Fairy-tale castles and palaces around Frankfurt
Magic in the Hesse region.
Fairy-tale castles and palaces around Frankfurt
When you're in the heart of one of Europe's great cities, country palaces and dramatic castles may not be the first thing on your mind. But get just a little way outside Frankfurt and you can discover some jaw-dropping sights, from the ruins of vast Renaissance palaces to storybook castles that look down from forested hilltops.
It's all thanks to Frankfurt's superb location in the Hesse region. With the Main and Rhine rivers flowing through it, this is something of a crossroads for Western Europe, and the power and wealth that accumulated here have left their mark. Head south and you cross the southern states of Baden-Wurttemberg and Bavaria, both of which (and particularly Bavaria) have their share of famous castles too.
So there's plenty to explore, and Germany's renowned transport infrastructure makes getting around easy. Some of the castles on our list can be reached on public transport alone, starting from the major rail hub at Frankfurt Hauptbahnhof. Hire a car at Frankfurt airport and you'll be in an even better position. Hit the autobahns – or take the scenic back roads – to discover remote gems like Eltz Castle, which has been owned by the same family for almost nine centuries.
Feeling inspired? Flights from London City to Frankfurt take just 90 minutes, so it's perfect for a long weekend away or an extended trip. If you're eager to explore further afield, just choose a hotel a little further out of the city and add a car hire reservation to your booking.
Perched high above Marburg's quaint town centre, Marburg Castle (also Landgrafenschloss Marburg) is a dramatic presence – its high walls rise out of the surrounding trees, and from the south the arched, elevated walkway between the castle's wings adds to its intriguing appearance. Even if you've come to Marburg for something entirely different, you feel yourself drawn up the 300-metre Schlossburg to get a closer look. Founded in the 11th century, the castle is now home to the local university's art and culture museum, and on summer weekends you can join guided walks through the building and its fortifications.
Distance: 55 miles (90km) Driving time: 1 hour 15 minutes Public transport: 1 hour 30 minutes
From a distance, the striking appearance of Burg Limburg comes from the contrast between its imposing 13th-century core and the vivid, polychrome cathedral that rises behind it. Get closer and you find that even the castle itself is full of contrasts. Next to the early Romanesque hall, chapel and residential wing is a half-timbered building from the Renaissance period with an octagonal staircase tower. There isn't much to see inside, but it's well worth supplementing your visit to the cathedral – which itself is one of the finest examples of Romanesque architecture in Germany – with an exploration of the castle's courtyard and exterior.
Distance: 37.5 miles (60km) Driving time: 1 hour Public transport: 1 hour 15 minutes
It's a fairly long drive from Frankfurt, but you're looking for sheer, otherworldly fairy-tale charm, Eltz Castle delivers the goods. Situated on a high, rocky outcrop, it is surrounded by thick forest and looks down on the Elzbach river, which wraps around the bottom of the hill in a horseshoe-shaped curve. The location could hardly be bettered – and the approach to the castle, over a high cobbled walkway and through a heavy stone gatehouse, adds to the atmosphere. Untouched by wars and owned by the same family since its construction in the 12th century, Eltz is something of a time capsule, and its interiors and treasury are every bit as remarkable as its exterior.
Distance: 70 miles (115km) Driving time: 1 hour 45 minutes Public transport: Not recommended
File Heidelberg Palace under 'Romantic ruins'. Even in its partially destroyed state, you have a clear sense of how impressive this sprawling complex would once have been. In its heyday, Heidelberg Castle was one of the most important palaces in Renaissance Europe, built up by generation after generation of powerful prince electors before being eroded away by decades of war and freak accidents (it was a lightning strike that caused the complex's final demise). Today, visitor highlights include the well-preserved Ottheinrich Building, the statuary on the Friedrich Building and the extensive terraced gardens, which have superb views over Heidelberg and the Neckar valley.
Distance: 55 miles (90km) Driving time: 1 hour 15 minutes Public transport: 1 hour 45 minutes
The four-sided Johannisburg Palace was built in the early 17th century, but step into its huge central courtyard and you'll discover a hidden extra: the keep of the original medieval castle, constructed some 300 years earlier. There are surprises inside the palace buildings too. Here the style switches from Renaissance to neoclassical – rooms are opulent, ornate and present a stark contrast to the imposing red sandstone walls outside. Look out for the Gothic-style chapel, and set some time aside to visit the castle's art collection, including work by German master Lucas Cranach the Elder. On top of all that, there's an intriguing collection of cork architectural models of Roman landmarks – a final surprise from a palace that is full of them.
Distance: 25 miles (40km) Driving time: 45 minutes Public transport: 45 minutes
Located on the banks of the mighty Rhine, Stolzenfels Castle is a classic fortress-style castle, complete with stout crenelated towers and an iron-gated guard house. Surprisingly, the buildings you see today are mostly from the 19th century – they're a Gothic revival fantasy placed on top of a 13th-century ruin by Frederick William IV of Prussia, who developed it into a treasured summer residence. Today it remains almost exactly as it was in its mid-1800s prime, including several formal gardens, expansive parkland and of course the dramatic interiors of Frederick's 'show castle'.
Distance: 60 miles (100km) Driving time: 1 hour 30 minutes Public transport: Not recommended