Years ago when I first found out about the Königssee, one of the many lakes in Bavaria, and the Saint Bartholomew Church, a pilgrimage church perched on the edge of the lake beneath the German Alps, I was awestruck.
A friend summed it up more succinctly: it looked fake. And he is not wrong. The photos of the lake, the church, the German Alps hovering overhead: it all looked too perfect, too picturesque, too ideal. Of course, I had to see it for myself. Live, up close, and in person. So my husband and I traveled from Munich to the Königssee to visit the lake and Berchtesgaden National Park, which surrounds the lake. While it isn’t fake, it sure feels surreal. It’s spectacularly beautiful whether you’re looking to hike, enjoy the outdoors or simply explore.
Discovering Berchtesgadener Land
Situated just about as far south and east as you can go in Germany without crossing the border and ending up in Austria, the district of Berchtesgadener Land is home to a very beautiful and picturesque landscape. The third highest peak in Germany, the Watzmann, stands in the district’s Berchtesgaden National Park as does the Königssee, a spectacular lake that is the country’s third deepest.
The Königssee area is a wonderful day trip from Munich although it takes a bit of time and patience to get there. It’s home to a number of WWII related sites including the Dokumentationszentrum Obersalzberg, the first German museum to cover the entirety of the war, as well as the Eagle’s Nest (Kehlsteinhaus), a building used for Nazi meetings, that is sitting atop the Kehlstein mountain summit. But where the area really shines is with the outdoor activities. There are the Jennerbahn cable cars, ski slopes, luge, and bobsled tracks. And there are things to explore below ground, too. There are a number of salt mines in the area that are open to the public.
Berchtesgaden National Park
The Berchtesgaden National Park Area dates to 1978 and it is the only national park in the German Alps as well as the country’s only alpine national park. And at over 51,000 acres, it is home to more than 700 different varieties of animals.
The park is rich with hiking trails where you can experience the Watzmann mountain, the third-highest in Germany, or stroll along the lake. You can explore the country’s largest ice cave, Mount Untersberg. In addition to the Königssee, there are other lakes in the park including the Hintersee, Thumsee and Höglwörth Lakes.
Exploring the Königssee
The Königssee is remarkable. The blue-green water is astonishingly clear, like glass. At more than 650 feet in depth, it is Bavaria’s deepest lake. To experience the lake, the best place to start is in Schönau am Königssee. From there, you can buy tickets for the ferry (or Königssee Schifffahrt) run by the Bayerische Seenschifffahrt. The ferry runs to several stops around the nearly 5 mile-long lake but the most popular is the one to St. Bartholomew Church.
Rides on the electric ferry boat service start at the Schönau am Königssee dock which, on a day with good weather and crowds, is slightly organized chaos. From the dock in Schönau am Königssee, it’s roughly a half-hour ride over the calm water before you reach St. Bartholomew. The ride on the lake through the Berchtesgaden National Park is an easy and effortless glide that allows you to soak in your surroundings. On the ride to the church, the ferry pauses and one of the ferry employees plays the trumpet to demonstrate the echo of sound off of the stone cliffs that surround the lake. The sound and the echo are very impressive. Additionally, the lake is very popular for swimming and sunbathing.
If you are feeling particularly sporty, you can hike through the mountains in order to reach the St. Bartholomew area. But for most of us, the Königssee Schifffahrt is the most convenient and efficient way to reach the landing.
St. Bartholomew Pilgrimage Church
Once you dock and disembark at the church, admittedly there isn’t much there. There’s a small building selling small souvenirs, a fish stand selling Steckerlfisch (delicious fish roasted on a stick), and a very good restaurant with a large Biergarten. Of course, there’s also the church itself.
The onion-shaped, red-roofed church is remarkably small. It’s also, much to my surprise, not a fully detached building. It’s connected to another building. The church dates to 1697 with the stucco-work done by Joseph Schmidt, a Salzburg master. During the 18th century, further construction was completed in the area, including a summer residence and a hunting residence. Be sure to stop in the church for a quiet moment. It’s a modest church but it seemed mostly ignored by other tourists when I was there. There is no admission fee to enter the church.
From the dock, past the church and the other buildings, a path leads towards the Alps. Take the trail. While there are lengthy and more difficult trails that you can hike, there’s a trail that offers a not very challenging loop through the trees, along the cliffs and then down past the edge of the lake.
That hike in Berchtesgaden National Park was probably my favorite part of the entire experience. And I have to admit, visiting the Königssee was my favorite experience from the trip. It’s unlike anything I’ve ever experienced or like will experience again anytime soon.
How to Get to Schönau am Königssee
The bus stop closest to the dock is the Königssee, Schönau a. Königssee stop. The local buses are Deutsche Bahn’s RVO. Buses 841 and 842 serve the stop, depending on the time of day and departure location.
If you plan to drive to Schönau am Königssee, there is a parking lot right near the bus stop. There is a fee to park.
The bus stop and parking lot area is near to a number of worthy sights so if you have the time, this is a good starting point.
For those taking public transit — as I did — buses depart the Berchtesgaden ZOB train station and are marked as to what bus number serves which attractions. However, because buses only run about once per hour or so, they can be crowded. While it’s only a short ride to Schönau am Königssee, the tiny village at the top of the Königssee from which the ferries operate — it is hilly terrain with little room for hikers. Take the bus. Once there, the town caters to tourists with inexpensive wares, souvenirs, cafes, and ice cream.
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All photos, as well as all opinions, are my own.