King Ludwig II left quite the legacy. Only 40 years old when he died and known for being eccentric, he earned nicknames like the “Fairy King” and “Mad King Ludwig.” He constructed massive palaces in Bavaria like the internationally famous Neuschwanstein, a beautiful but somewhat strange castle given its opera-themed concept. While Neuschwanstein is a popular tourist attraction, visitors looking for a Munich day trip should instead head east of the city to the lake Chiemsee and its two islands. In addition to a spectacular Versailles-inspired palace commissioned by the king is the Fraueninsel (or Frauenchiemsee), a charming Bavarian small town.
Getting to Know Lake Chiemsee in Bavaria
Bavarians fondly refer to the Chiemsee as the “Bavarian Sea.” There are only three islands within the freshwater lake but only two are built upon. The only island on which people live is the Fraueninsel. It’s a sleepy, small Bavarian town where visitors can wander around, do some shopping, and enjoy a meal. By contrast, the other major island on the lake Chiemsee is the Herrenchiemsee. That island is the site of royal opulence set amidst a beautiful natural woodland.
Additionally, the lake Chiemsee is a popular spot for recreation. On a day with clear weather, you can expect to find the crystal clear waters of the Bavarian lake to be dotted with sailboats and other water vessels.
To reach the islands, the Chiemsee Schifffahrt runs a ferry service from different locations around the lake.
From the moment the ferry glides up to the dock at the Herrenchiemsee, it is clear something is a little different. Something awaits you. The island is heavily wooded and a bit mysterious. Ducks swim along the shore near tall grasses with the mountains of the Chiemgau Alps in the background. It’s quite picturesque. The island is home to the Herrenchiemsee New Palace as well as the original Old Palace, a former Augustinian monastery.
From atop a hill just beyond the dock, the restaurant Schlosswirtschaft Herrenchiemsee looks down on the newly arrived visitors. Diners are seated outside under umbrellas enjoying a meal and, no doubt, the spectacular view. The dock area is the location of the visitor center, ticket center, and gift shop.
Visitors that want to go inside the palace or visit the King Ludwig II museum must buy tickets here. I repeat: you must buy your tickets at the Herrenchiemsee dock. There is no other ticket office. And the walk back from the palace, should you change your mind, is enough to discourage you.
While the walk is a bit far, it’s very easy and pleasant. It’s relatively flat. There are horse-drawn carriages available for a fee if you aren’t feeling very sprightly. But the walk is wooded and quiet. Perfect for reflection.
Until you reach the palace. Then everything suddenly becomes very loud — if only visually.
The New Palace
The new palace, the Herrenchiemsee, is large and lavish. The ornamental details along the exterior of the building are exquisite. The inside shows similar attention to detail and “more is more” attitude. From the front of the palace, a formal garden extends out. In the distance, there’s a clearing in the trees that offers a glimpse of the sparkling water of the lake. But from here, that water seems impossibly far away.
The centerpiece of the gardens is the fountains. Like everything else, the fountains are large, impressive, and spectacular. You have to walk all the way around in order to appreciate them. The characters depicted on the fountains are strange, whimsical, and exaggerated. Human bodies with the heads of frogs that are spitting water. Bodies being cast down a mountain, surely to their demise.
On closer inspection, it all may look familiar to you. King Ludwig II took “inspiration” from Versailles. And by “inspiration,” I mean some of the details — the fountains, the ornaments — are near-exact replicas. The only significant difference is that on these versions there is a lack of gilding.
There are other things to explore around the palace. A small herd of deer is kept inside in a wooded area, albeit in a fenced-in area. There is also a small outdoor exhibit explaining how they managed to even build the palace. Because, if you remember, it’s on an island in the middle of a lake. Further, the site of the palace on the island isn’t the most easily accessible. The secret? A system of rails allowed for the transportation of building materials. Rather ingenious.
It’s important to remember that, like Neuschwanstein, King Ludwig II died before the completion of the palace. Perhaps this is why the palace complex, although massive, lacks a special character or specific personality. It’s “merely” an impressive palace. And one you’ll want to visit!
King Ludwig II Museum
Twelve rooms within the south wing of the New Palace contain a museum honoring its founder, King Ludwig II. The exhibits cover the monarch’s entire life. His original state robes are on display as well as recreations of furniture from the royal apartment at the Residenz and were destroyed during WWII.
The Augustinian Monastery
Also on the Herrenchiemsee is a monastery that can be toured. The Augustinian Monastery, also referred to as the Old Palace, contains much history. There are four wings to the building with a courtyard in the center. Each wing is from a different addition. The earliest is from 1645 and the most recent is from 1727.
Today the newest wing houses the Julius Exter Art Gallery. Showcasing nearly 100 works from the Munich modernist/avant-garde artist. More recently, it was between the walls of this monastery that in 1948 the conference was held to prepare the constitution for the Federal Republic of Germany. In a further wing, there’s a second gallery of works from local painters.
Unlike the Herrenchiemsee, the Fraueninsel (sometimes also referred to the Frauenchiemsee) is an inhabited island. The 38-acre island is free of cars (although there are some maintenance vehicles). The island is dotted with homes and small businesses owned by some of the locals. There is a church with an active convent that sits right at the dock. There are also several restaurants with lovely biergartens across the Fraueninsel.
Perhaps the most dominant structure on the Fraueninsel is the Benedictine convent. Still active, a high wall wraps around the convent but the round dome peeks out. It’s easy to see even if you’re not on the island. It’s a sort of landmark if you’re on a boat in the lake Chiemsee.
It’s quite easy to get lost on the Fraueninsel. Narrow streets and alleys between homes and along the waterfront weave across the island. Some are paved while others are merely dirt paths. Flowers seem to be growing everything and it is all quite wonderful. Big, fresh roses greet you at the dock while countless homes have those beautiful overflowing window boxes that you see across Bavaria.
Lake Chiemsee: A True Bavarian Day Trip
A visit to the Chiemsee is a true day trip. In fact, it’s an ideal day trip from Munich. You can’t rush it, not least because the ferries only go at a certain speed and run on a schedule. It likely will take the entire day so relax and enjoy it. It’s worth seeing. The Chiemsee shouldn’t be missed.
To use time wisely, prioritize what you want to see. If palaces aren’t your thing, go to the Fraueninsel first. Likewise, if you want to thoroughly tour the palace make the Herrenchiemsee your first stop.
While Prien am Chiemsee is the most common dock location for those traveling from Munich and points west of the Chiemsee, there are other lakeside towns that the ferries serve: Gstadt, Bernau/Felden, Übersee/Feldwies, Chieming, and Seebruck. Ferry tickets are based on how much you’re planning to see. If you’re interested in visiting the other towns around the lake Chiemsee, plan accordingly so that you can buy the appropriate ticket.
The only access to the two islands is via ferry run by Chiemsee Schifffahrt. From Prien am Chiemsee, if you’re coming by car, there is plenty of parking at the dock on the lake Chiemsee.
For those using public transport, Prien am Chiemsee is the closest station using Deutsche Bahn. From Munich, it’s about an hour ride. From the station, it is a short, roughly 30-minute walk through the town to reach the ferry. However, a steam engine stands ready to carry you to the dock! Just beside the train station is a separate station, called Prien (Stock), for the steam engine which is operated by Chiemsee Bahn. It’s a brief but very fun ride.
Take note of the steam train’s schedule. Fewer trains run than ferries return to the dock. I ended up making the trek back on foot to Prien am Chiemsee despite having already paid for a round trip ride on the steam engine. It was either that or wait roughly 45 minutes. So walk, I did!
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All opinions, as well as all photos, are my own. This post contains affiliate links.