It's no wonder that Germany has a wealth of royal castles and palaces – for centuries this land was essentially a complicated patchwork of principalities, duchies and mini-states, each with their own ambitious ruling family. In the 18th-century the monied classes constructed extraordinary and opulent residences and gardens, and five of the best German castles, palaces and parks are now listed as World Heritage sites.
The grand residence of the prince-archbishops of Cologne, Schloss Augustusburg was finished in 1768 and is one of Germany's earliest and best examples of Rococo architecture – a magnificent yellow wedding cake of a building with dazzlingly rich interiors. Bavarian court architect François de Cuvilliés outdid himself in the swirling decorations, while Balthasar Neumann designed the jaw-dropping staircase, which you stride up, surrounded by marble, jasper columns, stucco and countless caryatids propping up the pillars and the frescoed ceiling. The large French gardens with symmetrical flower beds, mirror pools and fountains cumulate in an alley of linden trees that leads you to Falkenlust Castle, set in a landscaped forest 20 minutes’ walk away. This Jagdschloss or hunting lodge housed the prince elector's falcons and has a small chapel featuring a shell-studded marine grotto, an 18th-century must-have. If you have children in tow, let them scream off their Rococo sugar rush on the rides at Phantasialand amusement park, on the outskirts of Brühl.
Halfway between Cologne and Bonn, Brühl is reached in under 15 minutes by train from either city; Augustusburg Castle is a 5-minute walk from the station; Falkenlust Castle is 2km to the southeast.
The massive Residenz palace, which was finished in 1770 for the Prince-Bishops of Würzburg, is a gorgeous Baroque ensemble right next to Würzburg city centre. Without a doubt, it is one of the most impressive royal palaces in Germany. Carefully restored after suffering wartime damage, it earned its spot on the World Heritage List due to the unique and original design and contributions from the top international architects and artists of the era, making it a true European castle. The facade overlooking the grand Residenzplatz square hides a maze of halls, staircases, salons and reception rooms that drip with opulent decoration. This Gesamtwerk was so unique that the term Würzburg Rococo was coined for the decoration. To the rear, the multi-level Hofgarten has an orangery and quiet nooks surrounded by symmetrical flower beds, pergolas, hedges and well-coiffed fruit trees.
Würzburg is on the river Main in Bavaria, roughly halfway Frankfurt and Nuremberg. The Residence is a 15-minute walk or a short bus ride from Würzburg Hauptbahnhof station.
Prince Hermann Ludwig Heinrich von Pückler-Muskau was perhaps the most remarkable of all German palace owners. Born in Bad Muskau's castle in 1785, he spent years exploring Europe and northern Africa, studying park landscaping in Great Britain, travelling as far as Nubia, and writing best-selling books about his adventures. In Khartoum he purchased a slave girl called Mahbuba and brought her back to Muskau – her grave can be visited behind Muskau's parish church. Landscape design was his main passion, and from 1815 until 1840 he cultivated the extensive Muskau Parkin the Neisse river valley, combining natural and man-made elements in a romantic and harmonious cultural landscape. The park hit hard times after the Neisse river became the new border with Poland, but after decades of neglect, the landscape and castle have now been restored, with access from both countries. Pückler fans shouldn't forget to try the Fürst-Pückler-Eis, a tricoloured slab of strawberry, vanilla and chocolate ice cream named in honour of the eccentric gardener.
Bad Muskau, in the northeast of Saxony, is reached by car in less than two hours from Berlin or Dresden. The bus from Cottbus Hauptbahnhof station to Bad Muskau takes 1.5 hours, with a change in Döbern.
Set amid a gorgeous landscape of lakes, rivers, forests and hills around Potsdam and the western outskirts of Berlin, some 500 hectares of interlinked parks, lakes and islands with around 150 remarkable buildings form one magnificent World Heritage Site. Initiated around 1740 under Prussian King Frederick the Great and finalised in 1916, this unique cultural landscape was created by the most talented northern German architects, artists and landscape designers of their time, with influences from across Europe. You could easily spend two or three days taking in the views and exploring all the sights, getting around by tram, boat or bicycle. In Potsdam, the highlight is Sanssouci – this modestly sized Rococo palace with its grand park was Frederick's favourite residence, and he lies buried nearby. The 200-room Baroque New Palace (Neues Palais) is well worth visiting for the jaw-dropping Grotto and Marble Hall, while further east Babelsberg Park overlooks the Havel river. Cross the famous Glienicker Brücke, the “bridge of spies”, and you're in Berlin, where you can visit the bucolic Pfaueninsel or Peacock Island with its folly castle and the Neoclassical Glienicke Park. Potsdam is a very pleasant base for visiting the sights, with a quirky Dutch Quarter and newly reconstructed city-centre squares.
Direct trains from Berlin Hauptbahnhof station and Berlin airport get to Potsdam Hauptbahnhof in 30–50 minutes from where a tram takes you to Sanssouci palace. Potsdam Park Sanssouci station is near the far end of the park, a 10-minute walk from the Neues Palais. Boats from opposite Potsdam Hauptbahnhof and Berlin-Wannsee stations link the main sights along the river.
After touring Great Britain, France and Italy in the late 18th-century, the young and enlightened Prince Leopold III Friedrich Franz of Anhalt-Dessau set out to create a novel and expansive romantic Garden Kingdom, stretching from Dessau 15 kilometres east along the Elbe river. Inspired by philosophers and educators, he opened the gardens to the public and harmoniously incorporated farmland and meadows to demonstrate new agricultural techniques to the stunned visitors. Two hundred and fifty years on, this landscape of palaces, forests, meadows and rivers has been perfectly preserved. Highlights include the Wörlitzer Park with the Neoclassical Schloss Wörlitz – the first such German castle – and the Gothic House, both containing original furnishings. Gondolas offer gentle tours across the castle lake. Oranienbaum village to the south was inspired by Dutch Baroque town planning and has a palace that features Delft Blue tiles. Closer to Dessau, you'll find three other gems: the intimate and charming Luisium palace, a Rococo summer palace at Mosigkau with a gallery of Flemish and Dutch masters, and the lovely Georgium English gardens.
Dessau is 120 kilometres southwest of Berlin and can be reached in 1.5 hours by train or car. It's possible to spend the night in one of several historical buildings, cottages, or cabins in the park grounds.
The 18th-century palaces, castles and parks of Augustusburg, Würzburg, Bad Muskau, Potsdam, Berlin and Dessau-Wörlitz are some of the best in Germany, showcasing the quality of art, architecture and landscape design in Europe as much as the wealth of their owners.
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