Munich and the Foothills of the Alps
In Munich, where locals specialize in good living, we visit boisterous markets and go-for-Baroque palaces, while office workers surf in the Isar River. Heading into the foothills of the Alps, we tour the fairy-tale castles of “Mad” King Ludwig, and cross into Tirol to conquer a desolate ruined castle. Then we climb atop the Zugspitze, the highest point in Germany.
I’ve had great days with Georg, who helped me generously with much of the historical information in this show.
Early in the morning, you can still feel small-town Munich here, long a favorite with locals for fresh produce and good service (open Mon–Sat, food stalls open late, closed Sun). Such a market could never really afford the most expensive real estate in town, but Munich charges these old-time shops only a percentage of their gross income, enabling them to carry on (and mostly keeping out fast-food chains). The city keeps an eye on what’s being sold so the market stays classy and authentic. The beer garden, with its picnic tables filled with hungry and thirsty locals, seems to be the market’s centerpiece. Munich’s breweries take turns here. Changing every so often, a sign (Heute im Ausschank) announces which of the seven brews is being served today. Here, under the standard beer-garden chestnut trees, you can order just half a liter — unlike at other Biergartens (handy for shoppers who want to have a quick sip and then keep on going). As is the tradition, picnickers are welcome at tables without tablecloths if they buy a drink.
St. Peter’s Church
The oldest church in town, St. Peter’s stands on the hill where Munich’s original monks probably settled — perhaps as far back as the ninth century (though the city marks its official birthday as 1158). Today’s church (from 1368) replaced the original monastery church. Inside, photos show how St. Peter’s was badly damaged in World War II — the roof caved in, and the altar was damaged. But the beloved church was rebuilt and restored, thanks to donations — half from the Augustiner brewery, the rest from private donors. For decades after World War II, the bells played a popular tune that stopped before the last note, reminding locals that the church still needed money to rebuild.
It’s a long climb to the top of the church’s spire (306 steps, no elevator) — much of it with two-way traffic on a one-lane staircase — but the view is dynamite. Try to be two flights from the top when the bells ring at the top of the hour. Then, when your friends back home ask you about your trip, you’ll say, “What?”
For a long hike through corridors of gilded royal Bavarian grandeur, tour the Wittelsbachs’ downtown palace. The sprawling Residenz, with a facade modeled after the Medici’s Pitti Palace in Florence, evolved from the 14th through the 19th century, and was largely rebuilt after World War II.
The black plaque with the royal seal by the door says it all: Königlich Bayerischer Hof-Lieferant (“Deliverer for the King of Bavaria and his Court”). Catering to royal and aristocratic tastes (and budgets), it’s still the choice of Munich’s old rich. Today, it’s most famous for its sweets, chocolates, and coffee — dispensed from fine hand-painted Nymphenburg porcelain jugs.
Radius (Rad means “bike” in German), located in the train station (in front of track 32) rents an extensive selection of bikes; provides helmets, maps, and route advice; and offers bike tours.
Munich’s “Central Park,” the largest urban park on the Continent, was laid out in 1789 by an American. More than 100,000 locals commune with nature here on sunny summer days. The park stretches three miles from the center, past the university and the trendy Schwabing quarter. Just beyond the hilltop temple (walk up for a postcard view of the city), you’ll find the big Chinese Tower beer garden and other places to enjoy a drink or a meal. A rewarding respite from the city, the park is especially fun on a bike under the summer sun and on warm evenings.
Bavaria’s best painting gallery shows off a world-class collection of European masterpieces from the 14th to 19th century, starring the two tumultuous centuries (1450–1650) when Europe went from medieval to modern. See paintings from the Italian Renaissance (Raphael, Leonardo, Botticelli, Titian) and the German Renaissance it inspired (Albrecht Dürer). The Reformation of Martin Luther eventually split Europe into two subcultures — Protestants and Catholics — with their two distinct art styles (exemplified by Rembrandt and Rubens, respectively).
The world’s most famous beer hall is a trip. Whether or not you slide your lederhosen on its polished benches, it’s a great experience just to walk through the place in all its rowdy glory (and with its own gift shop).
Standing quietly below Neuschwanstein, the big, yellow Hohenschwangau Castle was used by the royal Wittelsbach family (which ruled Bavaria for nearly seven centuries) as a summer hunting lodge until 1912. The interior decor (mostly Neo-Gothic, like the castle itself) is harmonious, cohesive, and original — all done in 1835, with paintings inspired by Romantic themes.
Inheriting the throne at the young age of 18, “Mad” King Ludwig had the power to make his dream concrete and stucco. Neuschwanstein was designed first by a theater-set designer…then by an architect. Built from 1869 to 1886, it’s the epitome of the Romanticism popular in 19th-century Europe. Construction stopped with Ludwig’s death (only a third of the interior was finished), and within six weeks, tourists were paying to go through it. Today, guides herd groups of 60 through the castle, giving an interesting — if rushed — 30-minute tour. Once inside, you’ll go up and down more than 300 steps, visiting 15 lavish rooms with their original furnishings and fanciful wall paintings--mostly based on Wagnerian opera themes.
It’s smart to reserve in peak season (June–Oct — especially in July–Aug, when slots can book up several days in advance). Reservations cost €1.80 per person per castle, and must be made no later than 17:00 on the previous day. It works best to book online. A few hotels can book these tickets for you with enough notice (ask). You must pick up reserved tickets an hour before the appointed entry time, as it takes a while to walk up to the castles.
This family-friendly farm, with 34 rooms, offers rustic elegance. Its picturesque meadow setting will turn you into a dandelion-picker, and its proximity to Neuschwanstein will turn you into a hiker — the castle is just an hour’s walk away.
If Neuschwanstein was the medieval castle dream, Ehrenberg is the medieval castle reality. Once the largest fortification in Tirol, its brooding ruins lie about two miles outside Reutte. What’s here is actually an “ensemble” of four castles, built to defend against the Bavarians and to bottle up the strategic Via Claudia trade route, which cut through the Alps as it connected Italy and Germany. The ruins of Ehrenberg Castle proper, a 13th-century rock pile, provide a super opportunity to let your imagination off its leash.
When the Bavarian troops captured Ehrenberg in 1703, the Tiroleans climbed up to the bluff above it to rain cannonballs down on their former fortress. In 1740, a mighty new castle — designed to defend against modern artillery — was built on this sky-high strategic location: Schlosskopf (“Castle Head”). One spot gives spectacular views of the strategic valley. The other looks down on the older Ehrenberg Castle ruins, illustrating the strategic problems presented with the advent of cannon.
The tallest point in Germany is also a border crossing. Lifts from both Austria and Germany meet at the 9,700-foot summit of the Zugspitze. You can straddle the border between two great nations while enjoying an incredible view. Restaurants, shops, and telescopes await you at the summit.
See the Travel Details above 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: fairy-tale castles, the exciting city of Munich, and fun in the breathtaking Alps.
Like so many travelers, my images of Germany are actually of Bavaria — castles in the Alps, Lederhosen, beer gardens, and picturesque churches. I find Bavaria to be 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 finally scale the Zugspitze mountain.
Munich is considered Germany’s most livable city. While packed with history, it’s also this country’s Hollywood and Silicon 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 — or 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 World War II and rebuilt since.
After the war, Germany’s destroyed cities debated how they’d rebuild — they could reconstruct their old centers, or bulldoze and start over from scratch. While Frankfurt voted to go modern (and today it’s nicknamed "Germany’s Manhattan"), the people of Munich decided to rebuild their old 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 you know 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 quiet over here, you have green areas always and a good public-transportation system, so leave your car outside.
You can still feel small-town Munich here at the Viktualien Market, 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 Market’s beer garden taps you into great budget eating. Stalls sell the best wurst, sandwiches, produce, and much 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 World War 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 in here — 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.
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 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, Bretzel…
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 was able to amass lots of great art. And a cluster of museums shows off masterpieces through the ages: Got 19th-century art just over there, a wonderful collection of modern art 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 the 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 slumbers 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 — 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 Church in Rome. Suddenly people had to choose — am I Protestant or Catholic? Albrecht Dürer actually met Martin Luther, he 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: 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 what was going on in Europe. After 30 years of religious wars, a third of Germany was dead. Finally, in 1648, an exhausted Europe made a treaty enabling Protestants and Catholics 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 any time of year right here at the Hofbräuhaus.
From Munich, an hour’s drive takes us deep 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: 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 King 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, the frustrating reality of young King Ludwig 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 of Munich, 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, whom 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 the 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 who were 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 already planning to build an even more extravagant castle — was declared mentally unfit to rule. Two days later, he was found dead in a lake. People still debate: Was it murder or suicide? But nobody complains any longer about the extravagant cost of his fanciful castles. In fact, within six weeks of his funeral, tourists were already paying to visit them — 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 Guesthouse Schluxen. My tour groups give this place the "best remote hotel in an idyllic setting" award. [Formerly] 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 2,000-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 castles controlled the trade. Though in the Middle Age, 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. From Reutte you couldn’t see anything.
Rick: Whoah, 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 Age. 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 canon 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, thick walls — 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 crossings are basically 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 may be 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 the 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 a hundred years ago.
And thanks to these beefy cables tie downs, it’s never been blown off the top. By the way, even on a sunny day, it can be cold up here. 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 Europe just keeps drawing me back. Thanks for joining us. I’m Rick Steves. Until next time, keep on travelin’. Auf Wiedersehen.
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