What better place than sunny, idyllic Berchtesgaden, Bavaria for a mad man to rise to power?
Growing up watching movie after movie, reading book after book we learned that the worst enemy out there was Adolf Hitler and his army of Nazis. Visiting Germany, it’s a given that many people would like to see some of the World War II sites and learn more about this evil empire. We, of course, are just those people.
It seems counter-intuitive that Berchtesgaden would be such a beautiful place, a place where anyone would want to grow up and live, could have been the seat of power for so much terror. It has such natural beauty with towering mountains, dairy cows and farms dotting the lower hills, charming wooden balconies adorned with bright red carnations in every box, but that’s why it was so perfect. The German people had been having a hard time. It was a time of hunger and joblessness after their demise in World War I, and they were looking for some hope to cling to. Hitler used the picturesque and peaceful visions of a healthy well-fed, alpine family to his advantage.
World War II Sites
Two major sites in Berchtesgaden illuminate Adolf Hitler’s dark rise to power and his subsequent control of his empire: the Eagle’s Nest and the Documentation Obersalzberg center. Due to the drizzling weather that helps to make this area so green and gorgeous, we decided to take a couple of trips to see it all. However, you can still visit all of the sites in one visit, just plan your trip for the early summer or fall.
Documentation Center Obersalzburg
The first site, the Documentation Obersalzerg center, really tells the story of how how Hitler used Berchtesgaden and its traditional ideal of family, with men dressed in lederhosen and girls and women in their dirndl to show “heimat,” an ideal view of the perfect German household. He wanted to show the world how his dream of an Aryan race was taking off and becoming reality. It was so important to depict a wholesome and family-oriented government where he had the common people’s welfare in mind. In fact, it was an amazingly devious use of propaganda, and the documentation center masterfully shows how he did this with films, newspapers, posters, and other documents.
Along with the static displays, there is a film room, and then at the end of the route you can walk down into one of the tunnels or underground bunkers. Hitler built these tunnels and shelters underneath many of the major buildings in the town and you can go down into them and explore the labyrinth.
Most of the information is in German, but there are audio tours that will explain everything in English as well as some subtitles, English labels ans pamphlets. If you are interested in World War II history, you will definitely want to go.
High up on the Mountain – The Eagle’s Nest
The second and more well-known site is the Eagle’s Nest located high up on one of the tallest peaks, on the Obersalzberg. Given to Adolf Hitler on his 50th birthday, he and his closest cabinet members would make plans or entertain foreign dignitaries in their own fantasy world above the clouds. Today the original building houses a restaurant, a large viewing platform with a beer kiosk, and a small trail that goes up the mountain for some spectacular mountain views. For me the most interesting part is the bus ride to the top along the harrowing cliff-hugging mountain road, and then riding the elaborately decorated brass elevator through the living rock of the mountain up into the Kehlsteinhaus. The road was blasted out in a mere 13 months and is considered a feat of engineering, after having been up and down it I have to agree. What we loved most about the hair-pinned ride was the views…just gorgeous.
Once you’ve taken in the views from the Eagle’s Nest, had a drink or a snack in the restaurant (although I don’t really recommend the food here), and used the fancy facilities originally installed for Hitler and his guests, go out for a climb. The bus has done most of the work for you, but you can still feel like a victorious mountain climber conquering another peak by hiking up the last hundred meters or so.
What Else to do in Berchtesgaden
When you’ve been history-ed out, Berchtesgaden has so much more to offer. Any outdoor activity you can think of is available in the area and there are plenty of equipment rental stores to help you get ready to go. They have fantastic sports facilities such as swimming pools, an ice rink, mountain biking trails, alpine slides, bowling, and of course, trekking in the alps or along the meadows of the valley floor.
Delve underground at the Salzberg Mine Works
One of the most popular tourist attractions in town is the Berchtesgaden Salt Mine, very similar to its cousin across the border in Hallein. Your visit includes wearing protective clothing, sliding down some fun slides, riding a boat across an underground lake, and learning about the importance and history of salt in the region. There is some walking involved here, but it’s fairly level and children won’t have any problems. In fact, they’ll love the slides and the displays peppered (sorry, couldn’t resist the pun) throughout the mine.
Time for Some Real food and Drink at the Hofbrauhaus Berchtesgaden
Another popular place is the Hofbrauhaus. Similar, but not related to, the larger Hofbrauhaus in Munich, this brewery has an excellent restaurant, and on Friday nights they host a fun Bavarian night. Whether you go for a liter of their delicious brew or a traditional Bavarian meal, you won’t be disappointed. We suggest going up to the cafeteria counter and pointing to whatever daily special strikes your fancy. Of course, you can also always order off the traditional Bavarian menu where you’ll find leberkäse, obatzde (a local cheese bread spread), haxe (pork knuckle), and all things Bayerische! It’s all good.
We love a Bavarian night of oompah music and traditional dancing, and the one at the Berchtesgaden Hofbrauhaus is a blast. Every Friday night, a mere 6 Euros gains you entry into some real Bavarian slap dancing, leather clad fun. Young girls and boys dressed in traditional trachtenmoden (lederhosen and dirndl) sell you shots of schnapps, dance, sing, and entertain you for a few hours. The beer is flowing so be prepared to take a taxi or walk back to your hotel.
Don’t forget to just meander around the old town and check out the castle, cathedral, many local shops, cafés, and museums in the center of Berchtesgaden. There’s almost always live music playing somewhere, good food grilling, and delicious beer to drink!
Day Trips from Berchtesgaden
Salzburg, Austria is only a one hour train ride away. Or an easy drive over the mountain. You can easily go for a day trip or make it another stop on your itinerary.
By car: Driving yourself? Take the autobahn A8 out of Munich in the direction of Salzburg and exit at the Bad Reichenhall ausfahrt (exit). Follow signs for Berchtesgaden along the B20 and then on the B315. For those in need of gas, there is an Esso in the center of Berchtesgaden. For those who prefer the train, Berchtesgaden does have a regular connection with Munich. If you’re traveling to Berchtesgaden from another Bavarian station, remember to consider purchasing a Bavaria pass that is good for up to 5 people (about US$30). Driving times from Frankfurt 5 1/2 hours, from Stuttgart about 4 hours, from Munich 2 1/2 hours, from Grafenwöhr 3 1/2 – 4 hours.
By train: From Salzburg only 1 hour, from Munich 3 hours, from Frankfurt 5-10 hours, from Stuttgart 6-11 hours. Unless you are coming from Salzburg or Munich*, I would not recommend the train. *From Munich you can buy a Bavaria train ticket which is much cheaper than any other option, and it’s for up to five people.
Where to eat: Both of these places we recommend. We’ve eaten at a few other places and they are not bad, but nothing special. Of course, the food and beer at the Hofbrauhaus Berchtesgaden is very good traditional German and Bavaria fare. You really should give it a try. Another option we enjoy in town is the Akropolis Greek restaurant (be sure and reserve a table with a window and a mountain view).
Other useful information
- Documentation Center Obersalzberg entry is 3 euro for adults, free for children, military and teachers with ID. More information can be found here. It is stroller friendly, but frankly I don’t recommend taking children here unless they are a little older and really into World War 2 history.
- Buses to the Eagle’s nest leave from the Documentation center Parking area, tickets are bought at a kiosk near the cafe and cost 16 euro for adults, 13 for children and include round trip and elevator ride. This is not stroller friendly, but the kids will enjoy the rides and the views.
- You need to sign up for your return bus ride time from the Eagle’s nest, so rush right up to the counter as soon as you get off the bus to secure your necessary return time.
- Hofbrauhaus Berchtesgaden has been brewing beer for more than 370 years. The Bavarian evening of music and dancing takes place every Friday between mid-May and late September. A Bavarian night, by design, is all about drinking beer. Saying that, I would take kids, they’ll have fun!
- Most of the hotels in the area will give you a free Guest Card that will get you discounts off things like parking meters, buses, restaurants, and visitor attractions (including the ones in this post)
- More information on the Berchtesgaden Salt Mine can be found here https://www.salzbergwerk.de/en
Have you been to Berchtesgaden? What tips can you share with us?
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