Perched high above the town of Eisenach, Wartburg Castle is everything you’d hope for from a Medieval castle in Germany, with towers, turrets and an eagle’s eye view over the Thuringian Forest. Built in the 11th century, the castle was the seat of the rulers of Thuringia and during the Middle Ages it built a reputation as a centre of culture, attracting the leading poets and musicians of the day.
Wartburg was also the home of Saint Elizabeth of Hungary, the wife of Louis IV who ruled over Thuringia and Saxony, as well as a place of refuge for the reformer Martin Luther. As the first German castle to be designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site, Wartburg has truly played a central role in the history and culture of this region of Germany.
We visited Wartburg at the start of our 4 day driving tour through the Cultural Heart of Germany and had the pleasure of staying in the romantic Wartburg Hotel, nestled under the castle walls, from where we explored the town of Eisenach, birthplace of the 18th century master of Baroque music, Johann Sebastian Bach.
Visiting Wartburg Castle at Eisenach
We entered Wartburg Castle through a single archway, leading into a cobbled courtyard that encloses half timbered buildings that would have once served the castle, but now house the cafe, ticket office and gift shop.
Another gateway took us into a second courtyard in the oldest part of the castle, which has been added to over the centuries, containing the 12th century Great Hall with its Romanesque arches, sandstone pillars and ground floor arcade. Within this courtyard there’s a large cistern that was used to collect rainwater, since there’s no well at the castle, and a 19th century tower that you can climb for views over the Thuringian Forest.
We started our visit in the ground floor room of the castle, where the stone carvings, pillar tops and tomb covers are displayed, to preserve them from exposure to the weather in their original locations. One of the tomb covers is that of the Landgrave (the ruler’s title similar to Count) Louis the Jumper, who founded the castle at Wartburg and gained his nickname after he escaped captivity at the hands of his rival, by jumping from a window into the river below.
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Many parts of the castle were restored in the 19th century and one of the highlights of our visit was the Lady Elizabeth’s Chamber or Elisabethkemenate, a large room decorated between 1902-6 with 2.5 million glass mosaic pieces, telling the story of the life of Saint Elizabeth who lived at Wartburg Castle.
The daughter of the King of Hungary, Elizabeth was sent as a young child of only 4 years old to the Thuringian court, where she was betrothed to marry Louis IV, the future Landseer of Thuringia. In 1221, at the age of 14 she was married to Louis and bore him three children, becoming known for her charitable works ministering to the poor and sick in her husband’s domain.
When she was just 20 years old, her husband Louis IV died of fever in Italy on his way to the Crusades and Elizabeth decided to withdraw from the world and become a nun. She left the court and her children to be brought up in the care of the Regent, while she continued to use her dowry for good works, although she died aged only 24 and was canonised five years later. Every surface of the Elizabeth Chamber glows with the beautiful mosaic designs created by the German artist August Oetken and this is certainly a must-see on your visit to Wartburg Castle.
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The Elizabeth Gallery in the castle is also decorated in 19th century frescoes, illustrating stories from Saint Elizabeth’s life, including one that shows the legend of the Miracle of the Roses. The painting depicts Elizabeth leaving the castle to give bread to the poor, when she meets her husband out riding who asks her to reveal what is hidden under her cloak, on suspicion that Elizabeth was selling the palace’s treasures for her work.
As she opens her cloak, by a miracle only cascades of roses are revealed, allowing Elizabeth to continue with her good deeds. In fact all the evidence is that Elizabeth’s marriage to Louis was a happy one and that he was supportive of her charitable work.
Another room that’s decorated in 19th century style is the Sängersaal or Troubadours’ Hall, which was reportedly where the Contest of the Minstrels took place in 1206, when Count Herman I invited the best minnesingers or troubadours in Germany to compete at Wartburg Castle.
Count Hermann I was known as a great patron of the arts and the medieval poet and singer Walther von der Vogelweide visited Wartburg and wrote part of his famous Palästinalied ballard there. It’s thought that Hermann I invited the six leading troubadours of the age, including Walther von der Vogelweide, to participate in a contest, which was immortalized in Richard Wagner’s opera Tannhäuser.
The story goes that the loser of the competition would be put to death, but that fortunately Countess Sophia begged for mercy and so the death sentence was deferred for another year and never carried out. At one end of the Troubadour’s Hall there’s a daias where the minstrels might have performed, and the story is illustrated in murals on the wall of the castle, epitomising the romantic interest in medieval history that was the fashion in the 19th century.
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On the upper floor of the castle is the Ceremonial Hall, also a 19th century reimagination of what the medieval hall would have looked like, with decorative painting on the walls and a painted wooden coffered ceiling. The hall is regularly used for musical concerts and for graduation ceremonies for the schools in Eisenach. This part of the castle can only be visited as part of the guided tour.
Wartburg Castle and Luther
High up in the castle we visited the Luther Chamber where Martin Luther stayed and worked for almost a year from May 1521, while he sheltered under the protection of elector Friedrich the Wise after the Diet of Worms, after which he became a virtual outlaw, because of his opposition to the practices of the church. In this simple chamber Luther completed in only 11 weeks the first German translation of the New Testament, which later became part of Luther’s translation of the first Bible to be published in German.
Through this work, Luther is revered by protestants as bringing the word of God to the German people, and the castle is much visited as a place of pilgrimage. If you’re interested in Martin Luther and his impact on Germany, check out the Luther Country website and follow the Luther trail to discover more places connected to the Father of the Reformation.
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Living incognito under a false identity as Junker Jörg or Knight George, the picture on the wall shows how Luther grew his hair and beard and was able to ride down to the town of Eisenach using this disguise. From this room in the castle, there’s a wonderful view over the Thuringian Forest, although according to Luther’s own writings, it was a trying time and he reported depressions and taunting by evil spirits.
It’s from these reports that he had “driven away the devil with ink” that the legend of Luther throwing an inkwell against the wall to drive away the devil arise, and to reinforce the myth the said ink splash on the wall near the stove was apparently regularly touched up in the past! Further on in the castle, the gallery of artworks includes portraits by Lucas Cranach of Luther’s parents who originally came from the Eisenach area.
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If you’re visiting in winter, don’t miss the Historical Christmas Market at Wartburg Castle, when the courtyards come alive with medieval musicians and market stalls. Many musical and cultural events are held at Wartburg Castle throughout the year, so check the events calendar for more information when you plan your visit.
Visiting Wartburg Castle
It’s free to walk around the internal courtyards of Wartburg Castle. A visit to the interior rooms of the castle is by guided tour, with regular tours in German and one tour per day in English at 1.30pm. After the tour you can look around the museum with its art collection and see the Luther room.
November to March – 9am – 3.30pm
April to October – 8.30am – 5pm
Adult ticket €12 Child €5 (Free to visit the courtyards)
There’s a car park set just below the castle and from there you walk up to the entrance, with a mini bus transfer available for anyone with mobility issues. You can also walk up the Schloßberg, a walking path that leads from the town of Eisenach below, although it could be quite a steep climb if you’re not reasonably fit!
More information on the Wartburg Castle Website
Visiting Eisenach below Wartburg Castle
After visiting Wartburg Castle we walked down the hill through the forest along the leafy Schloßberg that was developed in 2017, with information signs about the history of the area. On the way we passed a number of large villas that were built on the slopes of the castle in the 1870s, when it was a fashionable place to live in romantic proximity with the castle and its medieval history. When this region of Germany was part of the East German GDR, there was no money to repair these large villas and many were divided into apartments or fell into disrepair, although they are now starting to be restored again as gracious family homes.
We arrived in the market square of Eisenach, which was the Medieval capital of Thuringia and place of residence for the ruling House of Wettins, whose palace in the square is now the town hall. One of the other notable things to see in Eisenach is the Georgenkirche or church of St George in the square, which dates back to the 12th century.
This is where Saint Elizabeth of Hungary married her husband Louis IV and where Martin Luther sang in the choir as a schoolboy and later preached a sermon before he had to take refuge in Wartburg Castle. The church is also where the family of Johann Sebastian Bach, the composer who was born in Eisenach, played the church organ and where the composer was baptised.
Top tip: If you’re ready for a break, stop at the Zucker und Zimt ice cream shop on the corner of the square, which is set in a beautiful old shop, or pop in for refreshments at their adjoining coffee shop which serves light dishes. You can also look out for the market stalls run by local butchers that sell the famous Thuringia sausage, a specialty of the region, that is cooked over charcoal and served with mustard (never ketchup!).
Eisenach and the Luther connection
The town has strong connections with Martin Luther who attended school in Eisenach from the age of 14 and had fond memories of his time there, calling it “my beloved town”. Luther was a Latin student at the parish school of St George’s and we were able to see the remains of the monastery connected to his school, which now forms part of the local gymnasium or secondary school.
During his time as a schoolboy in Eisenach, Luther sang in the church choir and later wrote about how he sang as a poor choirboy in front of local houses to earn some extra bread. It is said that hearing his sweet singing voice, a local woman Ursula Cotta took him in as a boarder and became like a foster mother to him, her home now forming the Luther House – a museum that commemorates Luther’s connections with Eisenach.
We didn’t have time to visit the Luther House, but it would be well worth a visit if you want to learn more about Martin Luther, his life and times, and see the rooms where he lived as a schoolboy in this medieval half timbered house. The museum was extended and renovated in time for the 500th anniversary of the Reformation in 2017, and extends into a modern annex. Open April – October 10am – 5pm Adult ticket €8
Eisenach and Johann Sebastian Bach
Another notable son of Eisenach is Johann Sebastian Bach, who like Luther attended the local Latin school and sang in the choir of St George’s church. Music was very much the family profession and as the youngest of 9 children, Johann Sebastian followed his siblings into the business, starting as organist at St George’s church. The Bach House is a medieval house which is close to the composer’s birthplace and has been extended to make a museum about his life.
The historic building can be visited, with some of the rooms furnished to show what daily life was like at the time Bach was growing up and live performances on a collection of historical instruments like the spinet, clavichord and harpsichord. In the adjoining modern annex, the exhibition takes visitors through Bach’s life and musical development, with frequent short concerts and bubble chairs to sit with earphones to listen to the music. Open daily 10am – 6pm Tickets €10.
Where to stay in Eisenach
We stayed at the Romantik Hotel auf der Wartburg, nestled under the walls of Wartburg Castle, offering the same sweeping views over the Thuringian Forest and the town of Eisenach below. This 5 star luxury hotel really does live up to its name as part of the “Romantik Hotel” group of restaurants and hotels. It felt very special to be staying there at the top of the hill, and we felt rather smug that we could enjoy the views and the sunset long after the castle’s visitors had gone home.
The hotel was built in 1914 and the rooms are furnished in modern but comfortable style, with rich colours and luxurious velvets. We especially appreciated the personal touches, like the cakes left in our room decorated with the pictures of Saint Elizabeth and Johann Sebastian Bach, in keeping with the area’s history.
The terraces and public rooms of the Wartburg Hotel are beautifully furnished with antiques and comfortable seating, with pretty flowers and sculptures in the entrance courtyard. From almost every window you get those wonderful bird’s-eye views over the forest that leave you (literally) feeling on top of the world.
A highlight of our stay was the Landgrave’s Restaurant, with floor to ceiling windows giving out to a metal balcony, to make the most of the views over the Thuringian Forest and the sunset, which we enjoyed during dinner. The menu focuses on regional and local specialties, while elevating the homely classics of Thuringia sausage, potato dumplings, venison and game to a higher level of elegance.
We can highly recommend the Thuringia tasting plate as a starter, which has a selection of different specialties served “tapas” style, such as smoked catfish with horseradish, cream cheese with cress and honey or brawn salad with radishes. The spread at breakfast in the same restaurant was also outstanding, with the huge selection of cold meats, cheeses, pastries and cereals that we’ve come to expect when we travel in Germany.
More information from the Wartburg Hotel Website | Read the Tripadvisor Reviews | Check prices and book for other hotels in Eisenach
Visitor Information for your trip to Eisenach and Wartburg Castle in Thuringia, Germany
If you’re interested in Martin Luther, check out the Luther Country website and follow the Luther trail to discover the places in Germany connected to the Father of the Reformation.
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Getting around: The closest airport to Eisenach with a wide range of international flights is Frankfurt, although there are smaller airports at Erfurt, Leipzig and Dresden. We recommend Skyscanner to plan flight routes and find the best prices.
We flew into Frankfurt then took the train to Eisenach, where we picked up a hire car from Europcar close to the station. There is a train station at Eisenach and the German rail network is very efficient, so this would be a good way to reach Eisenach from other airports or regions of Germany, as an alternative to a hire car, which we used. Once you arrive in Eisenach, you can see all the main places around town on foot, although there’s also a good public transport network.
If you plan to do lots of sightseeing while touring in Thuringia, check out the ThüringenCard which offers free admission to over 200 places of interest within the region and use of the local buses and trains to get around. The card is available for 24 hr, 3 day or 6 day passes.
Where is Thuringia?
Eisenach and Wartburg Castle are located within the German state of Thuringia, which is in the centre of the country and was formerly part of the East German GDR. Thuringia is bounded by the better known Bavaria to the south and Saxony to the east. The rolling rural countryside, green belt of Thuringia forest and pretty medieval towns, castles and palaces make this an ideal road trip destination. You can see all the places we visited on the map below.
This article was sponsored* by The Cultural Heart of Germany, Thuringia Tourism and Visit Saxony who provided the 4 day trip and experiences mentioned.
* More info on my policies page
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