Castles All the Way – 48 Hours on the Romantic Rhine
The Romantic Rhine is not really about romance. At least not on a family visit. This magical stretch of the Middle Rhine is dominated by castles, more than 40 of them on a 65km stretch of the river between Koblenz and Bingen. It’s our mission to see a few of the best and to stay in one of Germany’s most famous hostels, Burg Stahleck in beautiful Bacharach. In this advertising feature, a collaboration with DJH Jugendherberge (German Youth Hostels), we bring you bubbles, castles, bob sleigh rides, river trips and exploding geysers in an action packed itinerary for 48 hours in a beautiful, fast flowing, castle topped, UNESCO listed riverscape…
Welcome to the Romantic Rhine
The Romantic Rhine is the setting for our 48 hour stay at Burg Stahleck in Bacharach. The Rhine is Germany’s biggest river and since the Romantic era has inspired artists of all kinds as one of the world’s great river landscapes. Since 2002 the Upper Middle Rhine Valley has been recognised as a UNESCO site of World Heritage significance. But it’s more than recognised and romantic; it’s magical. This is a land of castles; on the 65km stretch of the Rhine between Koblenz and Bingen there are more than 40 unique defences and sixty small towns. The castles are high on the hill as we turn a corner. They are the focal point to a town. They are deep in forest. One or two are even on islands in the middle of the river. So far so Disney. But castles aren’t the only thing on offer in this silver and green slice of Germany.
48 hours of Rhine river action
During our 48 hour stay on the Middle Rhine we learn the legends of the river. We enjoy outdoor activities including boating and bob sleigh riding. We wander through timber framed old towns. We have tea in the gardens of palaces and castles. We blow giant bubbles and watch the tallest cold water geyser on earth reach for the sky. But we begin our stay at Bacharach’s impressive castle hostel, Burg Stahleck, in a crenelated bunk bed. What could possibly be more magical than that?
“The air is cool, night is sinking
And quietly’s flowing the Rhine,
The tops of the mountains are blinking,
In purple-red sun-setting shine.”
Extract from The Loreley by Heinrich Heine
Fairy tale magic
The DJH Youth Hostel at Bacharach (also called Burg Stahleck) is a classic castle hostel. Its name literally means ‘impregnable castle on a crag’ and it is one of the most famous hostels in Germany. It’s about as fairy tale a setting as we’ve ever experienced. Sitting amongst the vineyards high above the timber framed old town of Bacarach, Burg Stahleck literally stands tall over the Rhine. It has towers. It has turrets. It has a partial moat. And when the sun goes down it has princess pink sunsets. People come for all of this, especially in the summer months. But they stay for the views. From the terrace you have a prime view of the Rhine as it curls and bends its way through the landscape. The best time to sit out is at sundown when can buy a cold beer from the bistro and watch the day fold into gold. And if you lie on one of the benches once the sun has gone to bed you can imagine yourself looking up at the stars at any time from the medieval period to infinity. Then it’s time to go to bed. And what a treat that can be…
A thoroughly modern castle
While some castles are all draughts and hard surfaces, Burg Bacharach has a homely, quirky feel. There are lots of comfortable places to sit including a lounge and terrace and a family games room packed with toys. The breakfast room (which serves a free buffet breakfast) doubles as a bistro at night. If you like retro gaming, you’ll also find a room full of pinball machines.
There’s a wide range of sleeping options too, some 168 beds in total. You can book one of the towers which are pleasingly round or hope for a secure night bunkered down in one of the castle themed bunk rooms. Ours had eight crenelated ‘feature’ wooden bunks in red, white and brown.
Don’t worry, facilities aren’t medieval though; you’ll get a light, charge point and shelf near your pillow, and some rooms have ensuite toilet and shower. Rooms are allocated close to the time depending on group size so don’t promise the kids the turret bed of their dreams, but do book in advance; the hostel can book up for a whole year ahead in peak times.
For a good value dinner option, try the bistro at the hostel. On a hot night, try slush and pizza on the terrace. There’s a choice of good beers for adults too. If you’re feeling chilly the nacho’s should warm you up.
Check out our video to get a feel for the place.
Day 1 – Bubbles, Boats and a Bustling Rhine City
Day 1 of our 48 hours in the Middle Rhine is spent heading south from Andernach to Koblenz before making out way up the hill to the hostel in Bacharach. It’s a day of bubbles, boats, exploding natural wonders, karaoke and city sights. Our day begins as bubbles at the Andernach Geyser.
The Andernach Geyser
It was something of a surprise to learn that the world’s tallest cold water geyser isn’t in Iceland or somewhere even chillier, but in Andernach, 70km from Burg Bacharach. If you like blowing bubbles you’ll love Geysir Andernach. A visit here is three experiences for the price of one. You get to explore a great, hands-on educational exhibition where you learn about the origin of the geyser by following trails of bubbles of carbon dioxide. Then you get a boat trip along the Rhine to the nature reserve where you can watch the Andernach geyser explode 60 metres into the air, powered by volcanic carbon dioxide. Boats run to the geysers explosion timetable so you can be assured of a viewing! It’s a great combination and highly recommended.
Coffee on board and a riverside lunch
The boat to the geyser also serves up drinks and snacks so you can have a coffee and pastry inside or on deck as you travel to or from the show. Afterwards we stop at one of the many riverside restaurants in Andernach for lunch before motoring onto Koblenz. There’s something about a coffee on deck or meal by the riverside that’s hard to beat.
Koblenz – Where Father Rhine meets Mother Moselle
The city of Koblenz is about 50km north of Bacharach Hostel and is definitely worth a half or full day trip. Set on the confluence of two rivers the city’s layout, history and life is shaped by water. You can spot where the rivers meet from the Ehrenbreitstein Fortress that overlooks the city, or by taking a walk down to Deutches Eck (the German Corner) where you can stand between Father Rhine and Mother Moselle. While you’re there, why not climb up the giant equestrian statue of Kaiser Wilhelm I for a better view of the confluence.
All lit up – Rhine in flames
There are lots of festivals in Koblenz. The most famous is Rhine in Flames when lights and fireworks illuminate river and fortress for an audience watching from Deutches Eck and from 75 ships that take up prime positions in the river beneath the fortress. It’s quite a spectacle and quite a feat of parking for all the ship’s captains.
Rhein in Flammen events take place in different towns along the Rhine Valley between May and September. We just missed the Koblenz fireworks but did catch the after party including an open air concert by the Philharmonic orchestra on Deutches Eck and rock bands performing along the river front.
A History of Romance
There’s a long history of tourism on the Rhine and the kid-friendly Romanticum exhibition at the Forum Confluentes in the centre of Koblenz has a thoroughly modern way of explaining it. A special electronic entrance ticket allows you to board a virtual cruise ship for an interactive journey through the history of the Middle Rhine Valley. You can learn about how the Rhine developed as a way of transporting goods, how artists have portrayed it and how tourists use it.
Interactive stations along an audio trail allowed us to see Rhine landmarks come to life, take silhouette photographs old school style, sing karoake versions of the Loreley song and save the results of our creations onto our entrance tickets (along with information about the exhibits). We left with all this available for us to view on our mobile devices or via the internet at home, including our unique karaoke version of the Lorelei song. Very cool. Although, surprisingly, no one in our family wants to hear that ever again!
Look up, look down, look all around
While in the Forum Confluentes, ride the glass elevator up to the roof to check out the unique views from the Forum’s rooftop terrace. And the unique views down to the people visiting the museum and tourist information below. Wherever you go in this city there are great views to discover.
Egolosia – something worth queueing for
We discover some more when we try to pass Egolosia, one of the best ice cream outlets in town. They make their ice cream on the premises and round the side of the shop we can’t resist peering into their ice cream lab. Which leads to us peering into the shop with only one thing in mind. Be warned the ice cream is so good you need to be prepared to queue to try one. But it’s worth it.
Cable Car across the Rhine
For unusual views over the Rhine, you have to ride the Koblenz Cable Car. The station is near Deutches Eck. Its special cabins have panoramic views and make access to the Ehrenbreitstein Fortress quick and easy. The fortress looks over Koblenz and houses several museums, exhibitions and places to drink or dine. If you wanted another castle to stay in, it also houses the Koblenz Youth Hostel!
Ehrenbreitstein – Fortress Fun
From the top of the cable car entrance to fortress grounds and restaurants is free. There’s plenty of places to walk around and a climbing playground suitable for older children with timber, rope and rock climbing activities.
Admission is charged for the fortress itself. You can buy a combined ticket for cable car and fortress which is good value as there’s lots to see and do at the castle. You could easily make a half day or full day out of it. There are permanent exhibitions on the castle history and temporary exhibitions too and there is always at least one exhibition on designed to appeal to kids. If you do visit, don’t miss the roof top gardens that cleverly show how crops were grown in the fortress in different centuries.
Make a good day out great
The fortress also hosts open air concerts, plays and events. For an even better value visit check for free cultural events on at the fortress and time your visit to catch one. It’s a very atmospheric venue and would make a memorable family experience.
Tea at the Palace
After all that walking around the fortress we are in need of a sit down and find the perfect place round the back of the Koblenz Electoral Palace. First built as a royal residence and city palace back in the 18th century it was rejuvenated in 2011 when the German Federal Horticultural Show opened up the area for tourists with sculptured flowers, pools, fountains and lawns. The garden behind the palace has terraces to the river where we ordered coffee and cake from the Grand Cafe and sat out enjoying the last of the Sunday afternoon river vibe.
Sunset on the terrace
We end the day at the picture perfect Burg Stahleck. After a family pinball competition, we buy pizza, beer and nachos from the bistro and take them out on the terrace to enjoy the sun set and then sit mesmerised by the dark night and bright stars. It’s not long before we are ready for bed, one of those castellated bunks we mentioned earlier.
Day 2 – Legends, Castles and Medieval Magic
After a good night’s sleep and breakfast in the hostel, we head off on Day 2 to sample some of the delights of the sixty villages and forty castles of Middle Rhine Valley. Our modest aim is to manage at least one of each!
Exploring the Middle Rhine
One of the joys of this stretch of the Rhine is exploring the string of villages that line both sides of the river. On the way south from Andernach and Koblenz we passed by Boppard, St Goar and Oberwesel on the west bank. But you don’t have to stick to the west bank. We found part of the fun of exploring was crossing the river by ferry to sample life on the other side.
If you have children you’ll find almost all the towns and villages have playgrounds by the river and plenty of riverside cafes for snacks, meals or ice cream. If you don’t want to use your car you can also get river buses between towns, to see life from the river or to get to attractions like the Andernach Geyser.
Hiking and biking
If you want to get active, there’s great cycling routes throughout the area. The Rhine Cycle Route offers 322km of trail from Speyer in the south as far as Remagen in the north. If you prefer hiking, there are two long-distance paths here too. The 320km Rheinsteig heads up and down the hills on the east bank of the Rhine, through forests and vineyards with spectacular views to reward efforts in climbing. On the west side the RheinBurgenWeg offers 200km of trail on what is said to be one of most beautiful walks in Germany. Of course you don’t have to walk it all!
Pfalzgrafenstein – an island castle
Our day begins with a visit to the famous Loreley. The best views of the towering Loreley are from the St Goar side of the Rhine. It’s about 20km from the hostel but access to the Loreley Visitor Centre on top of the Loreley plateau is from the other side. Fortunately ferries ply the river, giving you the opportunity to feel for yourself the currents that make this stretch of river so dangerous.
We cross using the Kraub ferry which also gives us a chance to catch a glimpse of one of the more unique castles around here, accessible only via the river as it’s built on an island. Pfalzgrafenstein castle was built to take tolls from passing ships, a chain across the river used to force ships to stop and pay and defaulters were put in the dungeon. You get good views from the Kraub ferry which passes close enough to get a good photo. And as long as you pay your fare you should be safe these days. Tolls stop being collected in 1866.
Looking for Loreley
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.
“There’s a man in his boat on the river,
He cannot but listen and stare,
A longing is making him shiver,
Look out, the rock’s ledge, Oh beware!”
Out at the viewpoint we got great views down onto the Rhine and the endless procession of freight and passenger boats cruising for pleasure and trade, much as they have for hundreds of years.
Learning about the legend
Inside the Visitor Centre there is a cafe and exhibition. The area around the visitor centre is presently under redevelopment to improve interpretation and access but inside there is still a good exhibition and movie which helps you learn about the legend of the rock, the geography and history of the area and the challenges of navigating the Rhine.
Rush down the Loreley plateau
It’s not just about good views and Goldilocks at Loreley though. The Loreley Bob, a summer toboggan, lets you ride at speed down the plateau. The ride down by bobsleigh adds a touch of adrenaline to our visit, with descents at up to 40km/hr. Check the screen when you reach the bottom to find out your descent speed. And don’t forget to smile..there’s a camera recording your fastest moves! If you are there with friends or family buy a multi-ride ticket and you can save money and share the rides between you. You’ll want to do it more than once!
Marksburg magic – hilltop time travel
With a castle nestling in a vineyard every 2.5km along the Middle Rhine, it can be hard to choose which to visit. Once built to help defend river trade, today the only thing some need to defend themselves from is tourists. Castles can get busy here, especially the more unique or popular ones.
After Loreley we headed a further 30km north along the eastern riverbank to visit Marksburg Castle, above Braubach. It’s the only Rhine medieval hilltop castle that has never been destroyed so a visit to Marksburg is a journey back to the Middle Ages, into a complete and original medieval fortress. Access was not designed to be easy, but once up the hill and through the impressive stronghold a visit here is a great history lesson.
A guided tour
Our guided tour (the only way to visit the castle) took us through keep, kitchen, great hall, bedchamber, chapel, armoury, wine cellar and battlements before finishing off in the torture chamber. Fortunately, we were allowed to escape. But only as far as the Marksburgschänke, a restaurant on the castle terrace.
Burger at the Burg
It’s hungry work visiting castles so after touring the castle we enjoyed a special burg burger in the castle café. I mean who wouldn’t want to eat a burger in a burg? We ate outside on the castle terrace while others waited for the next tour to leave. If you’ve brought your own food, there’s also a free to use picnic terrace next to the castle.
A Walk Back in Time in Bacharach
We end our day back near Hostel Stahleck in the pretty market town of Bacharach. It’s a ten minute walk from hostel to the town on a path which passes the ruins of the Gothic Wernerkapelle and brings you out beside St Peter’s Church in the centre of town.
Bacharach is classic Romantic Rhine, dominated by colourful half timbered houses and with town walls and fortifications that are some of the best preserved in all of Rhineland-Palatinate. You can reach the Rhine through the town walls for a nice riverside walk. We wander around exploring the ancient courtyards and alleys before stopping for refreshments in one of the many cafes, wine bars and restaurants around town.
Older than Christopher Columbus
If you like old houses, don’t miss the famous 1368 Altes Haus, a historical inn on the main street. And the Kurpfälzische Münze, the “old mint” where gold coins were produced in the middle ages by permission of the Holy Roman Emperor. Today it serves food and drinks and makes a great historic refreshment stop. The beer is fresh though and you can do a decent wine tasting accompanied by small dishes made on the premises. The owner tells great stories too. He told us it is the oldest place in town, “Older than the United States. Older than Christopher Columbus. Older even than his parent’s meeting.”
The Middle Rhine is like that.
We travelled to Dunkirk with DFDS Seaways on a comfortable crossing in the Premium lounge which included free drinks and a great view. On our return leg we sailed from Ijmuiden to Newcastle on their overnight crossing. We took our own car and drove to the hostels.
The Andernach Geyser is 75km north from Bacharach, approximately 1 hour by car. The Geyser is open seasonally from end of March to end of October. Check the website for opening dates and times. The boats to the geyser leave just four times a day between around 11am and 5pm. The round trip by boat to see the geyser takes 90 minutes and you can be assured that the geyser will erupt while you are there. Allow time to visit the geyser centre before or after your boat trip, before is probably better as you will understand more about what you see. Tickets include access to the visitor centre, the boat trip and a visit to the geyser itself. At time of writing single tickets cost € 15.00 adult and €9.80 students. Children under 1 metre are free as is entry on your birthday (if you can prove it with valid ID). Family tickets offer reductions for adults and children – adult € 12.50 child € 9.00.
Koblenz Cable Car and Fortress
Koblenz is 50km (one hours drive) from Bacharach. The Koblenz Cable Car runs all year round but operating days and hours vary with the season and with special events so do check the website for latest information. From end of March to end of October it is usually a seven day a week service. Between November and March the cable car usually runs only at weekends. A cable car ticket allows you to ride the cable car and access the fortress outer grounds, including the playground, park and a Rhine viewing platform. A separate fortress ticket is needed to access the main fort areas, museums and exhibitions. You can buy a combined cable car and fortress ticket which does both at a good discount. Check the website for detailed pricing information. On the cable car, returns are better value than singles, family tickets are available and are good value and there are slightly cheaper tickets for evening cable car rides, after 6pm.
Koblenz Romanticum is housed in the Forum Confluentes culture center in Koblenz, which is a bit of an architectural masterpiece itself. It also houses the Koblenz library and the central office of the Koblenz Tourist Board. It is open daily, all year round with the exception of some public holidays. At the time of writing admission is €6 adult and just €1 child. A family ticket is just €10. You can also buy combined entry and cruise tickets if you want to take a Rhine cruise to Braubach, Boppard or St Goar (or visit from there). If you visit the Romanticum, you will receive an electronic ‘compass’ ticket to collect information about exhibits and activities during your visit. You use this to access the information this after your visit so remember to keep a hold of your ticket!
Marksburg Castle is near Braubach, some 60km (1 hours drive) from Bacharach. The castle is open daily throughout the year but opening times vary with season. Winter opening is 11am-4pm, tours every hour. Summer 10am-5pm, tours every 20 minutes. The castle only can be visited by guided tour which last about 50 minutes. Tours are available in English, French, Italian, German or Spanish. Individual visitors speaking other languages can join a tour with an information sheet in their own language. Check the website or call to find out when specific language tours depart. English tours were 1pm and 4pm when we visited. The cafe is open to visitors without a tour. Due to challenging original medieval terrain, the castle is not accessible by wheelchair and pushchairs and buggies also need to be left at the gate when the tour begins. Prices at the time of writing were €7 adult, €5 child, €16 family (2 +2). Plenty of parking on site below the castle.
The Bacharach Youth Hostel (Burg Stahleck) sits above Bacharach at the southern end of the Middle Rhine Valley. It has 168 beds in rooms with 1, 2, 4 and multiple beds, some of which have a castle theme. Some rooms have en-suite shower/WC. There is a dining room, bistro, café/bar, snack area and playroom. The Rittersaal (Knights’ Hall) is equipped for events, conferences, workshops, project days and music camps. There is internet, table football, pinball, board games and table tennis. Families are very welcome as are groups, holidaymakers, cyclists, ramblers and, of course, individual guests. Prices at time of writing are €22 bed and breakfast, €30.50 half board and €33.50 full board. It is a very popular hostel so you are advised to book in advance.
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Disclosure Note: This post is part of a paid campaign for DJH, the German Youth Hostels Association (Jugendherberge) to promote Castle Youth Hostels in Germany. DJH our stay at DJH Burg Stahleck. All the geyser watching gingerbread, karaoke singing, ferry riding, castle visiting and burger eating as well as opinions expressed, photography and videography are entirely our own.