Germany’s castles and palaces are the stuff of fairytales. Towering spires and handsome facades are met with interiors that are just as jaw-dropping, lavishly decorated with marble, rococo flourishes and ceiling frescoes. For eye-watering extravagance, Germany's World Heritage palaces and castles have got you covered.
Brühl, a small town in the Rhineland – just a tram ride from south Cologne – is most famous as the site of Augustusburg Palace. It was in 1725 that the elector and archbishop of Cologne, Clemens August, first commissioned a new palace on the ruins of a medieval moated castle, but the results were judged insufficiently fabulous for a member of the Wittelsbach dynasty, and so the Bavarian court architect François de Cuvilliés was commissioned to vamp things up. The result is Augustusburg Palace, a Rococo Xanadu of extraordinary panache that is one of Germany's most magnificent palaces, inscribed by World Heritage since 1984.
The moment you see the breathtakingly lavish, ceremonial staircase by Balthasar Neumann, with its frothy rocailles and vivid stucco marble effects, you’ll understand why this was Clemens August’s favourite residence, and as you ascend the staircase the sheer exuberance of the design becomes apparent. Napoleon, who visited in 1804, is said to have remarked that it was a pity the palace wasn’t on wheels so he could take it home with him. The dizzying reception rooms at the top of the staircase continue in a similar vein.
The gardens, with their parterres and fountains, offer an outdoor equivalent to the indoor excess. They were created by Dominique Girard and modelled on French designs. An avenue leads across the park to the delightful little Falkenlust hunting lodge on the edge of a small secluded forest. Though smaller in scale than Augustusburg, the intimate lodge is akin in spirit. Clemens August used it for entertaining after a long day of hunting or falconry, his favourite pastime.
If you are here in summer, try and time your visit with one of the concerts held in the palace – an unforgettable experience.
In 1990, the Palaces and Parks of Potsdam and Berlin ensemble became a World Heritage site, placed on the list of Natural and Cultural Heritage of Humanity. This vast and spectacular area, which stretches from Sanssouci, the New Garden and Sacrow in Potsdam to Berlin’s Peacock Island and Glienicke, is known the world over for its extraordinary mix of art, architecture and landscape design, and has often been dubbed “the Prussian Acadia.” At its core is Sanssouci, Frederick the Great’s splendid landscaped park of architectural treasures, which once secured Berlin as the grand Prussian capital.
Potsdam was part of the German Democratic Republic (East Germany) in post-war divided Germany. The East German government made an untimely request in September 1989 – only a few weeks before the Berlin Wall fell – that the Potsdam Palaces and Parks be inscribed in the World Heritage List. The Federal Republic of Germany (West Germany) made a similar request in June 1990 for the landscape along the Havel River encompassing the palace and park in Glienicke and Peacock Island.
In December 1990, a mere two months after German reunification, the World Heritage committee inscribed the two areas as one complex, the “Palaces and Parks of Potsdam and Berlin” in the World Heritage List. The once separated zones, disfigured by a network of border fortifications, was placed under the sponsorship of the Stiftung Preußische Schlösser und Gärten Berlin-Brandenburg (SPSG), which began restoring the parks and walkways. The impressive result is a harmonious and coherent Potsdam-Berlin ensemble brought back to its former grandeur; now comprising some 2064 hectares, it is also one of the largest World Heritage sites in Germany.
It might be small in stature, but the town of Eisenach is up there with the big hitters of German culture thanks mainly to Wartburg Castle, a World Heritage Site frequented in turn by a star cast including Goethe, Wagner and Martin Luther.
Perched on a rocky plateau 400m above Eisenach, Wartburg Castle is so well protected that in all its nine hundred years it has been besieged just once, and never captured. Legend has it that it was founded in 1067 by Ludwig der Springer. By the 19th century the castle had fallen into decay, and an ambitious restoration programme spearheaded by Goethe was carried out.
The Wartburg’s reputation as the most quintessentially German of all German castles, and all the legends that surround it, come courtesy of the Romantic artists of the early 19th century and their reverence for all things medieval. The theme of the legendary Sängerkrieg (War of the Troubadours), which took place at the Wartburg, reappears in several Romantic works, including Richard Wagner’s opera Tannhäuser (1845).
Wartburg has its own saint, Elisabeth (1207–31), canonized in 1235. She was the Hungarian king’s daughter and wife of Landgrave Ludwig IV. Deeply pious, Elisabeth rejected courtly life to care for the poor and sick. The legend of the Miracle of the Roses tells of how she hid bread and meat under her coat to distribute among the poor; when she was stopped and searched by her husband’s men, the food turned to roses.
But the castle’s most famous connection is that of Martin Luther. He was excommunicated by the Pope in 1521 and brought in secret to the Wartburg, where he began his German translation of the original Greek New Testament.
The magnificent banqueting hall, supported by 12th-century columns, is adorned with hanging banners of the nationalist Protestant German students who took part in the renowned Wartburgfest in 1817 celebrating the Luther tercentenary.
If you decide to prolong your visit with an overnight stay, you will thankfully be better lodged than Martin Luther in his Spartan cell. Also worth staying around for is the MDR Summer of Music festival, heralding two months of special concerts in astounding surroundings.
The Würzburg Residence, built from 1720 to 1744 by Balthasar Neumann, is one of the finest and purest Baroque palaces in Europe – a status symbol that puts Würzburg firmly in the architectural super-league. When Johann Philipp Franz of Schönborn became prince-bishop of Würzburg in 1719, he decided to move his residence from Marienberg to the city in order to be more at the centre of things. He commissioned Neumann to build the “palace of all palaces”, and Neumann duly obliged.
Neumann, the master builder of the German Baroque, created his own memorial within the palace by designing what is undoubtedly one of the most beautiful staircases of the Baroque-rococo era. The theatrical stairwell stretches across five bays and is topped by a mammoth unsupported vault. The staircase rises through a series of half-landings, their walls richly ornamented with stucco, but everything is merely a setting for the magnificent allegorical ceiling fresco painted by the Italian artist Giambattista Tiepolo, who was summoned to Würzburg in 1750 to create the largest painting in the world (at 13m by 18m, it retains the title). It depicts the four continents of Asia, Africa, America and Europe, with the Würzburg court shown at the centre of the arts in Europe. Miraculously, the frescoes – and staircase – survived the Allied bombing of 1945 unscathed.
The White Hall (Weisser Saal) is decorated with tasteful stucco work by Materno Bossi, but pales in comparison to the giddily opulent Imperial Hall (Kaisersaal). With its twenty red marble columns, large oval dome and Tiepolo frescoes celebrating Würzburg’s position in the Holy Roman Empire, the richly coloured Hall provides a memorable setting for classical music concerts.
After a tour of the interior, take time to stroll in the formal Hofgarten behind the Residenz, with its fine wrought-iron gates and beautiful Baroque group of figures.
Top image: Falkenlust hunting lodge © GNTB/Florian Trykowski
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This content was created in partnership with the German National Tourist Board.