Louis II of Bavaria built many extravagant castles during his lifetime, but none more extravagant than Herrenchiemsee Palace, a larger-than-life replica of Versailles on an island in the middle of Bavaria's Chiemsee. When we toured Bavaria with my parents, my brother and my family in April 2019, we did not miss a single castle of Ludwig II. From the baroque opulence of Linderhof to the medieval revival of Neuschwanstein or the 19th-century prestige of Hohenschwangau's castles, we've seen them all, but Herrenchiemsee Palace had something none of the other castles had: solitude and atmosphere. It was perhaps the only castle where we came even remotely close to an idea of the life of the monarch who built it, and that in itself was worth every chill outside on that chilly April day.
We arrived at the shores of Lake Chiemsee around lunchtime and once parked at Prien ferry terminal we headed to the nearest restaurant for lunch. Fortunately, the restaurant overlooking the pier was able to accommodate our party of eight and soon we were enjoying seasonal white asparagus, freshwater fish and schnitzels.
After lunch we went to the ticket office and bought tickets that included the ferry ride, the entrance to Herrenchiemsee Palace and the Monastery. Although we would have liked an ice cream before the ferry, we rushed to board a departing Chiemsee Schifffahrt and missed an ice cream, which was a bad idea anyway as it was freezing outside.
Once on board we retired to the lower cabin where we sheltered from the cold wind and warmed up. Ice cream, what were we thinking. A cup of tea did us all good and twenty minutes later we saw Herreninsel – literally: the people's island – from the windows of the ferry.
Herrenisland, the largest of the three main islands in Lake Chiemsee, is inhabited by just 30 people, while the nearby Fraueninsel – the women's island – is inhabited by 300 people. I'm not really trying to prove a point here, but as you can see the island was practically desert to begin with.
We docked at a charming boathouse and got off the boat and had a moment of reckoning. We knew we had to go to Herrenchiemsee Palace at some point to visit the interior, but 1) how far was it to walk? 2) can we visit something else sooner? and most importantly: 3) why was it so cold and windy?
We solved the far part by reading a sign about 20 meters from us: "Herrenchiemsee Palace - 20 minutes." Right, that was actually helpful. We assumed this was 20 "Google Maps" minutes, such as someone walking at a good average pace of three miles per hour. Because we walk on average 20% faster than Google Maps, we then looked at what we could visit along the way. Coincidentally, there was a sign to the Augustiner-Chorherrenstift Herrenchiemsee (Altes Schloss) and it was literally above us. Good find. Now the cold bit. Since the only way to fight the cold was to walk briskly or shelter indoors, we didn't linger.
Since my mother was in a wheelchair (with a woolen blanket), we decided to split into two parties. Our tour of Herrenchiemsee palace lasted about an hour. My mother, my father and my brother went leisurely to Herrenchiemsee Palace, while my husband, my two daughters and I
visithurry to the Augustinian Monastery and catch up with the slow pokes in the palace.
On first impression, the monastery was frankly boring. After entering the monastery, now a museum, we walked through long corridors and found large empty rooms with paintings, a music room (completely renovated) and rather empty kitchens. On the ground floor was an exhibition on WWII politics in Germany, certainly an interesting subject, but the panels were all in German so our understanding was limited.
It doesn't matter on the ground floor, the first floor (or the second, if you're from the other side of the pond) was where the good stuff was. When King Louis II of Bavaria built Herrenchiemsee Palace, an undertaking that occupied him for the last eight years of his life, he stayed at the Augustinian Monastery in rooms that can best be described as comfortable, but not overly luxurious. To make it official, the former Herrenchiemsee Monastery was converted into a royal residence known as the Old Palace (Altes Schloss), while the king built the Herrenchiemsee Palace, also known as the New Palace (Neues Schloss), the largest of its palaces.
While Ludwig II's reign is best associated with adjectives like extravagant, resplendent, or dreamy, the Altes Schloss was none of these. Although somewhat luxurious, it had a practical function. We almost only visited the stately rooms that formed his apartments. Only the bedroom, with a single bed, and an adjoining living room indicated that it was inhabited. The rest might as well have been for show.
The ballroom surrounded by busts of Roman emperors particularly caught my eye when I was reading Conn Iggulden's Emperor series on Julius Caesar and I love the historical feel of the books.
Nevertheless, our time in the monastery was running out and we had to make our way to the palace. We walked briskly and reached Herrenchiemsee Palace just 10 minutes before the start of the tour. The main lobby was almost empty except for my parents and a handful of visitors. Where was everyone?
Annoyingly, I cannot share my photos of the interior of Herrenchiemsee Palace, as photography is prohibited in all of Ludwig II's palaces. Mighty annoying! The good news, though, was that I was able to dig up some official photos so you can get a feel for the architectural beast that this palace is.
April is probably a bad month for Herrenchiemsee Palace. While we had to make our way through crowded rooms in the other Ludwig II palaces, we're barely 20 for this tour. Relative Solitude, Finally!
Fortunately, the Herrenchiemsee Palace is gigantic and fully accessible to visitors with limited mobility. My mother received royal treatment when she was wheeled behind the scenes to an elevator by my brother, just as we discovered the grand staircase.
Over the top would be one way to describe it, but that was just the beginning. Herrenchiemsee Palace was designed as a larger and fairly accurate reproduction of Versailles, although the public areas have largely been preserved. Gilded friezes, porcelain decorations and marble everywhere. My 15-year-old, who is not a fan of museums, was already toying with the idea of 'another castle'. She likes interior design.
On the first floor, my mother met us on the landing and the guide led us to the spectacular second front room with dazzling chandeliers and wide oval windows above fireplaces. Sitting on benches listening to our guide, we enjoyed the strange atmosphere of this castle. Ludwig II spent only 10 days in this castle and each of these 10 days was in fact a night. Ludwig II was a night person and during his stay 40,000 candles were used to light the rooms of the castle. 40,000 candles, let that sink in for a moment. The numbers were staggering.
From there we went into the bedroom, which, all things considered, was a bit creepy. Would you sleep here?
I would hate to sleep alone in this large bed in a bedroom with 10 foot ceilings. It would have been extremely intimidating, but Louis II was probably used to it.
The piece de resistance was undoubtedly the Great Hall of Mirrors. At 78 meters high, it is 10 meters longer than the Versailles Grande Galerie des Glaces.
Now imagine the same room, at night. You are alone and the last servants have left. It took them half an hour to light the 7,000 candles of 53 candlesticks and 33 chandeliers around you. To enjoy.
This was the life of Ludwig II, this was what he did. He wandered alone, wrapped up in his romantic dreams, in a palace where he never wanted to live, where other people were never meant to visit him. What a strange, strange man.
Strange as it may be, he had to eat anyway and, being alone, he dined at this table.
A similar table exists in Linderhof Castle. It can't be seen here, but the table rested on a removable drop floor that could be lowered by a mechanism one floor below (it took half an hour) to be fully dressed and garnished with plates, then raised by hand (another half hour) to the dining room. I assume that Louis II did not mind eating cold meals and that there were also appliances on the table to heat up dishes.
There wasn't much that could keep us on that floor, so we went down a second flight of stairs, completely unfinished this time. Bare walls, no sculptures, exposed bricks and that was it. The contrast with the grand staircase was striking and illustrated the amount of work that had gone into the furnishing of the rooms.
Last but not least: the bathroom! If I sound rather excited, it's because the bathroom was actually a swimming pool with a double staircase to walk down to the water.
Want to guess how long it took to pull a full bath? From memory it took about half a day or maybe 4 hours. At least it was long and probably had a heating mechanism in it to keep the water from cooling.
This ended our tour of Herrenchiemsee Palace, a wonderful visit in every way.
To say the gardens were not at their best would be an understatement. At the beginning of April, the trees were still leafless and some plant beds were fenced off for replanting or other maintenance work. Where the gardens of Versailles dazzle with their sheer size and many hidden alcoves or waterworks, the gardens of Herrenchiemsee paled a bit in comparison, but with an axis of 900 meters from castle to water, they were still palace gardens. From the top of a stone staircase, we had a full view of the grand canal that led into Lake Chiemsee, a fact I found quite cool.
When the sun shone for a few minutes, we turned towards the palace to enjoy the floral parterres planted around the two mythological fountains.
While we were only able to enjoy the design from the ground up, this aerial view gives a much better idea of the global effect achieved and is simply beautiful – even if it's unexpected on an island.
Around mid afternoon we decided to return to the ferry and return to Prien as we still had an hour to drive to our next destination. In the boathouse three ducks came to us, probably hoping for some food as real scavengers. Unfortunately for them, we ignored them and temporarily saved them from a liver disease that they probably get from chips or cake crumbs that summer tourists give anyway.
This ended our trip to Herrenchiemsee, our favorite of all Ludwig II palaces. He is often described as a dreamer who visits this castle, imagining his nightly walks in a great hall of mirrors lit by 7,000 candles that are sure to linger in our minds like a dream.
How to visit Herrenchiemsee Castle
- Town: Prien, Bavaria, Germany
- Parking: paying parking space at pier harbor (coins)
- Ferry: 20 minute trips, return tickets sold at the port of the pier
- Castle: combined tickets (Altes + Neues Schloss) sold at the box office at Herrenchiemsee
- Ferry terminal to castle: 20 minutes walk
- Facilities on Herreninsel: bathrooms, snack bar, restaurant, tea room (in palace Herrenchiemsee)
- What must we do(that hasn't been mentioned yet): walk around the island and go swimming in the summer
- Accessibility: castle fully accessible for wheelchairs and garden alleys mostly flat and wide