Lake Chiemsee — a crazy king’s dreamland

On Lake Chiemsee you’ll find crystal clear water, dramatic alpine views, 1,000-year-old churches, mythical convents, “crazy” castles, hundred-year-old fishing villages … and best of all, no gas-powered engines.

Lake Chiemsee is in the southeast corner of Germany near the Austrian border and Salzburg, and while it is Bavaria’s largest lake (referred to as the “Bavarian Sea”) , it’s only about 8,000 ha / 19,768 ac in size and 73 m / 240 ft deep.

So, when the idea came up to go sailing on Chiemsee, I have to say I was a bit nonplussed. The Chiemsee is not that much bigger than the lake I learned to sail on when I was 13 years old. I figured it wouldn’t take more than an hour before I got bored. But I couldn’t have been more wrong.

Chiemsee is not just a lake, it’s living history. Nestled against the backdrop of the Alps, this crystal clean protected lake fed by Alpine streams is ringed by ancient farms and fishing villages that date back many hundreds of years. In the center are two sibling islands, Fraueninsel and Herreninsel (woman island and man island), which are home to a thousand-year-old convent and one of Germany’s most famous castles.

Lake Chiemsee rowing boats

A couple of antique boats parked on the shore of Lake Chiemsee

The crazy king’s castle copy of Versaille

Almost everyone knows that fairy tale castle which Walt Disney built in his amusement parks in California and Florida that became the icon of the Disney Corporation. What some don’t know, however, is he modeled that castle after the famous Neuschwanstein Castle in Schwangau, Germany, built by former Bavarian King Ludwig II.

Ludwig II was known as the “mad king”. One of the reasons for this nickname was his passion for building expensive castles; one of which is located on an island right in the middle of Lake Chiemsee. Often called the “New Palace”, the king never actually lived here, and in fact he didn’t even finish building it before he died mysteriously in another one of Bavaria’s lakes.

Lake Chiemsee palace

Ludwig II’s “New Palace” on the Herreninsel

New Palace is one of Germany’s beautiful castle treasures. Ludwig II designed it to be a copy of French King Louis XIV’s Versailles, and spared no expense. In fact, his personal sleeping chamber is considered to be one of the most expensive bedrooms ever designed and built (although nobody has ever slept in it, except for perhaps a tour guide on the sly). We’d show you a picture but cameras were not allowed inside the palace.

The bedroom has a secret little passage that goes down to a dressing room where there is a tub the size of a pool. Another innovative object in the house is a dining table that is a kind of elevator that can be lowered, filled with food and brought back up.

What’s easily the most fascinating aspect of this castle, is you can wander through the lavishly decorated rooms and than suddenly step into the part or the castle that has not been completed; it’s just a brick shell. The contrast is amazing, and it gives you a sense of how much work (and money) went into building these mega-mansions.

A 1,000-year old church, fishing village and arts community

For a more historically religious experience, take the ferry over to the much smaller Fraueninsel. Here you’ll find a 1,000-year-old, still-operational church and convent.

The convent is home to 30 nuns and an abbess and public access is limited. However, you can tour the enormous church that dates back to the 11th century (and likely even earlier). So many worshipers have passed through the doors of this church, the stone threshold is worn down several inches!

Lake Chiemsee convent

The convent on the Fraueninsel

A stroll around this ancient structure can have a powerful effect on you. Just think, for a thousand years worshipers have been coming here, sitting on these pews, praying, living and dying.

Many of the church elders are literally buried in its walls and they even have the actually skull of the founding abbess (covered with a veil) – ok, that’s a little creepy.

Local delicacies fresh out of Lake Chiemsee

On the island is also a small fishing village that is, like most of Germany, picture-postcard beautiful. There are a number of restaurants on the island that create wonderful dishes from the local catch, which includes trout, pike, zander, perch, eel, carp, whitling, bream and char.

If you are not looking for a sit-down meal, there are also a number of little fish shacks where you can get a tasty smoked fish in a semmel (kaiser roll sandwich).

Lake Chiemsee fishing boats

Fishing boats on the Fraueninsel

If you like to catch your own, you’ll have to jump through a bunch of hoops. Remember, it’s Germany. You will need to: pay a fee, take a fishing course and test, purchase a license and than pay an additional fee to the folks at Chiemsee. This might sound a bit extreme, but if they didn’t regulate fishing in Germany, there literally wouldn’t be any fish left.

Lake Chiemsee’s home for artists

And while there are still many working fishermen here, Fraueninsel’s beauty has attracted some urban folks over the years. The first pilgrims from nearby Munich were a group of artist who came in the late 19th century to be “inspired” by the lake and its beautiful alpine mountains.

Lake Chiemsee art

Artists sell their creations on the Fraueninsel

Today many of the artist have gone, but some still remain, and there are some quaint little shops where you can find authentic Lake Chiemsee crafts.

The second wave of pilgrims from Munich were wealthy folks looking for summer homes. So, if you’re thinking of buying a house here, make sure you have a healthy bank account; prices are not cheap — think 7 digits.

Important to note: the restaurants, beer gardens and shops in the village seem to prefer cash over credit cards, so make sure you have some Euros in your wallet. I missed out on a much-desired semmel and smoked char sandwich here because we ran out of hard currency.

Lake Chiemsee’s most valuable asset is its quietude

One can’t get enough of the incredible bucolic and historic beauty that’s rife on the Chiemsee, and much of it is due to the fact that they severely limit boats with fossil-fuel engines on the water. In fact, the only gas (or diesel) powerboats allowed on Lake Chiemsee are working boats—fisherman, police and ferries. The only exception is large sailboats can use their engine to enter or leave their anchorage or dock, or for emergencies.

Lake Chiemsee sailboats

Sailboats glide along on Lake Chiemsee

Banning engines is a good idea for so many reasons I don’t know where to begin. Fossil-fuel powered boats are loud, pollute the air and the water and generally make a lot of waves (which is kind of a drag when you are sailing or in a small craft). Leave it to Germany, the land of “uber” recycling, to lead the way to making the world’s water resources a little greener.

As I said, working boats can still use gas engines, but the rest of the boats are electric or wind powered, and the effect is fantastic. Even when you have a lot of boats out on the water, all you hear is wind, water and seagulls flying overhead.

Of course this means you’re very dependent on the wind. The day we went sailing, the wind was a bit light, and I didn’t think we would get anywhere. Amazingly we had no problem doing a big tour of the lake.

In fact, it was kind of a plus because I stopped worrying about where we were going, and just enjoyed the ride and the time out on the water, as it should be. Truth be told, when it’s really blowing there’s a lot more work and stress involved. As my father says, “sailing is 90 percent quiet bliss punctuated by 10 percent of pure terror”.

It was kind of an awakening for me. Pretty much everyone I know on the Chesapeake Bay (where I got most of my sailing experience) puts on the motor when boat speed drops below 4 knots, which is kind of ludicrous. Why own a sailboat if you’re going to run the motor? I mean sailboats are really crappy powerboats.

If you visit Lake Chiemsee, it’s best to go mid-week. We went on Monday and it was still pretty crowded, especially on the islands. But we did mange to get dock space on Fraueninsel and also a place to drop our anchor at a popular beach. I can tell you from all reports, on Saturday or Sunday or any holiday those luxuries would be hard to find.

The only slightly stressful aspect of sailing on the Chiemsee is the lake has a lot of shallow spots, so boats here are generally have shorter keels. That means that the rudder and propeller are more exposed if you do happen to run aground.

We did fine, but I did get a little anxious when we anchored near the shore to go swimming. The shore is steep and gets shallow pretty fast, so when our boat swung around with the wind we ended up only having maybe 6 inches of clearance. But it was enough.

Lake Chiemsee anchorage

Sailboats at anchor on Lake Chieemsee

Europe has the added feature of mixing history and culture with its natural destination adventures. Lake Chiemsee is a perfect example. Take away the old churches and farms; the quaint fishing villages and Germany’s wonderful environmental obsession and equally wonderful obsession with keeping its land, homes, streets, walkways, gardens etc. beautifully maintained and manicured and the Chiemsee is just a lake. Well, ok, you still have the Alps to look at.

But add these factors together, and you have an incredible holiday destination that’s also a historic and cultural adventure. I was not only thrilled with Lake Chiemsee but I learned something valuable … when sailing, hold off before throwing on the engine. Life’s short, kick back and enjoy the time. I mean really, what’s the hurry?


Eric got the travel writing bug after working as a journalist in Cambodia in the mid-90s. Over the years he has written for numerous U.S. magazines and newspapers and taught writing at universities. He finally decided to go full-time with his travel writing because life is short, the world is big and he wants to experience it all.
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About Eric

Eric got the travel writing bug after working as a journalist in Cambodia in the mid-90s. Over the years he has written for numerous U.S. magazines and newspapers and taught writing at universities. He finally decided to go full-time with his travel writing because life is short, the world is big and he wants to experience it all.

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