Located less than an hour from Frankfurt’s airport, Heidelberg is an easy to reach city that should be on every German visitor’s itinerary. Not only is it home to the oldest university in Germany and a castle dating to the 13th century, its location on the Neckar River and the foothills of the Odenwald forest make it a charming destination any time of year.
Why Heidelberg Should Be on Your Germany Itinerary
When I began researching cities to visit in Germany, I was quite surprised to see Heidelberg overlooked by a very famous travel writer who claimed the city to be overrun with tourists and thus devoid of charm. While the city does see close to 11.8 million visitors each year (per the Heidelberg tourism office), in my book this is never a reason to overlook a destination.
Heidelberg was one of the few major cities in Germany to be spared the devastation of World War II and was a favorite of writers and intellectuals during the 19th century including famous visitors Mark Twain and Goethe. I wanted to teach our children that sometimes you have to go with your gut and not listen to others. We went ahead and made plans to stay in Heidelberg for two days, and I must say we were not disappointed in any way.
What to See and Do in Heidelberg
1. Check out the oldest university in Germany
Heidelberg University was founded in 1386 and was the third university in the Holy Roman Empire after Prague (1348) and Vienna (1364). As such, no visit to the city would be complete without a visit to the campus. We would recommend a tour of the Alte Aula (Old Hall), University Museum, and Student Prison on a combination ticket. The Student Prison was built in 1778 for students who were convicted of petty crimes. Those who were imprisoned believed in memorializing their stays by leaving drawings and portraits on the walls. Our kids enjoyed imagining themselves as captives in the cells.
2. Head to Heidelberg Castle
I don’t know if it is possible to put into words the stunning beauty of Heidelberg Castle. Perched high above the town, majestically overlooking the city below, the red sandstone castle and partial ruins are breathtaking. Take a tour and you will learn about the history of the Prince Electors who built the castle and their heirs. We had a wonderful guide from the tourism office, Hagar, who told us the history of the castle and its inhabitants. Our children truly enjoyed the tour (which cannot be said for all of our tour experiences). She went above and beyond the average docent, including showing our kids a few dance steps from days past. The giant wine barrel (which holds about 34,000 gallons), apothecary, courtyard, and views of the town below are only a few of the highlights of a castle tour.
3. Go out on the Old Bridge (Alte Brücke)
Spanning the width of the Neckar river, this 18th century sandstone bridge connects the old town to the Neuenheim district. Before this bridge was built by Prince Karl Theodor from 1786-1788, all bridges across the river were made of wood and continually destroyed. At one end is the Bridge Gate, a part of what used to be the city wall, and a great spot for photographs. Walking out to the middle of the bridge affords great views up and down the river with the castle on one side and the Philosophers’ Walk on the other. As you’re facing the Bridge Gate, on the left, you will see the Bridge Monkey, a bronze sculpture that has been there since 1979. The story goes that there has been a bridge monkey in Heidelberg since the 15th century. Whatever the story, it definitely makes for the perfect photo opportunity.
4. Visit the Church of the Holy Spirit
Also known as Heiliggeistkirche, the Church of the Holy Spirit is a late Gothic cathedral in the center of the old town. The church contains the tombs of the Prince Electors of the Palatinate and a collection of manuscripts. The church has been home to both Protestants and Catholics through the years and a divider was even erected at one point when both wanted to hold services in the cathedral (it is currently a Protestant church). While the interior might be considered rather plain compared to others, a climb up the platform is worth it for a spectacular view of the river and town and listening to an organ concert is also worth your time.
5. Head for Philosophers’ Walk
Located across the Neckar River from the Old Town on the south side of Heiligenberg mountain, the Philosophenweg (Philosophers’ Walk) offers visitors a fantastic hike through nature and a beautiful view of Heidelberg across the way. Be sure to wear appropriate shoes, bring a drink, snack, or even a picnic, and plan on getting some exercise while you enjoy the scenery. Explorers will enjoy the Philosopher’s Garden, St. Michael’s Monastery ruins (from the 11th century), and further up the mountain, Thingstätte, a 20,000 seat open air amphitheater built between 1934-1935 by the State Labor Service and students at Heidelberg University, modeled after Greek amphitheaters. The Philosophers’ Walk is a favorite of locals and tourists alike.
6. Take The Funicular
Heidelberg’s funicular, the Bergbahn, was built in 1890. The base is at Kornmarkt, and it stops along the way at Heidelberg’s castle (Schloss), and Molkenkur (where you change from the lower to upper funicular or can take a stroll on one of the many walking paths), finishing at Königstuhl, the highest peak in the Lower Odenwald forest at 567.8 meters. The views from this point are spectacular (so we've been told, we unfortunately hit it on a rainy day) allowing visitors to see over the Neckar valley, to the surrounding Rhine lowlands and on a clear day even as far as Alsace in France. During the warmer months, visitors can see falconry shows at the Falconry Center, learn about fairy tales at Fairytale Paradise, and hike on the Forest Adventure Trail at the top of Königstuhl before returning to the base of town by funicular.
7. Stroll and eat your way up and down the Hauptstraße
When all else fails, try some shopping and eating! The Haupstraße is quintessential Europe with its cobblestone streets, historic buildings, charming storefronts, delightful bakeries, and hearty restaurants. Stretching 1.6 kilometers, the car free Hauptstraße is the longest pedestrian zone in Europe and perfect for an afternoon family outing. Be sure to head off and explore side streets as well to find hidden gems and meet the locals!
We visited the city in November and unfortunately experienced two very rainy days. Thankfully the city has plenty of indoor activities to keep us busy and we barely noticed other tourists. I am so glad we chose Heidelberg and would definitely recommend it to others. Have I convinced you to put Heidelberg on your Germany itinerary?
Interested in more European travel? Check out: Visiting with the Brontë Sisters in Haworth, England or Greece with Kids: What You Need to Know