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 Festung Königstein, Germany’s largest fortress. Towering majestically over the Elbe Valley and the Saxon Switzerland landscape and rising 240 meters above the river, the 24 acres rock plateau offers stunning views that rival with the famous Balcony of Europe in Costa del Sol, Spain. Both Bastei Rocks and Königstein Fortress can easily be visited in a day trip from Dresden.
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 castle fell into the hands of the Saxon rulers and was later transformed 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, making it a sure retreat for the Saxon rulers who often fled behind its thick walls during times of crisis.
Because Königstein fortress was regarded as unconquerable, it also served as a hiding place for the state treasure, secret archives and many works of art from the famous Zwinger Palace during the war. Until 1922 the fortress served as as the most feared state prison in Saxony. During the two world wars the castle was used as a prisoner of war camp for the French and Russian officers and later on as a military hospital. Since 1955 Festung Königstein is open to the public as a military and historical museum.
The fortress that was for most part a prison, is now 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.
Audio guides in several languages are available at the entrance and are highly recommended. 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. The path still exists 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) that run 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.
The fortress can also be accessed by foot from the center of the town, on some steep slopes. We didn’t hike since our time was very limited, but from all I hear the road is well signposted and takes about 40 minutes.