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Heidelberg, Germany

An illustrated travel guide to one of Germany's best-preserved cities.

photo - Heidelberg Kongress und Tourimus GmbH

ABOVE: Heidelberg Castle overlooks the old town, where a stone bridge crosses the Neckar River.

Heidelberg, Germany has a long history of welcoming English-speaking travelers--among them, Mark Twain, who spent several months in Heidelberg with his family in 1878 and described the experience in A Tramp Abroad.

Thanks to a long history of Anglo-Saxon infatuation with Heidelberg, the city was off-limits to Allied bombing in World War II--which is why you'll still see heavy, historic buildings of red sandstone in the Altstadt or Old Town. These buildings are genuinely old, not restored or rebuilt from ruins.

Heidelberg's attractions include a romantic castle, Germany's oldest university, a hillside "Philosopher's Walk," boat trips on the Neckar River, and countless taverns, cafés, and restaurants where you can sample local wines and the comfort-food gastronomy of Germany's Palatinate (now incorporated into the state of Baden-Württemburg, which lies in Southwestern Germany near Switzerland and France).

Heidelberg is easily worth a visit of several days--or, better yet, a week--and because English is widely spoken in the town, it's a great place for first-time visitors to Germany who aren't comfortable with the language of Goethe, Heine, and Run Lola Run.


Heidelberg history and background

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ABOVE: The Brückentor, or Bridge Gate, once protected the city against invaders from the northern side of the Neckar River.

History:

According to the Heidelberg tourist office's "History and Facts" page, the city's history (or prehistory) goes back approximately 600,000 years to the "Heidelberg Man," the earliest human fossil in Europe. The Celts built a fortress in the area around 500 B.C., and the Romans showed up shortly after the time of Christ.

photoThe name "Heidelberg" was first mentioned in 1196 A.D., and by 1386, the city had become important enough to merit its own university.

Like many European cities, Heidelberg had its share of wars was ruled by a succession of counts, princes, and kings over the centuries.

One of the most notable conflicts was the so-called "War of Succession," when French soldiers tried to blow up the Schloss, or castle, and succeeded in knocking over one of the towers (see inset photo) with a massive explosion.

For more background information, see Wikipedia's article about Heidelberg.

Heidelberg today:

Since World War II, Heidelberg has grown into a modern university, technology, and business city of 140,000 people, many of them living and working in new districts outside the historic Altstadt or Old Town.

As a tourist, you'll be interested mostly in the Altstadt, the castle hill, and the Philosopher's Walk in the suburb of Neuenheim across the river from the Brückentor (see photo at top of page).


Sightseeing

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ABOVE: A bicycle rack in the Altstadt, with the Jesuitkirche behind.

Heidelberg is a pedestrian-friendly city--especially in the Altstadt, or Old Town, where your explorations are likely to begin.

The Altstadt is a long, narrow strip of medieval cityscape on the south bank of the Neckar River. Most sights are within a block or two of the Hauptstrasse or Main Street, which runs--with an occasional name change--from the department stores of the Bismarkplatz to the Karlstor at the eastern end of town.

photophotoMajor sights in the Altstadt are well-documented in a German-language guidebook, Marco Polo: Heidelberg, which also covers such topics as hotels, dining, shopping, and nightspots.

Even better, if you don't read German, is the English-language Castle and City Guide Heidelberg am Neckar (which isn't as comprehensive or up to date as the Marco Polo guide and may be hard to find).

For other guidebook titles, see your bookseller or Amazon.com.

photoOur advice: Get hold of a map (such as the 1:15000 ADAC CityPlan, shown at left), or use the map in your guidebook to explore the Altstadt as the spirit moves you.

photoVisit the Alte Universität with its historic assembly hall; a combined ticket will also get you into the Studentenkarzer (see Student Prison article), where academic miscreants did time for drunkenness, womanizing, pig-stealing, and other sins from the 1500s until 1914.

Wander into the churches, especially the Gothic Heiliggeistkirche on the Marktplatz (with its built-in market stalls) the Jesuitkirche, and the  Peterskirche (Heidelberg's second-oldest church, dating back to 1316).

photoWalk down the Steingasse toward the river, where you'll encounter the Brückentor (Bridge Gate) and the Alte Brücke or old stone pedestrian bridge across the Neckar, which inspired Goethe to gush about its beauty when he first saw it in 1797. Walk out onto the bridge and enjoy the views of Heidelberg's river, old town, and castle.

photoSchloss Heidelberg (see Heidelberg Castle article) deserves a full morning or afternoon: It's on a hill behind the Altstadt, which you can reach on foot (via winding streets or paths) or with the Heidelberger Bergbahn (see Heidelberg Funicular article), which runs to the castle and on up to the Königstuhl with its long-distance views, falconry center, children's fairy-tale park, and other attractions.

photoThe Schloss is a pleasant combination of ruins, restored rooms (complete with guided tour), a massive wine vat, viewing terraces, an excellent pharmacy museum (see next page), and even a wedding chapel that attracts vast numbers of Japanese couples. You can walk along the outside of the castle free of charge; to go inside, buy a ticket at the office near the funicular station, and book a sightseeing tour once you're inside the grounds.

Local tours:

Heidelberg's tourist office has inexpensive guided walking tours year-round, with English narration available several days of the week from spring through fall. German-language evening tours and bilingual bus tours are also available.

If you understand German, you might enjoy an historic walking tour with Stadtfuehrungen Heidelberg, which offers such themed tours as "Henker, Hexen, Huebschlerinnen" (led by the "executioner's daughter") and "Werwölfe, Wiedergänger und Vampyre."

Excursions:

On a nice day, you can stroll across the Alte Brücke to the Philosopher's Walk, a series of winding roads and paths that offer views of Heidelberg, its Schloss, and the Königstuhl. (Wear good shoes and be prepared for a moderately steep uphill walk.)

photo - Heidelberg Kongress und Tourimus GmbHIf you've got time (and if you're visiting in season), a Weisse Flotte boat trip on the Neckar offers a relaxing break from city sightseeing.

Other nearby excursions include the suburb of Handschuhheim (north and inland from the Alte Brücke), which has an 11th Century church with several double tombs, and the Heiligenberg, where you can enjoy the views, peek into the ancient "Pagan's Hole" well, and visit the ruined abbey church of St. Michael.

photoFinally, no tour of the region would be complete without an excursion to the music-festival town of Schwetzingen, with its palace and gardens that have been described as "Germany's Versailles." For information on the castle, including driving directions, see the Schloss Schwetzingen Web site.


Museums and Festivals

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ABOVE: A nude assembled from product wrappings draws visitors up a staircase to the German Packaging Museum.

Museums:

photoHeidelberg has a good range of museums for a city of its size--some worth visiting at any time, and others good for a rainy day.

The Kurpfälziches Museum, or Museum of the Palatinate, occupies a former palace on the Hauptstrasse. Its exhibits range from a cast of the 600,000-year-old "Heidelberg Man's" jawbone to Roman artifacts, medieval church art, and and displays that chronicle Heidelberg's role in the German Romantic movement.

photoA few meters up the street, the Deutsches Verpackungs-Museum is a "must see" for graphic artists and nostalgia buffs. The German Packaging Museum, which is sponsored by a long list of international companies, is filled with exhibits of consumer-product packages from the last 100+ years. The museum is located in a former church, and the staff are quite friendly. (When my wife and I visited, one gentleman took us through the entire museum, explaining each exhibit in German.)

photoThe Universitätmuseum (University Museum) may be too specialized for the average visitor, but an inexpensive combined ticket admits you to the university's historic Alte Aula assembly hall and the Studentenkarzer or Student Prison. (The university also has a free Botanical Garden in the suburbs, which you can reach by city bus.)

photoWhen you visit the Schloss or Castle, allow time for a visit to the Deutsches Apothekenmuseum, or German Pharmacy Museum. Your ticket to the castle courtyard and the "Big Vat" (a huge wine barrel) includes admission to this fascinating medical-history museum, which is said to be the largest of its kind in the world.

Festivals:

photo - Tourismus Marketing Badem-WürttembergHeidelberg has a number of major festivals during the year:

In January and June, the Heidelberg Chamber Music Festival has some 20 events, including some concerts in the university's historic Alte Aula assembly hall.

In March and April, Heidelberger Frühling (a.k.a. Spring in Heidelberg) offers a series of orchestral, string-quartet, and lieder concerts in halls and other venues around town.

June also brings the Heidelberg Days of Church Music, followed by the Heidelberger Schlossfestspiele (Heidelberg Castle Festival), which runs from late June through early August and includes a long list of theatrical performances, concerts, Lieder evenings, film showings, and other cultural events.

photo - Tourismus Marketing Badem-WürttembergThe Schloss is also the focus of Castle Illuminations in June, July, and September, when floodlights and fireworks offer spectacular views from the Altstadt and the promenades along the northern banks of the Neckar River.


Shopping

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ABOVE: Heidelberg's Zuckerladen, or Sugar Shop, features a mannequin in a dentist's chair, a huge assortment of sweets, and an owner with a sense of humor.

Heidelberg isn't likely to spawn a new volume in the Born to Shop series, and there are better places to buy Missoni dresses or Armani suits. Still, if you need the basics, you'll find plenty of stores to choose from, including outposts of such well-known chains as Kaufhof, H&M, and Jack Wolfskin.

photoHeidelberg's real strength as an Einkaufzentrum is in the niches. Sweets, for example, are a Heidelberg staple: Only the most tradition-averse tourist would leave town without buying at least one Heidelberger Studentenkuss, a confection of praline nougat spread on a wafer base and enrobed in chocolate.

The Heidelberger Studentenkuss was invented in 1863, when--according to legend--male university students would have waiters carry chocolate "kisses" to female students in the gender-segregated taverns of that era.

You can buy the edible smooches at any souvenir store, but the official Knösel Heidelberger Studentenkuss shop is on Haspelgasse near the Alte Brücke.

photoAnother popular candy store, the Heidelberger Zuckerladen, is a pilgrimage site for Uni students, children, and older folk who enjoy their Gummi Bears and other sugary sweets with a side dish of nostalgia.

The old-fashioned shop is run by  an owner who hands out samples when the spirit moves him, and the dentist's chair in the shop window is a whimsical touch that appeals to visitors of all ages. Look for the Zuckerladen at Plöck 52, an east-west street that starts near the Peterskirche.

L'Epicerie, in the courtyard of Hauptstrasse 35, sells foods and gifts from the Mediterranean; across the hall is an upscale chocolatier, L'Epicerie Chocolat, where the cubes of drinking chocolate on stir-sticks make irresistible gifts or souvenirs.

If you'd rather indulge your literary tastes than your tastebuds, don't miss the bookstores around or near the Universitätsplatz. You needn't read German to enjoy them: Several have English-language sections, and you'll find guidebooks and maps for Heidelberg and other German cities.

photophotoLooking for something racier? Last time we checked, there was a sex boutique near the Jesuitkirche (see photos at right).

We mention the store because of its unique sign: The side facing the church is blank, having been painted over in response to a complaint from the church management (which apparently didn't want parishioners' thoughts turning from holiness to hanky-panky after Sunday services).

photoHeidelberg's most famous church, the Heiliggeistkirche, exhibits a medieval partnership between God and Mammon: The exterior of the church is lined with built-in stalls and shops where you can buy souvenirs, framed prints, and other non-religious merchandise.

photoMarkets are always popular with tourists, and they attract locals, too. From 7 a.m. until 2 p.m. on Wednesdays and Saturdays, you can buy raw mat, baked goods, jams, and other items on the Marktplatz in the Altstadt.

You'll also find weekly or twice-weekly markets across the river in Neuenheim and Handschuhsheim.

photo copyright © Susanne Miltner.Käthe Wohlfahrt got her start in Rothenburg ob der Tauber, but her year-round Christmas shop on the Hauptstrasse at the corner of Universitätsplatz is worth a visit if you enjoy the holidays out of season. (Carolin Miltner, the Christkind of Heidelberg's 2006 Christmas Markets, posed for the inset photo at Käthe Wohlfahrt.)

Shopping tips:

  • Department stores and branches of major retail chains are clustered around the Bismarckplatz (a hub for tram and bus lines) and the western end of the Hauptstrasse, which is said to be Germany's longest pedestrian zone.

  • Continue east along the Hauptstrasse toward the Marktplatz, and you'll find all kinds of other stores, both on the main street and in the little side streets. (The Altstadt is narrow, so you'll never have to walk more than a block or two from the Hauptstrasse.)

  • During the holiday season, be sure to visit Heidelberg's Christmas markets, where you can buy gifts, food, and hot Glühwein.


Hotels and hostels

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ABOVE: The Kulturbrauerei includes a state-of-the-art microbrewery (left), a restored beer hall (right), and comfortable bedrooms around two courtyards.

There's no shortage of hotels in Heidelberg, but you'll need to give some thought to where you want to stay.

Unless you're spending only one night in Heidelberg and have an early train the next day, we'd suggest looking for a room in the Altstadt, or Old Town, which is more atmospheric than newer parts of the city and more convenient to sightseeing.

Book ahead, especially if you're visiting in high season, since most hotels aren't very large and Heidelberg is a popular tourist destination.

photo - Heidelberg Kongress und Tourimus GmbHIn the higher-priced category, the Hotel Zum Ritter St-Georg is hard to beat. The gabled stone hotel was built as a cloth dealer's mansion in 1592, and the location couldn't be better: It's right on the Hauptstrasse in the pedestrian zone, where it faces the Heiliggeistkirche. (If you're arriving by car, you can park in the public garage on the Kornmarkt just up the hill.)

photoWe can personally recommend the Kulturbrauerei, a comfortable and architecturally interesting modern hotel in a renovated historic brewery. The moderate rates include a first-rate buffet breakfast with exceptional croissants in an atmospheric dining room of the Kulturbrauerei's beer hall.

(Tip: If you're arriving by train, take the S-Bahn from Mannheim or the Heidelberg Hauptbahnhof to the Karlstor station, which is only a short walk from the hotel's location near the eastern end of the Altstadt.)

The Kulturbrauerei's owners have another highly-regarded hotel and restaurant, the Weisser Bock, which is in a side street off the Hauptstrasse in the middle of the Altstadt.

photoA more exotic choice is the centrally located Hip Hotel, where each room's decor is matched to a theme such as the Moorish "Marrakesch" or "Havanna" (which has a larger-than-life image of Che Guevara looming over the bed).

Down by the river, Zur Alten Brücke has views of the Neckar and the Old Bridge. In summer, you can eat breakfast outdoors in the hotel courtyard.

Another hotel near the bridge is the budget-priced Goldener Hecht, which comes highly recommended by the German-language Marco Polo Heidelberg guide.

Schnookeloch, a long-established "Studentenlokal" and tavern, also has hotel rooms above its restaurand and beer garden in the Haspelgasse near the Alten Brücke.

For more hotel and hostel listings, see our reservations partner's site, Booking.com: Heidelberg (which offers guaranteed lowest available rates at hotels throughout Europe).


Vacation apartments

Short-term holiday rentals can be a great alternative to hotels, especially if you're traveling with children or staying more than a few days.

For detailed listings from our affiliate partner with photos and reviews by paying guests, please see;


Restaurants, Pubs, and Cafés

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ABOVE: Schnookeloch, a traditional Lokal in the Altstadt, has cozy, old-fashioned dining rooms and a summer beer garden.

Heidelberg reportedly has more than 300 restaurants, beer halls, wine bars, and cafés. Whatever the actual count, you certainly won't have any trouble finding a place to eat or drink in Heidelberg--especially if you arrive during the Christmas markets season, when you can nosh on sausages and other treats as you graze your way up the Hauptstrasse.

photoOne of our own favorite restaurants is Kulturbrauerei, a renovated historic brewery where a beer hall, a microbrewery, and a small hotel are built around a cobblestoned courtyard near the eastern end of the Altstadt.

The main dining room stands two stories high, with painted ceilings, long wooden tables, and tall windows. The atmosphere is magical at dusk (when candles illuminate the tables), and the regional specialties go down easily with the homemade beer.

photoNearby, the Spengel family has been serving up traditional food and drink at Zum Roten Ochsen for more than 165 years.

The restaurant-pub bills itself as a Studentenlokal, and on a recent visit, the resident pianist indicated (in German) how university students once occupied tables around the room according to their cities of origin. (Today, diners are more likely to be well-heeled tourists than students, but the food is good and the decor hasn't changed much over the centuries.)

photoAnother old-time inn, Schnookeloch, has been around since the 1700s and still caters to budget-minded diners with a Studententeller (student menu) plus full-blown meals. It seats 60 in the cozy dining rooms; a beer garden is open in summer, and the inn has rooms upstairs.

Zur Herrenmühle, a restaurant-guesthouse on the Hauptstrasse, is a relatively new addition to the local dining scene, having been around only since 2002. It has a good reputation with local food critics, and prices are in the reasonable to upper-moderate range.

photoIf you need to expand your collection of souvenir t-shirts, you'll find a Hard Rock Café at Hauptstrasse 142, which presumably appeals to the American military personnel and dependents at nearby U.S. Army facilities.

photoHeidelberg also has plenty of cafés where you can stoke up on coffee, hot chocolate, baked goods, and other sweets. Casa del Caffe No. 8 in the Steingasse is quite nice (with a no-smoking area, no less), and so are the friendly staff at its sister café across the street.

Tip:

  • If you eat in a crowded beer hall or old-fashioned German restaurant, don't be discomfited if you're asked to share a table with strangers. This is a traditional practice in Germany, and you aren't expected (nor are you encouraged) to get chatty with your tablemates.


Transportation

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ABOVE: An S-Bahn train arrives at Heidelberg Karlstor, the closest raiload station to the Altstadt.

Arriving by train:

Heidelberg is east of Mannheim, a major stop on the north-south rail artery between Frankfurt am Main and Basel, Switzerland. It's also on the main line between Stuttgart and Mannheim. (See TripSavvy's simplified rail map of Germany.)

photoIf you're coming from Mannheim and staying in the Altstadt, you'll probably be traveling on the S-Bahn RheinNeckar for the last leg of your journey--and if you're staying in the eastern half of the Altstadt, you may find it more convenient to continue past Heidelberg Hauptbahnhof to the Heidelberg Karlstor S-Bahn station, which is just east of the old town.

To research train connections, use the Deutsche Bahn's English-language journey planner.

Arriving by air:

The nearest airports to Heidelberg are Frankfurt International, Frankfurt-Hahn, Stuttgart, and City-Airport Mannheim (which has connections with a handful of German cities).

From Frankfurt International, you can catch a high-speed ICE train to Mannheim and connect to Heidelberg by S-Bahn. Total travel time is about an hour. See the Deutsche Bahn journey planner for details. Other options include the Lufthansa Airport Shuttle bus and the TLS Transfer & Limousine Service.

From Frankfurt-Hahn, the Hahn Express bus takes slightly more than two hours to reach Heidelburg.

From Stuttgart Airport, take the S-Bahn to Stuttgart's Hauptbahnhof and connect to Heidelberg by train on the Deutsche Bahn.

From City-Airport Mannheim, OEG tram #5 will get you to Heidelberg Hauptbahnhof in 25 minutes.

Arriving by car:

photoThe Heidelberg tourist office suggests arriving via Autobahn A5/A656 (Darmstadt-Karlsruhe/Basel), exiting at Heidelberg or HD-Schwetzingen.

For detailed directions and parking information, see the tourist office's Web site.

Local transit:

photoThe RNV, a.k.a. Rhein-Neckar-Verkehr GmbH, operates trams and buses in Heidelberg and the surrounding region. Most lines stop at the Hauptbahnhof (main railway station) and/or the Bismarkplatz (a major shopping square and the gateway to the Altstadt or old town).

If you're staying outside the center or plan to explore the city's surroundings, the HeidelbergCARD may be useful.

Bicyclists can rent balloon-tired 8-speeds from Eldorado in the Altstadt. (Child seats and trailers are available.)


Tourist information

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ABOVE: Public toilets have come a long way since this outhouse was built onto a wall of the Schloss.

On this article's sightseeing and tours page, we mentioned two guidebooks, Castle and City Guide Heidelberg am Neckar and (in German) Marco Polo: Heidelberg.

photoAnother useful little German-language book is Heidelberg: Kleiner Führer der Stadt Heidelberg, which costs only a few euros, fits into a pocket, has an easy-to-read centerfold map of the city center, and covers the major sights.

On the Web, your most complete source of tourist information for Heidelberg is the official English-language Web site of Heidelberg Marketing, a.k.a. the Heidelberg tourist office.

Also see the Heidelberg pages at Historic Highlights of Germany and, for regional travel, the multilingual Baden-Württemberg state tourism site.

Next page: More pictures of Heidelberg


In this article:
Heidelberg, Germany
More pictures of Heidelberg

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Heidelberg Funicular - Heidelberger Bergbahn
Heidelberg Student Prison - Studentenkarzer
Heidelberg Castle - Schloss Heidelberg
German Christmas Markets: Heidelberg