Berg and where he and his doctor died in 1886 under mysterious circumstances. The palace and its lovely gardens still belong to the Wittelsbach family and are closed to prying eyes, but you're free to walk through its wooded park to the Votivkapelle. Built in honour of Ludwig and shrouded by mature trees, this neo-Romanesque memorial chapel overlooks the spot in the lake – marked by a simple cross, erected years later by his mother – where Ludwig's dead body was supposedly found.
Founded in the 10th century, the hilltop Kloster Andechs has long been a place of pilgrimage, although these days more visitors come to quaff the Benedictine monks' fabled brews, which rank among Bavaria's finest.
Religious pilgrims are drawn by several relics in the monastery's possessions, including a piece said to have come from Christ's crown of thorns. Some of the offertory candles in the holy chapel stand over 1m tall and are among Germany's oldest. The church itself boasts a rococo riot of frescoes, sculptures and a sophisticated altar designed by Munich court architect François Cuvilliés. In June and July the Carl Orff Festival celebrates the Bavarian composer of Carmina Burana with a series of concerts; he's buried inside the church.
Most visitors to the Holy Mountain, as Andechs is known, really come to worship at the Braustüberl, the monastery's beer hall and garden. The resident monks have been brewing beer for over 500 years and serve a deliciously sudsy Helles, a rich and velvety Doppelbock Dunkel and fresh, unfiltered Weissbier. Summer weekends are so insanely busy it's easy to forget that you're in a religious institution, pious as your love for the brew may be…
The easiest way to reach Andechs is to hop aboard the S8 to Herrsching (€8.70, 50 minutes) then change onto bus 951. If there's no bus due, it's a pleasant 4km hike south from Herrsching through the protected landscape of the Kiental.
To see one of the area's most magnificent baroque churches, you have to travel to Diessen, some 11km west of Andechs, which is home to the Marienmunster. Part of a monastery complex, this festive symphony in white stucco, red marble and gold leaf involved some of the most accomplished artists of the 18th century, including the architect Johann Michael Fischer; François Cuvilliés, who designed a high altar; and Giovanni Battista Tiepolo, who was responsible for an altar painting.
Diessen also has the small Carl Orff Museum, with a biographical exhibit, a cabinet of instruments and a video room where you can watch performances of the composer's work.
To reach Diessen by train from Munich requires a change in either Geltendorf or Weilheim (€15.40, one hour).
Possenhofen & Feldafing
Austrian empress Sisi, cousin of Ludwig II, spent her childhood summers at Schloss Possenhofen, a chunky cream-coloured palace on the western shore of Lake Starnberg. It's since been converted into condos, but the grounds are now a huge leisure park with lake access, volleyball nets and barbecue pits that swarm with city folk on hot summer weekends. To learn a bit more about the Sisi mystique, call in at the Kaiserin-Elisabeth-Museum. It's a small exhibit in the grand surroundings of the former royal waiting rooms of the historic Bahnhof Possenhofen, now the S-Bahn station.
Sisi was so taken with the lake's beauty that she returned as an adult to summer in what is now a hotel in the hamlet of Feldafing a couple of kilometres south. A larger-than-life sculpture in the garden shows her with a book in relaxed repose, gazing back at the hotel.
Fans of art-nouveau villas should take a spin around Feldafing, which also has a popular swimming beach, the Strandbad Feldafing.
From the Strandbad, it's an easy 10-minute walk to the Glockensteg, the place to catch a ferry to the Roseninsel. Sisi and Ludwig frequently met on this romantic island, where Ludwig also received other luminaries, Richard Wagner among them. Neglected for a century after the king's death, the island, rose garden and his summerhouse, called the Casino, have been restored and are now open to the public. A small exhibit in the garden house has displays of about 6000 years of the island's history.
Possenhofen and Feldafing are both stops on the S6 from Munich (€8.70, 40 minutes).