You don’t need a princely income to go to bed in some of Europe’s finest historic buildings. With access to former palaces, forts, keeps and prisons, Germany’s Jugendherberge Youth Hostel Association can facilitate an exciting trip with a royal theme. Kirstie Pelling and Stuart Wickes from the Family Adventure Project toured five of the country’s best this summer and in this guest post they bring you their suggestions for a week ultimate German castle hostel tour..
Seven nights and no knighthood
First things first; you are unlikely to encounter a King or a Knight on your road trip of German castles and you won’t be woken up by a handsome prince unless you take your own. But if you always thought castles were either remote, draughty ruins or lofty homes for the rich then this post may pleasantly surprise you. Because Germany’s Jugendherberge association has made a fine job of opening up castle hostels to members, preserving the history and unique character of each, while modernising facilities and offering some quirky experiences. On our trip we kissed a frog, met a convention of Harry Potters, slept in castellated beds, escaped from a famous prison and luxuriated in the rich gold sunsets of the Rhine. We immersed ourselves everything from F1 racing to folk song karaoke and gingerbread icing. In this ultimate week-long castle hostel itinerary, we show you a route you can do if you want to be the king of the castle.
Day One: Burg Bilstein and Sauerland
The 13th century Burg Bilstein in Lennestadt isn’t the most impressive of the castles on our tour but it is definitely one of the most characterful; a frog in the well is just one of the humorous touches. You’ll also find crows tangled onto the walls and suits of armour standing to silent attention beneath the grand wooden staircase and chandelier. Strange instruments hang on the walls which you are invited to play and outside the bedrooms an artist has been hard at work creating scenes with damsels and knights. While we were there a scouting convention meant just about everyone else was dressed as Harry Potter and doing Hogwarts related activities, yet this didn’t seem out of place at all.
Take a look at this video to get a sneak peek of what you’ll find in Burg Bilstein:
Things to see and do
Boating and blobbing
There are some imaginative attractions in the immediate vicinity of the hostel, including the annual Karl May Wild West Festival, and the Galileo park – Sauerland’s creative version of the Pyramids. But many people visit this region for the outdoors. There are a huge range of hiking trails as well as great biking and boating. We split our time here into two and began at Sauerland’s Biggesee reservoir. We hired a pedalo at Sondern and swam off the back of it into the cool, still, reservoir waters. If you fancy the thought of bouncing on inflated pillows on the water you can head over to the nearby Blobbing Station. But we had our eye on the family run Gaststube Zum Minigolf where staff gave us refreshments before sending us off uphill with balls and clubs towards the perfectly formed mountain church; Kapelle Hanemicke.
An hour’s drive (60kms) from the hostel lies Winterberg, a winter resort town in the western German state of North Rhine-Westphalia. We had fun tobogganing down the Sommerrodelbahn toboggan run before going barefoot at the nearby Langewiese Barfusspfad. At this simple, free to enter barefoot park we picked our way around 13 stations, feeling the earth between our toes, and the chippings and pebbles beneath our feet. If you are more of shoes-on kind of person then bring your trainers and bike straight to Bikepark Winterberg. The newest mountain biking run, Flow Country, is 1.6kms long and there’s a lift to get you up to the top.
Read our post on flying around a magical destination for more ideas: 48 hours at Burg Bilstein – Sauerland: Activities, Adventures and Castle Magic
Day 2: Burg Blankenheim and the Eifel
You’ll need an early start to fit in all the activities on day two of your road trip. Skip breakfast and drive the 160kms to Burg Blankenheim as it’ll take you about two hours to reach the rural hostel, situated in the Eifel National Park. This is a 10,700 hectare volcanic landscape filled with wildlife including wildcats, black storks and around 1,600 endangered species of animals and plants. The Youth Hostel is in Grafenberg castle, above the village of Blankenheim; a beacon of white and charcoal on a hilltop. (We soon discovered they are almost always on a hilltop.) The Burg was built as a hill castle around 1115 but it was most famous as the seat of the Blankenheim family who were elevated from Lords to Counts in the 1300’s. We stayed in a special family apartment in the grounds of the castle with self-catering facilities, a TV and comfy sofas. The main hostel building is light and airy and its walls are studded with interesting objects and images.
Check out our video where we collected our first impressions of the Burg:
Things to see and do
Biking in the wild Eifel
We hired bikes to see as much as possible of the huge and wild Eifel park. Elektro Fahrradverleih Eifel provided us with five shiny bikes with bells and they will deliver to the hostel to save you time on a packed day. We biked a 12km circuit that lasted two hours but there are lots of different trails and paths. Our route took us through beech forest along flat gravel tracks. At the halfway mark we had ice creams at Cesars Ice Café Serafin in Nettersheim. If you have more than a day in the area, check out the mountain bike routes of the Eifel Free Rides or Bad Münstereifel. For families there’s an easy non circular route called the Eifel Radweg following old railway lines.
A race around the Nürburgring
A visit to the Eifel region might be an escape from the hustle and bustle of the city but it’s not all peace and quiet and natural pursuits. Around 40kms from Burg Blankenheim you’ll find one of world’s most famous Formula One circuits. The Nürburgring has a 20.832 km track, The North Loop (Nordschleife) which winds around Nürburg village and medieval castle. It was so lethal that Jackie Stewart nicknamed it The Green Hell. These days, races happen on the 5.148km Grand Prix track. We attended The Nürburg Old Timer rally; a classic car race day. We watched the racing, toured the pits and had a go at the linked up simulators. On days when there’s no racing you can drive around the legendary Nordschleife track, hiring a car and/or an instructor to navigate the 20.832 kilometers, 73 curves, 17 percent gradient, and 300 meters difference in altitude.
Day 3 and 4: Burg Stahleck and The Rhine
172km from Burg Blankenheim, Burg Stahleck sits in an impressive position on the Rhine above the town of Bacharach. It’s hard to beat this castle for its romantic appearance and outlook, or as a base for a couple of days exploring. And castles aren’t exactly scarce round here; on a 65km stretch we find more than 40 defences. Since 2002 the Upper Middle Rhine Valley has been recognised as a UNESCO site of World Heritage significance; there are more than sixty small and interesting towns, with the river as its glittering centrepiece.
A room with a view
Situated on a hill (yes that again!) Burg Stahleck is filled with rooms with spectacular views. You might see the river from the top of the tall round tower or you may see it from one of the fun family rooms, fitted out with wooden castle themed bunk beds. Our room even has its own lookout. This is a classic castle stay; with a half moat and a high princess tower that the hostel manager gave us a sneak peek of. Inside there are lots of ways to entertain yourself including games room, pinball machine room and bistro. One of the highlights of your stay will undoubtedly be watching the sun go down from the terrace over evening drinks. Then later, watching the stars.
Follow our journey around Burg Stahleck in this video:
Things to do
Day 3: Andernach and Koblenz
Day 3 has a packed itinerary so another early start may be in order. Do you like bubbles? We do, so we jumped at the chance of viewing the world’s tallest cold water geyser in Andernach, 70km from Burg Bacharach. There’s loads to do at Geysir Andernach. We explored a great educational exhibition, learning about the origin of the geyser by following trails of bubbles. Then we took a boat trip along the Rhine to the nature reserve where we watched the Andernach geyser explode 60 metres into the air, powered by volcanic carbon dioxide.
Then it was off to Koblenz, 20kms away, where we explored historic Ehrenbreitstein Fortress, flew over the river by cable car – spotting the confluence of the Rhine and Mosel at Deutsches Eck, and had tea in the Electoral Palace gardens. We also sang folk song karaoke about the Loreley (more about her in a moment) at the kid-friendly Romanticum exhibition at the Forum Confluentes in the centre of Koblenz.
Day 4: Loreley and her rocky cliff
Day four began, as all fabulous days do, with a toboggan ride. As we whooshed down the hill we looked forward to learning more about a beautiful and legendary woman. The Loreley rock sits above one of the narrowest and deepest parts of the Rhine, where currents get strong and navigation hard. It’s named after a legendary maiden, Loreley, who used to sit on the rock, combing her golden hair and singing, distracting sailors and causing shipwrecks below. Out at the viewpoint we got great views down onto the Rhine with its endless procession of freight and passenger boats. Although we listened hard we didn’t hear Loreley sing. Thankfully the Koblenz Romanticum exhibition sent our karaoke versions to our phones so could play them back if we felt like it. Thankfully for others we didn’t!
Check out our full post on Burg Stahleck and The Rhine here.
Day 5 and 6: Nuremberg hostel and city
It’s a four hour drive to Nuremberg from Bacharach town so unless your tuition at the racing circuit gave you super powers you are unlikely to arrive much before the afternoon of day 5. And as this hostel is one of the most comfortable and modern we suggest you base yourself here for a couple of days. There’s loads to do in the city and if you buy a city card it lasts for 48 hours and gives you free access to many of the museums and attractions.
Room in the stable
Nuremberg DJH hostel lies immediately beneath the Imperial Castle. The former castle stables provide high ceilings, giant square pillars, grand staircases and wooden beams galore. Canteen style meals are taken in the bistro where you can also chill out with a good German beer or a cocktail. Long low wooden benches with square stools and tables set into red brick arches provide gathering points and places to play board games. Arched windows lead out into a courtyard with tables and umbrellas. It all comes together to provide a modern city base that feels buzzy and alive. Facilities include 93 smart en-suite bedrooms, all with en-suite shower and toilet.
Check out our video to see what it’s like to stay in a modern yet historic city hostel like Nuremberg:
Things to see and do
Day 5: Nuremberg’s Imperial Castle
For your first day in Nuremberg, concentrate on the most famous landmark – the Imperial Castle or Kaiserberg. With a base in the youth hostel, you’ll be there in five minutes. You can take a self guided tour of the castle, which was one of the most important of the Roman Empire. Check out the Sinwell Tower with a winding wooden staircase and one of the best views of the city. We loved the Well House with fun demonstration of its depths.
At the end of the day we headed into town to sample the famous Nuremberg sausage. The Nürnberger bratwurst must be no longer than 9cm and no heavier than 25g. Chefs have been making the sausage for the last 700 years and a good place to try some is the Bratwursthausle, a traditional hostelry under the Sebaldus Church. Food is simple and cheap – basically a little row of sausages on a tin plate with potato salad and bread cooked on a beech wood fire. It was so good we ate there twice.
Day 6: Nuremberg museums
We advise splitting your second day in Nuremberg into two, with each part offering a different glimpse into the diverse history of the city. The name of Nuremberg will also be forever associated with Nazi Party conventions, historic rallies and war trials. The city doesn’t attempt to escape or gloss over its darker past but uses it as a focus for education and memorial. We visited the huge unfinished Congress Hall, viewed a visually arresting exhibition that looks at the rise and fall of Nazism in the city and the country, and climbed the grandstand that was purpose built to host the enormous rallies. It was a thought provoking morning for us all.
And now for something completely different. If you have young kids, the Playmobil FunPark in Zirndorf to the west of the city takes you to the lands of pirates, knights, dinosaurs and fairies. Or stay in town for the excellent Toy Museum. Nuremberg still holds the world’s biggest toy fair and its past is woven through with toy makers and toy shops. The museum is a charming look at how Nuremberg led the way in tin and wooden toys in decades gone by.
If you don’t have kids you might want to visit the house of Nuremberg’s most famous son. The Albrecht Dürer House is a massive half-timbered house where the artist lived for nearly 20 years at the start of the 1500s. It is said to be the only surviving 15th century artist’s house in Europe and a good place to get a feel of old Nuremberg. You can even get a tours led by an actress playing Dürer’s wife Agnes.
Read more about our stay in Nuremberg here
Day 7: Schloss Colditz and Saxony
If you are a Brit or an American you will instantly get why Colditz was on our tour. The former prison is famous for the daring and inventive POW escapes that were later profiled in TV and film dramas. 300km away (a three hour drive from Nuremberg,) Colditz Castle sits high on a hill spur overlooking the town of Colditz and the River Zwickauer Mulde in south east Germany. It may be most famous as a WWII POW camp but it has a varied history. The Schloss Colditz Youth Hostel is in the former administration wing of the prison, which over the centuries has also been a royal hunting lodge, a poorhouse and a psychiatric hostel. In the sunshine, it is a warming yellow gold and despite its fearsome reputation it is a basic yet welcoming hostel. You can stay on a bed and breakfast or catered basis and while furniture is sparse in the rooms, there are lots of pleasant communal areas like the terrace with table football and the games room.
Have a look at our Colditz video to see if you’d like to escape to this castle:
Things to do and see
If you have just a day in this corner of Saxony, then give yourself up to enjoying the castle and prison fully. There’s a small museum where you can see the full sized glider the British prisoners made from scavenged materials and glue they ingeniously created from porridge. But the highlight is the informative guided tour. They are offered in several lengths – one of them lasts most of the day. We took a two hour tour where we were invited to squeeze through potato ventilation shafts to see how tight the escape was, and look down the tunnels prisoners dug. The stories are fascinating and our guide Steffi Schubert had a sense of humour. “They went down the cliff. You may want to walk down the steps.”
Paddle a city
If you have extra time, the nearby village is pretty and there are some great coffee shops. Or the city of Leipzig is quite accessible -just 40kms away. We spent two days at Colditz and had a canoeing afternoon in Leipzig on the second day. This may sound unlikely in such a busy urban environment, but be assured there’s a network of canals, rivers and lakes accessible from the city centre. On a canal spur at the Stadthafen you can book a boat trip or hire canoes, kayaks, stand up paddleboards or other boats to explore. You don’t have to go far but if you have three hours to spare you can paddle out to the Cospudener See.
End of the trip reflection
And then it was back to Colditz, not to escape, but to relax, sleep and reflect on a week of exciting castle adventures. Check out our post on Colditz here and then plan your own castle hostel trip. The Jugendherberge website can help you with bookings and information.
The Family Adventure Project castle hostels road tour was funded by Germany’s Jugendherberge Youth Hostel Association. Our thanks go to the tourist boards who helped us on the ground and DFDS Seaways for our crossing into Europe. The opinion, photography and videography as well as any kissing of frogs and dressing up as princesses was all our own.