The Residenz, the enormous royal palace complex of Bavaria’s ruling Wittelsbach dynasty who resided here right up until 1918, has its origins in a small fourteenth-century castle, the Neuveste, of which nothing remains. Over the centuries it was gradually transformed into a considerable palace complex by the Wittelsbachs, first as dukes, then from 1623 as electors and finally from 1806 as kings of Bavaria. What survives today is the result of several phases of construction and of post-1945 reconstruction after extensive damage during World War II. The oldest surviving Renaissance part dates from the reign of Albrecht V (1550–79) and was the work of Jacopo Strada and Simon Zwitzel, elaborated and extended from 1581 onwards by the Dutch architect Friedrich Sustris. Baroque and Rococo extensions followed, notably in the eighteenth century under court architect François Cuvilliés – the diminutive Walloon who also designed Schloss Augustusburg at Brühl. A final major round of construction took place under Leo von Klenze during the reign of King Ludwig I; the additions made by Ludwig II – which included a rooftop winter garden complete with a royal barge on an indoor lake – have not survived.
Much of the Residenz palace interior is open to the public as the Residenzmuseum. The most spectacular room you see is also the oldest, the Antiquarium, originally built to house Duke Albrecht’s collection of antiquities but remodelled under his successors, Wilhelm V and Maximilian I, as a banqueting hall. The results are remarkable: the 66-metre-long vaulted hall is claimed to be the largest and most lavish Renaissance interior north of the Alps, richly decorated with frescoes, with allegories of Fame and Virtue by court painter Peter Candid covering the ceiling, while the vaults above the windows and the window jambs are covered with images of the towns, markets and palaces of Bavaria. The Ahnengalerie, which was commissioned by the Elector Karl on his accession in 1726, incorporates more than a hundred portraits of members of the Wittelsbach family. It was intended to draw attention to the elector’s credentials as a potential emperor – and appears to have done the trick as he was crowned Emperor Karl VII in Frankfurt in 1742. François Cuvilliés’ inspired hand is evident in the aptly named Reiche Zimmer, or ornate rooms, in which everything from the gilded rocailles on the stucco walls and ceilings to the furniture received the master’s attention. The rooms were created between 1730 and 1733. Leo von Klenze’s more restrained nineteenth-century Königsbau rooms were off limits to visitors at the time of writing due to restoration work.
The collection on display in the Schatzkammer (Treasury) on the ground floor of the Königsbau was initiated by Albrecht V and is one of the largest royal treasure-houses in Europe; highlights include the ninth-century ciborium of King Arnulf of Carinthia and a dazzling statuette of St George created between 1586 and 1597. The royal insignia of the Kingdom of Bavaria are also on display.
You’ll need to re-enter the Residenz complex by the middle entrance on Residenzstrasse and cross the Brunnenhof courtyard to reach the exquisite Cuvilliés-Theater, built from 1751 to 1755 as a court theatre under Elector Max III Joseph. Cuvilliés’ extravagance survives only because the elaborately carved tiers of boxes were removed from their original location in the Alte Residenztheater building – between the Nationaltheater and Residenz – for safekeeping during World War II. This building was completely destroyed by wartime bombs and replaced by the modern Residenztheater that now stands on the site, but the boxes were re-erected after the war in their present location. It’s still used as a theatre.