A lively student town with an eclectic vibe or a charming medieval city – Heidelberg has many faces. But no matter how you choose to think of it, it is an undeniably awesome travel destination while in Germany. I have been in Heidelberg on several occasions and always thoroughly enjoyed it. And in this article, I want to show you the very best things to do and see in Heidelberg.
- Walk Through Heidelberg Old Town
- Climb the Tower of Church of the Holy Spirit
- Feel Yourself a Rebel Inside the Student Prison
- Relax on the River Bank
- Get Lost in Thought on the Philosopher’s Way
- Immerse in History on the Heiligenberg Hill
- Cross the Old Bridge
- Ride a Funicular to Königstuhl
- Visit the Castle Ruins
- Admire the World’s Largest Wine Barrel
- Watch the Sunset from Scheffelterrasse
- Try the Wine from Heidelberg Own Winery
- Taste the Local Brew
- Heidelberg Trivia
- How to Get to Heidelberg
- How Many Days in Heidelberg?
Walk Through Heidelberg Old Town
We start our tour of Heidelberg right in the heart of the city – the old town. Situated on the southern bank of river Neckar, this mile-long stretch of Heidelberg is incredibly charming.
Leading through it is the pedestrian Hauptstrasse (“Main street” in German). With numerous quaint shops and laid-back cafes, it is a great place to enjoy a lovely morning in Heidelberg.
Right off the bat, you will feel the relaxed and unrushed atmosphere that is inherent to Heidelberg. Allow it to take hold of you. Have an ice cream or treat yourself to a delightful cup of coffee while watching the world go by.
There are various historic buildings for you to explore, as well as the market square. Heidelberg was spared the allied bombings raids of World War II, so lots of its original architecture is preserved.
And if you get tired of the touristy Hauptstrasse, dive into the maze of narrow, cobblestoned side-alleys. The ancient passages are peaceful and quiet but every bit as endearing as the rest of the old Heidelberg.
Climb the Tower of Church of the Holy Spirit
There are a couple of locations within Heidelberg’s old town that deserve a special mention. And the first one of these is the church of the Holy Spirit (Heiliggeistkirche).
The church of the Holy Spirit sits right in the middle of the market square. Rising high above the surrounding roofs, it dominates the skyline and is impossible to miss.
Heiliggeistkirche dates back to 1239 and is one of the oldest buildings in Heidelberg. As is often the case with historic landmarks, it went through several iterations. The current Gothic structure replaced the earlier romanesque basilica and took nearly 150 years to complete.
Interestingly, in the 1970-es, the church of the Holy Spirit was a favorite hang-out spot for the hippies. Today, it is a popular tourist attraction, not in the least because of its tower.
For a small donation, you can ascend the 208 steps to the observation deck on top of the church’s steeple. There, from the height of 38 meters, you get an amazing birds-eye view of the city below.
To the north, the river Neckar separates the medieval part of Heidelberg from the green hill of Heiligenberg, the famous Karl Theodor Bridge bustling with life in between. To the southeast, formidable castle ruins watch constant guard over the city. And to the west, the lively Hauptstrasse disappears into the distance.
To sum it up in a single word – gorgeous.
Feel Yourself a Rebel Inside the Student Prison
Students have always been a significant part of the Heidelberg community. Founded in 1386, the University of Heidelberg is the oldest in Germany. Even today, a quarter of Heidelberg’s population consists of students.
If you were a student once, you probably know how reckless and wild that period of life can be. Indeed, the youth of Heidelberg has traditionally adopted a philosophy of “All work and no play makes Hans a dull boy”.
Naturally, such an attitude did not always sit right with the other citizens. As early as the 16th century, the local population began voicing complaints about the occasional misconduct.
Back then, city authorities had no power over the student’s behavior, and the only governing body was the university itself. So, in the 1780s, under public pressure, it established a special prison to cool down the hottest of heads.
The prison was in operation until 1914 and has become, I dare say, a place of legends. The troublemakers could spend from three days to four weeks there, depending on their transgressions.
But of course, rebels as they were, they wouldn’t just sit there. The “prisoners” covered the walls in graffiti and, when visitors were allowed, turned the incarceration into raging celebrations. At some point, spending a few nights in the cell even became a rite of passage for the fraternities.
Those days are long gone, obviously, but you can still enter the prison to envision what it must have been like.
Buy the ticket at the University Museum on Grabengasse, then turn around the block to find the entrance. The Studentenkarzer is open throughout the week except for Monday. Check the times and prices on the official website.
Relax on the River Bank
Situated on the northern shore of Neckar, a short stroll from the old town, Neckarwiese is a beautiful grassy area. It has long been the local’s preferred destination to enjoy a relaxed afternoon out near the river.
The vast green meadow is an ideal place to catch some sun or organize a picnic. Thousands of people come here daily to unwind, have fun and friendly conversation, and just to live it up.
So grab your favorite book and some snacks and head to Neckarwiese for a couple of hours. Trust me, it is incredibly pleasant and liberating to… just do nothing at all! Let your mind wander whilst taking in a marvelous view of the castle.
Three nights a year, in June, July, and September, Neckarwiese becomes an excellent watching ground for the famous castle illumination spectacle.
First, the battered walls slowly turn bright red. It looks as if once again, long after the devastating fires of 1689 and 1693, the castle is burning. Then, the fireworks transform the dark sky above into the roaring sea of lights and colors.
It is a marvelous sight. So if you happen to visit at that time, Neckarwiese is where you want to be!
Get Lost in Thought on the Philosopher’s Way
From Neckarwiese continue east, on the path that climbs the forested hill north of the river. This walk is called the Philosopher’s Way and is one of the beloved destinations in Heidelberg by tourists and locals alike.
The somewhat high-sounding name stems from the fact that in the past, university professors and philosophers liked coming here. Among the trees and away from the loudness of the city, they could ponder over important issues without distractions.
To be honest, not much remains of the solitude that once reigned here. But the charm of the place is still intact, and it is easy to understand why it inspired the great minds of the past.
The Philosopher’s Way is an astonishingly picturesque saunter. Rising steadily through the lush greenery, it offers breathtaking views of both the old town and the palace ruins.
It wouldn’t at all surprise me if walking the quiet alley you would be struck by unexpected revelation or a fresh idea. And if not, simply admire the fabulous view. After all, it is easily one of the best in Heidelberg.
And when you are done, return to the center via a narrow twisting path known as Schlangenweg (snake’s path). It will bring you right to the entrance of the celebrated Karl Theodor Bridge.
Better still, if you have a bit of time on your hands, continue to the top of the hill instead. There, you will come face to face with some of the perplexing mysteries of Heidelberg’s past.
Immerse in History on the Heiligenberg Hill
Heiligenberg (the mountain of the saints) is a hill just north of Neckar. And while it may not look like much to an oblivious eye, it is easily one of the more intriguing destinations in Heidelberg.
Heiligenberg is where myths and legends blend with thousands of years of history to form something incredibly fascinating. The Celts were the first to inhabit it. Then came the Romans, then Christianity took over.
And then, the Third Reich chose it as their propaganda outpost and constructed a giant amphitheater on the very top.
And as if that wasn’t enough, there are mysterious structures, fortress ruins, and supernatural encounters to spice it all up.
I could talk at length about Heiligenberg and actually did so in a separate article. There, I take a deep dive into the origins and peculiarities of this captivating location. So if that sounds interesting to you, have a look.
But as a quick summary, the main highlights of Heiligenberg are the ruins of two medieval monasteries and the well-preserved Heidelberg Thingstätte. The latter is the above-mentioned Nazi amphitheater that is currently used as a park and a picnic area.
All in all, if history and legends are of interest to you, Heiligenberg hill is worth checking out.
Cross the Old Bridge
The Karl Theodor Bridge (more commonly referred to as simply the Old Bridge) connects the medieval part of Heidelberg with the northern shore of Neckar. It is one of Heidelberg’s most prominent and well-known attractions.
Many compare the all-pedestrian bridge to the Charles Bridge in Prague. Indeed, the similarities are there – both are pedestrian-only arch-bridges decorated with the statues of the saints.
In my opinion, the Czechs win this contest, although the German contender is also quite admirable.
Still, whether you agree or not, the old bridge definitely deserves a walk-through. Besides, from the Philosopher’s Way or the Heiligenberg hill, it is the shortest route back to the city center.
After you cross it, don’t miss the monkey statue at the southern gate. The current sculpture is the late 20th-century replacement for the monkey that supposedly decorated the bridge in medieval times.
Other than being quite cool-looking, it is also one of those statues that you need to touch as a lucky charm. Except, in this case, there are three different parts, and each of them has a separate meaning.
Stroking the mirror the monkey holds will bring prosperity. Touching its right hand means you will eventually return to Heidelberg. Finally, put your hand over the mice next to the monkey, and you will be blessed with lots of kids.
I say, go for all three! Who knows – maybe at least one will deliver on its promise?
Ride a Funicular to Königstuhl
Königstuhl (a King’s Throne) is a mountain south of Heidelberg. A fitting name, considering that at nearly 568 meters, it is the highest point of the Kleiner Odenwald range in southern Germany.
Much like Heiligenberg on the opposite side of the river, Königstuhl is well worth a visit if you have a chance. From the summit, you get stunning views of Heidelberg, surrounding hills, and the Rhein plateau. In the good weather, you can even see all the way to Alsace in France.
Additionally, there is a kid’s playground, a restaurant, and numerous hiking trails to entertain yourself with.
The simplest (and thus the most boring) way to reach Königstuhl is to simply drive. There is a parking lot near the top. A more engaging and authentic option is to ride a 2-stage funicular from the Kornmarkt station in the old town.
The funicular stops at the castle, then proceeds to Königstuhl. The full ticket includes entry to the castle grounds, the cellar, and the German Pharmacy Museum. Not a bad deal at all, but you can also buy the separate leg tickets if you wish. Check the prices on the funicular homepage.
But those who truly feel adventurous can do one even better. Königstuhl is accessible on foot via Himmelsleiter or the “Stairway to Heaven”. It is an absolutely brutal ascent that covers around 300 meters of vertical elevation over 700 meters of distance.
The stairs consist of 1200 unequal natural steps and feature 30 to 45-degree inclines. The climb is the final part of the Heidelberg Trail Marathon and an ultimate measure of fitness for many runners. So, if you are looking for a long-lasting memory of Heidelberg, this is easily a winner.
Visit the Castle Ruins
In his book “A Tramp Abroad” Mark Twain dedicated an entire 6-page appendix to the Heidelberg castle ruins. I certainly cannot hope to surpass the classic in the ability to weave words, so let us hear from him directly.
“There is a saying that if a stranger will pass over the draw-bridge and walk across the court to the castle front without saying anything, he can make a wish and it will be fulfilled. But they say that the truth of this thing has never had a chance to be proved, for the reason that before any stranger can walk from the drawbridge to the appointed place, the beauty of the palace front will extort an exclamation of delight from him.”
Indeed, the castle ruins are the most remarkable landmark in Heidelberg. Visible from almost anywhere in the historic center, they will be one of the first things you notice as you arrive.
They are pretty amazing too. Even half-destroyed, the massive walls and menacing towers stand impregnable and proud. To me, this is pretty much an epitome of a medieval fortress.
Founded sometime between 1294 and 1303, the castle was badly damaged by the European wars of the 17th century. Then, on June 24, 1764, lightning struck its court building twice in a row. The resulting fire finished the job turning it into the ruin we see today.
The ruins are a must when in Heidelberg. You can explore the courtyard, the wine cellar, and the castle terrace on your own. The interior, however, is only accessible through a guided tour. Check the admission information on the palace homepage.
Admire the World’s Largest Wine Barrel
When exploring the castle, one location, in particular, is not to be missed. The fortress cellars are home to the Heidelberg Tun, the world’s largest wine barrel.
The barrel was built in 1751 and back then could hold almost 222,000 liters of wine. Its completion required a whopping one hundred and thirty oak trees.
Because the wood has dried out a bit since then, the current capacity stands at 219,000 liters. Can you imagine? If you drank a liter every single day, this one barrel would still last you 600 years!
Interestingly, Heidelberg Tun was not the first gigantic barrel in Heidelberg. The activity became somewhat of a local tradition, and a total of four such barrels existed. The one on display today is the last of those.
Unfortunately, because of its enormous size and the fact that it was leaking, Heidelberg Tun only got filled a handful of times. It is largely a tourist attraction, but one worth taking a look at nonetheless.
Watch the Sunset from Scheffelterrasse
To me, there is no better way to conclude the trip to Heidelberg than to watch the sun set over it. And a prime spot for that is the Scheffel Terrace (Scheffelterrasse).
Just a short distance from the castle ruins, the terrace offers amazing sweeping vistas of Heidelberg. This makes it a beloved choice for all the romantics and photographers. And it’s a good one too!
Entire Heidelberg lies beneath, bathing in the soft late afternoon glow. Neckar shines in the distance, as the sun slowly sets behind the hills to the west. The whole scene is just gorgeous.
So grab a bottle of wine or some snacks and come here to relish a lovely summer evening. Contemplate the events of a long day as the sunset spectacle plays out in front of you. It’s magical!
The Scheffel Terrace is accessible by foot from the old town. The route up takes roughly twenty minutes and is not at all difficult. Alternatively, there is parking nearby. Just be aware that at 70 cents per every 20 minutes, it is not the cheapest of options.
Try the Wine from Heidelberg Own Winery
Heidelberg belongs to the northern stretch of Baden, the third largest wine region in Germany. So it should come as no surprise that it has a winery of its own.
The vineyard is called Sonnenseite ob der Bruck and is located on the slopes of the hill just east of the Philosopher’s Way. Supposedly, German poet Goethe once called it the most beautiful vineyard in Germany. Whether true or not, those grapes sure enjoy a nice view!
The wines grown and produced here are no ordinary wines either. They are predicates (prädikatswein), which is the highest of the four levels of quality in Germany.
More specifically, Heidelberg wines are Spätlese or “late harvest”. The grapes for these are picked at least a week after the usual harvest. They are thus riper and have higher sugar content.
Without diving too deep into the details (I have a whole article about German wines, in case you’re interested), these are pretty good wines. Unfortunately, it doesn’t seem that you can visit the vineyard itself, but you can still buy them in town.
At around 20 euro for a bottle, these aren’t particularly cheap, but they are great wines and a good souvenir to bring home. I got a couple of bottles myself and I have to admit – I loved them!
Taste the Local Brew
And while we are on the subject of booze, for simpler souls, Heidelberg also has its own brewery. Vetter’s Brewery is located right in the heart of the old town. As you cross the Karl Theodor Bridge, the brewery will be directly ahead.
Klaus Peter Vetter founded the brewery in 1987. Inspired by traditional Bavarian estates and his travels to Oktoberfest, Klaus decided to open a beer restaurant in Heidelberg. Now it is his son who continues the family business.
Over the years, Vetter’s brewery became a frequent spot to come for a drink for both visitors and local students. You can even get some beer as a takeaway. You will undoubtedly notice a lot of those stylishly branded one-liter take-away bottles as you walk the streets.
Students love to drink Vetter’s beer on the riverbank whilst enjoying the summer sun and friendly conversations. And for just three euros you can get your own bottle, filled with the brew of your choice, directly from the brewery.
Note that the bottle itself costs another three euros, so the price for the first liter will be six euros. However, you can then exchange the empty flagon for another, this time paying only for the beer itself.
I especially liked the light beer, but both the dark and wheat varieties are equally tasty. Just don’t get too tipsy!
Heidelberg is a spellbinding city full of little peculiarities. As I was preparing this article, I stumbled upon quite a few of those.
Some I mentioned earlier. Others, however, were too random to put elsewhere. But since most are rather entertaining, I decided to split them into a section of their own. So in no particular order, here are some trivia and less-known facts about Heidelberg.
- Heidelberg University is Germany’s oldest and one of Europe’s most reputable universities
- A total of 56 Nobel laureates had some connection with Heidelberg. Nine of them received the Prize during their tenure at the Heidelberg University.
- The first bicycle prototype was invented by a graduate of Heidelberg University Karl Drais.
- There is a subspecies of Homo sapiens called Homo heidelbergensis. The name originated in 1907 after scientists discovered an ancient human jaw near Heidelberg. The bone is between 200k and 600k years old and is considered the earliest evidence of human life in all of Europe.
- During the Third Reich Heidelberg was a stronghold of the Nazi party with nearly half the population supporting the political course.
- And yet, the allied forces did not bomb it. Some believe that Americans anticipated establishing a garrison here after the war and thus spared it.
- As German troops left the city in 1945, they destroyed three arches of the old bridge, which had to be restored later.
So there you have it. These aren’t necessarily vital things to know, but I believe they provide valuable additional context and insight. Perhaps, now your trip to this wonderful German town will be even more entertaining.
And if you already knew all of the above, congratulations – you are a true Heidelberg expert!
How to Get to Heidelberg
Heidelberg is very well connected and easy to reach no matter how you choose to travel. If you are arriving in Germany from abroad, the nearest airports are Stuttgart or Frankfurt. Once you land, there is a variety of options to choose from.
There are direct trains from both Stuttgart and Frankfurt. I would also consider indirect options. You will need to change trains once (most likely in Mannheim) but it is cheaper and the total trip time is comparable (1 to 1.5 hours).
You can buy the train tickets directly at the station (both airports connect with one) or online at the Deutsche Bahn website.
Flixbus offers bus connections to Heidelberg from Stuttgart and other German cities. Take a look at the various choices over on their website. Generally, traveling by bus would be the most affordable alternative, although it will take a bit longer.
If you opt for a rental, you can drive straight to the Heidelberg old town. You will need approximately 1 hour from Frankfurt, or 1.5 hours from Stuttgart, depending on traffic conditions.
There is a detailed map online, showing all the parking garages in Heidelberg and their corresponding rates. I normally park in P13. It is conveniently situated, easy to find and the prices are quite competitive. But perhaps I am just too used to the cost of parking in Germany by now.
How Many Days in Heidelberg?
If you can, stay for two days. This will be enough to feel the city vibe and see all of Heidelberg’s highlights without a rush. One day is a decent option if you are on a tight schedule, but you would have to allocate your time wisely.
If you live nearby, a couple of separate day trips is also something to consider. That is what I did myself and it is often cheaper than staying overnight.
Heidelberg is a fascinating medieval town, and I instantly fell in love with it. Its long and incredible history, spectacular landmarks, and lively atmosphere make it absolutely worth a visit.
In a country full of amazing medieval villages Heidelberg can firmly stand on its own. So head there for a day or two, and I am confident you will have a blast!
I hope that this article provided you with all the necessary information to have a wonderful adventure in Heidelberg. If you found it useful, please share it with your friends and anyone else who might be interested.
I am sure you would also enjoy my other articles about Germany and other glorious destinations around the globe. So roam around the blog, or check a couple of suggestions of my own:
- Extraordinary Heidelberg – the Myths and History of Heiligenberg Hill
- One day itinerary for landscape photography in Southern Bavaria
- Three days in Saxon Switzerland
- Lisbon Photography Guide: 10 Fabulous Spots to Capture
- Mallorca Best Photo Spots and How to Plan A Trip
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With that, happy travels and let us see each other soon!