If you took time visit the Bastei Rocks, you will find yourself in close proximity to the small town of Königstein. Atop the table hill bearing the same name, lays the Königstein Fortress, Germany’s largest fort. Rising 240 meters above the over the river, the 24 acres rock plateau offers stunning views the Elbe Valley and the villages around.
A Little History of Königstein Fortress
Königstein Fortress (or Festung Königstein, as the Germans call it) started in the early 13th century as a medieval castle belonging to the Bohemian kingdom. In the 1400s the Saxon rulers conquered the castle and later on transformed it into a monastery. In the mid 1500s by the order of Augustus, Elector of Saxony, a deep well (152 m) was drilled through solid rock on the site creating an important condition for the construction of a fortress. The conversion of the castle into a fortress was done in 1589 by Elector Christian I, who continually improved the old armoury and the fortress’s defense. Due to its strategic position no enemy ever attacked the fortress. That made Königstein a sure retreat for the Saxon rulers who often fled behind its thick walls in times of crisis.
The Many Roles of Königstein
Because they considered it unconquerable, the Germans often used the fortress as a hiding place. The state treasure, the secret archives and many works of art from the Zwinger Palace have been stored here in war times.
The fortress that was for most part a prison. Until 1922, it was the most feared state prison in Saxony. During the two world wars it was used as a prisoner of war camp for the French and Russian officers. Later on, the fort became a military hospital.
Königstein Fortress Today
Since 1955 Festung Königstein is open to the public, as a military and historical museum. The citadel is very well preserved and represents Saxony’s foremost tourist attractions, with 700,000 visitors per year. The wall surrounding the fortress is 1.6 km long and 42 m high and was reinforced with palisades and watch towers. The enclosed area covers about 24 acres of wide green spaces, exhibitions and buildings. There are currently around 50 buildings, some over 400 years old, displaying many types of architecture including the Gothic, Renaissance, and Baroque styles. The walk around the 2.2 km fortress wall offers breathtaking panoramic views of a large part of Saxon Switzerland.
I would strongly recommend renting an audio guide which is available in several languages at the entrance. There are several restaurants, a beer garden and food kiosks at different points in the fortress. Food is mostly local Saxon cuisine, pretty heavy and hearty (mostly pork and potatoes).
We visited the fortress in the afternoon and the light was absolutely perfect. Unfortunately, Königstein is one of the most visited places in Germany year round, so it is always crowded. Trying to find the perfect moment for a picture is a real hassle.
The original access to Festung Königstein was through a 16th century hoist, or via a very steep path on the western side of the mountain. You can still see the path today, but the hoist was replaced with a modern panorama elevator. There is no parking around the fortress. The only motorized vehicles allowed are the tourist trains and the double-decker busses. Festung Express –a vintage-look double-decker bus– runs from the train station to just below the fortress entrance. Parking is adjacent to the station. You can also buy your bus/train tickets as well as entry tickets there.
You can also reach the fortress by foot from the center of the town. The slope is quite steep, but the road is well maintained and marked. Hiking to Königstein Fortress takes about 40 minutes. Königstein Fortress makes a great day trip from Dresden.