Castle Quest in SouthWest Germany

Germany is one of the best countries in Europe to soak in a medieval atmosphere and go on a castle quest. There is even a Castle Route in the south of Germany, stretching from the west to the east in a u-shape, giving you the chance to drive past more than 70 castles, palaces and fortress ruins. 

Because we’re crazy about castles, we visited more than 20 of those in the southwest of Germany, in the region of Baden-Württemberg, covering about one third of the Castle Route. From gloomy ruins to boasting baroque, join us on a Castle Quest. 

We’ll begin with our Top5 of the largest and most impressive castles in the region, and then list the rest as they appear on the Castle Route. You can check them out on the Google Map in the end of the article.

Schloss Bruchsal

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Bruchsal Palace is an awe-inspiring Baroque and Rococo palace in a smallish village with the same name. It’s the only Prince-Bishop’s residence on the Upper Rhine and one of the best examples of south German Baroque style. Also called the Damiansburg, palace was built in the first half of the 18th century and is made up of over 50 buildings. It was bombed to pieces only 2 months before the end of WWII, but rebuilt to its former glory – a feat almost just as impressive as the construction itself.

Schloss Schwetzingen

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Schloss Schwetzingen dates back to 1350, when a small moated castle occupied the site. The palace you see before your eyes today however, is the result of several building campaigns between 1697 and 1750 and – because of its historic structure – slightly asymmetrical.
While the palace is home to the stunning Rokokotheater, the highlight is the palace gardens. From 1749 onwards, the gardens were created, first in formal, French Baroque style and later an English-style landscape park was added; the Arborium Theodoricum is one of the earliest of its kind in Germany.

Barockschloss Mannheim

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The monumental Mannheim Baroque Castle is one of the largest castles – and the second largest baroque palace – in Europe with its wide courtyard of honour and a facade of 440 metres in length. The impressive complex was intended to illustrate the political position of the Electors of the Palatinate, and part of the palace is used by the University.

It’s highlights are The Knights’ Hall – a large ceremonial hall, where the knights of the Palatinate Hubertus Order gathered, The Imperial Apartments and the exquisite Library Cabinet of Electress Elisabeth Auguste – a small, Rococo cabinet from 1757 that is the only one of the palace’s more than 500 rooms that has survived in almost original condition.

The palace dates from the 18th century. When Elector Karl III Philip had confessional controversies with the inhabitants of his capital Heidelberg, he decided to make Mannheim the Palatinate’s new capital in 1720. And because Baroque was in vogue at that time, the palace reflects boths its place in history as well as a symbol of power.

Schloss Heidelberg

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Heidelberg is truly one of the most beautiful cities in Germany and will spellbind you from the moment you drive towards it. The charming city is dominated by its castle ruin, that stands sentinel over the river Neckar – a defining presence and postcard-worthy picture.

The earliest castle structure was built before 1214 and subsequent lightning storms, rebuilds, wars, fires and a final blow by lightning in 1764 led to its current design: one of the most important Renaissance structures north of the Alps. Much of what you see are show facades with no building behind it, like the Ottheinrich Building. However, the Emperor’s Hall and the Lords’ Hall in the Ottheinrich Building are used for exhibitions, like the very interesting German Apothecary Museum, that has resided in the basement since 1958.

Another attraction at Heidelberg Palace is the Great Barrel in the Barrel Building. A giant barrel was installed in the building’s basement in 1591, holding 130.000 litres of wine from the Palatinate. The current one at a whopping 220.000 litres was installed shortly before the disastrous lightning bolt in 1764 and has survived the turmoils of time.

While there’s a fee for entering the castle, it’s free to stroll the palace gardens and enjoy the view of beautiful Heidelberg at your feet. Check out more pictures of Heidelberg in this dedicated article.

Residenzschloss Ludwigsburg

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This small corner of Germany is literally overflowing with impressive Baroque palaces, and this one is no exception: The 452-room, 18-building palace complex of Ludwigsburg is aptly nicknamed the Versailles of Swabia. It’s the largest palatial estate in Germany, and even if you’re not crazy about castles, we’ll guarantee that you’ll appreciate the Blooming Baroque garden.

Construction of the palace began in 1704 and the last modifications and renovations of the palace were carried out more than 120 years after: in 1824. This means, that the palace offers its visitors an insightful tour through the centuries – from Baroque to Rococo to Neoclassical.

The palace is home to the Keramikmuseum (Ceramics Museum) and the Modemuseum (Fashion Museum), which showcases clothing from the 18th to 20th century. It’s also a great space for children, as Kinderreich is an interactive museum where young visitors are positively encouraged to touch the exhibits and try things for themselves. Children aged four years and up can dress up and learn about life in the Duke’s court.

For us, the highlight was the Blooming Baroque garden, which also shows the changing garden styles, from formal French garden to a Neoclassical style. From a Mediterranean theme to an English landscape garden. The garden is a separate admission fee and is operated independently of the palace. You can, however buy a combined ticket for the whole bunch.

Burg Schadeck

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We leave the opulent Baroque palaces behind for a bit to take a stroll back in history, to the medieval castle ruins along the Neckar river. We can thoroughly recommend taking a 3-hour River Cruise up (and down) the river from Heidelberg. The first castle ruin you encounter on the river bend of the dramatic 4-castle town of Neckarsteinach is Burg Schadeck, also called Schwalbennest, or “Swallows’ Nest”.

Schadeck Castle is a rock castle ruin dating back to 1335 and the youngest of the four Neckarsteinach castles. It probably became a ruin as early as the late 15th century, and looks so picturesque, that it is the landmark of Neckarsteinach.

Unlike the other three castles of Neckarsteinach, it is not located on a mountain top, but down the steeply sloping mountain massif. It’s free to visit and particularly beautiful is the view over the bow in the Neckar, and the Dilsberg mountain fortress over on the other side.

Hinterburg

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Only 400 metres from Burg Schadeck lies Hinterburg, with its magnificent views of the Neckar river downstream and the river bend of Neckarsteinach. It was probably built in the 1100s by the von Steinach family, serving a strategic purpose in allowing the lords to observe the Neckar and Steinachtal.

The castle continued to be used until it was sacked during the Thirty Years’ War in 1630. It now belongs to the state and is thus free to visit. Inside the tower, a concrete staircase with a total of 63 steps leads to the covered observation deck, which is about 22 m high. From here you have a very good view into the Neckar valley, to Neckarsteinach and the opposite Dilsberg.

Mittelburg

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The middle of the Neckarsteinach castles was probably built around 1165 by Conrad I of Steinach, relative to the German poet and fief lord Bligger II. The castle was rebuilt into a Renaissance palace in the 16th century and Gothicized in the 19th century. Throughout its turbulent 800-year history, much has changed, yet there is still a continuity to be found: the famous poet Bligger II is the 22-times great-grandfather of the current owner Johannes Freiherr v. Warsberg.

Nowadays Mittelburg is home to the von Warsberg-Dorth family and is private property. It can, however, be rented for weddings and events.

Vorderburg

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Vorderburg was built around 1200 by Ulrich I of Steinach, youngest son of the aforementioned German poet Bligger II. It consists essentially of a residential building, a dungeon and a farm building. In the 14th century, the town of Neckarsteinach was surrounded with defensive walls by the Landschad family of Steinach, turning the Vorderburg (one of the castles) and the town together into an enclosed fortification.

The castle was well preserved until the Thirty Years’ War and fell into disrepair afterwards. The northern farm buildings were not built until 1815. Since 1825, the castle has been habitable and surrounded by a park. And even though it’s still privately owned by the barons of Warsberg-Dorth – the ones that inhabits Mittelburg – the castle is rented out to and functions as seat of the Warsberg Forestry Administration.

Bergfeste Dilsberg

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Bergfeste translates to Mountain Fortress, and Dilsberg is the picture perfect postcard of a German medieval castle ruin, as it stands tall over the Neckar valley. It was so popular during the romantic movement in the middle of the 19th century, that is attracted painters such as William Turner and Karl Weysser. Even American writer Mark Twain visited the castle in the 1870s and wrote about it in A Tramp Abroad.

The castle is easy to get to and there’s a small fee to enter. Characteristic of the castle is the semi-circular shield wall and the towering keep in the main castle. They illustrate the castle’s function as a fortification.

It was built by the Counts of Lauffen in the 12th century, but taken over by the Count Palatine, who modernized it around 1360. During this modernization, the older ring wall was replaced by a strong shield wall and equipped with small towers, so-called tourelles. Before the reconstruction, the owners had the old castle demolished in order to build the new castle from the material. As a result, stone blocks of different types and ages mixed. It’s fun to make out these palpable presences of history.

It’s possible to scale the staircase of the hexagonal tower to take in the amazing view.

Schloss Hirschhorn

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Hirschhorn Castle, or Schloss Hirschhorn is another very well-preserved, so-called spur castle and castle complex above the Neckar, on the border between Baden-Württemberg and Hessen. A spur castle is a type of medieval fortification that uses its location as a defensive feature. The name refers to the location on a spur projecting from a hill.

It was founded around 1260 by Johann von Hirschhorn, and was continuously altered in the following centuries to adapt it to the current military technical state. In the 16th and 17th centuries, the fortress was transformed into a Renaissance castle and terraced gardens were created as well as several farm buildings, including the picturesque gatekeeper’s cottage at the central castle gate.

It’s a nice stroll around the castle and town, and even though there might not be much going on at the castle (at the time we visited the restaurant had closed down) it’s still worth the visit – at least for the amazing view!

Burg Hornberg

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Further up the Neckar river, at the smallish village Neckarzimmern, lies the next castle hovering over the river and valley. Burg Hornberg is the largest and oldest of the castles in the valley, built in the 11th century and most notable as the stronghold of Götz von Berlichingen, who bought it in 1517. His grandson sold the castle in 1612 to Freiherren of Gemmingen in whose ownership the castle still remains since 12 generations.

There’s a small fee to enter the historic castle, which also includes entry to a museum. Since 1953 a hotel and restaurant has offered 4-star historic charm – as well as monumental views – in the former horse stable.

The castle is also home to a small winery, and you can see the distinctive wine terraces surrounding the castle. They produce red, white and rose wines and can arrange wine tastings for groups of 10 or more people in the historic rooms.

Schloss Horneck

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The castle was built around 1200 and was given to the Teutonic Order by Konrad von Horneck in 1438, thereby making it the seat of the “Deutschmeister” (Master of The Teutonic Order) until it was destroyed in 1525 by fire during the German Peasants’ War. However, the castle remained in the possession of the Order and was immediately rebuilt in as a highrise Renaissance castle.

From 1720 to 1724, the conversion into a somewhat unadorned baroque castle took place, whereby the towers and bay windows of the Renaissance period were demolished. Due to the secularization in 1805, Schloss Horneck came into possession of the Kingdom of Württemberg and was used as barracks. In 1824, the complex came into private hands and served alternately as hospital, sanatorium, naturopath and brewery.

It now functions as a Transylvanian Museum, Heritage and Community Centre. The museum is open every day of the week except mondays, and the castle rooms can be rented for special occasions.

Burg Guttenberg

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While Burg Guttenberg might not look the part of romantic medieval castle, it is believed to be constructed around 1225, making it one of the oldest castles in Germany, that was never destroyed.

The castle is a cornucopia of medieval endeavours. It presents the German Raptor Research Center, a bird of prey centre, which shows daily flight demonstrations with eagles, vultures and other birds of prey. It is home to a castle museum with an award-winning “Life at the Knight’s Castle” exhibition, that answers important questions, such as: “How did you become a knight?”, “What weapons did a knight carry?”,  “Why were castles built?” and “How have its inhabitants lived in past centuries?”.

It also features a medieval restaurant that is open during the summer and a hostel and apartment, that is available throughout the year. The castle can be rented for special occasions.

Ruine Ehrenberg

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The ruins of Ehrenberg Castle was built from the 12th century above the village Heinsheim am Neckar. From 1193 at the latest, Ehrenberg was home to the family of the Lords of Ehrenberg (also Erenberg or Ernberg), who were Staufische followers.

Some damage to the castle – as well as many others in the area – is believed to have been caused by the Thirty Years’ War from 1618 to 1648. The castle changed appearance through the years, not through destruction, but because of reconstruction. Around the core castle, the outer bailey was built in the 17th and 18th centuries with a gate tower about 30 metres high and residential and commercial buildings with Baroque features.

The Ehrenberg lineage died out in the 17th century. After the death of the last Ehrenberger, the possession of the castle, the village of Heinsheim and the nearby Hofgut Zimmerhof passed to the Diocese of Worms. In 1805, the barons of Racknitz acquired the castle and the Zimmerhof. Since then it has been passed on through the generations in the family von Racknitz, which still inhabit the castle.

This means that you can’t visit the castle. The best way to immerse yourself in its history and charm, though, is to stay in the apartment located in the castle and which is rented out to tourists. It looks absolutely charming!

Schloss Neckarbischofsheim

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There are actually 2 castles located around the same pond in the lovely village Neckarbischofsheim. The Old Castle was built back in the 13th century, probably with curtain wall and surrounded by the waters of Rosenbach stream and the swampy meadows. Later, the castle was connected to farm buildings by a bridge with an outer bailey, which was also walled and surrounded by ditches.

The city of Neckarbischofsheim acquired the castle in 1975 and then extensively renovated it. In 1977, historical murals from the 15th and 16th centuries were uncovered in the Knight’s Hall. A depiction of the crucifixion from around 1480 suggests that the Knight’s Hall was also temporarily used as a castle chapel. The Knight’s Hall is now used as a wedding room, and in the remaining rooms of the castle there is a local history museum, but it’s only open every 1st Sunday afternoon every month from April to October.

On the site of the former outer bailey is the New Castle, built in the 19th century, in which today houses the Schlosshotel Neckarbischofsheim. It has direct access to the lovely park surrounding both the castles and a lovely terrace with views of the Old Castle.

Burg Steinsberg

Castle Steinsberg is an impressive sight to behold as you drive towards it, with its cirkular defensive walls and perfect tower in the middle, bejewelled with vineyards around the southern side of the castle.

It has survived many tourmoils since its first mentions in the year 1109. Once home to the Counts palatine of the Rhein, it was burnt down during the German Peasants’ War around 1524, rebuilt and then suffered heavy damage in 1777 by a strike of lightning. The castle was left in disrepair but since 1973 the castle has been owned by the Sinsheim council, who had large parts of the castle restored.

The castle is located on the 333 metre high Steinsberg, a former volcano whose south side is planted with wine. Because it is widely visible, it has been called the “Compass of the Kraichgo” since the time of the Peasants’ War. There’s a lovely restaurant in the courtyard from where you can sample some of that hearty German food and wine, this region is cherished for. From here, you can also scale part of the walls and enjoy stunning views of the landscape.

Kaiserpfalz Bad Wimpfen

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We turn back to the river Neckar to find the alluring town of Bad Wimpfern. This historic spa town dates back to the time of the Celts, who supposedly named the settlement. Wimpfen presumably comes from “uimpe” (umwallt) = “surrounded” and “bin” (Berg) = “mountain”. When the area was conquered by the Romans, it used to be the centre of a district called the Civitas Alisinensium and was surrounded by a city wall like only a few Roman towns in what is southern Germany today.

In 1182, the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick Barbarossa is believed to have stayed in Wimpfen. He had decentralised the administration of his empire and was constantly travelling through his empire. To serve the need for accomodation, the noble dynasty of the Staufers – to which Frederick Barbarossa belonged – had built Kaiserpfalzen (local castles) across the empire. These were big castles where local lords – and Holy Roman Emperors, the Kaisers – stayed and gave rulings.

The Kaiserpfalz of Bad Wimpfen is the largest Kaiserpfalz in Germany and certainly worth a visit. We didn’t get to wander the cobblestone streets, eye the Blue Tower close up or admire the many appealing half-timbered houses of the historic city. But we wish we did.

Greckenschloss

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The mighty mountain castle on Lindenberg hill in Bad Friedrichshall is also called Greckenschloss. It owes its name to its former owners, the Grecken von Kochendorf, who built the Renaissance castle around 1600s.

The originally two-winged castle building is located on a ridge, while two courtyards (Schlosshof and Meiereihof) extend westward over a slope to the church. To the east, the castle is separated from Lindenberg hill by a ditch. Behind it was once a tournament court.

It now functions first and foremost as a primary school, a music school and a creative school, but the ballroom can also be rented for private celebrations. You can walk around the tall building that looks more like a huge edifice in the town than a castle, but it’s only possible to enter on guided tours.

Schloss Heuchlingen

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The last castle on our quest is the so-called Deutschordensschloss Heuchlingen, that rises on a steep hill above the Jagst river about three kilometres above the mouth of the Neckar. The Deutschherrenorden, or Teutonic Order, is a Catholic religious order founded as a military order in Jerusalem around 1192 and modelled after its more prominent counterparts; the Knights Templar and Knights Hospitaller.

While a Heuchlingen Castle is recorded in situ here since the 12th century, it was destroyed in the Peasants’ War in 1525. In 1530, under the Teutonic Highmaster Walter von Cronberg, the reconstruction took place in the style of a Renaissance castle. The castle was given its present Baroque form by various reconstructions in the late 18th century under the Teutonic Master Karl Alexander of Lorraine, whose coat of arms is emblazoned on the castle wall.

After the dissolution of the Teutonic Order in 1810, the estate passed to the Kingdom of Württemberg. Today, it is the centre of an agricultural estate of around 100 hectares and can’t be visited unless on special occasions. What you CAN do, however, is admire its 4-storey edifice when you drive past it on the way home from your excellent castle roadtrip.

More info

Map of the 20 Best Castles of Baden-Württemberg

Blue icons means that the sites can be visited, yellow means that they are ruins and not much to see, and red means that it’s private property and can’t be visited unless under special circumstances – or at least from a little distance.

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