German travel destinations

The Germany is Wunderbar guide

Germany Holidays: happy Heidelberg

The ancient university city is a perennial favourite with visitors.

Heidelberg’s location, in a cleft in wooded hills with the river Neckar running through and the ruins of a castle rising above, is unerringly romantic. Add to that Germany’s oldest university, the equivalent of Oxford or Cambridge, and a beautifully preserved Old Town, and hey presto! one of the most popular cities in Germany for visitors.

Approaches, however, are not all that inspiring. The city, some 80km due south of Frankfurt, is in Germany’s most populated region, and its railway station is rather insipid, as well as being located considerably more than walking distance away from the Old Town. However there are plenty of good public transport options in the square outside, and it won’t take more than 10 minutes before you find yourself in a completely different world. It’s a bit like going through the back of the wardrobe into Narnia.

Through the back of the wardrobe

That ancient world, which starts on the other side of Bismarckplatz, is one of cosy cobbled streets and gabled and half-timbered houses, mostly Renaissance or Baroque, dotted with church towers and filled with little bars, bakeries and boutiques. Amongst its key locations, the best place to start is the Alte Brucke, a narrow-arched red sandstone bridge over the Neckar. The river here can be fast-flowing, so big river cruisers stay safely on the Rhine a short distance away, whilst their passengers flock in by road.

At the far end of the bridge a footpath leads up through a patch of vineyards to the Philosopher’s Walk, a broad path much frequented by German intellectuals such as Goethe and Hegel, both Heidelberg students.

The view across the river to Heidelberg Castle is one of the most famous in Germany. Parts of the castle (reached by flights of steps or a funicular) date back to the 13th century, and in the 17th century there was an English princess here – Elizabeth Stuart married Frederick V on St Valentine’s Day 1613 – but over the centuries a combination of war and decay has rendered it (mainly) a massively picturesque lump of scenery. There are guided tours to some parts, and the castle grounds host all kinds of events, including huge fireworks displays.

Below the castle, the key streets are Hauptstrasse and Unterestrasse, the former for shopping and the latter for socialising, particularly in all the student bars. Just off Unterestrasse are the Student Prison, where it was once a badge of honour to be locked up, and the Knösel Chocolaterie, the place for the Heidelberg Student Kiss, a chocolate with a story attached, dating back to those days when Heidelberg was all about high society. Girls were highly chaperoned back then, and when the (male) students were out and about it was all they could do to make themselves known to an object of their desire. So back in 1863 Fridolin Knösel invented a delicately-wrapped ‘student kiss’ chocolate that could be passed from boy to girl as a token of interest, without the chaperon taking offence. That act of chivalry has long gone; these days a girl out on the town usually buys her own drink.

Looking for more? See other destinations in Western Germany

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