Castle Tirol has stood watch over South Tyrol for nearly 1,000 years. Here’s why you should see this majestic work of ancient might while visiting the region.
WHAT IS IT ABOUT CASTLES? Whether in a perpetual state of crumble or masterfully preserved to reveal life in the Middle Ages, they endlessly fascinate us. Their haunting beauty inspires awe as much as the legends born within.
With 800 castles rising throughout the mountains and valleys of South Tyrol, it’s hard to nail down one that impresses the most. But there is one who never fails to captivate us no matter how many times we encounter it: Castle Tirol (also known as “Tyrol Castle”, “Schloss Tirol” in German and “Castel Tirolo” in Italian).
Its imposing seat 2,000 feet above the valley floor demands your attention from even miles away. Enthroned in the 1100s by the Counts of Vinschgau, who later took title as the Counts of Tyrol, Castel Tirol’s storied walls hold some of the most important historical relics and artwork in South Tyrol. In fact, the faded frescoes of its chapel include the oldest known painting of the Red Eagle — South Tyrol’s revered coat of arms.
The Spell of Castle Tirol
A unique hallmark of Castle Tirol is that depending on the temperament of the mountains or the hour of the season, the castle seemingly transforms before your eyes. It’s as if the fortress casts a spell of eternal enchantment on all who look upon its walls.
Castle Tirol’s ever-changing persona, from hopelessly romantic to dreadfully tyrannical, is perhaps why we and so many others find this historic haunt endlessly alluring. For us, no other castle in South Tyrol conjures the same kind of magic as Castle Tirol.
No matter when you visit South Tyrol, you can experience this magic for yourself. In any season or hour, you will witness how Castle Tirol looms with decisive command. The sight of the fortress will leave no doubt in your mind as to why it named an entire region and its people.
Speaking of its name, some historians indicate the word “Tirol / Tyrol” can be traced back to when the Roman Empire occupied the land. “Teriolis” was the given name of a Roman military outpost in northern Tyrol. Others speculate, in the Dark Ages, Germanic tribes named the rocky outcropping Castle Tirol sits on “Tyr” in honor of a god they worshipped.
The Views from Castle Tirol
As much as Castle Tirol mesmerizes from the outside its grand views are equally enchanting. The sweeping panorama awaiting visitors illustrates why the fortress was founded at such a lofty height.
Situated to the north of Merano, Castle Tirol peers deep into the valley basin that stretches southward to Bolzano. On its western flank, the castle watches over the Vinschgau Valley, which zig zags toward Switzerland.
Invading armies from either direction would have been spotted well in advance of any threat. Enemies coming from the north would have had to cross the rugged Ötztal Alps — likely meeting the same fate as Ötzi the Iceman. And any marauders marching from the east would need to find a way to magically leap the Sarntal Alps.
Within Castle Tirol
Inside the castle lies a treasure of archaeological finds including religious and pagan figures encircling the marble portals of the castle’s chapel. These are sculpted in Romanesque-style from the 12th century.
The meaning of these carved marvels is still not entirely clear. Nevertheless, they are fascinating to study. Their ornate detail speaks to the superb craftsmanship of long ago.
Walking through the chapel door feels like you are stepping into a room a thousand years wide. Faded religious frescoes dating to the 12th century colorize the gray stone walls.
Many are still hardly scarred by the ravages of time. They continue beautifying the chapel making one wonder how stunning the walls must have looked centuries ago.
Above the chapel floor of Castle Tirol looms a larger-than-life Crucifixion scene. Crafted in1330, it is one of the most impressive works of medieval art we have ever seen.
Steps in the chapel climb to the upper chamber where you can admire the detail achieved by the artist at eye level. You will see firsthand why these sculptures are a priceless treasure of South Tyrol.
The castle is also home to the South Tyrolean Museum of History and Culture. The exhibits cover multiple levels in the castle and provide an intriguing overview of the history of South Tyrol from its earliest beginnings to the modern era.
The exhibit signs and summaries are in German and Italian, but visitors can checkout an audio guide that is in English. The museum tour lasts about 50 minutes.
Hiking to Castle Tirol
The only way to reach Castle Tirol is on foot. Trust us, this is a good thing. The hike to its gates is unforgettable. If views of the castle and vineyards riddled around it do not steal your breath away then the Texel mountain group in the distance certainly will.
When arriving at the area by car, we suggest parking in one of two public lots located in Dorf Tirol. From there, cross the street walking uphill along the sidewalk until coming to a sign designating the Falknerweg (Falconers’ Path). This beautiful path takes you past hotels, restaurants and vineyards eventually winding along the edge of a deep ravine where you can admire the picturesque Brunnenburg Castle — once home to the famous poet Ezra Pound.
Before rounding a corner to the castle you will pass through a 260-foot stone tunnel built in the 17th century. The entire walk takes 20-30 minutes depending on how much you pause to snap pictures or simply savor the historical and natural beauty all around.
TIP: The castle can also be reached from Merano by walking the Tappeiner Promenade. This route takes 2-3 hours but is what we consider the most enchanting walk in Italy. It is our favorite way to reach Castle Tirol.
When to Visit Castle Tirol
Castle Tirol is open to the public from mid-March to early December. Visit the castle’s official website to confirm dates and hours. Admission fees are € 7 per adult. Children and senior citizens receive discounted rates.
If you visit the castle during one of the weekends in December when it is hosting its traditional Christmas market, you can enjoy the castle at no charge. Seeing it at this time of year is especially charming.
Autumn is also a special time to visit as a wine-stand off the Falknerweg offers the season’s new wine, which you can sip under a canopy of grapevines while gazing at the castle and beyond. Sounds a touch romantic doesn’t it? Afterward, treat yourself to a hearty South Tyrolean meal at Biergarten am Schlossweg — a panoramic beer garden nearby.