Just one hour south of Frankfurt airport lies the fairy tale city of Heidelberg, Germany. Home to a 13th-century castle, the oldest university in Germany, and the longest pedestrian street in Europe (or so I’m told) this city offers plenty to see and do. But Heidelberg doesn’t seem to be on the top of most travelers wish list. Having lived here for almost two years I’ve created my top 10 list of things to do in Heidelberg. Whether you love history, adore culture, or want to try delicious German cuisine, there’s something here for everyone.
Ever heard of Heidelberg? I hadn’t either. Not until a few years back when I was scouring the internet on where to live in Europe. Up popped one of the cutest towns I’ve ever laid eyes on: a river, castle, adorable half-timbered homes, and grand bridges that lead onto tiny cobblestone streets. Heidelberg was left unscathed in World War II – that means you’ll find well-maintained homes dating back from the 17th century and even earlier. It’s truly a unique city and one that should be added to anyone’s European bucket list. It’s easy to get around the city on foot and you’ll be able to see the mystery and wonderment of this preserved 17th-century town. This city is romantic and historic and is the perfect place to lose yourself down alleyways.
Top 10 Things to Do in Heidelberg, Germany
All of the top 10 things to do in Heidelberg (with the exception of number 10) are walk-able. You can get to all of them in one day – if you’re short on time.
1. Heidelberg Castle
You simply can’t have a top things to do in Heidelberg list without the castle. To me, the beautiful ruins of Schloss Heidelberg, as it’s called in German, are equal to that of the Parthenon in Greece. The sandstone structure still stands with ornate details such as the facades of the Otto Henry Building and Frederick Building. The castle is breathtaking as you glance up from the Altstadt (old town) or when you walk around the grounds to get an equally mesmerizing view of the city. There are many myths and stories surrounding the castle. One of my favorites is the story of Elisabeth’s Gate which was a present from her husband, Frederick V. According to legend, the triumphal arch was built in sections, erected overnight, and presented to Elisabeth the next morning as a surprise birthday gift. Decorated in the gate are different animals that are hard to find. Each time she spotted one her husband kissed her. What can I say… I’m a romantic at heart!
To get to the castle you can walk straight up, or take the funicular to go to the top.
2. Wine Barrel – The Great Tun
Stay in the castle walls and go to the cellar to see the largest wooden wine barrel in the world! I absolutely love this because of the fable surrounding it. Heidelberg has a sort of mascot: Perkeo. Perkeo was a dwarf and court jester who is said to only drink wine. He guarded the wine and was called Perkeo because of his drinking habits. When asked if he wanted another glass of wine he replied in Italian, “Perché no?” which is the modern day “Wine not?”. However, the one time he did opt for water he tragically died. This tells me one thing: wine over water if given the choice. Which is how I eat all of my meals in Heidelberg restaurants.
3. Walk through the Altstadt
Now that you’ve seen the castle it’s time to walk through the town and get a feel for the city. The streets of the old town date back to the 1200s and contain narrow houses with each more charming than the next. Take a walk down the Hauptstrasse (Main street) the longest pedestrian car-free street in Europe. You’ll get your fill of shopping, restaurants, gelato, and cafes along the way. Make sure to check out the Church of the Holy Spirit, University Square, the Knight’s House, and the Corn Market with the Baroque Madonna (this is also a fantastic place to get a great picture of the castle). Following the Hauptstrasse is the best way to be engulfed in Heidelberg life and see some of the most glorious buildings.
Here’s a view of the Old Town from the castle above.
4. The Old Bridge
The Old Bridge stands proudly connecting the old and new parts of Heidelberg. Walking the bridge is similar to walking the Charles Bridge in Prague – with large stone statues every few feet. The large commanding white towers on the bridge were built to guard entry to the town. This serene spot is a great view of the city, castle, and echoes old world charm as you walk the pathway. Make sure you walk down Steingasse after walking the bridge and eat at some of Heidelberg’s most famous restaurants such as Vetter’s or Goldener Hecht. See more of my favorites here.
5. University Library and Museum
Prince Elector Ruprecht I was given permission to start a university back in 1385 and it formally opened the following year. Many of the classrooms were scattered around Heidelberg, and that’s still the case today. The university is located throughout the city. But the buildings worth visiting are definitely the library and the Great hall. The library contains 890 manuscripts from the Bibliotheca Palatina. The facade is sandstone, like many of the buildings in Heidelberg, and extremely ornate. But one of my favorite places in all of Heidelberg is in the University Museum, the Great Hall. This magnificent auditorium is used for academic ceremonies and lectures. The orate room features paintings and busts honoring the university’s founders, innovators, and benefactors as well as its most important academics from its founding to the 19th century.
6. Student Karzer
On Augustinergasse you’ll find the narrow passageway to the Student Karzer or Student’s prison. Those who broke the rules of the university or the law (mostly for being drunk in public) were sentenced to up to two weeks in prison. This became sort of a right of passage with students inscribing their names and even portraits on the wall. It’s worth it to pass through the halls to get an idea of student life and see the graffiti from the students.
7. The Neckar River
Take it from Mark Twain himself, who said, “Germany, in the summer, is the perfection of the beautiful, but nobody has understood, and realized, and enjoyed the utmost possibilities of this soft and peaceful beauty unless he has voyaged down the Neckar on a raft.” The river sparkles and shines and makes the perfect setting for the houses that cascade on its banks. Mark Twain spent a good deal of time in Europe and in Heidelberg. It’s said that he was inspired to write Huckleberry Finn after his own journey down a raft on the Neckar that he documented in A Tramp Abroad.
Neuenheim refers to an area just north of the old town (Altstadt). This is the perfect place to take a walk along the Neckar river, have a lunch in the park, stroll the streets to see the grand houses, or do some shopping at the market. This is the area of town that I live in, and it actually dates back to before the formation of Heidelberg. The pretty streets are lined with small boutiques, wisteria, and bright cafes. On Wednesdays and Saturdays a market opens in the small square and you’ll find rich cheeses, fresh meat, vegetables, flowers, and other delights.
9. Philosopher’s Walk
After you head away from the market, you’ll notice a street going straight up. This is the path for the Philosopher’s Walk (Philosophenweg). It’s a bit of a strenuous climb, but worth it for the incredible views of Heidelberg. As you make your way up, the street will open to a garden and a breathtaking view of the town and castle. It was originally a rough path but renamed during the romantic period because so many thinkers enjoyed the path for its solitude and peacefulness.
10. Thingstätte – Open Air Theater
The Thingstätte is the one spot on my top 10 list that isn’t walk-able, as it’s located fairly high up in the hills of Heidelberg. Most of my list contains happy and romantic relics of history, but Thingstätte remains on its own. It was built during the Third Reich for performances, events, and speeches. Traditionally, it was used as a stage of propaganda to encourage citizens of the town to rise up with the Nazis. It’s somewhat eerie to stand on the stage and hear your voice echo across the empty rows. Also of note: if you keep climbing up you’ll find the ruins of St. Michael’s Monastery from 1023.
Heidelberg is steeped in rich history yet is still modern in its way of life. You can find historical sites alongside brand new eateries and cafes. There are plenty of things to keep you busy in Heidelberg and hope this top 10 list will put Heidelberg on your must-see list. If you’d like to learn more about what to see, do, and eat, check out my full guide on what to do in Heidelberg.