Written and Photographed by: Megan Pasche
Tucked away in the Southern corner of Bavaria, close to the Austrian border, lies Berchtesgaden. The prettiest place you may have never even known existed. It’s a small Bavarian town that appears to have leapt right out of a fairy tale, surrounded by snow capped mountains that tower in the distance. Flower boxes line every window of the alpine inspired hotels and stores, and narrow winding streets lead to old castle squares and hidden shops in alleyways. The minute I stepped off the train with my luggage, I sighed with relief, because it is a rare occasion that a place actually lives up to my (sometimes unrealistic) expectations. But my foot hit the ground and I was immediately ensconced in the sense that this place was special.
I can’t even remember how I heard of it. It was one of those places I randomly came across when doing hours of research for place to travel to. Googling “day trips from Munich” eventually led me to Berchtesgaden. I took one look at the photos online, and I remember thinking, “this is going to be way more than a day trip”, and promptly booked myself in at a quaint little hotel for four days. My hotel (Hotel Wittelsbach, located on one of the town’s main streets) had a huge balcony with a view of the mountains and a delicious free breakfast every morning.
Berchtesgaden appealed to my inner history nerd, being close to Obersalzburg, which is home to Eagle’s Nest, Hitler’s famous hideout in the mountains (this makes for a perfect day trip, and involves a harrowing ride on a winding road up to the top of the mountains). And the area’s main attraction, Berchtesgaden National Park, is a place of such stunning beauty, that I had to pinch myself to make sure it was real. It was. Berchtesgaden lays 158km outside of Munich, and 23km outside of Salzburg. Unless you have a rental car, it can be reached by train or bus, with the station sitting just outside the main downtown area. Getting around the area is very simple: most places of interest are within walking distance and the ones that aren’t, are easily accessible by bus.
While the beautiful, sleepy little town sets the stage, the Berchtesgaden National Park is the jewel of the area. It’s the only national park in the Alps, and contains Germany’s third highest mountain: Mount Watzman. Like many parts of Bavaria, Berchtesgaden is popular for skiing in the winter months, but once the snow and ice melt, it becomes a haven for hikers. With over 250 kilometres of hiking trails snaking through the mountains and valleys, there are treks to match every experience level. Short hikes, long hikes, and overnight hikes: it’s all there. You’ll want to make sure to get your hands on a good trail map though, so you don’t end up lost in the Bavarian Alps, having to camp out with the Ibex, Marmots, Mountain Hares and Golden Eagles that live there.
Berchtesgaden has been an outdoor playground for centuries now. Bavarian royalty used to hunt there, and Hitler used to go boating on the lake, and subsequently purchased land right above the town of Berchtesgaden (called Obersalzburg) for senior Nazi leaders to have mountain residences, as well as to build an elaborate underground bunker system.
Probably the most popular excursion in the Berchtesgaden National Park is the boat ride across the Konigssee, one of the most beautiful lakes in all of Europe. It is surrounded by mountains on three sides, and the water itself appears to be an emerald green reflective pool. The colour of the water is due to the mineral content (made up mostly of calcium chloride, limestone and gypsum). It is so clean and pure, you can drink it. A ride on the boat costs about fifteen euros, and it makes two stops: the basilica of St. Bartholomew and Salet. If you want to ensure you make it to both stops, make sure the ticket you purchase has an “s” marked on it.
The boats are electric, so they make no noise as they cut through the crystal clear water. As we drifted into the centre of the lake, we came to a slow stop, the boat skimming through the water until it halted completely. The boat captain pulled out a trumpet and played a tune to demonstrate how the mountains echo; the notes bounced back to us several times.
The boat then made a quick stop at the basilica, a picturesque church on the banks of the lake, and then continued on to Salet, which is the stop for another lake, the Obersee, that at one point in time was connected to the Konigssee, but was separated by an avalanche. A trail led me past scattered boulders, an indication of the landslide in years past. A somewhat precarious hiking path took me around the lake until I eventually ended up in a pasture. I hiked a little bit further, and I came to a waterfall, crashing down off the mountain.
This is the kind of place where you can’t help but stare in awe: one of the world’s best showings. I was so entranced that I stood on the top of a high cliff, gazing out into one of the most beautiful scenes I had ever seen, as a lady behind me on the hiking path yelled at me in German, to say what I assume amounted to, “be careful on that ledge crazy person!” I spent hours hiking the trails that day, before getting back on the boat and heading to the hotel. I easily could have spent many more hours.
In addition to hiking and history lessons, there are a couple other attractions in the Berchtesgaden area that are worth checking out. A ride up Mount Jenner provides you with a spectacular panoramic view of the mountains. The cable car ride takes about twenty minutes, and you end up at an elevation of 6,150 feet. Once you are up there, you can seek out more hiking trails, or grab food at the restaurant. The entrance to the cable car is quite close to the entrance of the National park.
Just down the street from downtown Berchtesgaden, lie the salt mines that have been in operation since 1517. You can tour the mine while wearing traditional miners clothes and enjoy a ride on a train that whisks you underground, a miner’s slide and then a boat through an underground lake.
Other things in the area you might want to check out are the Wimbach Gorge, the Grassl Schnapps Distillery, Lake Hintersee and the Royal Palace. There are more than enough activities and places to visit to keep you busy for several days. Make sure to factor in time for gaping at the landscape everywhere you go.
The fresh air, the scenery, the quintessential Bavarian town, the always-friendly people, and the history make Berchtesgaden Land a unique place to spend time. It is a great option for a day (or two or three) trip from Munich or Salzburg. If you are going to be anywhere near the area, you won’t want to miss it. It’s a place you don’t soon forget, and I say that with the authority of someone who dreams of going back there on an almost daily basis.