Guide to the Munich Residenz: City Palace of the Wittelsbach Dynasty
The Munich Residenz is a vastly underrated European palace. I'd say it's on par with Versailles in terms of sheer grandeur, though I may get booed for that sentiment. Too bad, it's delightfully under-touristed and historically interesting, despite being mostly a post WWII recreation.
The Munich Residenz was the seat of a political and cultural powerhouse, the Wittelsbach dynasty. The clan ruled Bavaria for over 700 years, for better or worse. Their palace is awash in tapestries, swirly Rococo gilt, quirky reliquaries, and grottos. In fact, the palace has so many tapestries, you might give up admiring them out of sheer visual overstimulation.
A Short History of Munich
Munich is located in southern Germany, two hours north of the Austrian border, and is the capital of Bavaria. To most people, Munich is synonymous with Oktoberfest and beer gardens, the Hofbrauhaus and lederhosen. But its medieval German name, München, actually stands for something quite the opposite in meaning -- “Home of the Monks."
Drawn by proximity to Catholic Italy, Benedictine monks settled in what is now Munich in the 8th century. For centuries thereafter, the monks conducted much of the trade activity in Munich and effectively governed. But in 1255, Munich passed into the hands of House Wittelsbach. They would rule until 1918 when Germany was defeated in WWII.
Under the Wittelsbachs, Munich expanded. The Wittelsbachs had their eye on empire building, aspiring to be like the Austrian Hapsburgs. They built magnificent palaces and other monumental architecture. By the 19th century, Munich was an impressive place.
The most famous Wittelsbach, Mad King Ludwig II, went on a frenzy of castle building in Bavaria. Decamping from the cloying royal duties at Munich's court, he designed the fairytale Neuschwanstein Castle, now Germany's #1 tourist attraction.
The Munich Residenz: History and Tips for Visiting
The Munich Residenz was the Witttelsbachs' luxe city palace. It served as both their posh residential digs and the seat of government for all Wittelsbach dukes, princes, and kings. The Munich Residenz eventually became the most important cultural site in Bavaria.
But the Residenz began life humbly. In 1385, it was just a petit castle with a moat. As the Wittelsbach prospered, their digs grew fancier, began to sprawl, and eventually completely transformed over the centuries into a massive gilded complex. There are ballrooms, chapels, galleries, royal apartments, fountain courts, and gardens. Oh my!
Interestingly, Ludwig II hated staying at the Munich Residenz. He was a dreamy king who lived in an imaginary world of operas and legends. He hated anything remotely related to governing -- royal duties, royal appearances, royal functions, and the royal palace itself. That's one reason he built his beautiful palaces in rural Bavaria. To get away from it all, so to speak.
To make his city visits more palatable, Ludwig had a Winter Garden built on the Residenz' rooftop. In characteristic fashion, the fantasy gardens were adorned with painted scenery, rainbow moonlight effects, a swan lake, and a Moorish tent.
Sadly, Ludwig’s Winter Garden was dismantled shortly after his unseemly death. (which may have been murder, not suicide.) Perhaps the dismantling was a symbolic statement, by the new German government, on the value-less nature of frivolity. They were shortsighted. Ludwig's castles and palaces are now Germany's most marketable tourist sites.
In any event, today, you’ll find the Residenz in the heart of Munich’s Alstadt on Max-Joseph Platz, near the elegant Theatinerkirche church. You can enter on either Max-Joseph Platz or Residenzstrasse. You can see the three main sites -- the museum, the treasury, and Cuvillies Theater -- in any order and buy a combined ticket for all three.
Sadly, all but 50 meters of the Residenz was destroyed during WWII. But valuables were secreted away and preserved, in anticipation of German payback. Beginning in the 1980s, the palace was meticulously restored to its former glory, room by room, and the goodies brought out of storage. History buffs will be delighted by the attention to detail.
The Residenz is a highlight of a visit to Munich, even if you only have one day in Munich. But If you don't want to tour the interior, at least walk around the courtyards and admire the facades. But it's well worth a short or long peek inside the Residenz, depending on your inclinations. It’s possible to whiz through the in an hour or so, just to get a sense for how opulently the royals lived.
You can’t purchase tickets to the Residenz online. But it doesn’t really matter, except possibly in high season. I was there during Octoberfest and waltzed right in, although possibly that’s because so many tourists were nursing hangovers. Plus, as an added bonus, the Residenz is one of the only palaces in Germany where you can actually take photos (no flash).
Highlights of the Munich Residenz
The Residenz is technically called a "museum." But it's really just a lavishly decorated palace, for the most part. I think of it as an architectural site mostly, not a place to view art per se. The Residenz is a hodgepodge mix of architectural styles — Renaissance, Baroque, Rococo, and Neo-Classicism. But that’s befitting a palace that lorded over Bavaria for over 700 years.
Inside, the Residenz Museum consists of over 120 rooms. It's a big place and coudl take awhile to visit, especially if you use the long winded audio guide. Grab a museum floor plan when you get there.
Highlight of the Ground Floor of the Munich Residenz
1. Shell Grotto (Room 6)
The first thing you’ll see on the ground floor is the extremely unusual Shell Grotto. You may well be shell-shocked at this quirky display.
This strange structure is made entirely from Bavarian freshwater shells. After it was demolished in WWII, Bavarians lovingly collected shells for its reconstruction. The grotto was rebuilt according to pre-war photographs
Grottos were popular in the 1500s. Here's an explanation of their significance from grotto expert Hazelle Jackson, which I hadn't known:
The earliest grottoes were shrines built over sacred springs in ancient Greece. Over time these evolved into temples and were popular in ancient Rome, where the term “nymphaeum” was used for both formal temples dedicated to water deities and artificial grottoes surrounding public fountains. Smaller grottoes were also popular additions to Roman villas and gardens, decorated with shells and a maritime theme. Architects in Renaissance Italy revived the grottoes of ancient Rome to lend an air of historical authenticity to their neo-classical villas and gardens and these caught the public imagination and swept across Europe.
2. Antiquarium (Room 7)
The next room is the oldest in the Residenz and the most impressive — the gold hued Antiquarium. It was built in 1568 to house the Wittelsbachs' vast collection of antiques. It's 220 feet long and the most important Renaissance building north of the Alps. It's worth a visit to the Munich Residenz just to see this room.
As important government leaders, the Wittelsbachs fancied themselves akin to Roman leaders. And they collected a lot of Roman busts, to reflect their own glory. Apparently, these busts were so popular that there was a robust market for fake busts. Not all of the Wittelsbach' sculptures were originals.
Later, the Antiquarium was converted into a banqueting hall with a fireplace at one end. The frescos were created in the 16th and 17th centuries. 200 people could dine there. I imagine it was a delightful place to dine. You would’ve been swathed in golden tones and surrounded by beautiful art. The Antiquarium is still used today for state receptions.
3. Ancestral Gallery (Room 4), the Wittelsbach Scrapbook
The Ancestral Gallery is a magnificent room, and was meant to impress the socks off you. Every guest to the Residenz passed through this room, as an exercise in indoctrination. On their way, they were suitably dazzled by the rank and importance of the longstanding Wittelsbach dynasty.
The portrait gallery was the brainchild of Elector Karl Albrecht. In 1726, he commissioned Joseph Effner and young architect François Cuvilliés to design and decorate the room. They went crazy with the gilt carving.
There are over 100 portraits of Wittelsbach family members. Some of the paintings have messy scars. In 1944, when bombs were imminent, the Nazis sliced the portraits out of their frames and hid them away.
4. Niebelungen Halls
The Niebelungen Halls are five halls on the ground floor. They were built for King Ludwig I and modeled after the Palazzo Pitti in Florence. They were the first monumental representations of the Nibelungen Saga of Songs, a 13th century epic German poem.
5. Court Church of All Saints
King Ludwig I built the Court Church in 1826 to 1837 after a visit to Palermo Italy. You can see the Italian influence, thought at the time it was rendered in a Neo-Classical way. I rather liked the unpainted exposed brick look, myself. It had a tranquil feel.
Upper Levels of the Munich Residenz
On the upper level, you'll be bedazzled by room after chandeliered room. You'll eventually reach a juncture where you can choose the "short way" or the "long way." The short way leads directly to the ornate rooms. The long way adds a dozen more rooms.
I chose the long way. (It was raining outside, after all.) Here are the highlights of the upper level of the Munich Residenz:
1. The Reliquary Room (Room 95)
This is a rather gruesome room. It contains a collection of Christian relics. But the relics are a little different than you typically see. They're filled with mummified hands and bones in gilded cases. Femur anyone?
I confess I didn't spend much time here. But if you like noir-ish attractions, this will appeal. And I so I have revealed its existence.
2. Court Chapel, Hofkapelle
The late Renaissance-early Baroque chapel was built in 1603 by Hans Krumpper. From my perspective, it's most notable as the site of Mad King Ludwig's funeral. Though Ludwig may have been offed by his own family, he was beloved by his people, who paid homage to him in droves. The chapel also hosts classical music concerts.
A few doors down is the private chapel of Maximilian I. The Chapel is one of the most sumptuous and densely decorated rooms in the palace, complete with a miniature pipe organ and detailed altar. You almost don't know here to look, there's so much to see in the marbled room.
2. Ornate Rooms aka the Rich Rooms (Rooms 55-62)
As the term "ornate" portends, this long string of ceremonial rooms is probably the splashiest part of the Residenz. The Wittelsbach were trying to keep up with Vienna Hapsburgs, after all. Not surprisingly, the stucco and gilded rooms were decorated by Francois Cuvillies, one of Bavaria's most famed architects.
Cuvillies began life as a court dwarf. But he was clever and attracted the attention of Maximilian Emmanuel. In 1720, Cuvillies was packed off to Paris to attend art school. Upon his return, he embarked on a stellar career, essentially founding "Bavarian Rococo." In addition to the Munich Residenz, Cuvillies also designed the absolutely beautiful Great Hall and Amalienburg folly at Nymphenburg Palace.
Interestingly, the State Bedroom in the Ornate Rooms wasn't even a real bedroom. It was only for "display." Courtiers would come to watch the duke do a faux rise from the bed in the morning, to symbolically kick the day off. An odd court tradition indeed.
3. Green Gallery (Room 58)
The Green Gallery is the star of the Ornate Rooms. It was definitely my favorite space in the Residenz. The green damask fabric is just so serene and appealing. The long gallery has 70 paintings, arranged in tiers, alternating with mirrors on top of the green wallpaper and gold stucco everywhere. The room is luxurious, but not in a stiff way. It's rather welcoming and joyous.
The Green Gallery was often used as a banquet hall for royal parties. You can almost imagine women in their fancy attire twirling in the ballroom under the sparkly chandeliers.
4. Cabinet of Mirrors and Porcelains
Though I think the Green Gallery wins the Residenz beauty contest, the Cabinet of Mirrors is the flashiest room. I really loved the gorgeous and unique ivory colored chandelier. To my mind, the mirror cabinet isn't quite as unique as the astonishing Mirror Room in the UNESCO-listed Wurzburg Residenz in northern Bavaria, which boasts vintage-y looking hand painted mirrors amid all the gilding.
Right next door is the Cabinet of Minatures, a gaudy red laquered bordello type hideaway. I didn't love the over the top effect. But what was interesting was the 129 tiny miniature portraits embedded in the wall. They're from Dutch, French, and German painters, spanning the 16th to 18th centuries. Like everything else, they were destroyed in WWII, but re-created.
4. Stone Rooms (Rooms 104-109), Tapestry Heaven
Dating from 1611, the Stone Rooms were commissioned by Maximilian I. In the 17th century, they were the most important sequence of rooms in the Residence. The rather stark Neo-Classical rooms take their present name from the extensive use of marble, stucco marble, and stucco marble inlays.
The Stone Rooms served as the palace's most exclusive guest apartment, mostly reserved for the visiting Emperor. The golden threaded tapestries are the most notable feature of the Stone Rooms, which on the whole pales in comparison to the 18th century Ornate Rooms. They were woven by the Dutch tapestry weaver, Hans van der Biest from designs by Peter Candid.
The Cuvillies Theatre, Bavaria's Rococo Theater Extraorinaire
You've got to exit the main building of the Residenz to visit the Cuvillies Theater. I admit it took me awhile to find, despite getting directions when I left. After leaving, head a half block north on Residenzstrasse to the other Residenz entrance and look for signs to the Cuvillies Theater.
The cozy theater was built from designs by architect Francois Cuvillies from 1751-55. It’s supposed to be a “masterpiece of Rococo art” and claims to be "one of the most outstanding works of art in Europe." After that build up, I found it somewhat underwhelming and wasn't even sure if it was worth the few extra euros. I'll take Cuvilllies' blue-hued Amalienburg over this any day.
The theater seemed rather shabby-chic-plush to me. Though it's obviously very gilded and highly restored. To underscore the point, signs shout at you not to touch "anything." But perhaps an over the top room is the perfect venue for over the top operas.
It was here that a 15 year old prince Ludwig witnessed his first opera, Richard Wagner’s Lohengrin. When he became king, the introverted Ludwig sometimes bought out the Cuvillies Theater to attend performances solo. The Rococo theater also hosted the premiere of Mozart's Idomeneo. It's still used for high brow operatic performances.
During WWII, the theater was completely destroyed, although the carved decoration was removed beforehand in anticipation of Allied bombing. Once a new building was constructed in 1948-51 on the ruins of the demolished theater, the the original decor was used to panel the theater.
The Palace Treasury
I confess I skipped the Residenz Treasury, as I was running short on time and had other must see Munich sites on my agenda. But there you'll find goldsmiths' work from the Middle Ages to the Neo-Classical era. The most famous is the 16th century St. George's reliquary.
Practical Information for Visiting the Munich Residenz
Address: Residenzstraße 1, 80333
Hours: Apr to mid-Oct 10:00 am to 6:00 pm, mid Oct to Mar 10:00 to 5:00 pm
Entry fee: Residenz 7 euros, Cuvilliés Theater 3.5 euros, Treasury 7 euros. You can buy a combined ticket for all three sites for 13 euros
Metro: Marienplatz or Odeonsplatz
Pro tips: An audioguide comes with the ticket and it contains hours of information. All the exhibits are labeled. You just punch in the number and start listening. The free admission ticket for the Munich City Pass is only available at the ticket office of the Residenz Museum, not at the Cuvillies Theater.
If you'd like to see other lavish palaces near Munich, check out my detailed guides to Nymphenburg Palace, Neuschwanstein Castle, Hohenschwangau Castle, and Linderhof Palace.
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