In his book, A Tramp Abroad, Mark Twain said this of Heidelberg’s castle, "A ruin must be rightly situated to be effective. This one could not have been better placed." The castle ruins – once home to the Prince-Electors – stands majestically above the city’s historic center. But the castle is just one of the many sites to cast a spell over you during your time in Heidelberg. Here are some experiences that captivated me.
Strolling Heidelberg’s Historic Center
Straddling the Neckar River and surrounded by tree-covered hills, Heidelberg couldn’t be more picturesque. Baroque houses, winding cobbled streets, and a graceful old town bridge spanning the Neckar River make for a most romantic scene that has served as an inspiration for poets and writers for centuries. The best way to explore this area is with a guided tour of the old town where the past comes to life. Most impressive is the Church of the Holy Ghost that dominates the Marktplatz. Originally built in the early 1400s, the church has shifted between Catholic and Protestant several times over the last 600 years. At one point in the early 1700s it was actually partitioned so that both religions could use the church. The stained glass windows were blown out during WWII and have been replaced by the works of modern artists in a variety of styles. The city center is also home to the Hauptstrasse, the longest pedestrian-only street in Germany with a wide range of excellent shopping options.
Germany’s Oldest University
Founded in 1386, Heidelberg University is the oldest university in Germany and has attracted scholars to Heidelberg for centuries. The university’s magnificent neo-Renaissance Great Hall was built in 1886 to celebrate the institution's 500th anniversary and serves as the venue for ceremonial events. The ceiling frescoes feature the four faculties – theology, law, medicine and philosophy. Standing at the podium overlooking the hall it is easy to imagine the students waiting to receive their professor’s wise words.
Between 1778 and 1914, students who misbehaved were detained in Studentenkarzer (Student Prison). The prison began as a means to control rowdy college boys who disturbed the peace by letting out the locals’ pigs and partying into the wee hours of the morning. Fed up with the noise and disruption, the townspeople created the student prison. But these boys were from influential families of wealth and could not be detained from attending their classes, which meant they could come and go as they pleased. The prison quickly became something of a rite of passage and a party zone as food and wine were delivered upon request. The old prison walls are covered in graffiti drawn with soot and chalk that tell the humorous stories of these bad boys.
Boat Ride to Stift Neuburg Monastery
Located in the beautiful Neckar valley with views of the river and the slopes of the Odenwald mountain range, the Stift Neuburg Monastery has existed for almost 900 years. It is possible to hike to the monastery from Heidelberg, but I chose the easy route – traveling by boat. Getting out on the Neckar River provides a completely new perspective of the city. The ride travels through three locks, past the lush landscaped hills and on to the monastery where a guided tour of the abbey awaits. A small farm shop sells cheese and other goods produced by the monks. You can also tour the small organic brewery to learn how the brothers brew their beer. Make time for a hearty lunch of traditional German fare at the Gasthaus zum Klosterhof – and don’t be surprised if the local goats make an appearance to wait for your leftovers.
About that Castle
The highlight of any visit to Heidelberg is, of course, a visit to the medieval castle that stands guard over the city. Destroyed by war in 1693, the castle ruins have become a symbol of the German Romantic movement. A funicular railway whisks you up to the top where lovely gardens surround the ruins of the massive Renaissance edifice. There is an interesting apothecary museum on the castle grounds and you definitely don’t want to miss the world’s largest wine barrel said to hold a capacity of 58,650 gallons – it is empty so no need to bring your wine glass. The views of Heidelberg from the castle are spell bounding whether by day or night and the perfect spot for shutterbugs.
Have you been to Heidelberg? What captivated you?
Fun is part of any travel experience, but so is staying protected. Learn more about our policies here!