Castles hold endless fascination, and Haut-Koenigsbourg in France is a castle well worth a visit. This massive red sandstone chateau high on a hill in the Alsace region dates back to the 1100s. On display are layers of castle life between then and now. It lies close to the border of Germany and has been fought over through the centuries. And not only have French and Germans contended for the castle. The structure was ransacked then burned to the ground in 1633 by invaders from Sweden.
For 200 years, the Haut-Koenigsbourg Castle stood on the rocky high point of land, abandoned. Then, the nearby town of Selestat bought the ruins and began plans to restore the castle. Eventually, this land became part of Germany, and Kaiser Wilhelm II took a personal interest in rebuilding. He hired an architect who would use the latest scientific methods to restore the castle as accurately as possible.
Haut-Koenigsbourg opened to the public in 1908 in a ceremony complete with a parade and a historical pageant with 500 actors. The rebuilt castle, restored to its days of glory in the Middle Ages, displays decorated walls, weapons, and furniture from the 16th and 17th centuries.
How To Reach This Remote Location
Haut-Koenigsbourg sits on a rocky high point several miles west of the small town of Selestat in Alsace. The word “haut” means “high,” and this certainly describes the castle’s location. Haut-Koenigsbourg is about 34 miles south of Strasbourg and 16 miles north of Colmar, in the Vosges mountains.
To reach the chateau you can drive a rental car. Park in one of the 150 spaces of free parking offered at the top of the hill.
You can also ride the convenient train line running between Strasbourg and Colmar. Get off the train at Selestat.
Catch the Haut-Koenigsbourg shuttle from the train station. Winding through the town and then forested country, you will arrive at the castle after about a half-hour scenic ride.
Pro Tip: Carry euros for the shuttle, as the ride is cash only. A lovely couple from Australia stood in line behind us and realized they couldn’t ride because they had no cash. We paid the small fee for them and made new friends on the ride up the hill.
Walk Up The Hill And Take In The View
On arrival at the castle, you first walk up a leafy lane past the outer wall. Enjoy the magnificent view of the plains of Alsace spread out below.
Then enter the courtyard and follow signs to the ticket office.
Be sure to rent an audio guide when you purchase your entry ticket. The castle boasts so many rooms and areas and design features. You will want to hear details to make these come alive. Also, the castle is large. With the audio guide telling you which path to take or what door to walk through, you won’t get lost.
Begin In The Main Courtyard
Begin your tour in the main courtyard. Look up at the highest tower, the castle keep. Note that it is square. The shape of the keep was controversial during the restoration. The French lobbied for a round keep, and the Germans wanted it square. With the Germans in charge, their choice won.
A sign in the courtyard notes that excavations produced 2.5 tons of articles such as roof tiles, crossbows, cooking pots, doors, chests, windows, clothing decorations, pieces of glass, and cut stones. These were all used to inform the latest reconstruction. You can rest assured that, as you make your way through the rooms of the castle, what you see is based on extensive research.
On one side of the courtyard is an arched gate leading to a path outside the castle. The view is worth a stop here. And as a plaque on the wall indicates, this is one of the castle scenes in the 1937 movie, The Grand Illusion. You can learn more about the movie with the audio tour narrative.
For a more modern nod to Haut-Koenigsbourg, there’s the dark Minas Tirith Citadel of Middle Earth in The Lord of the Rings. Set designer John Howe drew inspiration for the Citadel from his memories of Haut-Koenigsbourg.
Also, look back at the gate through which you entered the courtyard. Notice those spikes? They are ready to descend with a crash on any unwelcome visitors.
Move On To The Interior Rooms
Climb the stairs to the first floor to begin your time in the rooms of the castle. This level served as housing, and there is also a trophy room and a room dedicated to knights in shining armor. The walls are lined with wood paneling used from the 1400s as a form of insulation.
On the second floor, you will tour the Empress’s bedchamber and the Kaiser's bedchamber. In the Kaiser’s room, look up at the ceiling to find the iconic imperial eagle with the Prussian motto.
Notice All The Details In The Decor
Take your time as you wander through the castle. You can stop at each audio tour point as long as you like. Look around and marvel at the details in the decor of each room. Many of the items are here thanks to the Haut-Koenigsbourg Club of the early 1900s. University professors, archeologists, and architects formed the club and collected objects dating from the Middle Ages and the Renaissance.
Some of my favorites are the paintings depicting scenes of battle and the lovely colored glass windows.
The large ceramic tile heaters will catch your eye. And the roof tiles you can see through the windows are pleasant earthy shades of clay with rounded edges.
See Drawbridges And Cannons
Outside, you can walk over a drawbridge. Stroll through the gardens. The outer wall clearly seen here still partially surrounds the entire fortress.
Then enter the guard tower. Cannons point out the lookouts. You are reminded that the castle’s purpose was to serve as a military fortress.
The 360-degree view to the plains of Alsace and the Black Forest from up in the guard tower allowed soldiers to spot oncoming invaders long before their arrival. Today, you can enjoy the magnificent view on a clear day.
How Much Time Should You Allow To Tour Haut-Koenigsbourg?
The castle is quite large. It’s also completely restored, which is unusual for castles in Europe. So, you will want to spend time in each room looking at the decor.
Plan to spend about 2 to 3 hours on your tour. Add to that the time it takes to ride the shuttle from and back to the town of Selestat, which is about another half-hour each way. If you are taking the train from Strasbourg or Colmar, check the train schedules and add that time.
Pro Tip: From my hotel in Strasbourg, I rode the train in the morning to Colmar and spent a few hours there. Then I trained to Selestat and arrived at the castle in the late morning. After buying tickets, I ate lunch at the castle. That left the entire afternoon for touring, which turned out to be a perfect day.
Enjoy Lunch At The Tavern Du Haut-Koenigsbourg
At the entrance to the chateau, outside the stone walls, you will find the Tavern du Haut-Koenigsbourg. Here you can enjoy a remarkably tasty lunch. I ate here so I wouldn’t be hungry once I started touring the castle. I didn’t expect outstanding cuisine. But it turned out that the noodle dish I chose was one of my favorite meals of my entire European trip.
A small snack stand is across the road from the Tavern. This is a great place to grab a cold drink before you board the shuttle back down the hill. Sit at one of the outdoor picnic tables for a panoramic view of Alsace as you relax.
Pro Tip: I was able to choose a non-disposable cup for one euro for my drink at lunch. Now that I’m home, I use this little cup and it always makes me smile. Pay the euro and bring home a fun memory!
Pick Up A Book About Knights And Nobles
A bookstore found in the Tavern carries more than 800 titles. Choose a book related to the castle and its history to learn more about Medieval times. And a souvenir shop is stocked with castle treasures for “Ladies and Noble Sires.”
Where To Stay Near The Castle In Alsace
The castle is an easy journey by train or car from either Strasbourg or Colmar. Both of these cities have many hotel choices. I can recommend the excellent Bouclier D’Or, in the heart of Strasbourg. Petite France, just a short walk from this hotel, offers restaurants such as Le Lohkas that serve delicious Alsatian food as well as wines of this region, famed for its vineyards. Strasbourg is a wonderful place to sit back with good food and drink after your day of climbing stairs, winding through Medieval rooms, and imagining castle life long ago.
The Alsace region in the south of France once boasted more than 500 castles. Most of them are in ruins. But Haut-Koenigsbourg, with the good fortune to be restored so beautifully, offers you the opportunity to visit a castle much as it stood during Medieval days. It’s an experience you will treasure.
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