Guide to The Beautiful City of Heidelberg, Germany Including The Best Things To Do
By Erik S. Meyers
If you ask someone from pretty much any country if they can name a town in Germany, their first answer will likely be Heidelberg.
Besides it being the city with the oldest university in Germany (founded in 1386), Heidelberg boasts beautiful old alleys and byways that weren’t destroyed during one of the World Wars, and a flourishing cultural and culinary scene. It is also the center of a region of strong industry and academia. A perfect storm as it were.
Founded in the 12th Century, Heidelberg was also the residence of the local ruler, the Pfalzgraf, from the 13th Century to 1720. This ruler was one of the aristocrats who elected the German emperor. So of course, there is a castle on a hill.
Located in the southwestern part of Germany, not too far from several countries and a large international airport, Heidelberg offers a lot to see and do, whether you are considering visiting there or living there.
If you are into tennis, you will be interested to note that there are several famous tennis players from the area, including Steffi Graf, Boris Becker, and Alexander Popp.
Queen Silvia of Sweden and the actor Michael Fassbender are also from Heidelberg.
Wherever you stroll in or near the old town, you will be wowed by gorgeous buildings, breathtaking views, and wonderful, relaxing cafés and restaurants to while away the time.
The climate in Heidelberg tends to be fairly mild, but winters can get cold and summers hot—though usually not for too many days at a time. It can also be rainy at times.
The city is located on the stunning Neckar River which provides nice breezes as you stroll along the water.
5 Reasons to Visit or Live in Heidelberg
There are several great reasons to visit or live in Heidelberg. These are my top five:
1. Location of Heidelberg
Heidelberg is perfectly placed about an hour south of a huge international airport in Frankfurt and within a fairly short drive to four other countries. It’s a great place to start a German, European, or World Tour.
From Frankfurt Airport you can fly directly to and from pretty much anywhere in the world.
By car or train, you can travel to France, Belgium, Luxembourg, and Switzerland in five hours or less.
There is also a ton to see in the southwestern part of Germany not too far from Heidelberg. These include beautiful locations, such as the famed Black Forest, the Palatinate wine region, the magical Medieval town of Rothenburg ob der Tauber, and more.
2. Untouched Medieval Town
While many of the beautiful Medieval town centers in Germany, such as nearby Mannheim, were destroyed during World War II, Heidelberg was left untouched. While strolling down the main drag or turning into one of the quaint alleyways, you will really feel as if you have gone back in time. Everywhere you walk you will see beautiful buildings, old homes, and statues from across the centuries. And you will be amazed by the many old sandstone buildings throughout the town.
Climbing the stairs to the old castle, left in partial ruin after a war in 1689, you will get a breathtaking view of the Neckar River and the old town below.
3. The Neckar River
One of the most spectacular things about Heidelberg is the Neckar River, which Heidelberg straddles. The hills rise sharply on both sides and it is a lovely spot to take a walk, take a boat ride or just sit on a bench in the sun and relax for a quiet afternoon. The higher you climb one of the paths on either side, the better the view. The river valley east of Heidelberg is just beautiful as well.
4. Wonderful Cultural and Culinary Scene
Heidelberg is a fun place to be. There is a wide range of cultural activities and festivals throughout the year, including several churches, concert halls, and event locations that offer something fun to do almost every weekend.
Due to the strong local economy and international flair with people living there from all over the world, you will find a great variety of shops, restaurants, cafés, and bars.
No matter your taste, you won’t be disappointed.
5. Center of Business, Research, and Learning
If you are thinking of moving to Germany, the area in and around Heidelberg is a thriving region of business, research, and learning. Not only is there one of Germany’s best universities, but there is also a strong focus on medicine. In addition, there are many companies with headquarters or subsidiaries in the area, such as the headquarters of the IT giant SAP.
10 Best Things to Do in or Near Heidelberg
Since there is so much to do in and near Heidelberg, I’ve split this section into seven things to do in Heidelberg proper and three great things to see in the area. But of course, there is much, much more.
While you’re in Heidelberg, you definitely don’t want to just stay in Heidelberg the entire time you are in the area. The region around Heidelberg has a lot to offer as well. Some of the places are hidden gems that many visitors never enjoy because they just stay in Heidelberg. Try to become a local and explore—you’ll be glad you did.
Seven Things to Do in Heidelberg:
1. Tour Heidelberg Castle and Enjoy the View Over the Old Town
Heidelberg Castle is one of, if not the, place you don’t want to miss when you are visiting Heidelberg. Perched on a hill overlooking the town, it offers spectacular views of the old town and the Neckar River below. You can take a tour of the castle—built starting around 1300—enjoy a drink or a meal in one of the two restaurants, the wine bar or the café, or enjoy a lazy afternoon in the garden or hills above the castle.
The castle is a mixture of styles added to over the centuries. One of the towers was hit in the war with France in 1689 and a side of the tower still sits where it fell.
There is a cable car you can take from below the castle in the old town. The first stop is the Castle. If you continue up to the top of the hill about Heidelberg there are some lovely hiking trails. You can hike down back to town or take the cable car.
Several times during the summer, there is a spectacular castle lighting and fireworks show. The best place to view it is either on a boat on the river or from just below the castle on one of the old market squares.
2. Walk Across the Old Bridge
Built in 1788, a year before George Washington became the first president of the United States, the beautiful Baroque sandstone bridge is a sight to admire from far and near. 650 feet, long it connects the old town of Heidelberg to the neighborhood of Neuenheim, a lovely place to shop or eat.
23 feet wide, it is the ninth bridge built on the spot. At the old town end of the bridge is a huge old city gate with towers, some of which dates to the 15th Century.
Many writers and poets—such as Goethe—mention the beauty of Heidelberg and its bridge in their works.
3. Walk Along the Philosophenweg (Philosopher’s Path)
Once you cross the bridge into the neighborhood of Neuenheim and walk around there you will start to see signs for the Philosophenweg or Philosopher’s Path, which winds its way up the hill on that side of the river. The higher the climb the better the view across the river to the Castle and old town. The name comes from the professors, students, and poets that would walk there and discuss or philosophize for hours. If you like to walk or hike, it is definitely worth it.
4. Visit the Old Student Jail, the Studentenkarzer
Heidelberg boasts the oldest university in Germany and one of the oldest in the world, founded in 1386. One of the most unusual things to visit is the Old Student Jail or Studentenkarzer, where students were locked up for offenses such as disturbing the peace at night or other fairly minor transgressions. Built in 1780, it was used actively up until 1914 and the beginning of the first World War. You can view some of the cells and see the carvings and graffiti left by students of centuries past. All weird, but somehow fun at the same time.
5. Take a Walking Tour of the Old Town and Stroll Among the Alleys
There are several walking tours of Heidelberg you can book (check with your hotel to get the latest information). There’s so much history and things to do in the town, you probably won’t ever be able to do or see everything, but a walking tour gets you out and about and shows you the highlights.
Besides the Old Student Jail, one of the most unusual places to visit is the German Packaging Museum—apparently the only of its kind. It is located in the heart of the old town.
6. Take a Boat Ride on the Neckar River
There are several companies that offer boat rides on the Neckar River. The river valley east of Heidelberg where the ships travel is full of castles, castle ruins, and spectacular forests, hills, and vistas. Most boats offer food and drink, and there are some lunch or dinner cruises available as well. In the warmer months, this is definitely something I recommend doing. You will get a panorama view of Heidelberg and the environs.
7. Enjoy Some German Food in the Old Town With a Pub Stop Afterwards
There are plenty of restaurants of all kinds in the old town to satisfy any palate. You can find a nice, traditional German restaurant, an Italian restaurant or something more unusual. At the far end of the old town in and around the Untere Strasse (Lower Street) there are many bars and pubs—where you often find students congregating. It may get loud, but it’s often very lively.
Three Things to Do Near Heidelberg
1. Tour Schwetzingen Castle & Garden
One of the most beautiful and relaxing spots in the Heidelberg area can be found in the town of Schwetzingen—about 10 miles southwest of Heidelberg.
Built as a summer home by the then ruler of Heidelberg/Mannheim, Carl Theodor, in the 18th Century, the town grew around Schwetzingen Castle and its lovely garden.
No matter what time of year, it is a wonderful place to visit. In the spring you get a garden full of cherry blossoms, in the summer flowers everywhere, in the fall and winter a quiet space for reflection. Even when crowded, you can always find a lone bench to sit and relax and get away from the crowds. There is also a lovely restaurant/café with outdoor seating, which is just perfect.
The Rococo theatre on the castle grounds often offers concerts.
2. Visit the Medieval Town of Michelstadt
About an hour north of Heidelberg lies the quaint town of Michelstadt. First mentioned in 741, the town is a very cute place to stroll around for a few hours. There is an old town hall (built in 1484), an old synagogue with museum, and lots of Medieval homes and tiny shops to explore.
3. Explore the Beautiful Palatinate Wine Region
Some consider the Pfalz (Palatinate in English) one of the most beautiful regions in Germany. Much of the area is taken up by a wonderful forest with hiking trails and castle ruins galore. But it is also known for its exquisite wine and cuisine. Many of the towns in the area boast excellent wineries where you can stop for a wine tasting—and there are many gourmet restaurants throughout the region. One of the most famous of these is the Deidesheimer Hof (restaurant and hotel) in the town of Deidesheim, a favorite of former German Chancellor Helmut Kohl. Not too far from Deidesheim in the town of Bad Dürkheim is one of my favorite wineries Pfeffingen.
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