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A Rough Guide to Germany : Things to Do in Heidelberg

Updated on May 11, 2020
Photo by Ralph Peek @ Flickr Creative Commons
Photo by Ralph Peek @ Flickr Creative Commons

A Rough Guide to Germany : Things to do in Heidelberg

It can be a hard job sight-seeing in Germany, especially from the autobahn.

I notice they tend to line the sides of their main roads with obstructions and wondered if they had privatised our eyeballs. Pay per view I guess as the road from Frankfurt to Heidelberg was flanked by endless rows of trees.

I don't know if they are evergreen so I suppose it's possible you could get a nice look at the snow-covered hills in the winter. I had memories of a similar block-out travelling north to Bremen many moons ago although that time it was a high fence in the way.

But it helps concentrate your eyes on the road I suppose so maybe it makes sense in the interests of road safety. Perhaps the locals don't want to see and hear a continuous procession of cars, lorries and buses speeding past their picturesque countryside.

History of Heidelberg

After some brief and fleeting glimpses of hill-top castles we arrived in the historic town of Heidelberg. It's famous the world over for its university, its castle, Christmas market and its various attractions for tourists from all over the world.

This was the place were the later-named 'Heidelberg Man' was uncovered in a gravel pit in 1907. Well, not a whole man but a jaw-bone which was discovered and is the earliest evidence found of human life in Europe. It was estimated at anywhere between 400,000-700,000 years old. Which is a mighty wide estimate but certainly within the middle Paleolithic Age that's for sure.

In 40AD Romans built a fort and remained there until 260AD when Germanic tribes conquered the area. In the 5th century there was a Celtic fortress on the site. But the earliest mention of the name 'Heidelberg' comes from 1196 and it stuck ever since.

The University of Heidelberg was founded in 1386 making it Germany's oldest. It later played a leading role in the 16th century Reformation in Germany which of course spread all over Europe and beyond.

After Martin Luther set the ball rolling by nailing his grievances on that church in Wittenberg in 1517 he attended a convention in 1518 in Heidelberg where he gave a famous disputation.

In the 20th Century the funeral of the World War II American General George Patton was held in the city in 1945 after he had been killed in a car accident in Mannheim. He was then buried in Luxembourg in the cemetery of the Third Army among his own men as he had requested.

A Kingly View

Therefore a rich history the town certainly has and we stopped off at the Tourist Information Office for even more knowledge and interesting facts. Opposite the building was a large equestrian sculpture made out of metal. Not to everyone's taste I would reckon but I thought it was magnificent.

After rifling through the leaflet dispenser at the Tourist Office we headed up the hill in the car to look over the town. It is an easy drive up the hill and there is plenty of parking space available at the top. But if you don't have a car then there is a funicular service available to carry you there.

There is a popular vantage point overlooking Heidelberg called the 'Konigstuhle' or 'King's throne'. The view from the Konigstuhle was beautiful on a dry and mainly sunny day. The setting was perfect as it had almost everything on offer.

The town is sited within a wooded valley with the river Neckar passing through onto the plain. On the banks of the river are attractive old buildings lined in a colourful array of traditional designs.

Hell of a place to park

We drove back down to sample the baroque charms of the Altstadt. Parking can be a nightmare down in the town, a fact we had been cautioned about by the staff at the Tourist Information Office.

The weekends especially can be difficult as there are regular events on the river which attract the likes of rowing enthusiasts who bolster the tourist numbers in the summer.

Heidelberg is a victim of its own popularity as many people come to visit and admire. We spent about 20 minutes driving around the town, missing turn-offs, getting lost and heading half a mile down the river before we were able to turn back.

I think we were too busy looking at the marvelous SatNav display on the dashboard to notice what was going on. The pinpoint accuracy and detailed technology certainly boggles the mind of a veteran pedestrian and laymen like me.

But to be fair the town offers many parking places in huge underground facilities with electronic scoreboards keeping count. After missing the entrance of one we swung around a square and entered the cavernous interior. The satellites can't help you down there so we used our geo-positional eyesight this time.

After spiraling our way down we eventually parked three floors below ground and couldn't help noticing how warm it was down there. Presumably it was because we were so near the earth's core and Old Nick was probably the parking attendant.

The Altstadt

We had a wander around the Altstadt and took some photographs of the attractive surroundings and bustling streets.There happened to be a campaign going on by locals who were handing out leaflets and talking to people at a stall. They were protesting against plans to build a large modern glass structure on the riverside to act as the new town hall.

Given the historical surroundings at the river I was inclined to agree with them, especially when I saw a computerised artist's impression of the proposed building. It looked just like a big rectangular box and seemed totally incongruous to all the other architecture in the area. So good luck to the protesters I thought and I hope they win their worthy cause.

Heidelberg Castle

It was time to head halfway back up the hill to go and see the famous Heidelberg Castle. We thought about taking the charming little funicular track system up there. But we couldn't find the charming little station, if it was charming at all since we couldn't find it. We weren't that bothered anyway or else we would have asked.

We took the healthy option and got those calf muscles working up the steep slope. Not recommended for those with mobility problems but good for the lungs as well as the legs and of course kind to the pocket.

Heidelberg Castle is inordinately large relative to the size of the town which has a population of less than 150,000. This was because it was the site of the elected princes of old which gave it an especial importance in regal and civic matters.

It contains a mixture of Gothic and Renaissance styles and the earliest construction was in 1214. Unfortunately it has been struck by lightning at least twice destroying parts of the structure. The strike of 1764 and the resulting fire left the castle ruined.

Although in 1945 a local was chatting to some G.I.'s who were taking photographs and mischievously told them it was the US Air Force that did the business.

On a visit to Heidelberg in 1880 Mark Twain marveled at the castle and its position among the verdure of the hillside. He wrote "Nature knows how to garnish a ruin to get the best effect".

Much earlier in that century the famous English artist Joseph Turner lived and worked in the town several times between 1817 and 1844. He painted the landscape in a dreamy and romantic fashion full of colour, light and an ephemeral atmosphere.

The castle remains partly ruined but nevertheless is still an impressive site. It was partially restored in 1900 at a cost of 520,000 Marks which was a huge amount at that time.

It is a mecca for the romantic too as around 100 weddings take place each year in the castle. The original architect was probably a tender soul as the castle faces west. Therefore its rich red sandstone exterior glows warmly in the sunset making for a spectacular sight at the end of a clear day.

Less romantic but no less interesting is the Apothecary Museum which is housed in the castle grounds. Here you can discover the arts and science of pharmacy and its historical beginnings. There are mock-ups of old pharmacies including one with, of all things, a stuffed crocodile hanging from the ceiling. I've no idea why that was there.

Also in the grounds you will find a cellar with an absolutely huge wine vat. There is also hugely expensive ice-cream available in a nearby stall. My financial gripes continued when I paid a visit to the toilet. After paying €5 for entry to the castle I thought it was a bit rich to be charged an extra 50c for the personal facilities.

To the side and the rear of the castle is a pleasant park which offers a variation of views over the town as it turns around a corner in front of the structure and over to the right hand side. You could spend a lot of time up at the castle.

You can admire the view, watch the river traffic flow by or watch the colours of the landscape change as the clouds mingle with the sunlight. It's full of history inside and natural beauty outside with plenty of grassy areas for a picnic, a stroll or simply an afternoon laze.

View from the bridge

We walked back down to the town and headed towards the bridge which we had admired from the ramparts. It seemed Roman in its style but was obviously not as it looked relatively new and uneroded by the ravages of time or human activity.

Underneath pleasure-boats and coxless pairs of rowers passed through as tourists gathered on the bridge taking photos above and below.

It was worth just spending some time standing overlooking the waters glistening in the afternoon sunshine. There were regular crowds of sight-seers descending on the bridge and locals passing over on their way to the other side.

Although there may have been tourists among them as there are scenic walks over on the other riverbank higher up on the hill. All this walking had given us an appetite and a thirst so we headed back into the Altstadt to look around a little more and then get something to eat.

The tourist trade

Back in the Altstadt I heard English spoken in many accents including American, English, Australian, Scottish and Irish. The Scottish accent was mine as I feel no harm in including myself in the crowd.

We even saw a kilted bagpipe player in the square but he was chased off by one of the organisers of a nearby musical event. Presumably the skirl of the pipes was not mixing well with the tunes from the stage. He went off so fast I didn't have time to find out if he was indeed Scottish or to have my picture taken with him. Apparently he was more likely to have been German I was told by a friend.

There were also many Chinese visitors to the town and in fact many signs and labels in the shops had Chinese translations. Around 80% of the local jobs are in the service industry including tourism which is of huge importance to the local economy. But I don't think they'll ever be short of visitors to this wonderful place.

A very famous event for the tourist trade is the Heidelberg Christmas Market which is held, unsurprisingly, in a 4-week run-up to Christmas. This is a major highlight over the winter season in the town.

Naturally it takes place in the Altstadt and comprises almost 150 stalls populating the squares and winding lanes of the town. These are illuminated by festive lights and you may catch the aroma of cinnamon cookies freshly baked on the Marktplatz.

However they do say that commercially Christmas comes earlier every year. Well in Heidelberg it never goes away. This is because of the 'Kathe-Wohlfahrt' or the Christmas shop established in 1964 and which is actually open all year round.

Having a look around it is a quite surreal experience to be in there among all the tinsel and glitter in the shop. In the middle of July you don't expect to be looking at little reindeer and Santa Clauses which are among the many toys and decorations on display.

Food and drink

After all that Christmas window-shopping it was time for food and to try some local German cuisine. We went into the Hackleufel Restaurant on my friend's recommendation and were invited to our seat by very friendly staff. Our waitress spoke good English too and was extremely helpful with the menu.

Of course a Pils beer was in order on a dry sunny day as we waited for our meal to arrive. While we were waiting my friend pointed out the violin hanging from the ceiling above us. It was part of the decorative light fitting.

But now he had drawn my attention to it I started looking around and saw more of them as well as trumpets and other assorted string and wind instruments which hung from the ceiling. It was a wonderfully eccentric type of décor lending a quirkiness to the comfort and tradition of the interior surroundings.

The food was excellent and I had a dish with a mixture of bacon, sausage and pork in a creamy sauce. A typically German meal as I don't feel that there is any point ordering a pizza or a kebab when you can buy that anywhere.

It's a 'when in Rome' kind of attitude. A satisfying and worthwhile visit and just the thing to get the engine room stoked for more touring around.

Situated conveniently right next door was the Vetter Bar and brewery. A highly recommended hostelry for fine ales and a good time. This place makes its own beer in four different varieties of light, pils, wheat and 'dunkel' or dark beer in other words. The vats sit proudly next to the bar itself.

Of course like any bar worth its salt they'll let you taste a sample before buying. I tried the dark beer which was nice and strong but very sweet. With slight background music and lots of chatter amidst fine food and excellent booze it was all you would expect from a German beer kellar.

it was a splendid place and wonderfully traditional for a Saturday evening. I ordered a wheat beer which was without doubt the best I have ever tasted. You can buy large bottles of the stuff to take away which I duly did. Also the staff were friendly and helpful as well as speaking excellent English to compensate for my dreadful attempts at German. You can but try.

After a couple of tasty beers I had to be dragged away to check out the scenery again. It was mid-evening now and the sun was getting lower. The castle was starting to glow in the reddish tint of the twilight. So we drove back up to the Konigstuhle once more to watch the sun descend over the plain.

Sunset over the plain

We arrived with perfect timing and in the gathering gloom we watched the sun go down. It's always a contemplative experience witnessing the end of another day and marveling at the beauty of nature.

There were families with young children gathered around to catch the scene. Courting couples arrived too and stood silently admiring the view. It was a quiet and peaceful finale to the day and a fitting way to finish off the tour.

The Konigstuhle is a popular place for couples to come and watch the sunset over the plain. The air of romance still lingers over the valley from the castle and the hills. It made me wonder how many will eventually get married in the castle one fine day.

And that was my visit to Heidelberg over. A full day it was too as I think I was there for around 10 hours which was a fairly good shift for a hard-working tourist.

But apart from chasing that temporarily elusive car parking space not much of the time was wasted as there was so much going on and so much to see and do.

A real taste of vintage Germany as was my bottle of home-brewed wheat beer. It didn't stay too long in the refrigerator.


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