Today I’m taking a quick break from my usual mid-Atlantic travel coverage to feature my recent road trip through Bavarian Germany and Salzburg, Austria.
Bavaria is best known for its abundance of picture-perfect villages with ornately painted wood houses, fairy tale castles, green farmland dotted with friendly tan and white cows, traditional bierhauses with overflowing liters of beer and a close proximity to the towering snowy peaks of the Alps.
To say that this region makes for an ideal road trip is an understatement. Here, driving is easy (even for those of us that don’t speak German…) and is truly the best way to experience the area since everything is located so closely together.
My boyfriend Scott and I visited in mid-October, when the changing colors of the leaves were at peak splendor. With a trip that lasted just 6 days, I did a lot of research to find the absolute best of the best places to visit. I feel confident that we made the most of the time we had without packing too much in.
So, without further ado, here is my very Bavarian road trip!
And a very special thanks to the Bruised Passports blog, which was a great resource as I researched the best Bavarian places to visit, as well as my colleague Erin and her former-Germany-living dad, who reviewed my itinerary and gave it their informed seal of approval, which I so appreciated!
DAY 1: MUNICH
We spent our first day exploring Bavaria’s capital city, Munich. Munich is known for being the hub of all Oktoberfest activities and while the festival had wrapped up prior to our visit, the rowdy spirt of bier halls endures year round. The historic district is very walkable, and it’s easy to spend the day (or two, if you have an extra day to spare) exploring the city.
TIP: For a good overview of the city, we checked out the free —yes, free!— 3 hour walking tours by InMunich, which meets at 10:40 every day in the Marienplatz square. Just be sure to leave your guide a nice tip if you enjoyed your tour as much as we did!
Here are some landmarks that we made a point to see during our visit to Munich.
DAY 2: GARMISCH-PARTENKIRCHEN AREA EXPLORATION
On Day 2, it was time to say “Auf Wiedersehen!” to Munich, and drive about an hour south to Garmisch-Partenkirchen, the gateway to the Alps! We stayed in Garmisch for 2 nights and found it to be incredibly centrally-located for all of the places we wanted to visit in the area. (Another perk: It was located in the shadow of the Zugspitze, the highest peak in Germany, which provided amazing views.)
Stop 1: Partnach Gorge
Upon arriving in Garmisch, we headed straight to the Partnach Gorge for a hike. Maybe it was the vivid colors of the fall leaves, or the bright blue rushing water of the river, or the cascading waterfalls that seemed to be around every bend of the river, but this beautiful trail was one of my favorite quick-hikes ever.
Stop 2: The Garmisch Classic
The Garmisch-area has a number of gondola/ ski lifts that help day-tripping tourists to get to the top of the area’s peaks. The most famous is the Zugspitze, where a $52 euro ticket gets you on a gondola (or gondola + cogwheel train combo– your choice) to the top of the nearly 10,000 foot-high peak. But arguably the 2nd most popular is the Garmisch Classic, half the price at $26 euro, which is what we opted to do.
I am so happy with our choice– the Garmisch Classic ticket covers 3 invigorating gondola rides up, around and down the 6,725 foot Osterfelderkopf peak. It was amazing how quickly we went from the ground up to pure, snowy iconic Alps scenery. It ended up being one of my favorite parts of the entire trip.
Stop 3: The Hotel Edelweiss
When we were in Munich, we were chatting with our walking tour guide and shared that Garmisch-area was our next stop. He inquired, “Are you staying at the Hotel Edelweiss?” And we responded with a surprised, “Yes!” When we drove to Garmisch and continued our exploration of the area, we found that “Hotel Edelweiss” must be the most common hotel name in Bavaria because they seemed to be everywhere.
But, regardless if it was our Hotel Edelweiss he was referring to or not, we were so pleased with this little Bavarian gem. From the wooden window boxes overflowing with perky red and pink flowers, to the friendly staff and lovely free breakfast, to our room’s giant balcony that looked towards the Alps, it was a cheerful place to return to after a full day of exploring.
Stop 4: Mittenwald
The brightly-colored town of Mittenwald is an easy 25-minute drive from Garmisch. Despite a bit of early-evening rain, I loved the colorful houses painted in the traditional Bavarian style along the main Obermarkt street. On Sunday many of the stores were closed, so the town (which I imagine is often packed with people) was fairly quiet. It was a pretty magical sight, and it was worth the little detour.
DAY 3: CASTLE-MANIA
Stop 1: Linderhof Palace
King Ludwig II ruled Bavaria from the age of 18, from 1864-1886. Today’s, the “Mad King” is known more for his eccentric personality than his regal achievements. He’s known for the castles he built, too, which also happen to be some of the best attractions in Bavaria. (He may have been eccentric, but no one can say he didn’t have great taste!)
First up, was the palace which Ludwig II built to be his residence, Linderhof Palace. It’s nestled in the mountains and while the castle’s interior is surely something to marvel at, in my opinion it’s the grounds that really makes this palace so spectacular.
Stop 2: Ettal Abbey
A quick 10 minute drive down the road lead us to Ettal Abbey, which is home to a distillery and one of the few remaining Bavarian breweries still operated by monks. The brewery offers limited tours, but otherwise isn’t open to the public. But after walking through the gorgeous 10-sided church and exploring the grounds a bit, that didn’t stop us from sampling the brews… right next door at the Edelweiss Restaurant. (Yes, another Edelweiss!)
Stop 3: Oberammergau
By now, we were getting pretty hungry, so we drove the quick 7 minutes to the iconically Bavarian town of Oberammergau. I was so glad we stopped because not only was the scenery gorgeous (the town’s ideally situated under a high, snowy peak) but we also had one of the best meals of our entire trip.
Scott has a real talent for finding awesome places, so when I tasked him with picking our lunch spot I should have known that he wouldn’t disappoint! He ended up picking s’Wirtshaus, which seemed to be a local favorite. (We were the only non-German-speaking patrons there!) I got to have pork schnitzel with to-die-for roasted potatoes while he enjoyed a good vegetarian meal of veggie crepes. A round of beer later and we both left happy and full.
Stop 4: Neuschwanstein Castle
Our last stop of the day was Ludwig II’s legendary Neuschwanstein Castle. I’m a Disney girl at heart, so having the opportunity to see the inspiration for Disney’s Sleeping Beauty Castle in person was too much to resist. So off we went, into the green Bavarian countryside.
The castle lies high above the town of Schwangau, which is also home to the Hohenschwangau Castle (Ludwig II’s childhood home.) The scene was utterly, totally chaotic with so many tourists all trying to figure out how to get up to Neuschwanstein. We found our way onto a shuttle bus, and after a steep, winding ride uphill we disembarked at the entrance to the palace.
Sadly, during our visit the Marienbrucke Bridge was closed, so we were unable to see some of the more iconic views of the palace, but I still loved getting to visit this famous attraction.
DAY 4: HEADING EAST
On Day 4, it was time to leave Garmisch and move on to our next destination: Salzburg, Austria!
The drive was an easy 2 hours and 20 minutes on the Autobahn—which surprisingly wasn’t as terrifying as I expected…—But rather than driving straight to Salzburg, we spent the day exploring towns and attractions along the way.
Stop 1: Chiemsee
After visiting Linderhof and Neuschwanstein castles, when we heard there was a third Ludwig II palace on our way, we thought ‘why not go for the trifecta?!‘ So, off we went to Chiemsee to visit the Mad King’s largest palace, Herrenchiemsee.
Visiting this particular castle is extra awesome because in order to get to it, you’ve got to take a ferry across the Chiemsee lake, which at 9 miles long is the largest lake in Bavaria. Think of it as two attractions for the price of one!
Stop 2: Berchtesgaden
After visiting Chiemsee, we hit the road again and continued east. Shortly before we were about to reach Salzburg, we veered south to visit Berchtesgaden, a town that some consider to be the prettiest in Bavaria.
Berchtesgaden is nestled in the mountains right along the Austrian border. The village’s historic district was utterly charming, with narrow streets lined with brightly-painted buildings, packed cafes with bustling tables and a welcoming atmosphere. It was the perfect place to stop for a late lunch.
It’s hard to imagine that a place so cheery has ties to Adolf Hitler, but alas Berchtesgaden is also home to Hitler’s Eagle’s Nest retreat. We opted to skip a visit and instead headed to a more upbeat attraction on the outskirts of town.
Stop 3: Salzbergwerk
While this part of Germany is most known for its activities that can be found above ground, under the earth’s surface lies a unique attraction that is equally worth a trip… Berchtesgaden’s Salzbergwerk salt mines.
Salt has been mined in this region since the 12th century. The “white gold” that still is mined today was responsible for much of the area’s wealth and affluence. Today, visitors can take an entertaining 1 hour tour that had us sliding down huge wooden chutes (SO fun!), walking through deep tunnels and riding across an underground lake on a raft. It was a great time, and the best part? You get to don super-stylish mining jump suits! (Ha!)
DAY 5: SALZBURG
We arrived to Salzburg late on day 4 of our trip. After such a busy day, we were pretty tired, so we grabbed a bite to eat near our hotel and hit the sack pretty hard. But day 5 was our only day in Salzburg, so we knew we had to make the most of it.
It didn’t take long for me to realize that Salzburg is a really fascinating city. It is incredibly old, with settlements dating back to 15 BC. The old town is partially protected by high stone walls and a medieval fortress that looms high above the city. It’s clear that the city was originally designed to keep outsiders out, but today the Salzburg’s historic district is full of warmth… and music.
In fact music is probably Salzburg’s most notable draw because not only is it the home of Mozart, but the Sound of Music was famously filmed at locations throughout the city. Whether it’s advertisements promoting classical concerts or Mozart’s face painted on artisanal chocolates, musical touches are everywhere throughout the city.
We definitely made the most of our day in Salzburg. Here are some highlights:
DAY 6: HEAD HOME
The next day, we had a nice breakfast in Salzburg then headed back to Munich to fly home. Do I wish we had another 6 days to continue our exploration of Bavaria? Heck yeah! But I really felt like we got to see a lot of the region… and it leaves us with a good reason to come back soon!