Mountains, lakes, spas, and medieval towns lie within an hour of Munich, and the landscape is dotted with castles, villas, and Alpine resorts.

A short drive from Munich delivers visitors to the heart of Starnberg's Five Lakes Region. The Starnberger See and Ammersee are weekend destinations that afford an enormous assortment of sports. The Tegernsee region is also a popular destination. The spa town of Bad Tölz is known for its healing waters and clear mountain air.

The environs of Munich are as rich in culture and history as in natural beauty. However, in the midst of all this serenity, the former concentration camp at Dachau sounds an ominous note. Before Hitler and the Holocaust, it was a little artists' community, but it's now visited mainly as a symbol of the great horror of the Nazi regime.

Schloss Nymphenburg (Nymphenburg Palace)

One of the most sophisticated and beautiful palaces in Europe, Schloss Nymphenburg served as a summer residence for Bavaria’s royal family, the Wittelsbachs. (Their official Munich residence was the Residenz, which you can also visit.) Located 8km (5 miles) northwest of Munich, an easy 20-minute tram ride, Nymphenburg’s palace and grounds require at least half a day if you want to see everything.

Getting There

You can get to Schloss Nymphenburg by taking the S-Bahn to Laim and then the bus marked “Schloss Nymphenburg.” Another option is to take the U-Bahn to Rotkreuzplatz, then the tram to Romanplatz (from there it’s a 10-minute walk west to the palace entrance). From central Munich, you can also easily reach the palace in about 20 minutes by taking tram 17 to Romanplatz.

Exploring Nymphenburg Palace

There’s a lot to see at Nymphenburg, but you’ll probably want to begin in the main palace, which was begun in 1664 and took more than 150 years to complete. In 1702, Elector Max Emanuel decided to enlarge the original Italianate villa by adding four large pavilions connected by arcaded passageways, and later architects imposed a French style over the original Italian baroque. Nevertheless, it’s a relatively modest palace, without the “room-after-room” feel of a Versailles. There are no guided tours, but you can rent an audioguide; you can easily view it in less than an hour, which gives you more time to explore the gardens and outlying pavilions.

Highlights include the Great Hall, the most beautiful of the grand public rooms decorated in a vibrant splash of rococo colors and stuccowork. The great stucco-master Johann Baptist Zimmermann (see the Wieskirche) added these frescoes in 1756, featuring mythological nymphs (as in Nymphenberg) paying homage to the goddess Flora. The south pavilion displays Ludwig I’s famous Gallery of Beauties painted between 1827-1850 by Josef Karl Stieler. The beauties include portraits of Ludwig’s daughter-in-law, Marie of Prussia, who gave birth to his grandson Ludwig II in a bedchamber nearby, and of Lola Montez, the raven-haired dancer whose affair with Ludwig I caused a scandal.

To the south of the palace buildings, the rectangular block of low structures that once housed the court stables now holds the Marstallmuseum, which displays a dazzling collection of ornate, gilded coaches and sleighs, including those used by Ludwig II (the “Mad” King who built Neuschwanstein). The Porzellansammlung (Porcelain Collection; entrance across from the Marstallmuseum) contains superb pieces of 18th-century porcelain, including miniature copies of masterpiece paintings from the Alte Pinakothek.

A canal runs through the 500-acre Schlosspark, stretching all the way to the so-called Grand Cascade at the far end of the formal French-style gardens. In the English-style park, full of quiet meadows and forested paths, stands the Badenburg Pavilion, with an 18th-century swimming pool; the Pagodenburg, decorated in the Chinese style that was all the rage in the 18th century; and the Magdalenenklause (Hermitage), meant to be a retreat for prayer and solitude. 

Prettiest of all the buildings in the park is Amalienburg, built in 1734 as a hunting lodge for Electress Amalia. The interior salons, designed by the Belgian-born architect François de Cuvilliés (see the Cuvilliés Theater) are a riot of flamboyant colors, wall paintings, and more glorious Johann Baptist Zimmermann stuccowork. In the delightful Hall of Mirrors, take a closer look at the gilt cherubs festooning the walls and ceilings—they’re all busily hunting and fishing, as if to prove that this rococo gem is really just a simple hunting lodge. Really. 

Chiemsee & Neues Schloss

Chiemsee, known as the “Bavarian Sea,” is one of the most beautiful lakes in the Bavarian Alps, an hour south of Munich by train. Resorts line the shores and sailboats swarm the water in summer, but the main sttractions are its two islands, Fraueninsel and Herreninsel, the latter being where Ludwig II built his Versailles-style palace Neues Schloss

Getting There

Frequent daily trains make the hour-long trip from Munich’s Hauptbahnhof to Prien Bahnhof, on the Munich-Salzburg train line. Prien is on the western shore of the lake. By car, it’s a 90 km (62-mile) drive from Munich via the A8 motorway; scenic routes via the A94 or B304 are more direct but slower, taking about an hour and a half. 

Once you’ve arrived in the area, you’ll need to take a boat to get to the islands. Lake steamers operated by Chiemsee-Schifffahrt Ludwig Fessle (tel. 08051/6090) offer a range of excursions, from a 2.5-hour grand tour of the lake (€12.40 adults, €6.20 children 6-15) to a 20-minute trip directly from Prien to Herreninsel (round-trip €7.80 adults, €3.90 children 6-15). Local bus service runs from the Prien train station to the docks, but in the summer there’s also a vintage narrow-gauge train, operated by the steamer company; train fare (€3.80 adults, €1.90 children) can be included in your boat ticket. 

Exploring Chiemsee’s Islands

The smaller of the two islands, Fraueninsel (also sometimes called Frauenchiemsee) is a picturesque place to wander, with a fishing village, gardens, and a Benedictine convent, Frauenwörth Abbey, that was founded in 782, which makes it the oldest in Germany. The abbey’s stout white bell tower, topped with an onion dome, is the island’s most visible landmark. Guests are welcome to visit the Romanesque church, with its ancient frescoes; the oldest building in the complex, the gatehouse, also has some fine frescoes, and in summer hosts an art exhibit. Guided 45-minute tours of the abbey (€3) leave from the main gate, but they are only conducted in German.

Day-trip visitors on a more limited schedule may decide to spend their time at the lake entirely on Herreninsel (also sometimes called Herrenchiemsee), visiting the lake’s biggest attraction: Neues Schloss (also known as Königschloss). Begun by King Ludwig II in 1878, it was intended as an homage to French king Louis XIV’s palace at Versailles, although of course once Ludwig got going his version of Versailles became bigger and even more opulent. This was the third of Ludwig’s trio of fantasy castles, along with Schloss Linderhof and Neuschwanstein, and it was never finished; work stopped upon his death in 1886, with only the center of the palace completed. Nonetheless, the palace and its formal gardens, surrounded by woodlands of beech and fir, remain one of the grandest and most fascinating of Ludwig’s castles.

Visitors can only see the palace on guided tours, which last around 30 minutes; German-language tours run continuously, and there are two English-language tours per hour in summer, one per hour in winter. 

Tours begin in the vestibule, presided over by a pair of enameled peacocks, Louis XIV’s favorite bird. From there, you proceed up the sumptuously decorated State Staircase, with its white marble statues and vividly colored frescoes. Room after room reveals a dizzying level of rococo ornamentation, with gilded woodwork and huge crystal chandeliers hung from frescoed ceilings. Practically every inch of the State Bedroom has been gilded. Set behind a golden balustrade, a dais holds not a throne but a richly decorated bed, its purple-velvet draperies weighing more than 135 kilograms (300 lb.). Presumably this was where King Ludwig would have elegantly reclined while receiving state visitors, although in fact he never lived to use this chamber. Note the ceiling fresco, depicting the descent of Apollo to Mount Olympus—the god’s features bear a strong resemblance to Ludwig’s hero, Louis XIV. 

The Great Hall of Mirrors is the palace’s most splendid room, and the most authentic replica of its counterpart at Versailles. Its 17 arches contain enormous mirrors reflecting 33 crystal chandeliers and 44 gilded candelabras. The vaulted ceiling is covered with 25 paintings depicting the life of—who else?—Louis XIV. The Dining Room also fascinates visitors because of its so-called magic table, which could be lowered through the floor to be cleared and relaid between courses. Over the table hangs an immense chandelier of Meissen porcelain, the largest in the world (and the palace’s most valuable item). But perhaps the most poignant detail is the fact that the dining table is so small—ideal for a bachelor king to dine by himself. 

If all this makes you curious about Ludwig’s eccentric personality, Neues Schloss also has a museum on the grounds that documents his life story with state robes, ornate furniture, and other royal showpieces to gawk at. Your combination ticket also allows you to visit the nearby Old Palace, a former Augustinian monastery where Ludwig lived (in surprisingly simple quarters) while Neues Schloss was under construction; exhibits also explore the building’s role as the site of the 1948 conference that wrote the constitution for the new Federal Republic of Germany. 

Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.