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One of the world’s most-visited castles is Neuschwanstein Castle, or Schloss Neuschwanstein in German. In the southwest of Bavaria, flanked by the Bavarian Alps in the background, Neuschwanstein is often said to look straight out of a fairytale. And there’s a good reason for that: It was actually intended to be part of a real-life fairytale.
Neuschwanstein Castle was built for Ludwig II of Bavaria, who, charmingly enough, was called the “fairytale king.” Following the Austro-Prussian war and Ludwig II’s loss of power, he sought to build this castle as his retreat from the modern world. Because nothing says, “I’m done with public life,” quite like building a Bavarian castle and holing up in it.
Built atop castle ruins starting in 1869, it’s a castle that favors the dramatic—by design. Neuschwanstein Castle was fully meant to be over-the-top and capitalize on old-world theatrics. The initial intent of the fairytale king was to bring medieval themes to life, and the interiors of the castle execute on that, featuring artwork with knights, nobility, artists, and romantics.
Meaning “New Swan Stone," the legendary castle was named for the Swan Knight, a Richard Wagner opera character. The whole castle was, in fact, dedicated to Wagner, a close personal friend of Ludwig II. Wagner’s influence on the castle is tangible; the interior has more than a few paintings inspired by his works.
Building the castle took more than 20 years. One of the first things worked into the design was portraits of Ludwig II and the coins utilized while he was in power, a decorative tradition observed by many rulers of this time. The Gateway Building was finished in 1872, which is when work on the palace began. To comply with Ludwig II’s specific requests—like a throne hall that would make any “Game of Thrones” ruler shake with jealousy—it took almost two decades for the castle to fully come to fruition.
Unfortunately, the story of the fairytale king takes a less-than-happy turn. In a perfect world, the tale of Ludwig II would’ve had a Cinderella-like ending. But as it happens, the ending is a little more in line with the likes of Psycho or any of the Scream movies. Ludwig II didn’t wind up getting his happily ever after. On the contrary, he was found dead in 1886, not long after he moved into the nearly finished castle.
The year before, when foreign lenders attempted to seize the castle, Ludwig II was unable to handle the situation with, shall we say, the necessary decorum. His irrational behavior lead the German government to publicly declare Ludwig II insane. His death the following year is thought to potentially be suicide, though some speculate that it was assassination. The mysterious circumstances under which Ludwig II died get even murkier—he was found in Lake Starnberg, which is about 55 miles away from his castle. And his psychiatrist, who helped determine his insanity, was found dead with him.
Ludwig II was able to see the bare bones of his castle, and the fairytale-like decor in process. He even stayed in the Gateway Building when he’d come visit his palatial future-home. Nonetheless, he never got to experience the final product—the finishing touches weren’t done until six years after his death. In fact, the throne hall made for Ludwig II was built without a throne, because by the time the room was finished, the person who would’ve occupied said throne had passed.
All this to say that the throne hall is throneless, and Ludwig II would likely have taken some solace in the fact that, though he never got to sit on his Neuschwanstein Castle throne, no one else did either.
The fairytale king did, ultimately, achieve his goal of creating a magical world. The proof: It’s said to have inspired Sleeping Beauty’s Castle at Disneyland. While this was perhaps not the initial goal, it’s still an impressive bragging right, as is the fact that Günzburg’s Legoland features a Neuschwanstein Castle fashioned from 300,000 legos.
To be one of the nearly 1.5 million visitors to the Bavarian castle every year, you must purchase tickets for a guided tour. The castle is open every day—including most public holidays—from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. in the high season (mid-March through mid-October) and from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. in the colder months.