Munich and the Foothills of the Alps
See more travel details for recommendations highlighted in bold, excerpted from Rick's guidebooks.
Hi, I'm Rick Steves, exploring more of the best of Europe. This time it's quintessential Germany — and that means Bavaria: fairytale castles, the exciting city of Munich, and fun in the breathtaking Alps.
Like so many travelers, my images of Germany are actually Bavaria — castles in the Alps, Lederhosen, beer gardens, and picturesque churches. I find Bavaria the most scenic, charming, and culturally rich part of the country.
We'll immerse ourselves in Munich's art and history — crown jewels, bony relics, great paintings, lush and playful parks. Munich evenings are best spent in frothy beer halls. Then we'll head for the foothills of the Alps to see Europe's most famous castle, pop over the Tyrolean border to explore a nearly unknown castle, and finish atop Germany's highest peak.
Germany is the heart of Europe, and Bavaria is the southern end of the country. From Munich, we venture into the foothills of the Alps to see King Ludwig's fantasy castles, take a hike over the border into Austria's Tyrol, and scale the Zugspitze mountain.
Munich is considered Germany's most livable city. While packed with history, it's also this country's Hollywood and Silicone Valley, all rolled into one. This city celebrates its traditions with gusto, and at the same time, it remains a modern cultural force.
Marienplatz, or Mary's Square, marks the old center. The neo-Gothic New City Hall — Neues Rathaus — is only about 100 years old. It dominates the square. This inviting town square is now Munich's living room.
The Glockenspiel performs at the top of the hour as the Bavarian royal couple — celebrating their wedding day — oversees a joust. Bavaria always wins... and the Coopers do their jig.
Virtually all you see was bombed flat in W.W.II and rebuilt since.
After the war, Germany's destroyed cities debated how they'd rebuild — reconstructing the old towns, or bulldozing and starting over from scratch. While Frankfurt voted to go modern (and is today nicknamed "Germany's Manhattan"), the people of Munich rebuilt their old town center.
Buildings cannot exceed the height of the church spires. Today, Munich's downtown is vital — people come here, rather than to suburban malls, to do their shopping.
Munich's main drag is one of Europe's original great pedestrian zones. Local business people were enraged in 1972 when cars were first prohibited. But now, with 9,000 shoppers passing their display windows each hour, shopkeepers are happy. Imagine this street in hometown USA
I'm being joined by my friend and Munich guide, Georg Reichlmayr.
Rick: So, it's Reichlmayr?
Georg: So Bavaria, the state, is a very conservative part of Germany, but München, the capital, is different. It's a very liberal city. One of the ideas of the council is to keep the traffic outside, and that makes downtown München a very silent place. It's very quiet everywhere, with green areas and a good public transportation system, so leave your cars outside.
You can still feel small-town Munich here at the Viktualien Markt, long a favorite with locals for fresh produce and friendly service. While this most expensive real estate in town would have been overrun by fast food places, Munich keeps the rent low so these old-time shops can carry on.
The Viktualien Markt's beer garden taps you into great budget eating. Stalls sell the best Wurst, sandwiches, produce, and more.
All six of Munich's breweries enjoy a share of the business: At the beer counter, a sign — which changes every day or two — announces which of the beers is being served. Today's beer is Paulaner.
Beer gardens like this go back to the days when breweries stored their beer in cellars under courtyards kept cool by the shade of bushy chestnut trees. With the inviting shade and all that cool beer so handy, it was only natural that tables were set up, and these convivial eateries evolved.
The twin and distinctive domes of the 500-year-old Frauenkirche are the symbol of Munich, but an even more historic church is nearby.
St. Peter's Church is Munich's oldest. Built where the early monks probably settled in the 12th century, it has a fine interior and some eye-catching relics.
They say Munich has more holy relics than any city outside of Rome. Why? Because for over a hundred years, it was the Pope's bastion against the rising tide of Protestantism up here in northern Europe. And favors done for the Pope earned the city lots of relics as gifts.
The tomb of Mundita, thought to be a second-century martyr, was given to Munich by Rome as a thanks and as a vivid reminder that those who die defending the Roman Church go directly to Heaven without waiting for judgment day.
Munich — or "München," as it's called in German — was long the capital of an independent Bavaria. Its royal architecture and grand boulevards constantly remind visitors that this was once a political and cultural powerhouse.
For maximum imperial Bavarian grandeur, tour the Residenz. This was the palace of the Wittelsbach family, who ruled Bavaria for more than 700 years. Like so many of Munich's architectural treasures, it was destroyed in W.W.II and rebuilt since.
To meet the duke, all official guests had to pass through this gallery lined with 700 years of Wittelsbach portraits. Always trying to substantiate the family claim to power, they included the great Charlemagne as an honorary family member.
The paintings are scarred by knife marks. In the final months of World War II, when Allied bombs were imminent, Nazi leaders gave the hasty order to slice each portrait out of its frame and hide them away.
The Wittelsbachs were always trying to keep up with the Habsburgs — their Austrian imperial rivals — and this long string of ceremonial rooms was basically all for show. The exuberant decor and furniture is from the 1700s — rococo. And of course the Wittelsbach family had their own porcelain made for the palace. With all the mirrors, it's porcelain forever.
Georg: So, you know, the whole palace was really for showing off. And imagine the duke bringing some of his most noble guests in here with all these miniatures — some even painted with just one-hair brushes. That was really a sensation in those days.
Rick: So these were copies of all the great masters and so on...
Georg: Copies of the best paintings.
The palace ballroom was decorated with ancient Roman statues. The Wittelsbachs — like other European royals — collected and displayed busts of emperors, strongly implying a connection between them and the Caesars.
The palace treasury shows off a thousand years of Wittelsbach knickknacks and Bavarian regalia — the inspiration for so many fairy-tale crowns. Small mobile altars allowed kings to pack light and still have a focus for their worship while on the road. This crucifix carved from ivory is exquisite.
This reliquary, made in 1640, shows St. George killing the dragon. It sparkles with over 2,000 precious stones. You can almost hear the dragon hissing. It was designed to contain the relics of St. George.
The palace also came with a royal garden. Today, it's the realm of everyday people rather than kings, dukes, and counts.
Back then, when the king called out for dinner, he called Alois Dallmayr. This royal delicatessen became famous for its exotic and luxurious food items — all the tropical fruits, seafood, chocolates, great wines, and fancy treats a king could want. Catering to royal and aristocratic tastes — and budgets — it remains the choice of Munich's connoisseurs of fine living.
Too many calories? Bikes can be rented quickly and easily at the train station. Biking makes as much sense in cities like Munich as it does in the countryside.
This city — level and compact, with plenty of bike paths — feels good on two wheels. In fact, with all these bike and pedestrian zones, you can often get around faster here on two wheels than you can by taxi.
Munich's 200-year-old English Garden sprawls over almost three miles through the city. It's the largest urban park on the Continent. On a sunny summer afternoon, thousands of sun worshippers enjoy its varied attractions at the same time.
We're here in August — and the surf's up. Where the stream enters the park, its swift flow forms a perpetual wave for local surfers. Meandering further along the stream becomes as laid back as the sunbathers on its banks.
While a local law requires people to wear clothes on city trams, Munich's parks are sprinkled with nude sunbathers. Students, office workers, and families alike enjoy a sunny break from the daily grind. This relaxed attitude toward nudity is commonplace in much of Europe.
There are several huge beer gardens within the park. On a balmy summer evening, these are a good stop for dinner. Traditionally, beer gardens allow picnickers to bring their own food and use a table — if they buy a beer.
Rick: We're eating as Bavarian as possible. I've got my fish on a stick here... what do you call this in Germany?
Georg: It's a Stecherlfisch...
Georg: Stecherlfisch, fish on a stick...
Rick: A nice big pretzel...
Georg: Ja, pretzel...
Rick: A carefully carved radish...you've got what?
Georg: A pork knuckle...
Rick: A pork knuckle?
Georg: Yes, that's a big portion of meat.
Rick: And big beers...
Georg: And big beers.
Whether you bring your own food or buy it here, this is a classic Munich gemütlich scene. Gemütlich is a unique word for Bavaria's special coziness and the knack of savoring the moment.
Munich's many grand facades recall the city's cultural importance for this region.
As the capital of Bavaria for centuries, Munich amassed plenty of great art. A cluster of museums shows off masterpieces through the ages: 19th-century art over there, a grand modern art collection just across the street, and we're heading for the old masters at the Alte Pinakothek.
The Alte Pinakothek — or "old painting gallery" — shows off Bavaria's best collection of European masterpieces from the 14th through 18th centuries, featuring work by many of the greats. Botticelli's Lamentation shows the early-Renaissance ability to show spirituality through human emotions. Leonardo's Madonna with a Carnation was done when the artist was only 21 — well on his way to Mona Lisa greatness. And in this marvelous holy family, Raphael is clearly the master of grace.
Paintings give a peek at the tumultuous events as Germany woke from its medieval slumber and entered a new epoch.
In this self-portrait, Albrecht Dürer — one of the "Class of 1500" — heralds an optimistic new age. Dürer brings the humanistic spirit of Italy's Renaissance to the medieval north. Recently returned from Italy, Dürer portrays himself — the artist — with unprecedented self-esteem. When this individualism met church authority, sparks flew.
Dürer's Four Apostles seem to reflect the turbulent times when the Reformation swept through Northern Europe. With the rugged features of everyday people — they take the Bible into their own hands — it was a humanist coup that ignited an all-Europe war. Looking around suspiciously, they clutch a Bible in one hand and a sword in the other, prepared to defend their beliefs.
In 1517, the German monk Martin Luther broke with the Roman Church. Suddenly people had to choose — am I Protestant or Catholic? Albrecht Dürer met Martin Luther, was impressed by his ideas, and became one of his supporters.
The Catholic Church responded with the Counter-Reformation — and also used art as a weapon. The Church hired Rubens to show the epic battle of St. Michael hurling Lucifer out of heaven. The lesson: Those who oppose God's will, shall loose. Believers had the entire Mass to ponder these scenes.
All these heavenly battles mirrored battles being fought throughout Europe. After thirty years of religious wars, a third of Germany was dead. Finally, an exhausted Europe made a treaty enabling Catholics and Protestants to co-exist.
Munich has so much to see, and we've saved the liveliest stop for last.
For traditional Bavarian fun, nothing beats a good old-fashioned beer hall. Munich is Germany's beer capitol, and the Hofbräuhaus is its ultimate beer hall. It comes complete with rivers of beer, cheap food, boisterous atmosphere, and raucous oompah music.
Even if you are not eating or drinking, check it out. While it can be extremely touristy, everybody's having lots of fun.
Beer comes in huge liter mugs, called ein Mass in German — or "ein pitcher" in English. You can order your beer helles (that's light), dunkles (that's dark), or Radler (half lemon soda and half beer).
Munich is the home of the famous Oktoberfest. But you can enjoy essentially the same Oktoberfest fun anytime of year right here at the Hofbräuhaus.
From Munich, an hour's drive south takes us into southern Bavaria. It's a timeless land of manicured fields, painted buildings, content cows, and characteristic onion-domed churches. This is a playground for people enjoying the good life at the foothills of the Alps.
And it's a land of fairy-tale castles — and the most spectacular are the castles of King Ludwig II of Bavaria, a.k.a. "Mad" King Ludwig. He grew up here in the Hohenschwangau castle. Ludwig then built his dream castle — Neuschwanstein — a 15-minute hike away.
The castles are hugely popular. And they're tourable only by appointment with a guided tour. Tickets are sold at the kiosk in the valley floor. To avoid long lines, arrive early or — better yet — call in advance for a tour reservation.
Hohenschwangau Castle, Ludwig's boyhood home, looks much like it did in 1836. It's the more lived-in and historic of the two castles, giving a better glimpse at Ludwig's life. This is young King Ludwig's bedroom, and this was his reading chair.
The banquet hall is slathered in epic German myths. Germany became a single united country only in 1871. As if to bolster its legitimacy, this young nation dug deep into its murky, medieval past. These heroes and legends inspired young Ludwig to build his fanciful castles, Richard Wagner to compose his ultra-romantic operas, and Germans to believe their nation was deeply rooted in history.
Politically, young King Ludwig's frustrating reality was to "rule" either as a pawn of Prussia or a pawn of Austria — the two dominant Germanic countries. Rather than deal with the politics in Munich, the romantic Ludwig escaped here, to the peace and comfort of Hohenschwangau.
Ludwig ruled Bavaria for 23 years until his death in 1886. His best friends were romantic artists — like the great composer Wagner, who Ludwig idolized.
Neuschwanstein castle is just up the hill. Imagine King Ludwig as a boy, climbing these hills, dreaming up this ultimate fairy-tale castle. It looks medieval, but it's only about as old as the Eiffel Tower. Built in the late 1800s, it's a textbook example of the Romantic style popular at that time.
The castle's interior is decorated with misty medieval themes — brave knights, fair maidens, and scenes from Wagnerian operas.
Ludwig personified this Romantic age. Longing for the natural beauty and emotion of an earlier time, he built his medieval fantasy on the hilltop not for defensive reasons, but because he liked the view.
King Ludwig intended to sit on a gold-and-ivory throne in the company of six historic kings made saints. The religious Ludwig was fascinated by things Byzantine. This room is based on the plan of a Byzantine church, and the one-ton chandelier is the shape of a Byzantine crown.
Just a few months after he moved into Neuschwanstein, Ludwig — who was planning to build an even more extravagant castle — was declared mentally unfit to rule Bavaria. Two days later, he was found dead in a lake. People still debate whether it was murder or suicide. But no one complains anymore about the cost of Ludwig's castles. Within six weeks of his funeral, tourists were paying to see the castles — and they're still coming.
We're staying just over the border in the Austrian district of Tirol. With far less tourism, this area offers great value and maximum charm.
I sleep in the village of Pinswang at Gutshof zum Schluxen. My tour groups give this place the "best remote hotel in an idyllic setting" award. Run by gracious Hermann, this family-friendly working farm offers a great restaurant with plenty of Tirolean ambiance and tastefully modern rooms. From this comfy base, you can conveniently tour the region... or just smell the geraniums and feed the deer.
A hike up to the stark and brooding ruins of Ehrenberg Castle provides a striking contrast to Ludwig's fantasy castles.
Historian Armin Walch is spearheading a project excavating and developing what he calls an ensemble of castles, which will create a unique open-air museum.
Armin: We have an ensemble of castles, four elements built in different periods. We start here in the Middle Ages with Ehrenberg; we have a Gothic element in the valley; we have a Baroque castle; and we have a brand-new fortification system of the 18th century.
We're visiting two castles of the ensemble — the 13th-century Ehrenberg and, higher on the right, the 17th-century Schlosskopf.
Armin: This is a very strategic place because it lies on the two-thousand-year-old via Claudia Augusta. This is a route through the Alps, which connected Venezia, Italy with Germany. And this route was in the Middle Ages very important because it transported salt — the white gold. Anyone who controlled the passes controlled the trade. Though in the Middle Ages, they had to find the perfect hilltop to build the castle.
A steep hike takes us up to the bigger and more modern Schlosskopf castle, which Armin and his crew have just recently started uncovering.
Armin: Well, Rick, two years ago, nobody in this town knew, or only a few people knew, that there was a fortification on top of the hill. Two years ago you couldn't see anything. It was covered with trees.
Rick: So you shaved this off...
Armin: We shaved it, we cleaned it. It was completely covered with trees, so from Reutte you couldn't see anything.
Rick: all right!
Armin: Thirteenth-century castles like Ehrenberg were built with tiny walls. High towers on hills because of the defense system of the Middle Ages. Then they invented canons. Canons made this kind of architecture destroyable.
This became clear in the early 1700s when, by cover of darkness, local Tiroleans wheeled two canons up here and pulverized Ehrenberg castle, which was occupied by their enemies, the Bavarians. From this point on, Ehrenberg-style castles were obsolete, and canon-proof castles like Schlosskopf became the norm.
Armin: Schlosskopf was built in 1741. Now we see the difference in architecture and fortification. They built here a fortification system 250 meters long, 8-meter thick walls, tunnels, everything. A real fortification system for canons.
Rick: Modern warfare.
Armin: Modern warfare.
Meeting Europeans like Armin — so connected to their heritage and satisfied with their life's work — is one of the fundamental charms of European travel.
We're crossing from Austria back into Germany to ascend a mountain not capped by a castle.
Bouncing between countries as you sightsee is now easier than ever. With the unification of Europe, border checks are generally a thing of the past. And with the Euro, the same cash works in nearly all of Western Europe.
The Zugspitze, at 10,000 feet, is Germany's highest mountain. A mighty cable car zips us to the top in ten minutes. The cable is supported by only two pylons and stretches the last mile to the summit with no support at all.
While there are many higher mountains in the Alps, this one is unique — standing alone with a view of over 400 peaks in four countries: Germany, Austria, Switzerland, and even Italy. The mountain marks the border between the German state of Bavaria — or Bayern — and the Austrian state of Tirol. And today, no passports are necessary to enjoy this high-altitude resort destination on what feels like the top of Europe.
The Zugspitze is named for a cold and ghostly wind — which can really howl in the winter. This hikers' hut was built 100 years ago.
And thanks to these beefy cables, it's never been blown off the top. By the way, even on a sunny day, it can be really cold. Bring a jacket.
The summit is marked by a cross, carried up here by hearty villagers in 1882. Today, thanks to conveniently placed ladders and cables, it's climbed — either from the distant valley floor or from the adjacent summit restaurant — by families, seniors, and even travel writers.
Whether you're scaling summits, conquering castles, marveling at the treasures of Munich, or picking up slivers on a beer hall bench, this region — nestled here at the base of the Alps — is a joy.
This area's another reason why Europe keeps drawing me back. Thanks for joining us. I'm Rick Steves. Until next time, keep on travelin'. Auf Weidersehn.
See more travel details for recommendations highlighted in bold, excerpted from Rick's guidebooks.