Few outside Germany recognize the legacy of King Ludwig II until you mention Neuschwanstein.
Even then, you often have to pair that name with, “the one Walt Disney used as the model for Cinderella’s castle” before a lightbulb goes off. With a fondness for isolation, Ludwig built his most impressive residences in locations that are still relatively remote nearly a century and a half later.
Most tourists access them from the convenience of a car or tour bus. While I generally prefer the comfort, speed and convenience of those two methods, I wanted to challenge myself to save money, take my time, and enjoy the unpredictability of the journey while reaching each of them by public transit.
With a Munich hotel as home base, I set out by train to spend a day at each of his most famous residences: Neuschwanstein, Herenchiemsee, and Linderhof.
The genius of Munich as a starting point is that its train station is in the heart of Bavaria’s capitol city. You can practically roll right out of bed in your Munich hotel and land inside the train station. Deutsche Bahn’s Bavaria Ticket (“Bayern-Ticket”) is a steal. For 25 Euro, you can ride on any local train, tram, subway or bus in Bavaria from 9am on the day of purchase to 3am the following day. There are no reservations required and the only real rule is that it is valid for local trains only (no express or international trains). This means that it may take a little longer or involve more connections, but it also offers far greater flexibility. With traditional train tickets, you are booked on a specific train at a specific time. With the Bayern-Ticket, you are free to show up when you want, make impromptu itinerary changes, or get off the train anywhere along the way and board a different train to continue your journey later. It becomes an even better deal if you are traveling in groups. Tack just 6 Euro on to that fare for each of up to three more people traveling with you. Best still is that after you return to Munich each evening, you can use it to get around the city by bus, UBahn or SBahn.
Neuschwanstein on Friday
From Munich, you take about a two hour train ride to Fussen. This is not as long or as tedious of a train ride as it sounds/I expected, and it’s very easy to pass the time with snacks, a book, and some beautiful scenery.
When you pull into Fussen, you will follow virtually everyone from the train into the station and out to the parking lot to board bus #78 to Schwangau/Hohenschwangau/Neuschwanstein. You’ll be on the bus for a quick 15-20 minutes before you are deposited at the visitor’s center of Schwangau. There are two castles within sight of here: Hohenschwangau (Ludwig’s childhood home) at ground level and Neuschwanstein towering above you in the hills. To tour the inside of the latter (guided audio tour, no photography allowed), you need to purchase a ticket for a specific timed entry before heading up to the castle. You can walk up to the castle and into its courtyard without a ticket – so if you are just in it for the selfie, skip the lines and head on up! You can choose your preferred method to reach Neuschwanstein (up the hill and through the woods): on a paved road by foot, by bus, or by horse drawn carriage.
Herenchiemsee on Saturday
Herenchiemsee was Ludwig’s attempt at a stunning Bavarian recreation of the famed French palace of Versailles. Only the center of the castle was completed at the time of his death, meaning the wings on either side that give Versailles it’s massive width do not exist. One of two grand entrance staircases was completed while the other remains a skeleton of exposed brick resembling a construction site. The center of the Hall of Mirrors is still an impressive spectacle despite being only 1/3 of it’s planned width.
From Munich, you need to take an hour train ride to Prien am Chiemsee. In my case, the ticket machine printed a schedule that pointed to track 10 for the journey. 10 minutes before the scheduled arrival time of the train, a conductor appeared and announced to the flocks of gathered tourists that the station we all should be at was Munich Ost (East). After hopping into the underground (still free, with my Bayern-Ticket) and arriving in Munich Ost, I boarded the first train that said it was going to Prien am Chiemsee – two stops away. Unfortunately, it was an international train ultimately headed to Salzburg, across the border in Austria. Hearing the conductor tell passenger after passenger that their Bayern-Ticket was not valid on this train was cringeworthy (remember it’s valid on all local forms of transportation, no international or high speed rails). The punishment? Being told to get off at the next stop and await the next local train to Prien am Chiemsee (which arrived about 10 minutes later).
On arrival at the train station, exit out of the front door and walk to the right to the nearest road. Turn right and walk underneath the tracks – heading away from the backside of the train station. After about a 10-15 minute walk, you will be at the dock for the ferry to Herreninsel – the island on which Herenchiemsee is built. You’ll need to buy a ferry ticket, which you can do either at the terminal or on the boat (tickets are checked when you get off the boat, not when you get on). There are several islands to visit, but if you are only interested in the castle, just buy a return ticket (The European way of saying “round trip”) to Herreninsel. Once you disembark on the island, head to the ticket booth at the end of the pier to buy tickets for a guided tour of the castle. Or you can just picnic or tour the fountains and landscaped grounds for free.
Linderhof on a Sunday
In planning my Linderhof adventure, I forgot that almost everything is closed in most small German towns on Sundays, excepting gas stations. I also forgot that the weather would be dramatically cooler at the higher elevation surrounding Linderhof (it was, after all, originally a mountain hunting lodge). More on those missteps later.
First you board a train in Munich toward Murnau which will take about 50 minutes. On arrival, walk directly across the platform to board another train to Oberammergau (home of the world famous Passion Play that is re-enacted every 10 years). About 40 minutes later, you arrive in Oberramergau. Walk across the train station parking lot to catch the bus to Linderhof Schloss (a 30 minute bus ride away). Or, according to Google Maps, you can spend about 2.5 hours hiking along a 10km winding hillside path to reach the castle on foot.
Weekdays, this bus schedule lines up with the train’s arrival. On Sundays however, the train is hourly, but the bus runs every other hour. Since I arrived on Sunday and did not feel like waiting an hour in an empty parking lot for the next bus, I set out on foot for an idyllic walk into the hills. First, I loaded up with snacks and drinks from the gas station – the only open business around.
About an hour into the walk, a torrential downpour ensued for which I was totally unprepared. Wearing shorts and without umbrella, I soon found myself shivering and soaked to the bone. The fun discovery there was that Alpine trees are basically nature’s umbrellas. Standing next to their trunk can keep you almost completely dry in even the harshest downpour. I emerged from the path in the tiny village of Graswang during a break in the rain. Fortunately, the bus stop there was a covered shelter. I waited for the next ride up to Linderhof Shloss, arriving about an hour and a half later than I would have had I initially taken the bus from the train station. #LessonLearned #NoRegrets
By now you’ve probably done this enough to know that on arriving in the parking lot of Linderhof, you’ll have to walk up to the ticket office to buy an entrance/guided tour ticket. The grounds of Linderhof are beautifully landscaped, so give yourself plenty of time to explore the area either before or after your tour. For a relatively small structure, Linderhof is packed with all the ornate beauty, trivia, and mystique for which Ludwig is famous. It’s by far my favorite of the three castles.