Germany is renowned for its speed limitless Autobahn highways. But there are other driving options in the country that are more leisurely, and just as rewarding.
The most famous alternative is the aptly named Romantic Road (Romantische Straße). This scenic drive runs through the beautiful Southern German states of Bavaria and Badem-Württemberg. The roughly 400 kilometer route was established as a marketing tool for Germany in the 1950s.
The Romantic Road will take you on a winding journey through the verdant countryside and charming villages. It will also guide you toward the country’s most famous fairy tale wonderland castles (think Disney) and the mountainous Alps.
My husband has many relatives who live in Germany, so when we visited his uncle generously lent us his Audi Q5 for the drive.
Along the route we saw cows grazing on farms and drove through adorable small towns. In a way, it reminded me of childhood family road trips past the dairy farms of Wisconsin. Signs mark the route along the way.
We made three main stops along the route — though there certainly are more!
Driving through the city of Würzburg you will pass by the picturesque Marienberg Fortress situated on a hill and looming large over the Old Bridge. According to the Bavarian Palace Department, a fort was probably built at the site in the 8th century. A large castle was later built around 1200. The castle was reconstructed in 1990. We did not stay the night, and just made a quick stop in the city.
#2 Rothenburg ob der Tauber
One important stop that deserves at least a one-night stay is the walled medieval town of Rothenburg ob der Tauber. It is a village that seems straight out of the pages of a storybook. Windows are lined by overflowing flower boxes. Even travel writer Rick Steves calls Rothenburg “Germany’s fairy-tale dream town” (while at the same time acknowledging that it can feel a bit like a tourist theme park).
According to the city history, a castle known as “Rote Berg” (red fortress) was first built on the city site by King Conrad III in 1142. A city grew from around the castle and by 1241 included the market square, town church and other key sights. The city’s colorful and charming architecture is a delight.
You can also walk the medieval city walls that surround the town.
Great Christmas shopping can be found here any time of year. In particular, the store Kathe Wohlfahrt is renowned for its traditional German Christmas items — wooden/glass/pewter ornaments, nutcrackers, music boxes, etc.
Other holiday trinkets are plentiful, such as ceramic Bavarian-style houses.
You can also find a plentiful assortment of cuckoo clocks….
Or purchase a nice wooden hand-crafted willkommen (“welcome”) sign for your home….
Top off your trip with the “Night Watchman’s Tour,” a walking tour of the city that takes place after dark. The tour guide will share medieval tales dressed as a watchman — the once traditional guard who patrolled the walled city at night. The walking tour begins at 8 p.m., with the meeting point in the market square in front of the town hall.
#3 Hohenschwangau (near Füssen)
The village of Hohenchwangau is the grand finale of the Romantic Road, and home to the two castles of Hohenschwangau and Neuschwanstein. They are nestled into the edge of the Bavarian Alps.
We stayed in a small hotel at the foot of the mountains. We could see Neuschwanstein from our window (it’s the white speck nestled in the mountains to the right).
The whole area is very green and filled with charming buildings.
We visited Hohenschwangau first. The castle was built in 1832 by King Maximilian Il, father of King Ludwig II. It was used as the Bavarian royal family’s summer residence.
The castle also offers an overlook onto a beautiful lake.
Neuschwanstein Castle is easily the most famous castle in Germany. It served as the model for Disneyland’s Sleeping Beauty Castle. It was built by King Ludwig II on a hill, situated against a striking mountain backdrop.
The shy king wanted to find peace and solitude in the mountainside escape, so it is ironic that the site is now a major tourist destination. The castle opened to the public in 1886, following Ludwig’s death. According to the Bavarian Palace Department, about 6,000 people visit the palace each day — adding up to about 1.4 million annually. Unfortunately, photos are not allowed inside, so my photos are from the exterior. The facade of the castle is white limestone, and will have to be restored in the coming years to come.
The best vantage point for taking a photo of the castle is from the Marienbrücke bridge, which faces the castle.
The castle itself is straight out of a fairy tale! Seeing Neuschwanstein from this vantage point is the best way to end your Romantic Road trip.