Heidelberg is an ideal destination for any traveler who wishes to experience the scenic beauty of the lush woodlands, old-town architecture and ruined castles of Germany’s Rhineland. The city’s picturesque location on the Neckar River in southwest Germany has made Heidelberg a top destination for tourists since the 1800s.
Praised by poets like Goethe, painted by artists like Turner and rhapsodized by composers like Schumann, Heidelberg embodies the spirit of the romantic Rhineland. As the country’s oldest university town, it’s a surprisingly lively city too, boasting an enticing array of pubs and restaurants that cater to the student population. With all the tourist attractions in Heidelberg, it’s no wonder that so many consider this Germany city an essential stop on any European tour.
A bustling grain market in the Middle Ages, the Kornmarkt square was later home to a hospital run by Catholics in the 16th century. The layout of the hospital’s chapel can still be identified by the paving in the square. In the 17th century, a statue known as Madonna at the Grain Market was erected as part of a Jesuit campaign designed to promote Catholicism. Today, the Madonna is regarded as a fine work of art that provides the perfect centerpiece to this pleasant town square. Visitors gather here to eat at open-air cafés and enjoy views of the Heidelberg Castle on the slopes above the Kornmarkt.
Also known as All Saints’ Mountain, Heiligenberg rises above the city on the north shore of the Neckar River. Offering great views of both the river and the plains of the Rhine Valley, the mountain has long been valued for its defensive position. Artifacts have been excavated dating back to the Neolithic Era. Visitors can explore remnants of medieval monasteries, an ancient Roman temple and a Celtic fort built in the 4th century, B.C. The open-air theater known as the Thingstätte built during the Third Reich is on view as well.
Located in the city’s Market Square, the Heiliggeistkirche, or Church of the Holy Spirit, is Heidelberg’s most famous place of worship. The original construction of the Gothic church began in 1398, but it wasn’t completed until 1544. The church’s Baroque steeple was added after a fire in 1709. Visitors can climb the 208 steps to the top of the spire for city views. The Heiliggeistkirche is unique in that has been used by both Catholics and Protestants at the same time. A partition wall separating the two congregations stood in place for more than 200 years.
Heidelberg’s famous castle is situated on the slopes of Königstuhl (Kings Seat Mountain), the second-highest peak in Germany’s low Odenwald mountain range. An historic wooden funicular train takes visitors to the top for breathtaking views of the Neckar river valley and of the Black Forest beyond. There’s a restaurant and kid’s play area at the summit as well as a tight network of hiking trails. The clear air makes Kings Seat Mountain a great location for viewing the stars too. The Heidelberg-Königstuhl State Observatory opened here in 1898.
Founded in 1386, Universität Heidelberg is Germany’s oldest university. The most traditional university departments are centered around the Universitätsplatz in the heart of the Old Town. The Old University building, which dates back to the 18th century, can also be found here. The building houses the Rector’s Office as well as the university museum, which was established in 1996. The famous historic student prison (Studentenkarzer) is located in the back of the Old University. From 1778 until 1914, students were imprisoned here for minor misbehaviors, which were kind of fashionable among otherwise honorable gentlemen.
Located to the north of the Old Bridge, the zigzagging Schlangenweg, or Snake Path, leads visitors up to the Philosophenweg, a picturesque path that stretches along the side of All Saints’ Mountain. The Philosophers’ Way is named after the great thinkers and educators of the university town who have walked and talked here for hundreds of years. The walking trail ends at the Philosophers’ Garden, a sheltered place where warm-weather plants and flowers thrive. Many find the views offered here of the river valley and of the red-topped roofs of the city reminiscent of the Tuscany region in Italy.
Located in the center of the Altstadt, or Old Town, the Heidelberg Marktplatz has been the city’s main gathering place since the Middle Ages. Accused criminals were once dragged from the town hall on one side of the market square or from the church at the other to meet their fate. Those accused of heresy were burned at the stake. Others were left chained to the still-standing Herkulesbrunnen, a Baroque fountain that features a statue of Hercules. Nowadays, visitors come to the Marktplatz to shop. Fresh flowers, fish and produce are sold here on Wednesday and Saturday mornings.
A Heidelberg landmark, the Carl Theodor Bridge was named after the Prince Elector who ordered the bridge’s construction in the 1780s. Spanning the Neckar River, the pedestrian-only sandstone bridge connects the old town quarter with the hilly landscapes on the north side of the city. The twin-towered medieval bridge gate on the old-town side was once part of the town’s fortifications. West of the gate, visitors often pause to have their photograph taken before the Heidelberg Bridge Monkey. The bronze statue holds a mirror as a reminder that people are much the same wherever their travels take them.
Perched high on a hill overlooking the city, the picture-perfect ruins of the Heidelberg Castle are the result of many centuries of building and of destruction caused by war, fire and pillaging. The earliest fortifications were constructed in the 13th century; most of the present structures date back to the Renaissance Era. While much of the castle remains in a state of artful decay, some rooms have been fully renovated. The interior of the King’s Hall has been restored to its Gothic glory and is still used today for seasonal festivals and community events.
The oldest part of the city, the Altstadt sits just below the castle. It extends along the river for a mile, with Karlstor on one end, and Bismarckplatz on the other. In between, is a wonderful combination of baroque buildings, narrow streets, market squares, shops, restaurants, pubs and the most popular attractions in Heidelberg. After having been all but destroyed by French troops in the 1690s, the Old Town was built pretty much from scratch during the 18th century. Unlike the vast majority of German cities, it emerged from WWII almost undamaged. The Hauptstrasse is the main pedestrian street through the Altstadt, and is where most of the shopping is centered.