Last Updated on April 12, 2023
There are many things to do in Heidelberg, but it took me a long time to realize it…
Estimated reading time: 9 minutes
By Jim Ferri
For two years while living in Germany, and then while traveling about it for many more, I gave Heidelberg a pass.
Now, in only the past few years, I’ve visited it twice and look forward to returning a third time.
It appears I’m in some pretty good company. Victor Hugo, J.M.W. Turner, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Mark Twain and many other notables were also entranced by the city. Twain, in fact, spent three months cavorting here as he began penning his cynical “A Tramp Abroad.”
Heidelberg’s popularity continues today.
Although little Heidelberg has a population of only 120,000, more than 11 million people visit it every year. That includes 3 million day-trippers, a record in Germany. (Many of them, I’m sure, discover that Heidelberg is an easy and fast day trip by train from Frankfurt). And in annual tourism polls, overseas visitors continue to vote Heidelberg’s Castle as the best destination in Germany.
If you wonder whether Heidelberg is someplace special…in a word, yes. And I kick myself for not having visited sooner.
You may want to put it in your travel plans this year.
A Picturesque City, and Romantic Heidelberg Castle
Hands down, Heidelberg is one of Germany’s most picturesque cities. It sits on a riverbank surrounded by forest, with a beautiful old bridge crossing the river to its city gate. Above it looms a romantic-looking Gothic/Renaissance castle, the symbolic heart of the city, looking down on a sea of red roofs.
Heidelberg Castle is one of Germany’s most famous landmarks and is the symbol of German Romanticism. Although mostly in ruins, it is still occupied and continues to impart a fairy-tale look to the scene.
To reach the castle you walk up a steep trail that’s apparently for the physically fit. The rest of us should opt for the Bergbahn (cogwheel train) from Kornmarkt station near the Marktplatz down below.
While the castle dominates the skyline when viewed from below, the view from its terrace down over the Old Town is even better. You reach the terrace the castle’s central courtyard, after showing your ticket at the gate. The entrance fee is €7, which also includes the fare for the Bergbahn.
Heidelberg Castle Illuminations
A favorite of the castle is its wine cellar that contains the largest wine barrel in the world. Although “Grosses Fass” can hold 55,345 gallons of wine it’s been empty for years.
If you’re visiting Heidelberg, to see something visually spectacular, time your visit for the Heidelberg Castle Illuminations. It visually recreates the French burning of the castle in 1689 and 1693, leaving behind today’s famous ruins.
During the illumination, Heidelberg Castle is in a bath of red firelight, as if the ruins are on fire once again. Coming right after that is a spectacular fireworks display over the Neckar River. Check with the tourist office for the dates and times of the Illuminations.
The best places to view the fireworks are on the river itself (perhaps aboard a solar-powered boat of Heidelberg’s White Fleet), on the North bank of the Neckar on the famous Philosophers’ Walk (but get ready for a climb) and from the terrace of Heidelberg Castle.
As you might guess, the illuminations are quite popular and draw crowds. But there are numerous places to stay in Heidelberg, ranging from Bed & Breakfasts and small hotels, to the luxurious five-star Europäische Hof, the latter welcoming guests for more than 150 years.
And if you’re traveling from Frankfurt for the illuminations, or even for a few days, you’re also in luck: Heidelberg is about a 45-minute train ride from Frankfurt’s airport (approximately $22).
Below Heidelberg Castle, The Wonderful Altstadt
Incredibly, Heidelberg emerged almost unscathed from World War II and its Altstadt (Old Town) looks as it did centuries ago. It continues to retain its baroque look and feel, especially in and around its Marktplatz or town square.
Marktplatz has been the focus of life in Heidelberg for many centuries. Courts were held here and some accused of witchcraft burned at the stake. Those spectacles, fortunately, have given way to outdoor markets, now held in the square on Wednesdays and Saturdays.
You’ll find Heiliggeistkirche (Church of the Holy Spirit) on the Marktplatz across from the Rathaus (the City Hall). It has been shared by Catholics and Protestants for over 200 years and is often used for concerts and organ recitals. It’s now Protestant, but regardless of your faith, you’re welcome to climb the 208 steps up its tower for a beatific view of the city.
The street on the south side of the market (the castle side) is the pedestrian-only Hauptstrasse, Heidelberg’s main shopping street. It’s a wonderfully interesting street along which you’ll find excellent shops, street musicians, restaurants, etc.
If you go to the other side of the market instead, alongside Heiliggeistkirche you’ll discover Steingasse, another interesting street. Turn onto it, and in just a few minutes you’ll be the Alte Brücke (Old Bridge) on the Neckar River.
The bridge was once part of the city’s medieval fortifications, the reason for towers on the city side of the river. These towers, by the way, are called “spitzhelm” towers, in reference to their similarity to old German military helmets. Take a walk across this pedestrian bridge, turn around, and you’ll have a beautiful view of the city.
Walk back to the city side, and you’ll discover a cat-like bronze creature at the end of the bridge. It’s known as Bruckenaffe and is a 1979 replacement for the original 17th-century sculpture.
It’s not a cat at all, but supposedly a monkey holding a mirror. Local legend says it will bring you good luck. Rub its fingers, and you’ll return to Heidelberg; rub the mirror, and you’ll become rich. And look for the mice nearby–rub them, and you’ll become fertile.
Germany’s Premier University Town
Heidelberg is also home to Germany’s first university, established in 1386, and today it has some 28,000 students. They’re part of the allure of Heidelberg since they provide palpable energy to the city, especially in the Altstadt where you’ll encounter many of them wherever you wander.
While you’re here, you may want to wander to the old student jail (Studentenkarzer), in use from 1778 until 1914. It’s still as it was during its use, complete with student-prisoners’ graffiti everywhere on the walls and ceiling.
Although it was an official jail, it wasn’t as strict as a regular one. Offenses included disturbing the peace (especially after excessive drinking), insulting authorities (or playing jokes on them) and participating in duels. Students were still allowed to attend their lectures–as long as they returned when their class was over. The entrance is on Universitätsplatz, around the corner from Augustinergasse.
Other Interesting Events In Heidelberg
Numerous events continue to fuel Heidelberg’s popularity throughout the year. One exceptionally visual one is the Metropolink Festival, a festival of urban art. It showcases large wall paintings, often covering the sides of buildings, the works of acclaimed urban artists. Cabrio buses, sightseeing vehicles with open backs, take visitors on tours to the various decorated houses and facades. There are public tours during the festival, and group tours take place throughout the year.
Another popular event is the Heidelberg Castle Festival Schlosshof, when open-air musical concerts under the stars are held on the castle grounds. There are also theatrical productions, this year including “Fiddler on the Roof” and “The Servant with Two Masters.” You can enjoy jazz in Heidelberg at Enjoy Jazz, the largest jazz festival in Germany.
Come late November Heidelberg hosts its annual Weinachtsmarkt (Christmas Market). Held in many towns throughout Germany, these Christkindlmarkts, as they’re also known, are near-magical events for many. You should experience one at least once in your lifetime.
– Unless otherwise credited, all photos by the author.