Prince-Bishop Johann Philipp Franz von Schönborn had a passion for elegance and splendor that the staid, musty salons of the Marienberg Fortress could not satisfy. So in 1720 he commissioned what over the next 50 years was to become one of Germany’s grandest and most elaborate baroque palaces. It’s best to see the palace on a guided tour, as the gilded, mirrored, and frescoed interiors are rich in detail you might otherwise miss on your own.

Architect Balthasar Neumann (1687–1753), whose talents included a rare combination of technical skill and an eye for beauty and harmony, oversaw the design of the 350-room palace, and his masterpiece shows a unity of purpose and design unusual in structures of such size. Von Schönborn’s successor, Prince-Bishop Carl Phillip von Greiffenclau, had the foresight to hire the Venetian painter Tiepolo to fresco the Treppenhaus (staircase), where in the largest fresco ever painted, Apollo is surrounded by other gods and women representing the four corners of the world, rendering a climb to the upper hall into a theatrical event. A keen-eyed observer might note that the fierce, naked maiden representing America is being served hot chocolate, then an exotic elixir, as she sits astride a crocodile among cannibals. Tiepolo worked some specific portraits into the Europa section, where he depicts himself as well as his son Giovanni, who accompanied him from Venice. Tiepolo also painted the frescoes in the chapel and the Imperial Hall, where he portrays, among other themes, the 1156 marriage in Würzburg of emperor Frederick Barbarossa to Beatrice of Burgundy. Among some spectacular visual tricks in the Imperial Hall is the dog who seems to perch on a pillar in front of a scene depicting the investiture of Franconian duke Herold; as you walk around the room, the dog transforms from a sleek pup into a plump, grizzled hound. As you walk down the hallways, notice a number of doors that are only about four feet tall—they were built to accommodate a staff of dwarves, who scrambled through tight passages within the walls to tend to the ceramic tile stoves that warm the salons.

An interesting historical sidenote: Much of the Residenz’s splendor would have been lost had it not been for an American art historian and soldier, John Davis Skilton, one of the so-called Monuments Men. When he came to Würzburg after the 1945 bombing, he found the palace a burned-out ruin, with the Tiepolo frescoes intact but exposed to the elements, so he constructed a makeshift roof to preserve them. He’s honored in a Memorial Room that chronicles the destruction of the palace and Würzburg and the restoration efforts.