While most have similar histories, what’s inside many of them today couldn’t be more unique (except all of that treasure and art, of course).
A castle is a fortified village built for defense, and a palace is a luxurious home for royalty or nobility. Both evoke wistful daydreams of romance and intrigue, and both are top tourist attractions wherever they’re found, coveted for the imposing architecture of their exteriors and over-the-top opulence of their interiors. In Germany, while most castles and palaces have similar histories, what’s inside many of them today couldn’t be more unique (except all of that treasure and art, of course). The southern state of Baden-Württemberg may well be the palace capital of Germany with its countless assortment of these luxurious sites, but the riches extend north through Saxony and beyond, recalling an abundant national history of royalty, intrigue, and seemingly boundless wealth. Here are 15 can’t-miss palaces for your next road trip throughout Germany.
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When someone says “castle,” this is what you think of. Surrounded by forest and rivers, this stone castle has turrets galore and has been owned by the same family since the 1100s, with 33 generations passing down the prestigious property to its heirs. One-third of the castle is off limits because Kempenich branch of the Eltz family still lives there (wouldn’t you?), but you can pop into the other two-thirds from April through October and browse the weaponry, porcelain, and treasury.
Actually two castles built and rebuilt over the centuries (and twice struck by lightning!), Heidelberg is mostly ruins now–but what a spectacular collection of ruins it is. One million visitors come each year to visit what is considered one of Europe’s most famous castles, and a highlight of any tour is surely the world’s largest wine barrel. At 23 feet tall and 27 feet wide, the 58,000-gallon vat was built in 1725 to hold all of the wine paid as taxes by the growers in the region. Yum!
Built and upgraded over 800 years of German royal history, World War II devastated Dresden Castle, leaving it mostly lifeless through the mid-20th century. A full restoration that began in 1960 has only recently been completed in 2013 after more than 50 years of work. The Green Vault, Europe’s largest collection of treasure–jewels, gold, silver, and everything your princess and pirate dreams are made of–is the main attraction here, but don’t miss its many other impressive displays. Dresden Castle is home to the Turkish Chamber, containing one of the world’s most important collections of Ottoman works outside of Turkey, a coin museum with more than 300,000 coins, and half a million drawings and prints from artists including Michelangelo and Picasso.
The Weimar Palace, which actually goes by many names in both German and English, has had an unfortunate history of major fires over the past 500 years, but has always managed to rise from the ashes, often larger and better-appointed than ever. Several Bach pieces were premiered here, and today the palace is a cultural museum with a particular emphasis on the Weimar region’s considerable contribution to the arts from the Renaissance through today.
The word Zwinger may refer to a castle’s barren defensive space between its outer and inner walls, sometimes called a killing ground, but this Baroque palace was never intended for such a gruesome purpose. Instead, the Zwinger was a festival ground and gallery for the royal court, outfitted with a famed orangery. Today, its dramatic gardens are still used for concerts and theater performances, and the castle contains museums housing paintings from the Old Masters, porcelain, and the Royal Cabinet of Mathematical and Physical Instruments.
Freudenstein Castle was originally built in 1168 to protect the mines of newly discovered silver, but the treasure currently contained within the renovated and modernized castle has surprisingly little to do with silver (in fact, nothing to do with silver). The world’s largest private collection of minerals (crystals and sparkly rocks) is housed in a permanent exhibition along with loans of the world’s largest, most rare, and most valuable minerals in a display that includes more than 80,000 pieces from five continents.
For sweeping views of Saxony and neighboring Thuringia, climb the 33-meter watchtower of Gnandstein Castle. Inside the rest of this 12th-century Romanesque fortress, you’ll find restored historic chambers, a Gothic chapel, and a museum featuring furniture, art, and arms from across the ages. Don’t miss the ironically named Gross Collection, featuring the beautiful art and objets collected by Margarete Gross from across seven centuries of European mastery.
There are actually two Hohnstein Castles in Germany, but one is completely in ruins. The Hohnstein that’s still standing is in Saxon Switzerland and, yes, that’s in Germany. This Hohnstein Castle has had a history a bit more lively than most, having served not just as a typical fortress, but also as a men’s prison and then juvenile prison before becoming an epic youth hostel with more than 1,000 beds. It later became a concentration camp for political prisoners, a POW camp, a refugee center, a hostel again, and then a National Science Museum! Today, Hohnstein Castle is once again a youth guest house, but the museum lives on, too.
Klaffenbach is not the castle of your imagination, but it’s certainly a feat of fantasy. Evoking a more Arabian feel than European, this compact castle with curved teardrop rooftops is primarily white and completely surrounded by a moat that may take up more ground than the castle itself. Often called the Water Castle, it’s now a hotel and art studios, and its über-romantic aura makes it a top destination for weddings.
Wackerbarth may officially have “castle” in the name, but it served as, and looks much more like, a palace. Today it’s a vineyard that produces exceptional sparkling wines developed over 800 years of tradition, and it shouldn’t take much more than that to prompt a tour, but there is more. Wackerbarth’s enormous Baroque gardens are exquisite, and they’re equally as enjoyable under winter snow as they are in the summer sun, so this is one palace you might want to come back in multiple seasons to truly appreciate its beauty.
Weikersheim is a Renaissance palace from the 13th-century and has been an arts and culture haven for ages. The state of Baden-Württemberg has owned the palace since the 1960s and it’s now open for tours, but the grounds are even more popular than the decadent palace interiors. Weikersheim’s Baroque garden is home to countless statues and fountains quite popular with photographers, but none are more popular than the much beloved Weikersheim dwarfs.
Mannheim Baroque Palace
This 645,000-square-foot residence was built to rival Versailles and remains, unsurprisingly, one of the largest palaces in all of Europe. Though damaged by war, the palace has largely been restored and is today as opulent as when Napoleon’s daughter called it home. More than 800 items are on display throughout many of the palace’s grandest rooms, including priceless collections of silver, tapestries, porcelain, and paintings. If you’re looking for the one room (out of more than 500) that has remained untouched, still standing in its original condition through the centuries, it’s the library of Electress Elisabeth Augusta.
The name may lend this Rococo palace a somber aura, but it’s actually quite bustling, albeit more with students than nobility. Today, the property is home to Castle Solitude Academy and is also the site of a small sculpture museum. With its domed roof and intricate architecture, it resembles more of a palace (and is sometimes called such), and its location provides enviable vistas of the surrounding countryside. If you are inspired to visit one of the nearby towns in view, you need only follow the eight-mile road leading directly from the castle’s front door.
Tettnang New Palace
As you might expect, the New Palace replaced the Old Palace, but the reason probably isn’t your first guess. Unlike most other German castles and palaces that have been rebuilt through the ages, neither fire nor war was responsible for the Old Palace’s abandonment, but a change in fashion. When tastes in the region changed in the 17th-century, the New Palace was envisioned and constructed, but at no small cost. The palace is so luxurious that it took several counts to bankroll the project, which nearly bankrupted many of them (and there actually was a fire during the palace’s decades of construction). Today, some of the palace’s grandest rooms are available to view during hourly tours, but leave your camera behind because no pictures are allowed within.
Built in the 1200s as a fortified residence for the abbots of a Benedictine monastery, Ellwangen was turned over to princes and provosts who dramatically expanded the property, century by century, until it achieved the imposing presence it maintains today. Like most palaces, there’s a museum on site here now, but the main attraction is the acoustically superior throne room that now serves as an impressive concert and theater venue every summer.