Ich hab’ mein Herz in Heidelberg verloren (I lost my heart in Heidelberg). So goes a line from a famous German musical of the same name. It’s no wonder that visitors fall for this German city’s charms, given its lovely architecture, romantic castle ruins, riverside walkways, and setting nestled between two leafy mountains.
Since I called this fairy tale city home for ten years, I’m often asked for advice for things to do in Heidelberg. So, I created this guide for first-timers who also want to fall for this graceful city on the Neckar River. All recommendations are within walking distance of Heidelberg’s Old Town (Altstadt). The Hauptstrasse (Main Street) is the Old Town’s epicenter.
Harness some history
Heidelberg is home to one of Germany’s oldest universities, best-known castles and most well-preserved old towns. The city also has ties to interesting personalities such as the writer Mark Twain, General Eisenhower, and the poet Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. Some even say that Twain overcame writer’s block during his three-month stay in Heidelberg and that the Neckar River Valley reminded him of Huckleberry Finn’s fictitious landscape. Twain’s European adventures are chronicled in his book, A Tramp Abroad, and his essay, The Awful German Language is also a hilarious read for anyone who’s tried (or failed) to learn the intricacies of German grammar.
Toast to Perkeo
You’ll see images of Perkeo, Heidelberg’s infamous court jester, emblazoned all over the city. It’s said that someone of royal blood took a liking to the little guy (he was known as Pankert then) and imported him into the Heidelberg Castle to be the official entertainer. Once there, Pankert guzzled his way to local stardom. It’s believed that the diminutive dude drank five to eight gallons of wine a day! Today, he’s best-known as Perkeo, a play on the Italian phrase perché no (why not). If you find yourself inspired to follow in Perkeo’s footsteps, head to Brauhaus Vetter, on the street perpendicular to the Old Bridge (Steingasse 9). Vetter’s is a lively brewery where Vetter 33 – one of the world’s strongest beers – is ever a flowin’. The restaurant also serves some fantastic German goodies that are the perfect match for beer: bratwurst, pretzels, and hearty pork and chicken dishes.
Relax along the riverside
Neuenheim is one of the best places to take in Heidelberg’s superb views. From the Old Town, cross the cobbled lane of the Old Bridge (Alte Brücke) on foot, then take a left and head down the stairs to the Neckar River. You’ll easily find a spot to relax on the lawn overlooking the riverside. Bring a picnic lunch, a good read, or your camera, unless you wish to just bask in the sunshine, as most of the locals do.
Devour the details
Heidelberg’s architecture is overwhelmingly Baroque with lots of fun details. If you’re a photography enthusiast, don’t miss the dragon on the Dubliner Pub (Hauptstrasse 93), the Renaissance figures on Heidelberg’s famous Hotel zum Ritter (Hauptstrasse 178) or the University Library‘s Art Nouveau elements (Plöck 107). There are countless other architectural flourishes that co-exist with modern flairs. You’ll find them so long as you’re looking to the skyward sections of the buildings.
Famous for its partial-ruin status, the Heidelberg Castle is the city’s most famous landmark. You can reach the castle (Schloss) by funicular rail at Parkhaus 12 (P12), or you can hoof it yourself. A sign near the base of the stairs near P12 gives two self-climb options. The Fussweg zum Schloss has 314 steps, whereas the Kurzer Buckel is a scenic, inclined ramp. If you pursue the latter option in the early morning, before the ticket office opens, you can enter the castle courtyard for free. If you want to see the world’s largest wine vat, as well as a sleepy Apotheken Museum (pharmacy museum), purchase an entry ticket at the Kasse (cashier). If you’d rather take in the splendor independently and forgo an entry fee, bring along a bottle of wine and some treats and lounge on the grassy grounds near the Vater Rhein water fountain. There are also numerous handsome stone benches nearby, one of which Shawn proposed to me on. We were also married in the Heidelberg Castle Chapel on a frigid, but magical winter’s evening.
In past centuries, Heidelberg professors and philosophers strolled the Philosophers’ Walk (Philosophenweg), a scenic one-mile lane, that overlooks the castle, Old Town and Neckar River. The most atmospheric way to access the walk is by ascending a steep, cobbled path that criss-crosses the Heiligenberg hill. Cross over the Neckar River via the Old Bridge (Alte Brücke) then cross the street at the traffic light. Look for the ivy-covered lane where you’ll begin your climb. There are several rest stops mid-way through the walk that offer great views of the city. Wear comfortable shoes and bring water as the hike to the Philosophenweg can be tiring. Also, consider going just before sunset, as the view of the twinkling Old Town below is a sight to see. If you return the way you came, be sure to have a flashlight, as the path could otherwise be dangerous at night. Also consider going as far west as you can on the Philosopher’s Walk. There you’ll reach a paved road to Neuenheim, with easy Old Town access too.
Usher in spring
During the pre-World War II war era, this amphitheater (known locally as the Thingstätte) was built by the Nazis so that citizens could gather to hear propaganda presentations and watch theatrical productions. Forty structures like this one were built in Germany in the 1930s. The structure is located at the top of the Heiligenberg (Holy Mountain) on the north side of the Neckar River. You can access the Thingstätte by foot, though be advised that the hike takes you farther above the Philosophers’ Walk. Today, the Thingstätte serves as a venue for concerts and other gatherings. Every year, on the eve of May 1st, thousands of locals gather here to participate in the Walpurgis celebration, which heralds spring’s arrival. Revelers carry flame-lit torches and light bonfires, casting an eerie glow on the hillside.
Engage in monkey business
All day long, tourists put themselves into contorted positions so they can pose under the mask of the Old Bridge Monkey (Brückenaffe). If you want to ensure your return to Heidelberg, touch the primate’s fingers. If you’re seeking wealth, touch his mirror. If you’re hoping to up your fertility levels, touch the brass mice near the monkey. If you want a silly photo opportunity (yes, I’m guilty of having done this), ride side- saddle on the primate’s back. A bridge monkey has been here since the 15th century. Incredible, since I’ve seen him endure such abuse over the years!
Mingle on the Neckar
The Karl Theodor Bridge, or Old Bridge (Alte Brücke) to which it’s most often referred, is one of Heidelberg’s most famous landmarks, and also one of its newest. In past centuries it was made of wood, and had to be rebuilt several times. The bridge was finally constructed in stone in the late 1700’s, but it wasn’t meant to last. In the last days of World War II, German soldiers used explosives to destroy the bridge. It was rebuilt in 1946, thanks to the donations of Heidelberg city residents. Today, it’s a swell spot to pose with the castle overhead.
Claim a kebab
Heidelberg is an elegant city that can cause sticker-shock due to its inflated restaurant prices. One savior for the budget-conscious traveler: the Döner kebab. Shawn and I had a Friday night tradition: sample a kebab (flat-bread wrap stuffed with grilled meat, vegetables and yogurt sauce) from a different Altstadt establishment every week. We quickly racked up our list of favorite chicken wraps, all with prices hovering around €5-6. Which take-out restaurants made our cut? Sahara (Hauptstrasse 167), Falafel (Heugasse 1), Yufka’s (Hauptstrasse 182) and Gino’s (Hauptstrasse 113). Falafel, which is a few seconds’ away from the Hauptstrasse, near the Jesuit Church, even throws in a glass of free tea. Whichever place you choose, be sure to snag a few napkins, as these flavor-packed wraps can be messy.
Some say that too much choice is a bad thing. When it comes to schnitzel, I have to disagree. Head to the Schnitzel Haus Alte Münz to decide for yourself. The menu at this cozy restaurant boasts more than 100 variations of schnitzel, a tender, boneless cut of meat (usually pork, but you can also substitute chicken). There’s the traditional Deutsche Art (dressed in gravy and mashed potatoes), the Los Amigos (spicy and oozing cheddar cheese and jalapeños) and the Mole Negro (think drizzled chocolate sauce). Most entrées are also accompanied by a traditional German salad, and either french fries or Spätzle (egg noodles smothered in cheese or fried onions). Portions are generous. The restaurant is located at Neckarmünzgasse 10, less than a 5-minute walk from the castle end of the Hauptstrasse. It’s situated on a parallel road that faces the river. Make sure to greet the bust of a stuffed wild boar decked out in old-fashioned glasses when you enter.
Get a bird’s eye view
For a small fee, you can ascend the tower of the Holy Ghost Church (Heiliggeistkirche) for some amazing views of the Neckar River valley, red-roofed Old Town and graceful castle. I’ve taken some of my favorite Heidelberg pictures from this perch and it’s fun to get a different perspective of the city from this more unique spot.
Hit the trails
More than 135 years ago, Heidelberg’s Forest Society members planted saplings from around the world in an arboretum on the Königstuhl, the hill on the south side of the Neckar River. It takes about 45 minutes to hike to Arboretum One from the Altstadt. On your way there, you’ll reach the Gaisbergturm, a spiral tower built in 1876. The tower drew its inspiration from the famous Lighthouse of Alexandria. Ascend its 85 stairs for a beautiful view of Heidelberg. If you keep climbing upward, you’ll eventually reach the gallery of trees, the most prominent of which are the Redwoods. A totem pole and Native American-style benches embellish the natural beauty of the area. Be wary of ticks since they are rampant in German forests. Should you end up off the main trails, don’t be worried, because there are large boulders, as well as tree trunk markers to explicitly guide even the most navigationally-challenged hiker. Also, pack snacks and water.
Frequent the cafés on Heidelberg’s two most popular squares: Marktplatz and Theaterplatz. While you sip a tantalizing Latte Macchiato and feast upon Apfelstrudel pastry, you’ll see street musicians doing their thing at Strassenkunst Standorts (designated performance spots). An afternoon spent lazing at the cafés also makes for great people watching.
Get your shopping on
Heidelberg’s Old Town (Altstadt) boasts one of Germany’s longest, pedestrian-only shopping streets. Department and chain-clothing stores, restaurants and cafés populate this one-mile stretch on the Hauptstrasse. If you’re looking for more bohemian boutiques, exit the Hauptstrasse by turning left at the Starbucks closest to the University Square (Uniplatz). You’ll then reach the Untere Strasse where it’s easy to find quirky specialty shops, bakeries and cafés. At night, this quaint street comes alive, because of its numerous pubs and bars.
Rest, then fest
Three times each summer, the Heidelberg Castle ruins are lit with flares to commemorate the French sacking of the city in 1689. Afterwards, fireworks erupt over the Old Town, making the castle illuminations a popular time to visit. If you prefer beer and tunes over fireworks, hit up the city during the Heidelberger Herbstfest, when the Hauptstrasse is filled with live music performances, beer stands, fest food and an antique flea market. The Christmas Market closes out the year with people mingling over Glühwein (hot, spicy red wine), shopping for Christmas gifts, and ice-skating. Check out Visit Heidelberg for more fest details.
On Heidelberg’s Neckar River, it’s common to see rowboats gliding by as an overly-enthusiastic captain chants orders to the grunts to power harder. If the skies are sunny, get out on the water to spy Heidelberg’s Old Town from a different perspective. You can hop aboard any of the tourist boats docked on the southern banks of the Neckar. One of these sightseeing boats, the Solarschiff, has a glass top. It’s powered by the sun and offers 50-minute trips upriver. From March to October, you’ll find it docked near the Old Bridge (Alte Brücke). If you’d prefer to power yourself, rent a paddle boat from the Neuenheim side of town. Cross the Old Bridge and take a right. You can’t miss the Boote zum vermieten sign (boats for rent).
Just because Heidelberg exudes romanticism and an idyllic persona doesn’t mean it’s always escaped tragedy. Occasionally, you’ll see remnants of the Holocaust. These brass plates (Stolpersteine, literally ‘stumbling blocks’) at Hauptstrasse 121 honor the Durlachers, a Jewish family deported during the war. The parents did not survive, but their two children did. A few blocks away at Synagogue Square, a simple white marble border shows where the Heidelberg Synagogue once stood. In 1938, it was torched on Kristallnacht (the Night of Broken Glass) when Jewish homes and businesses were targeted across Germany. You can find the square on the corner where Grosse Mantelgasse and Lauerstrasse meet.
Do time behind bars
As a student, if you were caught overindulging on German beer more than a hundred years ago, you would’ve spent time behind the bars of the Student Prison (Studentenkarzer). Heidelberg’s university administration also punished rowdy students for extinguishing street lamps and chasing residents’ pigs down city alleyways. Today, you can gain entrance through a few Euro fee; in order to leave, you don’t have to finish out the once customary two-week prison sentence. There’s not much to see inside, but the silhouette renditions of jailed students as well as the poetry and protests left on the walls by jailed fraternity members are amusing. The prison is easy to access from the Altstadt. If you’re on the Hauptstrasse heading towards the castle, take a right on Augustinergasse. You’ll know you’ve found the prison when you see the sign featuring a golden-winged angel with a bare bum, inspired by artwork inside the prison.
Grip a gummy Bier
Two Hauptstrasse gummy bear shops sell Hefeweizen souvenir glasses that overflow not with freshly brewed beer, but beer-inspired gummy bear candies. Marshmallow gummies placed on the top complete this sweet illusion, resembling the frothy foam of a beer. In addition to selling beer look-alikes, Bären Company, at Hauptstrasse 150, even markets mosaic-like pizzas and birthday cakes fashioned out of Germany’s famous rubbery bears. If you have a sweet tooth but aren’t a gummy bear fan, head to Gelato Go, an ice cream shop with delicious, organic ice cream. Find it at Hauptstrasse 100.
Where in the World?
For more specifics on visiting Heidelberg, visit the city’s tourism site.