Touristic, glorious and romantic, some of Germany's best attractions are in Bavaria. My favorites are three of King Ludwig II's castles: stocky Hohenschwangau, his boyhood home; the nearby and fanciful Neuschwanstein, his dream escape; and Linderhof, his final retreat.
Ludwig was just 19 when he became king of Bavaria in 1864. Rather than live with the frustrations of a modern constitution and a feisty parliament reining him in, he spent his years lost in Romantic literature and operas chillin' with the composer Wagner as only a gay young king could. From his bedroom in Hohenschwangau, Ludwig trained a telescope on a ridge to keep an eye on Neuschwanstein as it was being constructed.
On my last visit, I peered through that telescope at Neuschwanstein Castle (which inspired another boy, named Disney). I could relate to the teen-king Ludwig. As a kid bound by schoolwork and house rules, I, too, had built a castle: a tree house with a shiny roof.
At age 18, I made my first independent trip to Europe. I toured Ludwig's postcard-perfect Neuschwanstein, and saw firsthand just how big, dramatic and over the top a "real" fairy-tale castle could be. Ludwig's extravagance and romanticism earned him the title Mad King Ludwig.
With towering turrets in a striking setting, these castles are a huge hit with sightseers. Every tour bus in Bavaria converges on Neuschwanstein and Hohenschwangau, while tourists flush in each morning by train from Munich, two hours away. Like the wave of a magic wand, a handy reservation system with set admission times sorts out the chaos for smart travelers (www.ticket-center-hohenschwangau.de).
Ludwig put his Neuschwanstein on a hilltop not for defensive reasons, but simply because he liked the view. The castle, which is about as old as the Eiffel Tower, is a textbook example of 19th century Romanticism.
The lavish interior, covered with damsels in distress, dragons and knights in gleaming armor, is enchanting. Ludwig had great taste for a "mad" king. Germany became a single united country only in 1871. As if to bolster its legitimacy, the young nation dug deep into its murky, medieval past. These heroes and legends inspired young Ludwig in decorating his fanciful castles.
Sitting at the foot of the hill, Hohenschwangau Castle is more lived-in and historic, offering an excellent look at Ludwig's life (with fewer crowds). Originally built in the 12th century, it was ruined by Napoleon. Ludwig's father rebuilt it, and you'll see it as it looked in 1836. The walls of the beautifully painted rooms are slathered with the epic myths and exotic decoration of 19th century Romanticism.
The homiest of Ludwig's castles is the small and comfortably exquisite Linderhof, set in the woods 15 minutes from Oberammergau, the Shirley Temple of Bavarian villages (a 45-minute drive from Hohenschwangau). Surrounded by fountains and sculpted, Italian-style gardens, it's the only place I've toured that actually had me feeling palace envy.
My preferred home base for exploring Bavaria's castles is Ruette, actually in the Austrian district of Tirol. If you have a car, this area offers maximum charm and good value. Fussen, in Germany, is a handier home base for train travelers.
Ludwig was king for 23 years. In 1886, fed up with his extravagances, royal commissioners declared him mentally unfit to rule Bavaria. Days later, he was found dead in a lake. People still debate whether it was murder or suicide. But no one complains anymore about the cost of Ludwig's castles. Within six weeks of his funeral, tourists were paying to see the castles -- and they're still coming.
Rick Steves (www.ricksteves.com) writes European travel guidebooks and hosts travel shows on public television and public radio.