Beer-loving, fast-driving, palace-dotted Bavaria, home of Oktoberfest, BMW, and Neuschwanstein (the castle that inspired Disney), toasted its centennial as a free state in 2018. Now’s the perfect time to travel beyond its obvious attractions to the glittering Crystal Route, where splendour lies in the glass.
Blessed with dense forests and veins of minerals, this patch of Bavaria east of Munich (an ideal starting point) and bordering the Czech Republic has spun beauty from potash and quartz since the 1400s. Early glass makers worked from Wanderhütten, or wandering huts. Today’s masters are easier to find, as they churn out everything from pink-glass pigs at family-run Glashütte factories to fine crystal goblets at world-class manufacturers Zwiesel (inventor of plate glass) and Spiegelau, crafter of many a royal mirror.
The glory of all this glass is spotlighted at two very different museums, and glassware fills scores of shops. Best of all, you can blow life into your very own crystal souvenir at workshops along the route. Raise a glass of Bavarian Hefeweizen to that!
Dubbed “city of three rivers” for its dramatic perch at the confluence of the Danube, Ilz, and Inn, Passau is an attention-getter. One block in from the Danube rises the Hotel Wilder Mann, a white and yellow confection that has welcomed guests since the 1800s and, since 1985, housed one of the world’s top spots for European glass and glass research, the Passau Glass Museum. The place is such a big deal that moonwalker Neil Armstrong officiated at its opening. More than 13,000 masterpieces (out of a collection of 30,000) pack four floors, from a Roman bowl to gold-edged Biedermeier goblets to the world’s largest collection of Bohemian glass. “You literally turn glassy-eyed looking at so much glass in so many shapes and colours,” says visitor Ann Saudelli as she studies a blue vase by acclaimed 19th-century artist Johann Loetz. Hotel guests have included Austrian Empress Sissi. Sleep like royalty yourself in the Sissi Room or the King Ludwig suite, which features King Ludwig II’s nuptial bed.
Glass morphs into snails and other forest creatures at Koeck Glashütte, one of various small glassworks around the Bavarian Forest National Park. Pick up gifts—and history—at the nearby Spiegelau factory outlet, then follow back roads to your lodging for the night, meadow-ringed Haus Jägerfleck.
With its reserves of quartz, Frauenau has long prized glassmaking. Dive into the history of the craft at the Frauenau Glass Museum, where you’ll feast your eyes on wondrous creations by Frauenau’s own maestro, Erwin Eisch, and others.
From Frauenau motor six kilometres northwest to the hillside town of Zwiesel, known for its topflight crystal. Feel the vibes at the Zwiesel Crystal Pyramid (composed of 93,665 wine glasses), then pop into the Zwiesel Glass Outlet for your own crystal rush. Time for a glass, um, break? Continue six kilometres to tiny Ludwigsthal, and a gem of a country church. It’s nothing special on the outside, but the church’s cosy interior swirls with vividly coloured art nouveau frescoes by renowned Loetz glass artist Franz Hofstoetter. Backtrack to Zwiesel and steer south-west to Regen and its Weissenstein Castle, where green and blue glass “trees” compose the haunting, otherworldly Glass Forest.
Time to fashion your own showpiece. In the resort town of Bodenmais, follow the street signs to Joska Glasparadies, the emporium of glass maker Joska. Get inspired in the “garden,” then make molten magic by breathing into a blow pipe with the help of a master blower.
Glass rules—and rocks—in the “glass huts,” art-glass gallery, glass-making workshops, and glass-sculpture gardens of Weinfurtner Glasdorf in the town of Arnbruck. Go on, snap up that colourful peacock with the showy tail. Your home will thank you.
Grass, not glass, is the thing at the lawn-circled Erdhaus (Earth House), a playful retreat by the hill town of Viechtach. Check out the town’s two fortified castles, then settle in for the night with your very own hot tub, infrared sauna, and floating shower—all preparation for tomorrow’s flight of fancy, the one-of-a-kind Gläserne Scheune. A barn complex just five minutes away, it’s the work of 80-year-old Bavarian artist Rudolf Schmid, who designed walls of richly detailed glass panels to depict local forest legends. Just as arresting is the barn’s silo-shaped tower, which is crowned with the painted head of a mythical folk giant.
Dragons never get old, in the movies or in the quirky medieval town of Furth im Wald, home to Germany’s oldest folk spectacle, the annual performance of the play Slaying of the Dragon (August 2-18, 2019). Dating to the 1500s, the production draws thousands with its costumed procession and fire-snorting dragon, the world’s largest walking robot. Can’t make it in August? Spooky things take place year-round at the Dragon Museum, in dragon-themed shops, and in the gargoyle- and- dinosaur-lined trail and subterranean labyrinth of the Wildgarten attraction.
Looping southwest, drive an hour through the countryside to Regensburg, a World Heritage treasure house of medieval architecture on the Danube River. Site of Bavaria’s first capital and the world’s oldest boys’ choir, its must-sees include Gothic St. Peter’s Cathedral (noted for its stained-glass windows), Schloss Thurn und Taxis palace (visit the Treasure Chamber and the Carriage Museum), and the flood-defying 12th-century Stone Bridge.
Follow the Danube to the festive town of Kelheim, where Bavaria’s oldest (and most scenic) monastery is located. Benedictine Weltenburg Abbey was founded in A.D. 600 at a horseshoe bend in the Danube Gorge. Prized for its baroque church, Weltenburg may be even more popular for its brewery, one of the world’s oldest. Quaff some Barock Dunkel at the courtyard café, then amble up the hill for great views.
Head south to the quiet town of Abensberg—quiet till you spot an art nouveau hobbit house at the base of a tilting, twisting tower topped with a golden orb. The Kuchlbauer Tower, an eye-bending project of the late architect Friedensreich Hundertwasser, was planned and executed by his protégé Peter Pelikan for the Kuchlbauer Brewery, founded in 1300. Tour both, then spring for a taste of the brewery’s popular wheat ale. Go on: Munich is just an hour away.