3 Days in…Heidelberg, Germany!
Heidelberg is a city very near and dear to my heart. It was the first place I’d ever traveled to outside of the U.S. and the place that I called home for 5 months during a semester abroad. Leaving the U.S. for the first time at age 20 was nerve-wracking for several reasons, namely because I went alone and for such an extended period of time. Despite the uncertain beginning to my experience, I quickly made friends and developed a sense of comfort living alone in a foreign country. By the end of five months, I could say with certainty: “Ich hab mein Herz in Heidelberg verloren (I lost my heart in Heidelberg).” Apparently many others have experienced similar feelings, as this is the name of a famous song about the city.
Heidelberg is a city located in the state of Baden-Württemberg on the Neckar River in a valley between two small tree-covered mountains, Königstuhl and Heiligenberg. Local culture revolves in large part around the university, Universität Heidelberg, which has an enrollment of around 30,000 students, a large population of which are international, and dates back to 1386, earning it the title of Germany’s oldest university. Many tourists visit the city each year, drawn to its old world feel, picturesque beauty, and proximity to Frankfurt, which is a major hub for air travel. Much of the Altstadt (“old city”) is a pedestrian-only zone, which adds to the city’s charm.
- Day 1: Explore Altstadt and castle
- Day 2: Hike up Philosophenweg, picnic on Neckarwiese
- Day 3: Day trip to Schwetzingen castle gardens
Where to stay: Most of the Heidelberg’s main attractions are located in walking distance of one another. The ideal home base for exploring is the Altstadt but even if you opt to stay on the outskirts, the city has great public transportation in the way of buses and street cars that run frequently and are incredibly punctual. My best friend Liz and I stayed in a wonderful AirBnB when we traveled to Heidelberg as part of our 30th birthday trip. Our host was great (free champagne and beer!) and our apartment had a pool table, wonderful views due to its location partway up one of the mountains, and was a quick walk to the center of town. For those seeking more luxurious accommodations, I would recommend the Hotel Ritter which is located in the heart of the Altstadt in a beautiful building dating back to 1592.
Start your day at a popular Heidelberg landmark, the Alte Brücke (“old bridge”), also known as the Karl Theodor Bridge. The bridge, which spans over the Neckar River and connects the Altstadt with the Neuenheim district, was constructed in 1788 and was the 9th bridge to stand on this site. From the bridge, you will have beautiful views of the river and castle. Pictured below is a photo of the bridge gate, which dates back to the Middle Ages and is popular spot for photos. While attending classes in Heidelberg, I walked across this bridge and through the gate into the Altstadt every day. Regardless of the time of day or season, the bridge is generally very crowded and you will be hard-pressed to take a photo without other tourists in it!
Near the gate is the Brückenaffe (“bridge monkey”) which is a brass statue that has significance in Heidelberg’s history [pictured below]. This particular statue was placed here in 1979, but there is evidence of a bridge monkey dating as far back at the 15th century. It is said that touching the monkey’s fingers will ensure your future return to Heidelberg, touching the mirror in his left hand will bring you wealth, and touching the mice located to the left of the statue will bring you fertility.
Once you’ve taken your fill of photos at the old bridge, walk into the Altstadt for the most delicious Döner Kebab you’ve ever tasted at Yufka’s Kebap. I am not exaggerating; I’ve tried several throughout Germany and Yufka’s is hands down the best I’ve had. Döner Kebab is a Turkish specialty, somewhat similar to a Greek gyro, but is found all over Germany due to the country’s large Turkish population. During my semester in Heidelberg, Yufka’s served as a cheap and delicious lunch as well as a great late-night snack. The Döner Kebab at Yufka’s is made with turkey instead of the traditional veal and lamb, but is every bit as good if not better! Order yours with feta and scharf (“spicy” sauce) and a side of pommes (French fries seasoned with paprika).
Yufka’s is located in one of the Altstadt’s squares called Fischmarkt (“fish market”). There are several restaurants and bars that have outdoor seating in the square during the warmer months. Grab a radler (a drink that is 50% wheat beer and 50% lemonade) and sit outside and people watch at some point during your time in Heidelberg. Located in the center of the square is the Heiliggeistkirche (“Church of the Holy Spirit”) which was completed in the 15th century and is worth a stop. Make the short walk to Kornmarkt (“grain market”) to catch a great view of the castle, as seen in the image at the beginning of this post.
Next, make your way partway up Königstuhl (the mountain that the castle is located on) to Heidelberger Schloss (“Heidelberg castle”). There are two ways to ascend the mountain to the castle, walking or train. There are several ways to walk up, but assuming that you are beginning in Kornmarkt, here are directions for a 17 minute walk. The path is well maintained and mostly paved, but it is quite steep, so for those unable to make the walk, the Heidelberger Bernbahn (“mountain train”) station is located near Kornmarkt. Details can be found here.
Some of the best views of Heidelberg’s Altstadt and the Neckar River can be seen from the castle [below]. The castle itself dates back to the 13th century but was destroyed in large part by the French in the War of the Grand Alliance and subsequently by two lighting strikes. More information on the castle’s history, hours and guided tours can be found here.
In the evening, take a stroll on Hauptstrasse which is the main street in the Altstadt and is a pedestrian zone that contains several restaurants with outdoor seating and many local and international shops. There are several restaurants on this street which offer traditional German cuisine – there isn’t one in particular that I recommend as I think they are all great so I would suggest checking menus or basing your choice on ambiance. In terms of German cuisine, I highly recommend Käsespätzle (basically German mac & cheese), Flammküchen (a variant on pizza), and sampling the many Wurst varieties available in Germany (my favorite is Weisswurst; though this is a Bavarian specialty, you can find it in Heidelberg.)
Today, you’ll be doing one of my favorite hikes! As I mentioned previously, Heidelberg is located between two small, tree-covered mountains. We’ll be hiking up Heiligenberg in order to explore some ruins that are located on top and take it some wonderful views of the city and castle. Start at the Alte Brücke, crossing over to the side opposite the Altstadt, Neuenheim. Make a left onto the street that runs along the river, Neuenheimer Landstrasse and a quick right onto Schlangenweg (“Snake’s Alley”). The path is covered in cobblestone and steep, so wear appropriate footwear. University students have been using this path for centuries to climb the mountain! I’ve included a map below that shows the path you can take and the landmarks I’ve listed below. Here is the link to the interactive route that you can download onto your phone with the MapMyRun app. The entire hike is a little over 4 miles and has a few steep sections, but overall can be classified as easy to medium difficulty.
- Michaelskloster – Here you will find ruins of a monastery occupied by several religious orders starting in the 11th century until it was abandoned in the 17th century.
- Thingstätte – Showcasing a dark time in Heidelberg’s history, here you will find an open-air amphitheater built during the Third Reich for events and performances. Today, it is used mainly by students for annual Walpurgis Night celebrations.
- Heidenloch – The exact origin and usage is unknown but it is theorized that this 180 foot deep hole was used by the Romans as a well.
- Stephanskloster – Here you will find ruins of another monastery that dates back to the 11th century.
- Philosophengärtchen – This garden is located along Philosophenweg (“Philosopher’s Way”) where university professors have used for centuries as a place for quiet reflection or discussion. From this path and garden, you will enjoy beautiful views of Heidelberg castle and the Neckar River.
You will end your hike at the Neckarwiese, which is a grassy area along the river where students and Heidelberg residents picnic, lay out or toss around a Frisbee. Plan ahead and pack a backpack for your hike with a blanket and some snacks to enjoy on the Neckarwiese or stop in to a grocery store or restaurant near the end of the hike (there are several in the area near Philosophenweg and Bergstrasse).
If you’re feeling up for more exploring after your hike and a couple beers in the sun on the Neckarwiese, head over to the Studentenkarzer (“student jail”) in the Altstadt. The jail was operational from 1823 through 1914 and became a sort of right of passage for students, namely fraternity brothers, who were held there in comfortable accommodations for a few days to a few weeks as punishment for offenses such as public drunkenness. Many students left their mark on the graffiti-covered walls, and this jail provides a unique view into student life in the 19th and early 20th centuries.
For your last day in Heidelberg, we’ll be heading about 6 miles outside of Heidelberg to the town of Schwetzingen, home of Schwetzingen Palace. The palace grounds are spectacular and well worth the 40 minute trip on public transportation. Start at the Heidelberg Hauptbahnhof (“main train station”) and take the S3 train in the direction of Germersheim 3 stops to Mannheim Hauptbahnhof. From Mannheim, take the RB train in the direction of Karlsruhe 3 stops to Schwetzingen. From there, the palace is approximately a 6 minute walk. Information on the palace and hours can be found here. Allot a few hours to wander the gardens and definitely bring your camera!
No visit to Heidelberg would be complete without a visit to Wirtshaus Zum Seppl, which has operated as a restaurant since the end of the 17th century and has been popular among Heidelberg’s student population as well as the locals since that time. The walls and tables of the restaurant contain carvings made by students throughout the years [see below]. Along with a delicious food menu, the bar contains the full line of beers produced by Kulturbrauerei Heidelberg.
A few last notes:
- Getting there: Frankfurt airport is a quick train ride away from Heidelberg. You can generally find direct flights here from major U.S. east coast cities or other major European cities, as Frankfurt is a large air travel hub.
- Transportation: The Altstadt is easily traversed on foot. The bus/tram system is also quite comprehensive and easy to use in Heidelberg. Tickets can be purchased on the bus, at ticket machines located at the main stops or on your smart phone. Information on routes and multi-day bus passes can be found here.
- Money: Germany uses the Euro. Credit cards are widely accepted in Heidelberg (try to find one with low or no foreign transaction fees). It’s always good to have some cash for small purchases – my preferred method to withdraw cash is via bank ATM, which are plentiful in Heidelberg.