Best things to do in Heidelberg
Find out more about those top places in Heidelberg
Given Heidelberg’s evocative setting in the wooded gorge of the River Neckar it is of no surprise that the picturesque university town has for centuries been a source of inspiration for romantic writers and artists the world over. Unlike most other German towns that emerged from World War Two as little more than rubble, Heidelberg, owing to its relative remoteness and lack of heavy industry, survived unscathed. The result is an enthralling medieval townscape of uniform red roofs, half-timbered houses and ancient bridges crisscrossing the Neckar. Heidelberg’s main draw is undoubtedly its distinctive half-ruined castle, which provides breathtaking views of the surrounding countryside. Heidelberg is also home to five universities, one of which is the oldest in Germany, which gives the town a lively buzz often missing from Germany’s smaller towns.
Perched on the verdant Neckar Valley hillside above the Altstadt, Schloss Heidelberg is Germany’s renaissance castle par excellence. Alongside the breathtaking views it offers, the semi-ruined palace complex houses life-size sculptures of the German kings and emperors of past and an atmospheric central courtyard built in the Gothic style. The only way to view the interior of the castle is as part of a tour, which departs regularly from the Altstadt during summer months.
Heidelberg’s Alte Brücke, translated in English as Old Bridge, was built in 1786 to connect the glorious Altstadt with the Neckar’s right bank. Today the bridge throngs with visitors and locals alike and crossing its 300 meters length is one of Heidelberg’s most enthralling experiences.
Comparable to England’s Oxford and Cambridge or America’s Ivy League colleges, Heidelberg’s Ruprecht Karls Universität is Germany’s oldest and most prestigious higher education institute. Founded in 1386, the university’s most impressive sights can be found in the old quarter, including the infamous Karzer where badly behaved students were imprisoned during the 19th century. To get to grips with the institution’s history, and hear a roll call of its most famous students, take a guided tour.
For the best views of the Altstadt, take a tour to the top of the 14th century Heiliggeistkirche, translated in English as the Church of the Holy Spirit. If you are brave enough to climb the near 300 steps to the top of the precipitous steeple you will be rewarded with a bird’s eye view into the old town’s romantic squares and courtyards.
One of Germany’s most iconic gardens, the Philosophenweg that sprawls along the banks of the Neckar is a joy to explore. Peppered with romantic 19th century monuments, atmospheric beer gardens and ruins of palatial pavilions, the gardens are a glimpse into the Heidelberg of days gone by. Despite their tranquility, the Philosophenweg also holds a dark history as its amphitheater was built during the 1930s to hold Nazi Party rallies.
Just west of Heidelberg and sandwiched between the Neckar and Rhine lies Schloss Schwetzingen, the grandiose summer residence of the 18th century Prince-Elector Carl Theodor. Built in a baroque style, the palace’s numerous banquet halls, grand reception rooms and other gilded interiors can be visited as part of a regular guided tour.
For the best views of Schloss Heidelberg and the Altstadt, take to the waters on a romantic boat tour. For the best experience, go at sunset when the castle looks at its most photogenic.