Whilst visiting Munich, one should not forego a day trip to the famed Neuschwanstein Castle.
You might recognize it, if not from history books and castle calendars, then perhaps from childhood -- Walt Disney used the architecture as inspiration for his castles at the Disney theme parks.
Of our four days in Munich, one was dedicated to the trek out to the hamlet hiding the castle in its mountains: Hohenschwangau. From previous research, I knew I wanted to use the Bayern pass, or Bavarian pass, which is a daily ticket allowing transportation on any regional mode - albeit subway, bus, or train (excludes ICE trains, but does include the trip to Salzburg as it still considered regional), for up to 5 people traveling together, and costs about 28€. The Bayern ticket can only be used after 9:00am and is good until 3:00am the next morning. They can be purchased at the ticket machine. After purchasing, you must write your name on the ticket and the date. The conductor will stamp it on the train. Note: DO NOT FORGET to buy your tickets before boarding, as buying a ticket on the train is VERBOTEN (unlike less strict countries like Italy) and you might be kicked off or heavily fined.
I knew we needed to take a train from Munich to Füssen, and then a bus to the town of Hohenschwangau. Supposedly regional trains depart from the Munich Hoptbahnhoff train station every hour at :40 mark, but to be honest, I was extremely confused from looking at the timetable. I wanted to take the 9:40 train, but I didn't see a train going to Füssen until 10:40. Nick and I asked some train station employees in red coats, and they told us we could take a 9:40 train to the town of Buchloe and transfer trains to Füssen. We were a little apprehensive, but we tried it with success. The ride home was less stressful as the train went directly from Füssen to Hoptbahnhof (direct as in without transfers but including stops of course).
The two hour train ride was gorgeous - snowy meadows that gave way to gently-sloping hills and snow-laden conifers, steep-roof alpine abodes, and then the majestic mountains looming ever more closely from the distance. We were able to transfer trains just fine and safely arrived in the town of Füssen, which is beautiful in its own right, featuring lovely hotels and quaint restaurants and shopping. I wish we could have lingered there for a visit, but there just wasn't enough time. We exited the train station, went to the right and took Bus 73 (direction Steingaden / Garmisch-Partenkrichen), but could also have taken bus 78 (direction Schwangau). We alighted at stop Hohenschwangau – Alpseestraße. Both buses were clearly marked with photos of the castle and were quite populated, so were confident we were going in the right direction.
Since the mountains were white with snow, I didn't immediately see the castle perched on the hill, but I was delighted at its majesty. You literally jump down from the bus and feel like a silly tourist because you have a desire to take as many photos as possible. The castle is so far above you that getting there seems like an insurmountable task. The road from the bus station snakes around and up to the right past hotels and restaurants and the Hohenschwangau Castle, and then curves back along the mountainside and up to Neuschwanstein. The 35 minute hike is not for the immobile or handicapped; you can take a horse and buggy for part of the hike (5€ per person), but the last third is accessible only by foot and is obviously uphill.
First things first, before climbing the hill, look at the bus schedule back to Füssen to ensure you will not miss your train back to Munich (and leave time to stand in line as the queue gets so long you will fear you do not have a spot). Then, before even thinking about lunch, proceed to purchase tickets for a Neuschwanstein tour at Hohenschwangau Ticket Center located at Alpseestraße 12 (It is slightly uphill on the right side of the street). Neuschwanstein tickets are 9€ each and include a 35 minute tour in English. You cannot enter the castle on your own and it must be at the scheduled time. That's why it is imperative to purchase your ticket first and then see how much time you have to eat lunch. (Please heed my words, as I'm telling you this from experience. Nick and I ate lunch first, then bought our tickets and realized we had 2 hours until tour time and nowhere to go.)
Nick and I ate at the Hotel Müller where we had delicious pureed potato soup and a beer. The staff was quite kind, and the soup so satisfying, we found ourselves craving it the rest of the trip. Next, we went to purchase our tickets for Neuschwanstein Castle and found out we had 2 hours until our tour began. We ignorantly assumed we'd still be able to enter the castle and get out of the cold until our tour, so we hitched a ride on the horse-drawn buggies for 5€ a piece. We were smashed in the front seat next to some other Americans and I swear I thought the driver was going to sit on Nick's lap, we were at such capacity. To be frank, I was glad of the extra body warmth as the weather was quite brisk, as in 15ºF.
Within seconds, my nostrils were intensely offended by a noxious smell. My brain fired away trying to discover the source of the putrid odor, but it didn't take a detective to name the source as the hindquarters of two giant Clydesdales pulling our wagon and audibly passing gas every one and a half seconds. Nick started laughing so hard he was crying. I mean, CRYING. The smell was stinging our eyeballs, and the whole group was gagging. At one point, the horses stopped for a bowel movement, which I was worried would splash up and hit me in the face (the smell did anyway), and our German driver leaned over to me and gestured with his hands toward the pile of waste and said jokingly "Souvenirrrr?" Now that's classy.
I was glad to stumble off the buggy and continue the hike up the hill. We took a few fabulous photos, and then walked over to look at the Bavarian valley below us. I heard sleigh bells, and thought I was delusional, but sure enough, there was a horse-drawn sleigh traversing the valley below with the picturesque lake in the distance. Very Currier and Ives.
We were dismayed to find we could not escape the bitter cold by finding refuge inside the castle walls. An electronic ticket machine is the modern day watchmen that denies one entry before their allotted tour. We tried to kill time by scouting out some souvenirs (my traditional postcard and ornament fix) and some hot chocolate to feed liquid warmth straight to our cores. This waiting-in-the-freezing-cold part was not so fun, as I was convinced that frostbite had crept into my feet and I couldn't shake the worried notion.
Thank God, our tour time finally arrived, and we learned some interesting tidbits about "Mad King Ludwig". This castle was built for King Ludwig II in the 1800's, although he only lived there for about 6 months before he was declared mentally insane and forced to abdicate the throne. His body was mysteriously discovered that next day floating in the lake, and the castle interior was never finished.
We viewed the finished parts of the castle and enjoyed our tour, but as the day was growing dark and the hour late, we wanted to navigate our way back down the mountain and make sure we didn't miss the bus back to Füssen.
We didn't have time to visit it, but you will see the other fabulous castle nearby, now called Hohenschwangau Castle (formerly Schwanstein). Back at the bus stop, be sure to queue up, even though it looks like it's on the wrong side, because even though Nick and I were the first people at the bus stop, we almost didn't make it on the bus b/c we didn't line up first.
I bid the town "Auf Wiedersehen!", delighted that we had made the decision to spend the day at Neuschwanstein, as it was truly like jumping into a lovely winter painting.
(Sources: Frommer's Europe, Eyewitness Munich & the Bavarian Alps, TripAdvisor forums)
Transportation: Purchase the Bayern pass for 28€ from ticket machines at Hoptbahnhof, which is good for subway, bus, or train (local transport only, no ICE trains). It can only be used after 9:00am and is good until 3:00am the next morning. Trains for Füssen depart at the :40 mark, but if you don't see Füssen on the destination board, instead take a train to Buchloe and tranfer there to Füssen. Train ride takes approximately 2 hours. In Füssen, exit the train station, go to the right and take Bus 73 (direction Steingaden / Garmisch-Partenkrichen) or bus 78 (direction Schwangau). Get off at Hohenschwangau – Alpseestraße. Both buses are clearly marked with photos of the castle.
Castle Tour: Neuschwanstein tickets are 9€ each at a scheduled entry time and include a 35 minute tour in English.
Getting up to the Castle: 35 minute hike or you can take a horse and buggy for part of the hike (5€ per person), but the last third is accessible only by foot and is obviously uphill.
Recommended Eating: Hotel Muller or halfway up the hill at the small Hofbräuhaus chain restaurant (love the beer!).
Don't Forget: Check the bus departure schedule before you do anything in Hohenschwangau to make sure you don't miss your train back to Munich. And line up early as seats will fill up on the last bus out of town.
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