Heidelberg, Germany, is a city packed with beauty and history. It’s said to have inspired the German Romantic Movement, and it’s an inspirational place to visit today, too. The Old Town along the river is quite walkable with its lanes filled with shops and cafes.
Here are some highlights of Heidelberg you won’t want to miss.
What To Do In Heidelberg
Stroll Across The Old Bridge
The graceful arched bridge of Heidelberg, known as the Old Bridge, connects the banks of the Neckar River and is a well-known landmark of Heidelberg. I had been intrigued for some time by photos of the bridge, and it was one of the reasons I decided to visit the city.
The current bridge is the ninth to have been constructed on the site. Earlier versions made of wood burned, but this one, built in 1788 of sandstone, survived. The tall, white ramparts on the town side date to a medieval iteration of the bridge. They are visible from near and far.
As you stroll along the bridge, you’ll see a sculpture of the Roman goddess Minerva, along with sculptures representing important rivers. On the town side of the bridge beside the towers, a bronze sculpture of a monkey holding a mirror is a popular attraction. It's said that if you touch its horns, you will return to Heidelberg -- and if you touch the mirror, you’ll become rich. How can you pass that up?
Pro Tip: Go to the Old Bridge at sunrise. I walked from my hotel by myself and found only two others on the bridge, after fighting crowds of people the day before. Later in the day I went back, and the bridge was once again teeming with people. Go early, catch the light on the shimmering river, and enjoy the calm of this historic place. It’s unforgettable.
Explore Heidelberg Castle
Perched on a hill above the Old Town, Heidelberg Castle is beautiful in all lights. See it from a distance first, and then plan to visit. Sitting serenely above the town, this romantic ruin of a castle stands watch today as it has since the 13th century. It’s built of red sandstone, which gives its many buildings a unified look.
The castle has a dark history. The troubles date to the reign of Frederick V, who in 1619 seized the throne of Bohemia. Novelist Victor Hugo wrote of the castle’s “battles and never-ending tribulations” and its suffering under siege by the Austrians and others. Finally, in 1689, the towers and walls that had survived waves of destruction were blown up by the French. Much later, after much debate, the Germans agreed to preserve the castle as a ruin rather than restore it.
Set aside half a day to wander through the castle’s roofless rooms and its gardens. Tours are offered for a small fee. These will take you inside the Friedrich Building, which shows what the castle was like when life here was elegant.
The German Apothecary Museum inside the castle contains the fully preserved interiors of historic apothecaries of the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries. Did you know that in the 16th century, pulverized mummy was used as a remedy for coughs, sore throats, broken hearts, shivers, and headaches?
A small cafe with an old brick oven sits in the courtyard. I enjoyed a tasty lunch at the end of our tour. And of course, there’s German beer! You can also pick up a coffee or a quick lunch at a food stand outside the castle entrance.
For more information about hours and tickets, visit the Heidelberg Castle website. You can also learn more about the displays and the history of the castle.
Catch A Ride On The Funicular
The Heidelberg funicular railway whisks you from the Kornmarkt of the Old Town up the hill to the castle. You can also stay on for a longer ride up the mountain for breathtaking views.
If you have time, go to the top of the forested hills on the day you plan to see the castle. I arrived right as the funicular opened and purchased a ticket for the castle entrance and a ride to the top. It was remarkably uncrowded.
As you leave the station, you’ll see the Neckar Valley spread out below, as well as the market square and the iconic bridge with its medieval ramparts. When you arrive at the castle level, you can either get off and go to the castle or change to a different railcar.
If you choose to go on, you will then ascend the hill on one of the oldest electric funicular railways. At the end of the line, about 2,000 feet above the town, a small viewing area allows you to look across the Lower Rhine as far as the Palatinate Wine Route. A tiny museum and a cafe are located at this station. You can hike from here, too, on trails in the hills.
For information about the funicular and options to ride, visit the website. Your ticket will allow you to ride up the hill either before or after your castle tour.
Pro Tip: You can walk from the town to the castle, but it’s quite an effort, and riding the funicular is more fun. I recommend riding up and then walking down from the castle after you’ve toured it. Downhill, it’s an easy 20-minute walk back to the Old Town.
Hike Up The Philosophers’ Walk
The Philosophers’ Walk, a steep path winding up from the Neckar River, provides amazing views of the river, the Old Town on the other bank, and the castle on the opposite hillside. You’ll be huffing and puffing, but the views are worth the climb.
The name is said to come from the fact that Heidelberg University professors and philosophers once walked here as they discussed their ideas. The university, founded in 1388, is the oldest in Germany and one of the oldest in Europe. Scholars have walked this stone path for more than 600 years, and you can follow in their footsteps. The solitude of the forest and the amazing glimpses of the city are thought to have provided much food for thought.
Notice that the old stone walls and stairways are held together without mortar.
Stop and catch your breath in the Philosophers’ Garden. This is a cleared area of lawn with flower beds and benches. Sit, relax, and enjoy the pleasant vistas below.
See The Students’ Prison At Heidelberg University
Heidelberg University students who committed minor violations between 1778 and 1914 ended up in this small detention building in the Augustinergasse area of the city. Bored and creative, the students decorated the walls and ceilings with colorful art. The prison is preserved and open to the public.
Students spent three days to a month in the jail for each infraction. Infractions included insulting authorities and participating in duels. This unusual museum showcases a little slice of university history, and you can tour it in less than half an hour.
Relax In The Kornmarkt
The Kornmarkt, a large, bustling square that was once the center of trade activity in the region, serves as a central place in the Old Town to relax and take in the sights. You can shop for chocolate at the Lindt store, grab a coffee and sit outside in the sunshine, or linger over a meal in one of the many sidewalk cafes.
From the Kornmarkt, you’ll enjoy a clear view of the castle on the hill. The square is defined on one side by Saint Peter’s Church and on another by a lovely building that once served as a palace. Taking center stage in the Kornmarkt is a sculpture of the Madonna, placed in the middle of the square in 1685 as a symbol of the Catholic faith. People from all over the world still appreciate its beauty.
Where To Eat In Heidelberg
Heidelberg offers plenty of dining options. If you are lucky enough to be there when the weather is nice, join the crowds and eat outside at one of the many sidewalk restaurants. When I’m in Germany, I sometimes have to search a bit to find vegetarian options. Here are some of my favorite places; they all have dishes for those who want to pass on the typical sausage and veal entrees.
Just steps from the medieval towers of the bridge, Goldener Hecht has occupied this coveted spot since 1717. Sure, it’s in a busy tourist area, but it’s a great place to enjoy a first lunch in the city and take in the culture. The German food includes wienerschnitzel with potato salad and goulash with spaetzle. I ordered the vegetarian mushroom entree, and it was delicious.
This cafe is on the castle grounds and makes a memorable place for lunch after a morning of touring the castle buildings. Backhaus, or Bakehouse, centers on an old baking chimney. Regional foods are served on the sun terrace in good weather. The prices are reasonable, which surprised me, since it’s near a top tourist site. Sit under the trees on a balmy day and enjoy pasta, salad, schnitzel, sausages, or potato soup. The cakes and ice cream are a great way to end your feast.
If you eat outside, ask to go in and see the historic chimney before you leave. It’s larger than you might imagine!
This Italian restaurant, located on a side street off the Kornmarkt, offers both indoor and sidewalk dining. It’s close to the river and is an ideal spot for people-watching. After sampling lots of heavy German food, I was ready for an Italian option. Trattoria Toscana came through with cuisine, wine, and location that were perfect for my last dinner in Heidelberg.
Where To Stay In Heidelberg
Hotel Am Rathaus
This hotel is around the corner from the Kornmarkt, so it is a great base for a visit to the Old Town. The rooms at Hotel am Rathaus are comfortable, and you can start your day with a small but nourishing breakfast buffet.
The front desk staff truly went above and beyond for me during my stay. I arrived in Heidelberg as a change in itinerary due to weather, and I hadn’t researched the town in my usual way. The young lady at the desk took out maps and advised us on itinerary options and routes, and we were good to go!
Whatever your interests, you are sure to find something fascinating to see and do -- and eat! -- in Heidelberg.