Last Updated on February 8, 2024
There’s just something about castles that stirs the imagination. One can gaze upon their ruins and imagine a time when banners flew overtop their turrets, armored knights riding out from the drawbridge to do battle while damsels waved hoping for their safe return.
Ok, sounds a little sexist, but I can also easily imagine a determined and defiant young Joan of Arc sallying forth, bravely leading her loyal knights in the defense of France in the Hundred Year War.
When it came time to choose a summer European river cruise, I jumped at the chance to sail with my wife on the Rhine River and catch the breathtaking beauty of the medieval castles lining the shores of this historic waterway.
Our Viking cruise began in Amsterdam and ended in Basel, Switzerland. Although we saw lovely windmills, towers and charming French and German villages along the way, for me, the highlight was the entire day we sailed past castle after castle after castle along the Rhine.
Each of these magnificent medieval strongholds was unique. Some were situated low along the river bank and others perched high on the steep slopes. A few were merely ruins while others were still inhabited by residents with long family histories.
Each castle different and every one with a storied past.
An Epic Sail through Castlevania
Our castle adventure commenced as we departed Koblenz, Germany where the Moselle River joins the Rhine. With about 40 castles to view along this famous stretch, I was aware the region encompassed several states and dubbed this historic area “Castlevania.”
Our full June day of castle watching aboard the Viking Gersemi – a lovely 443-foot riverboat – was hot and sunny, exceptionally hot for an early summer day. The crew took great measures to ensure our comfort, with plenty of open deck tenting, shade umbrellas, and cool beverages. Later in the afternoon, the ship’s captain and cruise director even led in the serving of ice cream cones, much to the delight of the sun-soaked guests on board.
My attention, of course, was focused entirely on those magnificent castles. They once again stirred my imagination and I thought if only those ramparts could talk, what grand stories they could tell.
Here’s a cross-section of the more impressive castles we gazed upon and photographed during this epic sail through history. Many have been, of no surprise, incorporated into the various UNESCO World Heritage Sites along this historic river.
As we departed Koblenz, immediately across the towering Deutsches Eck (German Corner’s Emperor William Monument) stood the Ehrehbreitstein Fortress. While not exactly medieval, this east bank stronghold built by the Prussians in the early 1800s sat high on a hilltop that had been fortified many times over since Roman armies guarded the river.
Ehrehbreitstein’s impressive command of the Rhine helped set the mood for more to come.
Southbound on the western bank stood the impressive Schloss Stolenfelz. This beautiful and well-preserved former medieval 13th-century fortress castle was rebuilt into a Gothic Revival schloss (palace) for the Prussian crown prince, Frederick William in 1823.
It has a lovely façade, and like many others, is also part of the UNESCO World Heritage Site Upper Middle Rhine Valley.
One look at the Marksburg Castle with its white walls and rounded turrets capped with blue roofs reminded me of Neuschwanstein Castle in Bavaria. This smaller, yet still-Disneyesque castle, was built as a fortress rather than a royal residence.
Of the many castles on the stretch of river from Koblenz to Binghen am Rhein, the Marksburg is one of only two that have never been destroyed. Occupied by the Counts of Katzenelnbogen and Hesse since 1283, the structure underwent its last major improvement in the 1400s and is the only one of these Rhine castles that has never fallen into disrepair.
Sitting high on a massive hill over the Rhine River Valley, Lieberstein Castle is the loftiest fortress along the Middle Rhine. Dating back to the 13th century and rebuilt in the 16th century, portions of the east bank castle may appear in ruins but its historic tower is actually a fully-functioning hotel and restaurant.
Perched halfway up an east bank mountain, the Maus Castle was called the “Mouse Castle” by the counts of the nearby and much larger Katz Castle. But the Maus has persevered over the centuries and is, along with the Marksburg Castle, one of the only along the Middle Rhine that was never destroyed.
Construction of the castle began in 1356 by the archbishop-elector of Trier and served to protect Trier’s borders against the Counts of Katzenelnbogen. Fully restored in the early 1900s, this castle complex contains two residences with grand architectural features that still reflect its medieval charm.
This castle ruin on the west bank of the Rhine rests high on a cliff overlooking Sankt Goar, Germany. The castle peers over the sharp river bend and across to the famous Statue of Loreley memorializing a young woman and her ghost – that legend claims to have caused countless deadly shipwrecks.
Construction began in 1245 by Count Diether V of Katzenelnbogen and grew into the largest fortress in the Middle Rhein Valley between Koblenz and Mainz. Although it was once five times bigger, Reinfels remains the largest of the castles overlooking the Rhine.
While much of it appears in ruins, Reinfels boasts a tall square clock tower circa 1300 and is home to both a museum and a luxury hotel.
Burg (Castle) Katz is without a doubt one of the most picturesque and most photographed of the 40 castles on the Rhine. Its name “Cat Castle” reflects the historic rivalry between it and its nearby smaller neighbor the Maus (“Mouse”) Castle.
The 14th-century Burg Katz clings to a steep rocky ledge on a mountain with commanding views of the Rhine River just north of the infamous Lorelei Rock. Heavily bombarded by Napoleon in 1806, the stunning castle was rebuilt in the Victorian era and is now a very impressive private residence.
The Schönburg sits above the medieval town of Oberwesel. Dating as far back as 966, Schönburg Castle served the Lords of Schönburg from the 12th century ruling over the town of Oberwesel and levying customs on the Rhine River.
Burned down in 1689 by French soldiers during the War of the Grand Alliance, the castle sat in ruins for 200 years until it was acquired by a German-American Rhinelander family who restored it. This stately reconstructed treasure now owned and lived in by the Hüttl family combines three medieval fortress structures and impressive keep towers into a lovely hotel and restaurant.
Gutenfels and Pfalzgrafenstein Castles
This stunning pair marks another sharp bend in the Rhine River. Burg Gutenfels, also known as Caub Castle, towers 110 meters above the town of Kaub. Gutenfels Castle was built in 1220 to serve the Holy Roman Empire regulating trade along with the toll burg, Pfalzgrafenstein Castle and the fortified town of Kaub.
When Prussia purchased the area in 1866, they ended the toll the following year. Today, the stately castle sits among beautiful vineyard terraces high on the picturesque hillside overlooking the town.
Sitting on an island in the middle of the Rhein, Pfalzgrafenstein Castle, commonly called “the Pfalz,” is both stunning and well-preserved. This small, pristine, white castle on the water’s edge is topped with red and grey conical roofs and served as the main Rhine River toll station on this picturesque stretch of waterway.
To me, Burg Stahleck appeared more like a tiny tight-knit German village with its varied architecture and tall cone-topped castle keep. Stahleck is a 12th-century fortified castle standing on a crag above terraced grapevines approximately 160 meters above sea level. Its name literally means “impregnable (steel) castle on a crag.”
The high-perched burg on the west bank enjoys a commanding view of the Lorelei Valley and still sports a water-filled partial moat. Destroyed in the late 17th century, it was rebuilt 300 years later and now serves as a hostel.
Last on the list of my favorite photographed castles is Burg Sooneck. This magnificent multi-tiered castle first established in 1271 was destroyed at least twice. In 1774, its ruins were leased to four residents of Trechtingshausen who planted vineyards. The site later came into the possession of the village of Niederheimbach.
In 1834, the crown prince of Prussia and his brothers purchased the derelict castle and rebuilt it as a hunting lodge while retaining its historical structures. Today the castle still bears the Prussian royal crest over its north gate.
After World War II, the burg passed to state control and is now a museum that can be visited via organized tours. The massive central tower keep looming from the highest level of the castle still presents an impressive sight along the Rhine River.
Alas, while the river cruise did visit the enchanting river village of Rüdesheim am Rhein at the end of this unforgettable day, we did not get a chance to explore any of the magnificent medieval relics we sailed past. Nor did we visit their museums, or stay and eat in their captivating hotels and restaurants.
I’m sure they still have many stories yet to tell. Rest assured I will be back for those knights in shining armor and enchanting cone-hatted maidens are beckoning me to return.