The southern end of the Romantic Road was our first destination upon arriving in Germany. The alps along the Germany-Austria border are visible from all the towns covered on this page, at least on a clear day.
Our first real stop was Wies, a tiny hamlet which has achieved world heritage status thanks to a single rococo church. The secluded location of the church in an Alpine valley has helped it survive since 1754 when it was completed. It's the work of the Zimmermann brothers who seem to have roamed Bavaria in the 18th century spreading ornate design everywhere they went.
The church was pretty much deserted when we visited. There was one other car in the lot in the town center. The facilities around the church were clearly built to handle a lot of visitors, but the church is also a pilgrimmage site. Apparently on a Monday in mid-January, there aren't many pilgrims around.
After Wies we moved on to Schwangau where we spent most of the day. Schwangau is known for the two castles built above the town. This is Hohenschwangau which sits on a rocky ridge just above the town. It was built by King Maximilian II of Bavaria but much of the history of the place seems to revolve around his son, Ludwig II. It can be visited with tours in a variety of languages, as long as you visit it before Neuschwanstein. We're not sure what is behind that rule, other than maybe a desire to leave people a forced hour or so to wander around town and buy souvenirs.
The tour of the castle covers two floors of the central tower and mostly contains artifacts from two sets of residents. First - Maximilian II and his queen, Marie of Prussia. Secondly, Ludwig II and Richard Wagner, who probably didn't have the same relationship despite rumors. Ludwig was very fond of Wagner in at least some ways though as he devoted entire rooms of Neuschwanstein to Wagner's works.
Neuschwanstein is the castle that most people actually come to see. It has a spectacular location and local weather effects like fog and low clouds lead to some particularly dramatic effects. This is just a view from across the valley into the sun.
From Schwangau and Hohenschwangau, Neuschwanstein appears edge on (so to speak). Neuschwanstein was built by Ludwig II because apparently Hohenschwangau just wasn't big enough. Actually, Ludwig II built an array of castles and palaces during his lifetime, many of which were never completely finished due to a lack of funds. Neuschwanstein was completed on the exterior but much of the interior is empty and the castle was lived in for less than three months.
Our tour of Hohenschwangau seemed a pleasant and unhurried experience. By comparison, Neuschwanstein was sort of a mad rush through a dozen finished rooms with 100 other people who signed up for the English tour - including tour groups who brought their own guides and set up rival talks in other languages. There are a confusing maze of connecting halls and stairs between completed sections of the castle.
Behind the castle a trail leads to this bridge high over a waterfall. If you cross the bridge, the trail leads up a ridge parallel to the castle with spectacular views back at it. From Schwangau, Neuschwanstein can be reached on foot (free), by horse carriage (more expensive going up than down), or by bus (also more expensive going up). We walked, since the combined tour forces you into an hour long gap between castles anyway. From what we understand, the castles can get incredibly crowded certain times of the year. January is not one of those times.
Füssen is the actual southern end of the romantic road. We didn't spend much time here since we were staying nearby in Garmisch but 'most' visitors to the castles of Schwangau stay in Füssen. That is according to the Füssen website anyway. It is a rather interesting looking town though with a much more modern-looking castle presiding over it all.
Füssen, Schwangau and the other towns in the area sit on an inter-connected series of lakes. Just south of Füssen, the Lech river comes in from Austria, funnels through a mostly natural gorge (Lechschlucht) and empties into the Forggensee. The waterfall isn't terribly impressive but it's close to town, and a nice hike just in case you didn't get enough exercise walking up to Neuschwanstein.