Most kids want to visit Cinderella’s castle, but few know that Mad King Ludwig’s Neuschwanstein Castle was actually the inspiration behind Walt Disney’s creation. As king of Bavaria, Ludwig had a childlike imagination and a big budget, and Neuschwanstein — located in southern Germany near the Austrian border — is the ultimate fairytale castle. As it’s one of the most popular tourist attractions in the country, a little planning is required to make it a memorable stop for the whole family.
The castle complex, located in the town of Hohenschwangau, is made up of three sights:
Hohenschwangau Castle. Neuschwanstein is what everyone comes to see, but Hohenschwangau makes a good starting point for older kids interested in learning a bit more about Mad King Ludwig. This less crowded 30-minute tour of Ludwig’s boyhood home gives you a glimpse of the eccentric monarch’s bedroom, where he installed stars on the ceiling that could be illuminated at night and a telescope that helped him monitor the progress of his dream castle across the way.
Neuschwanstein Castle. This medieval-looking castle towering on the hill was actually built in the 19th century, after Ludwig became king at age 18, and almost bankrupted the Bavarian government. The inside was never finished, but that didn’t stop officials from opening it up six weeks after Ludwig’s mysterious death. The brief (30-minute) and uninspiring tour is rushed, but it’s the only way to visit the impressive castle interior built for a king.
Mary’s Bridge. Named after Ludwig’s mother, this bridge provides the best castle views and lots of people jostling for a good picture of the infamous site.
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An advance reservation is essential during peak season. Those without a reservation face long lines and lots of needless waiting. Tickets can be purchased on the castle website at least two days in advance. The cost is 13 € apiece or 25 € for both castles; kids under 18 are free when accompanied by an adult. There is an extra fee of 2.50 € per ticket for advance reservations.
Arrive at the ticket center at least an hour and a half before your tour to pick up your tickets. Don’t be late or they may deny you entry and give your reservation to someone else. Those who opt for both castles will be required to visit Hohenschwangau first and then Neuschwanstein two hours later.
There is plenty of parking, but some lots are closer to the ticket center than others. Pad in a little time just in case.
Hohenschwangau Castle is a fairly easy 10-minute walk (or short carriage ride) from the ticket center. Those visiting Neuschwanstein have several choices:
• It’s a moderately steep 30-minute walk to the castle. With one and a half hours there is plenty of time, but it’s better to start the journey immediately after you pick up your tickets so you can visit Mary’s Bridge first. Those with strollers or younger kids should consider taking a shuttle bus or horse carriage to reach the castle. Strollers are not allowed inside, but can be left at the information center in the castle courtyard.
• Shuttle buses run on demand and can get busy during peak season, so it’s best to queue right after you pick up your tickets. The cost is minimal and worth it if you have little ones, but they are always filled to capacity. All buses drop off and pick up in front of Mary’s Bridge, about a 10-minute steep downhill walk to the castle.
• Horse carriages are a great option, but they are slower than walking and can have long wait times in peak season. If you have nowhere to be after your visit, a horse carriage is a better option for making your way back down.
Both castle tours run on a very regimented German timeline. Your entrance ticket is stamped with a number designating your entry time and group number. Don’t be late! If you miss your tour, you will likely not be rebooked on a new one.
Hohenschwangau is much less crowded, but for Neuschwanstein, arrive inside the castle courtyard (not the landing below) with at least 10 minutes to spare. Watch the monitors and be ready to queue immediately after your number is displayed on the screen. Scan your ticket at the turnstiles. Please note that pictures are not allowed inside and there are no bathrooms; it’s best to use the free toilets near the courtyard.
Put away any grand expectations. The tour is scripted and lacks enthusiasm, but there is a live guide who speaks through an audio device. Groups are large (60 people) and rushed, as tours depart every five minutes, so there isn’t a lot of time for lingering. Parents of young children beware: There are more than 300 stairs inside the castle and no elevator. Consider keeping kids busy by hunting for swans in the castle interior. King Ludwig was a fanatic for swans, and they are numerous hidden throughout — Neuschwanstein roughly translates to “New Swanstone.”
You have no choice but to exit through two gift shops, but don’t miss the sweeping views after leaving the first of these. There is also a small cafe if you need a quick respite. Give yourself at least 20 minutes to get out of the castle and another 30 or so to make your way back down to the ticket center on foot.
Why not combine your visit to Neuschwanstein with another family-friendly activity? This area boasts a ton of options that are sure to keep your kids busy all day.
Lake Alpsee. The serene lake that sits between the castles and near the Museum of the Bavarian Kings is a great place to retreat for a picnic (plan ahead) or a refreshing swim. There is also a small outfit that rents paddleboats and rowboats.
Lunch and mini golf. Most of the lunch options near the castle are overpriced and touristy, but Schloss Brauhauss, just one and a half miles away, offers plenty for both kids and adults. This microbrewery/restaurant has amazing castle views, classic German fare and a mini golf course and mini bowling alley (rentable by the hour).
Tegelberg Luge. A luge ride is a must for any family visiting the area. This bobsled on wheels, a hit with kids and parents, is only a 10-minute drive from the castles. Kids age 3 to 8 may ride with an adult; kids under 3 are not permitted. Bobsled accidents can happen, so it’s a good idea to review the dos and don’ts before sending your kids off on their own. Call ahead if it’s raining to be sure they are open.
Royal Crystal Baths. The Germans and Austrians love their bathing complexes and this area has no shortage of them. The Royal Crystal Baths offer a mix of indoor/outdoor pools, whirlpools and saunas. Beware that some portions of the complex are “textile-free” and not appropriate for children.
Treetop Walkway. This stop just beyond Füssen and before the Austrian border is easily missed, but definitely worth a visit. Visitors can cross the border from Germany into Austria on foot (for a small fee) with views of the stunning Lech River and the surrounding mountains. The adventure center is full of activities and trails that are perfect for families.
Ehrenberg Castle ruins: Just a 25-minute drive from the castles, this 13th-century castle ruin is free to explore (although the accompanying museum is not), so let your imagination run wild. The hike up is steep and not particularly stroller-friendly.
Highline 179 suspension footbridge. This 1,200-foot-long suspension bridge was recently added to connect the Ehrenberg Castle with Fort Claudia across the way. Built in just six months, it towers above a major route that has existed since Roman times and provides a thrill for those willing to conquer it. Tickets can be purchased at the Ehrenberg Museum or at the automated machines (cash only) just before the bridge. Tickets are 8 € for adults aged 15 and over; discounts are available for kids and families.
The town of Füssen makes a great home base, especially for those traveling with young children. Neuschwanstein is equidistant from Munich and Innsbruck and could make for a long day trip or a stopover en route to Austria or Switzerland.
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