Behind The Neuschwanstein Castle — The Home Of Sleeping Beauty

Published March 13, 2018
Updated August 8, 2019
Published March 13, 2018
Updated August 8, 2019

King Ludwig II of Bavaria spent years dreaming about Neuschwanstein Castle, with its ornate decor and views to die for.

Disney Castle Germany

Bettman/Getty ImagesGermany’s Disney castle, Neuschwanstein, built by King Ludwig II of Bavaria about 10 miles from Oberammergau, Germany.

Nestled deep in the Alps atop a rolling hill sits Germany’s Neuschwanstein Castle, its imposing silhouette looking like something straight out of a fairy tale.

Surrounded by cliffs, a moat, and a picturesque little town, the castle appears untouched by time and stands as an everlasting testament to the fantastic imagination of King Ludwig II.

But Neuschwanstein is also part of a sadder story, one about the unforgiving distance between fantasy and reality — and the price that dreamers who mix the two sometimes pay.

King Ludwig II Builds Castles In The Air

King Ludwig

Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty ImagesKing Ludwig II of Bavaria, 1867.

Bavarian King Ludwig II had an eye for the beautiful and a taste for the fantastic.

As a child, he spent as much time as he could at Hohenschwangau Castle, his family’s luxurious update on a medieval fortress in southern Germany. Between tapestries and frescos of Germanic heroes, he did his best to escape the strict royal upbringing dictated by his authoritarian father.

He pursued the fruits of imagination, falling in love with the operas of Richard Wagner (whom he would later single-handedly save from financial ruin with his patronage), playacting, and reciting romances.

Cinderella Castle Germany

Joseph Albert/Wikimedia CommonsLudwig II’s love of Wagner is clearly on display inside Neuschwanstein Castle; this room is decorated with scenes inspired by Wagner’s Tannhauser. 1886.

When he took the throne in 1864 at the age of 18, he was everything a fairytale prince should be: handsome, poetic, generous to his people, and popular.

What he wasn’t was practical, experienced in statecraft, or remotely interested in the daily business of government.

He avoided Munich like the plague, frequently disappeared from state functions, and disregarded growing international tensions. He had his ministers in an uproar by year’s end.

When war broke out, Bavaria lost its status as an independent nation, though it maintained some of the rights of local government, and Ludwig II remained, nominally, the Bavarian king.

But it was a rulership in name only. Stripped of all real power, Ludwig dreamed of a place where he could still be king, a world apart for him to rule. In 1866, he decided that place would be Neuschwanstein Castle.

Germany’s “Disney” Castle, Neuschwanstein, Is Born

Cinderella Castle Germany

Wikimedia CommonsA conceptual drawing of Neuschwanstein Castle before construction began.

As he broke ground on what would one day become Germany’s Cinderella castle, he described his vision in a letter to Richard Wagner.

He said he wanted to “rebuild the old castle ruin of Hohenschwangau . . . in the authentic style of the old German knights’ castles,” complete with “guest rooms with a splendid view of the noble Säuling, the mountains of Tyrol, and far across the plain.”

There were to be magical, ornate rooms, filled with the finest things he could find, a hall made specifically for music, and a massive courtyard to breathe in the mountain air.

Inside Neuschwanstein Castle

Joseph Albert/Wikimedia CommonsThe grand music hall inside Neuschwanstein Castle reflects Ludwig II’s love of opera, especially Wagner. 1886.

“This castle will be in every way more beautiful and habitable than Hohenschwangau,” he said.

It seems that Ludwig’s vision was achieved.

Built high on a hill, taller than everything around it but the mighty Bavarian Alps, Neuschwanstein Castle was a breathtaking sight, then and now.

The sun bounces brilliantly off the bright white limestone of its facade. The turrets are all a deep blue, mirroring the skies they touch above them. From every angle, it looks like something fit for a fairytale.

And, indeed, the modern king of fairytale agreed. During a trip to Europe with his wife, Walt Disney visited Neuschwanstein castle and was as charmed by the scene as everyone else.

According to The Orange County Register, Disney used Neuschwanstein as the inspiration for Disneyland’s Sleeping Beauty castle.

But like Sleeping Beauty’s castle, Neuschwanstein had a melancholy secret, a hint of sadness beneath its glossy veneer.

Neuschwanstein in glorious detail, with footage taken from a drone.

Inside Neuschwanstein Castle

Disney Castle Germany

Bettman/Getty ImagesGermany’s “Disney” castle, the inspiration for the Sleeping Beauty castle, as seen from the bridge on the main road.

The first signs of trouble emerged early in the project.

As with many grand architectural dreams, the costs of construction began to substantially exceed projections. Though his work was employing hundreds of locals and bringing trade and some prosperity to the poor region, it was also landing Ludwig II personally in debt.

Contrary to popular belief, the Bavarian king did not use state funds for the construction of his castles — but he did use just about everything else.

He spent his royal income and his personal wealth, and when that wasn’t enough, he begged loans from his royal relations. He traded favors with German chancellor Otto von Bismarck and threatened to go on a pilgrimage to demand loans from all the royals of Europe.

Disney Castle Germany Construction

Johannes Bernhard / Wikimedia CommonsNeuschwanstein, Germany’s Cinderella castle, under construction, circa 1882–1885.

By 1886, Germany’s Neuschwanstein Castle had cost a shocking 6,180,047 marks. Together with his other castles, it had put him 14 million marks in debt.

It was too much for his ministers, who told him in no uncertain terms that the extravagant spending had to stop.

But Neuschwanstein Castle wasn’t finished; Ludwig had only just been able to take up residence there to oversee its final stages. The Bavarian king, unwilling to economize in any way, threatened his ministers with dismissal.

Faced with an intractable king, rising debt, and the loss of their positions, Ludwig’s ministers made a dangerous decision: Ludwig had to go.

A Sad Ending To The Fairytale In Germany’s Cinderella Castle

Disney Castle Germany

JOERG KOCH/AFP/Getty ImagesThis image taken from a plane shows Germany’s Disney castle, Neuschwanstein.

The Bavarian ministers had Ludwig declared insane.

It was, they felt, a neat solution to a sticky problem. The king, for all his extravagant spending, remained popular, and any unconstitutional challenge to his authority would have sparked controversy and unrest.

But against an accusation of mental incompetence, Ludwig would find it hard to defend himself — especially once Count Maximilian von Holnstein was through bribing the king’s servants to spin tales of rages, bizarre and childish behavior, and constant, vivid daydreaming.

To a modern reader, the litany of Holnstein’s complaints reads less as proof of insanity than as an account of a cripplingly shy, fantastically imaginative man. He was spoiled, perhaps, and a little vain, but most of all determined to build something beautiful, a private world that he could inhabit when everything else came crashing down.

Inside Neuschwanstein Castle

Joseph Albert/Wikimedia CommonsThe Neuschwanstein dining room, where Ludwig II surrounded himself with scenes from his favorite operas and epics. 1886.

The charges stuck. Four psychiatrists, none of whom had spoken with the king in the last decade, declared him to be suffering, like his younger brother Otto, from mental illness. The madness was clearly hereditary, they said, and Ludwig was unfit to rule.

Given the green light by the Bavarian Diet, Holnstein and company arrived at Neuschwanstein Castle in the early morning. They were met by armed men on the walls — a rare occasion when the fanciful, largely decorative castle served a military function.

Ludwig arrested and then released the commission.

His friends counseled him to flee, but, perhaps unwilling to part with Neuschwanstein and the home he had built himself, he delayed.

Inside Neuschwanstein Castle Bedroom

Joseph Albert/Wikimedia CommonsThe Tristan and Isolde bedroom inside Neuschwanstein Castle.

In the end, he waited too long. Two days later, a better-prepared force arrived and took the king into custody.

Ludwig was taken to Berg castle, where he was closely monitored by a psychiatrist.

On the evening after his arrest, the pair went for a walk around the nearby lake. When dark fell and neither had returned, a search party was sent after them.

They were found late that night, floating in the dark water — both dead, both bodies showing signs of a struggle. Ludwig reportedly had no water in his lungs, though the king’s autopsy report would list the cause of death as suicide by drowning.

Even in death, Ludwig II remained an enigma.

The Legacy Of Germany’s Cinderella Castle

Disney Castle Germany

Wolfgang Kaehler/LightRocket via Getty ImagesNeuschwanstein, Germany’s “Disney” castle, as seen from the gate house.

Though they erected a memorial cross to the famous Bavarian king in the waters where he died, most feel that Neuschwanstein is the true monument to his memory.

Germany’s Cinderella castle, with its fanciful flourishes and impractical beauty, was the best testament to Ludwig’s spirit — even though, in the end, he only slept in it for eleven nights.

Inside Neuschwanstein Castle Courtyard

Hardo Müller/FlickrA fanciful depiction of St. George on the inner wall of Neuschwanstein’s courtyard.

After Ludwig’s death, Neuschwanstein Castle was opened to the public. Only 14 rooms were finished at the time, and these are still the only rooms on display for tours.

The rooms are as ornate as Ludwig promised they would be, with ceilings covered in gold, 13-foot chandeliers, floor mosaics, velvet upholstery, and larger-than-life paintings from the greatest artists of the time.

Germany’s “Disney” castle draws millions of visitors every year; tourism long ago repaid Ludwig’s debts.

Inside Neuschwanstein Castle Throne

Joseph Albert/Wikimedia CommonsThe throne room inside Neuschwanstein Castle has everything but the throne itself. 1886.

Ironically, the only thing missing from Neuschwanstein is a throne, the only piece of furniture that never made its way into the palace.

The throne room is ready, adorned in paintings and gold leaf, but the throne itself is missing, perhaps a testament to the absence of the fantastic and imaginative king who perished before he could ever rule over his fairytale castle.

After reading about Germany’s Neuschwanstein Castle, check out this thousand-year-old castle you can buy for a cool $17 million. Then, read about the fairy tales that didn’t end exactly the way Disney said they did.

Katie Serena
Katie Serena is a New York City-based writer and a staff writer at All That's Interesting.