The Rhine river castles are among the most famous castles in the world. The 40 or so castles perched above the steep, narrow Upper Middle Rhine Valley gave rise to the Romantic movement, and an appreciation of this beautiful evocative landscape that endures 200 years on.
These castles are packed into just 65 km (40 miles) of the Rhine’s course. At each turn of the river there seems to be another Rhine castle overlooking the valley, and together with the gorgeous riverside towns, hilltop hikes and famous Rhine wines, this is perhaps the ultimate place in Europe to get your castle fix.
In our Rhine Castles guide, we advise which ones are open to visit, and which are open as accommodation and restaurants. One of the River Rhine castles that we describe is a private residence, but we explain how to find some amazing views of it.
Rhine River Castles – An Introduction
There are over 40 castles on the Rhine between Koblenz and Bingen, the stretch of the Rhine Valley that is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
The Upper Middle Rhine Valley – sometimes called the Rhine Gorge – is a unique landscape. The wide river is forced through a relatively narrow, steep gorge for 65 km (40 miles), and the dramatic landscape is made up of hilltop castles, medieval half-timbered towns and villages and vineyards producing Riesling wines.
The Rhine river castles range from the fully intact medieval fortress of Marksburg to castles restored and refurbished in the 19th century.
The Rhine valley acquired its romantic reputation in the 19th century, the fairytale picturesque landscape discovered by the likes of poet Heinrich Heine and British painter JMW Turner and becoming renowned through their works. The legend of the Lorelei maiden – said to lure ships onto treacherous rocks – also dates from this time.
Some of the castles along the river Rhine are open as tourist attractions, while some serve as accommodation, from luxury hotels to one of the best youth hostels in Germany. A small number aren’t open to visitors.
It would take a considerable time to visit all the Rhine river castles, but one way of at least seeing most of them is to join one of the Rhine river cruises running between Koblenz and Rüdesheim, or perhaps a shorter one from Boppard or Bacharach.
Marksburg is the archetypal Rhine river castle, atop a steep forested hill above the extraordinarily pretty Rhine town of Braubach. It’s also possibly the best example you’ll ever see of a completely intact medieval castle, which survived through the Middle Ages, the Thirty Years and later vicissitudes without so much as a stone out of place.
The Eppstein family built Marksburg, beginning in the early 12th century, and sold it in 1283 to the powerful Katzenelnbogen family. When the male line died out in 1429 it passed to the Counts of Hesse, who built the outer walls and towers.
Marksburg is the most complete castle on the Rhine in terms of what you see during your visit. This takes in defensive positions with cannons, a garden, living quarters and the great hall, the main meeting place in the castle.
A visit to Marksburg Castle is by guided tour only. In summer there are only two English language tours a day, so you have the option of joining a German language tour and following it with a text in English. This isn’t the best way to enjoy a castle, so having paid for my ticket I was able to join a Rhine cruise party tour in English. Which was most enjoyable.
Nearest town or village: Braubach
Open for visits: Yes
Getting there: Trains from either Koblenz (in the direction of Frankfurt) or Rüdesheim call at Braubach, from which it’s a 15-20 minute uphill walk to Marksburg.
Liebenstein Castle and Sterrenberg Castle
Just above the village of Kamp-Bornhofen, on the right bank of the Rhine, two medieval castles stand on the ridge above the river, just 200 metres apart.
They are the closest Rhine Castles, and are the subject of one of the most popular Rhine legends. The Castles are called the Feuding Brothers or Hostile Brothers, the gist of the story being that one estranged brother built a castle as close to his rival sibling as possible. Heinrich Heine mentions this in his famous poem Zwei Brüder (‘Two Brothers’).
It’s possible that the truth is more prosaic. Sterrenberg Castle is the older of the two, possibly by as much as 200 years, and Liebenstein Castle may have been built as an extension or annexe of the older castle, most likely in the late 13th century. At some point the castles had different owners, but there is no historical record of the two castles ever having fought each other.
The higher and more recent of the two is Burg Liebenstein, which now serves as a small hotel with a café and restaurant.
Burg Sterrenberg also offers apartment accommodation, as well as a café and restaurant, and hosts events and weddings.
Nearest village: Kamp-Bornhofen
Open for visits: Not as a museum, but you can stay at either Castle or visit their respective restaurants and cafés.
Getting there: The nearest stationis Kamp-Bornhofen, almost a 2 km walk away. Otherwise it’s easily reached by car – turn off the main B42 road near the prominent monastery church
Tip: The best views of the ‘Feuding Brothers’ are either from the river or the opposite bank, at the village of Bad Salzig.
Burg Stahleck Castle
Burg Stahleck, which towers above the Rhine and the gorgeous town of Bacharach, was first built in the 12th century, and saw plenty of action, especially during the Thirty Years War in the 17th century.
Much of the Castle was destroyed by French forces in 1689, and the explosions also caused the ruin of the Werner Chapel at the foot of the hill.
Burg Stahleck was then left in ruin until the early 20th century, when it was rebuilt as a youth hostel. It’s an incredible setting for a hostel, and #even if you’re not staying it’s worth the walk up the hill to have a drink on the terrace and savour the view up the river.
Nearest town: Bacharach
Open for visits: No museum or tour available
Getting there: Train to Bacharach then an uphill walk, otherwise a short drive from the town.
Burg Maus – Mouse Castle
One of the few medieval castles on the Rhine river to survive into the modern era largely unscathed, Peterseck – also later known as Deuernburg – Castle was built by the Archbishop-Elector of Trier, Bohemond II, in the 1350s.
The Electors of Trier were rivals of the House of Katzenelnbogen, who owned Burg Rheinfels (see below) in St Goar, and they also built Burg Katz (also see below) in 1371 to gain more of a share in river toll revenue.
The Katzenelnbogen faction disparagingly referred to Deuernburg as Maus Castle (the ‘mouse’ to their ‘cat’). The name has well and truly stuck, but it outlasted both its rivals, eventually requiring restoration in the early 20th century.
Nearest village: Wellmich 2 miles north of St Goarshausen
Open for visits: Not at present. It is occasionally open for concerts and wine-tasting events. The Castle doesn’t have an up-to-date website, so it’s best to keep an eye on the Loreley-Touristik site, which publicizes these events.
Getting there: Burg Maus can be reached by footpath from the village of Wellmich. However at the time of writing it’s best appreciated from afar, ideally on a Rhine river cruise.
Burg Rheinfels is the most substantial and impressive of the ruined Rhine river castles. It looms above the river and the village of St Goar, and was the largest castle on the Upper Middle Rhine Valley – only around a quarter of the buildings remain.
Rheinfels is also one of the older Rhine river castles, having been founded in 1245 by Dieter V of Katzenelnbogen. It is my son’s favourite castle on the Rhine, and he was particularly taken with the vast cellar (pictured), which he re-imagined as a giant dungeon housing a captured carnivorous beast. Nowadays it makes a wonderfully atmospheric venue for concerts.
We also enjoyed the opportunity to climb the towers and wall walks and explore the many corners of the Castle. We also had a great time looking around the museum and found an unexpected piece of relatively recent history. My son loves collecting notes and coins from around the world, and was fascinated by the sight on a one billion mark note from the disastrous galloping inflation of the 1920s Weimar Republic.
Some of the Castle’s outbuildings avoided destruction and now form the Schloss Hotel Rheinfels, a 4-star hotel with superb views over one of the most scenic stretches of the Rhine.
Nearest town: St Goar
Open for visits: Yes. The ticket gives you access to the extensive ruins and the small Museum within the Castle, which gives you a good insight into local and regional history.
Getting there: Train to St Goar (note that only the RB 26 service between Koblenz Hbf and Mainz Hbf stops there), then a 10-15 minute walk up the hill to the Castle.
Burg Katz is one of the most romantic Rhine river castles, occupying a strategic hilltop close to the famous Lorelei cliff.
Its name is an abbreviation of Burg Neu Katzenelnbogen, the name of the founder, Count Wilhelm II of Katzenelnbogen, but it’s commonly known as Burg Katz, or Cat Castle. The same family also owned Burg Rheinfels, across the river above St Goar.
It was founded, like numerous other Rhine river castles, as a toll castle, collecting payments from boat pilots using the river. Burg Katz was begun in 1371, with the aim of earning revenue that would otherwise have gone into the coffers of the Elector of Trier (for more on the cat and Mouse story, see the Maus Castle description above).
The oldest part of the castle is the tower, the equivalent of a keep in a British castle or a donjon in a French castle. The great hall and other parts of the Castle were rebuilt in the 19th century.
It has been in private ownership since the 1980s so unfortunately it’s not open for visits. However, its location makes it one of the most picturesque castles on the river Rhine, and worthy of a short hike to fully appreciate it.
I followed the long-distance Rheinsteig trail from St Goarshausen up the side valley opposite Burg Katz,
Nearest town or village: St Goarshausen
Open for visits: No
Getting there: Train or ferry to St Goarshausen. The Castle is closer to the St Goar to St Goarshausen ferry wharf than the train station.
The best view of the Castle is from the village of Patersburg, which you can either reach on foot or by car. If you follow the Rheinblick (Rhine View) road along the hilltop, the view of Burg Katz gets better and better. You can walk as far as the Dreiburgenblick (Three Castles Viewpoint), from which you can also see Burg Maus and Burg Rheinfels, but the best Burg Katz view is a little before this.
Burg Gutenfels is a classic Rhine river castle, perched high above the river and overlooking steep terraced vineyards. It was founded around 1220, with the purpose of exacting tolls from passing river traffic, and this was later done in co-operation with the town of Kaub and the island castle of Pfalzgrafenstein (see below).
The Castle has recently re-opened as a small hotel / B&B following a period as a private residence.
Nearest town: Kaub
Getting there: Train to Kaub, then Gutenfels Castle is a kilometre away, mostly uphill.
Open to visit: Not for tours but you can stay there. Burg Gutenfels is one of the best castle hotels on the Rhine river, with just five luxury rooms and apartments and extraordinary views along the river, towards Schloss Pfalzgrafenstein in one direction and Oberwesel in the other.
This island castle in the middle of the river is one of the best Rhineland castles and most famous landmarks in Germany. It’s one of the most picturesque castles you’ll see anywhere in Europe, a distinctive white fortress with black cupola, spires and turrets, and one of the highlights of any river Rhine cruise.
As is the case with many other castles along the river Rhine, it was built as a toll castle, and there is probably no better strategic spot along the gorge of the Rhine than this one. There was far less chance of taking flight without paying the required toll with the castle in the middle of the river, with only a narrow navigable channel between it and the riverbank.
Schloss Pfalzgrafenstein had a unique way of enforcing payment of river tolls – a chain which would block access downriver until the trader paid up. The small castle was built in 1326-27 by King Ludwig the Bavarian, and was acquired by the powerful local Counts of Katzenelnbogen in 1477. It was expanded as late as 1755, and remained in use until 1866. The garrison at Pfalzgrafenstein worked in conjunction with the town of Kaub and Gutenfels Castle in their toll collection operation.
The small Pfalz castle was also used as a bridging point by Prussian General Blücher as his forces marched east in pursuit of Napoleon Bonaparte. A plaque near the ferry crossing jetty on the Oberwesel side commemorates this.
Nearest village: Kaub
Open for visit: Yes.
Getting there: Train to Kaub then a ferry to the Castle.
Schönburg Castle (not to be confused with a namesake in Saxony-Anhalt!) is one of the most splendid Rhine gorge castles, located high above the beautiful town of Oberwesel.
It is believed to be one of the older Rhine river castles, most likely founded in the 12th century although some suggest it may be older still. It was one of the most formidable castles on the Rhine, and stayed intact until 1689 when it was burned down by French forces during the Palatinate War.
Schönburg remained ruined for over 200 years until the German-American Rhinelander family bought and restored the site, later selling it back to the town council of Oberwesel in 1950.
Nearest town: Oberwesel
Open for visits: The Castle is now a Hotel, and non-guests can visit the site, walk around the grounds and visit the small Tower Museum (which was unfortunately closed when I visited).
Getting there: Train to Oberwesel, then a 10-15 minute uphill walk. Or drive.
Burg Reichenstein, just outside the village of Trechtingshausen, is one of the larger Rhine river castles, occupying a large site overlooking the river.
The Castle is a lot more developed than neighbouring Burg Rheinstein, but I’d make the effort to see both if you’re in the vicinity. The castle’s origins go back to the 13th century, but the first castle was destroyed at the behest of Rudolf von Habsburg, who ordered that it should not be rebuilt.
Once Rudolf was no more a new Reichenstein Castle was indeed built, and this was under the control of the Electors of Mainz until around 1500 when its condition deteriorated following the Palatine Wars. It wasn’t rebuilt until 1834, and industrialist Nikolaus Kirsch-Puricelli rebuilt it as a grand residence between 1899 and 1902.
My son accompanied me on my trip to Rheinstein and Reichenstein, and he succinctly summed up what I also felt. He said that Rheinstein was more atmospheric, though Reichenstein was possibly better for kids because they have a dressing-up room where you don a knight’s armour and, as in our case, have loads of fun looking very silly.
Nearest village: Trechtingshausen
Open for visits: Yes
Getting there: Train to Trechtingshausen then a 10-minute walk. If you’re driving, the car park is just off the main B9 road that runs along the left bank of the Rhine.
Burg Rheinstein is one of the best castles on the Rhine to visit. It is one of the most picturesque castles on the river, perched on a high rocky ledge with amazing views down the Rhine gorge.
Rheinstein Castle was built in the 1320s and is believed to have been a fiefdom of the Archbishops of Mainz for much of its working life. It eventually fell into disrepair then ruin, and was bought in 1823 by Prince Friedrich Wilhelm Ludwig of Prussia, who made it his principal residence.
It was the first Rhineland castle to be restored in the wake of the Romantic revival in the early 19th century, and there is a wealth of things to see there, with some sumptuous interiors and magnificent views from the garden and the path behind the castle. It has been in the ownership of the local Hecher family since 1975.
Nearest village: Trechtingshausen
Open for visits: Yes
Getting there: Train to Trechtingshausen then a 30-minute walk. If you’re walking to the Castle from the station, walk along the quieter road between the river and the main road. This will save you a potentially long wait at the level crossing below Reichenstein Castle – you need to cross this as the pedestrian path runs out on the main road after this point.
If you’re driving, the car park is just off the main B9 road that runs along the left bank of the Rhine.
A steep zig-zag path leads from the road to the castle.
Brömserburg, Rüdesheim am Rhein
Rüdesheim, the most famous of the Rhine river towns, is home to three Rhine river castles – two on the edge of the town, and another next to the river two miles downstream.
The stout, sturdy Brömserburg is one of the oldest Rhine river castles, believed to have been founded up to aa thousand years ago. The surviving Castle tower probably dates from the late 12th century.
Named after a family that managed the Castle, only one tower out of what was probably a larger complex now remains. It’s also possible that it was a riverfront Castle, as it’s on flat land close to the riverbank, with the railway now separating it from the Rhine.
Since 1950 it has been home to the Rheingau Wine Museum which, at the time of writing, is closed for restoration and refurbishment.
Open for visit: Usually yes – but closed at the time of writing (December 2022) for restoration.
Getting there: A 5-minute walk from Rüdesheim train station.
The Boosenburg is barely 100 metres from the Brömserburg, but has quite a different story to tell.
It is sometimes called the Oberburg (upper castle) as it is on slightly higher ground than the Brömserburg. The tall tower was probably built by the local knight, Lord Fuchs of Rüdesheim, and the small castle was named after the Boos von Waldeck family who owned it from the late 15th century until 1830. The Gothic Revival-style house was added later in the 19th century.
It is now the headquarters of Carl Jung, winemakers who invented the process of making alcohol-free wine (not to be confused with the Swiss psychoanalyst of the same name!).
Open for visit: No.
Getting there: A 5-minute walk from Rüdesheim train station.
How to Get Around the Rhine Valley
When planning a Rhineland trip, the first thing you need to bear in mind is that there are no bridges across the river Rhine between Koblenz and Rüdesheim.
The B9 road runs along the left bank (west side) of the Rhine, passing through Koblenz, Boppard, Oberwesel, Bacharach and Bingen, across the river from Rüdesheim. Trains between Koblenz and Mainz run along the same route.
The B42 runs along the right bank (east side) of the Rhine valley, passing Braubach, Kaub, St Goarshausen and Lorch before reaching Rüdesheim am Rhein. Again, trains follow the same route.
You can cross the river on five ferries, which take cars and foot passengers. There are five routes for river Rhine ferries which simply cross from one side of the river to the other – these are as follows:
Boppard to Filsen
St Goar – St Goarshausen
Kaub to Engelsburg
Lorch – Niederheimbach
Bingen to Rüdesheim
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