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Heidelberg – Germany’s Romantic River City

Heidelberg

Heidelberg on the river Neckar

I’m in Heidelberg where I’m surprised to find myself watching giant river barges carrying industrial cargo as I’m supping a glass of German wine at my camp site.

I’m mesmerised by the endless stream of huge boats travelling down the River Neckar. These super-long barges carry freight containers and even cars, often with husband and wife teams sharing the helm as they travel along the river.

I almost forgot that I was supposed to be discovering the romantic side of Heidelberg which coach parties come to see in their droves… but the boats provide a remarkable distraction.

Heidelberg river boat

A cargo boat

The real reason I’m here is the city’s history and architecture. Heidelberg is the Romantic jewel in the crown of southern Germany, boasting a beautiful romantic setting which has inspired princes, poets and philosophers down the centuries.

Its imposing ruined castle sits on a dramatic promontory and provides the perfect fairy tale backdrop to the town  which straddles the river Neckar.

This attractive city is an ideal stopping point if you’re on a road trip to Baden Wurttenberg or the nearby Black Forest. And as an added treat, you get to watch the barges quietly passing down the river with their strange cargoes.

The Best of Heidelberg

  • Heidelberg Schloss – the dramatic hill-top castle and fortress is a unmissable attraction, towering above the old town. Oddities include an enormous 18th Century wine vat, one of the largest in the world. *****
  • The Philosopher’s Walk provides a quiet break from the bustling town with wonderful views across the whole city. ****
  • Alte Brucke – the characterful old bridge is flanked by two medieval towers and is the gateway into the main historic centre. ***
  • Konigsstuhl – take the funicular to the very top for spectacular views down the valley, if you have a head for heights. ****
  • Church of the Holy Spirit – a surprisingly interesting old church with a wealth of history and intriguing stories from ancient to modern times. ***
Heidelberg Schloo castle

Heidelberg Schloss

You can’t miss Heidelberg’s number one attraction when you arrive in the city. The castle is a stunner. You can see it from almost everywhere in the town. The enormous Heidelberg ‘schloss’ or palace commands a fantastic position overlooking the old city and is a ‘must see’ five star attraction.

Take the funicular to the castle gardens and walk around the grounds. It’s the easiest way to get to the top – and then walk back down at the end of your trip. You’ll thank me for suggesting this!

Don’t miss the fabulous panoramic views from the Scheffelterrasse, a short walk across the palace gardens where you’ll find unparalleled views across the city.

Heidelberg Castle gate

Heidelberg Castle gate

Although largely in ruins, the castle is still an impressive sight with its Gothic and Renaissance architecture, fine battlements and exquisite features.

Head through the palace’s Elisabethentor gate, built by Friedrich V in a single day as a surprise for his wife. She must have been thrilled to get a gate as a birthday gift!

You’ll find yourself in the castle’s main courtyard where you will be wowed by the Gothic Brunnenhalle with its granite Roman columns. Only a shell of the original building remains, but you can walk up to the balcony and strike a regal pose and imagine yourself back in the 17th Century.

Heidelberg Schloss

The ruins of a grand castle

On the other side of the courtyard, don’t miss the Friedrich Wing which boasts the Great Terrace to its rear (accessed by a passage) with yet more stupendous views over the city.

Next door you’ll discover an old wine cellar, tasting room and enormous 18th Century oak barrel or vat which can hold 48,000 gallons of wine. It’s so big that today’s visitors can walk on a viewing platform on top of it!

Watching over it, you’ll see a dwarf court jester called Perkeo who was famous for his ability to drink anyone under the table – or should that be… barrel?

Heidelberg

Heidelberg Castle courtyard

If you like unusual museums – and, let’s face it, who doesn’t – why not take a trip inside the historic Apothecary Museum, housed in a 14th Century tower of the castle.

I wasn’t sure what to expect but found myself intrigued by its old alchemists’ laboratory, medicine jars and apothecary equipment from the earliest times.

One word of warning. It was described as ‘the most boring museum ever’ by my fellow traveller, Marco, who took himself off to look at the fortifications whilst I spent 30 minutes looking at the history of herbal medicine!

Heidelberg Apothecary Museum

The Apothecary Museum

Also check out…

Heidelberg is home to one of the oldest universities in Europe and has been a centre of learning since Renaissance times. Its oldest buildings are located in the historic town (Altstadt).

Today you can stroll around the university’s buildings and visit its museum which includes the Studentenkarzer (Student Prison), used between 1712-1914 to lock up reprobate male students!

Heidelberg’s charming streets and squares are well worth an hour or two of your time.  Look out for the lovely Renaissance Ritter House (Haus zum Ritter), built in 1592 for a rich merchant. Pop inside for a posh meal if you’re feeling like spoiling yourself for lunch or dinner.

Haus zum Ritter Heidelberg

Hotel Ritter – the Knight’s House

Heidelberg boast a lively shopping area with cafes, gift stores and tourist shops. It’s a great place to relax in a quiet cafe whilst catching your breath before hiking up to the top of the town.

In the spring, the city hosts an asparagus and music festival as part of the annual ‘spargel’ celebrations. It’s a must if – like me – you enjoy the famous white asparagus at its very best.

If you like old churches, it’s worth looking inside Heiliggeeistkirche (Church of the Holy Spirit) with its Gothic architecture and changing exhibitions including the current show about the city’s Nazi history.

Heidelberg

Sculpture square

A walk on the quiet side

Take a break from the city sightseeing with a trip to my favourite quiet viewpoint in Heidelberg – the famous Philosophers’ Walk (Philosphenweg) running along a ridge high above the Neckar.

The walk is reached up a series of steep and winding staircases starting from the opposite side of the old bridge over the river.

Ascend gently up the steps past orchards, allotments and terraced gardens and enjoy fabulous views of Heidelberg and its castle.

Heidelberg

View from the Philosophers’ Walk

This was where Heidelberg’s university professors and philosophers thought great thoughts and chatted about serious topics whilst enjoying charming views of the Neckar valley below.

Many sub-tropical plants flourish in the gardens which are blessed with a temperate climate – Japanese cherries, cypresses, lemons, bamboos, rhododendrons and yucca trees flourish.

You’ll even spot small vineyards on your way up the hill… and, once at the top, look out for the local wildlife. I spotted this cheeky red squirrel which was happy to pose for me.

Squirrel

Red Squirrel

What the guide books don’t tell you…

Watch out for tour parties in giant groups. Heidelberg is on the ‘day trip’ list for the coach tour holidaymakers. But there are plenty of places to escape from the worst of the crowds.

Fortunately, Heidelberg Palace sits on a large site so it’s relatively easy to avoid the massed throngs with selfie sticks. You can always escape to the far reaches of the castle gardens or visit its grotto.

You can buy a joint castle and funicular railway ticket which includes the castle courtyard, barrel cellar and German Pharmacy Museum for €7 (adults) or €4 (concessions). This will save you a bit of money as well as avoiding the exhausting hike up to the castle. Buy a one-way ticket and walk back down for an interesting trip back into town.

Heidelberg

Church of the Holy Spirit

Heidelberg is fairly compact and very walkable… but it’s also hilly if you’re looking for the best panoramic views. The Philosophers’ Walk is my favourite walk in Heidelberg but it is a bit of an uphill hike.

But be assured that it’s worth all the huffing and puffing to see the beautiful view, especially at sunset.

For the highest view in the city, take the funicular to the very top of the town beyond the castle stop – and alight at Konigstuhl from where you can get ever higher to the heady heights of Konigsstuhlbahn, a 20 minute trip.

Heidelberg

Heidelberg castle tower

Don’t forget that Heidelberg is a river city. There’s a range of boat trips up the river or day trips to nearby towns. If you prefer, grab a quiet seat on the river front and simply watch the boats and barges pass by.

Heidelberg’s historic town is a good place to shop for presents, pastries and cakes, but it isn’t blessed with many conventional food stores. If you’re on a self-catering holiday, head over to the new town and you’ll find a decent-sized Lidl supermarket.

Eat, drink and be happy!

Heidelberg is awash with cafes, restaurants, cake shops and charming bars so you won’t have to venture far to find an eating or drinking place.

I found it difficult to find any takeaway food or sandwiches at lunchtime so my advice would be to find a lovely cafe, grab a coffee and cake – or something more substantial.  Eat like the locals and take a long break sitting on a cafe terrace.

Heidelberg

Heidelberg’s lovely squares

As usual in Germany, there’s plenty of hearty German cuisine which – of course – means one thing. Lots of pork and sausages… potatoes (kartoffle), red cabbage, ‘pickled everything’ and traditional fare. Stodge is a big part of the tradition so tread carefully if you’re a foodie who enjoys minimalist cooking.

You’ve arrived in ‘pork central’ so get used to eating plenty of pig. If you’re lucky, you might even spot a rare salmon dish on the menu or a veggie option.

There are restaurants in the city centre to suit most culinary tastes from Italian to Asian and Spanish tapas… but German food is king.

Heidelberg cafes

Heidelberg’s cafe society

Motorhome and hotel tips

There are many hotels and guest houses in Heidelberg including chains like the Crowne Plaza, Marriott and Holiday Inn. The Hotel Ritter is a historic hotel full of character, located right in the heart of the old quarter if you’re looking for olde worlde charm.

Heidelberg isn’t the best place to park a motor home so leave your van on a camp site and take public transport or a bike into town. There are a few parking places for motorhomes on the edge of town but you’ll need to walk the final couple of hundred metres.

The city’s main historic centre is perfect for bicycles and all the major attractions are relatively close together if you’re on foot. Do not attempt to take a motorhome into the historic heart of the city which is largely pedestrianised.

Heidelberg castle

Heidelberg’s historic quarter

If you’re planning on staying overnight, check out Camping Heidelberg, a mid-sized motorhome site on the edge of the city centre (approx 4 kms). The amenities are OK (decent showers and toilets) but the big selling point is the site’s location, right next to the river Neckar.

Pick your perfect pitch overlooking the river and you’ll be blessed with the sight of boats of all shapes and sizes gliding by.

This site is also close to a frequent bus route (10 mins ride) into the city centre – a 15 minute ride. There’s also a bike route into town which takes about 15-20 minutes.

It’s easy to see the city’s main sights in a day or two before continuing your trip to the nearby Black Forest.

Heidelberg barge

Riverboat view from the camp site

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