“The town lay, stretched along the river, its intricate cobweb of streets jeweled with twinkling lights. Behind the castle swells a dome-shaped hill, forest-clad, and beyond that a nobler and loftier one. The Castle looks down upon the compact brown-roofed town; and from the town two picturesque old bridges span the river. I have never enjoyed a view which had such a satisfying charm about it as this one gives.”- Mark Twain
Heidelberg, Germany, is a small medieval town nestled between the mountains on the Neckar River. Mark Twain visited this quaint city in the 1870s and wrote extensively about its beauty in A Tramp Abroad. Although Twain could never fall in love with the complicated German language, he expressed his love for Heidelberg repeatedly in English. Since then, Heidelberg has become a booming tourist destination and an extraordinary place to live.
I was fortunate enough to call Heidelberg my home until I moved back to the States. As a student, Heidelberg was the perfect college town. It was small enough for intimacy but large enough to feel independent. I fell in love with Heidelberg and it will always be a place that I consider my home.
But for those of you who are only passing through Heidelberg, what is there to do? Fortunately for you, there are lots of things to do whether you are there for a week or just an afternoon.
WHAT TO DO
If you are looking for a relaxing stroll or a hike up a mountain, Heidelberg has things for you. You can see a good majority of Heidelberg in a short amount of time but a few days in the city will allow you to experience all that it has to offer.
Walk Along the Main Street
The Hauptstraße, or main street, is something that everyone visiting Heidelberg has to do. A little over a mile long, this main street is the lifeblood of Heidelberg. Dozens of shops and restaurant flank both sides of the cobblestone street. There are also three main churches on the Hauptstrasse, which are full of history. If you are in Heidelberg on the weekend, I highly recommend attending a church service in one of the historical churches. There’s something truly spectacular about experiencing church in one of them.
At the end of the Hauptstraße is one of Heidelberg’s oldest churches. Its name in German is Heiliggeistkirche, which translates to the Holy Ghost Church. Standing in the middle of the old Heidelberg market square, the Holy Ghost Church dominates the old town skyline. It was originally built as a Catholic church, but in 1706, a partition was built in the church so that Catholics and Protestants could worship simultaneously. Today, it functions as a protestant church and is open to the public. For just 1 Euro, you can climb up to the top of the bell tower for excellent panoramic views of the city.
The castle is Heidelberg’s crowning jewel. It sits high above the city as a welcome to everybody who visits. The original Schloß, or castle, was built in 1214 but has been partially destroyed by fire and the French. Today, a good portion of the castle remains and is open to the public. From the Hauptstraße, there are three ways to get up to the castle.
One option is to walk up the hill. I consider it the most scenic route if you want to get your exercise and see the city along the way. Beware though – it’s a fairly steep walk for about 10 minutes and isn’t for the faint of heart. But you do get some excellent views and this route allows you to enter the castle from the bottom entrance.
Another option is to walk up 313 stairs to the castle. It takes less time than the incline but does not offer the same views. This was my preferred way to climb up to my house (which was close to the castle) and I lovingly dubbed them the “death stairs”. The stairs aren’t really that bad, they just get difficult after you’ve had a liter or two of beer before trying to get home.
The easiest (and most common) option is to take the Bergbahn, or funicular, to the castle. It costs 4 Euros for a student ticket and I’ve never had them check to see if you purchased the correct ticket. So safe a few bucks and purchase the cheaper ticket. If they give you grief, just say that you couldn’t read German.
The castle itself requires an admission fee. You can walk around the gardens for free but you must pay if you want to enter the courtyard or see the inside. Paying to go inside is worth it but if you are short on time and money, walking around the outside will suffice as well. The best views of Heidelberg are from the castle, especially at sunset. Goethe, the German Shakespeare, visited Heidelberg and even wrote some of his pieces in the castle garden.
Inside the castle is the famous Heidelberg Ton – the largest keg in the world. For an alcoholic connoisseur, this is my favorite part of the castle. Herman Melville even mentioned this massive keg in his novel Moby Dick. Who knew? In the golden days of the castle, all sorts of wines, beers, and spirits were poured into the massive keg and was drunk as a potent mixture. I can only imagine how strong and disgusting that stuff was. Today, the keg is (sadly) empty but visitors can still see it and dance on the dance floor built above it.
Martin Luther’s Church
Martin Luther is best known for nailing his 95 Theses to a church door as a protest for the indulgences of the church. What few people know is that in April of 1518, Martin Luther came to Heidelberg and disputed his theses of divine love and human love. He did so at the altar of the lecture hall of Heidelberg’s Augustinian Order. The chapel he spoke in has since been destroyed, but a large plate stands in the spot where he stood. Trees have been planted along the walls of the old chapel as a reminder of the history in that place.
If you are searching for the plate, it can be found in today’s University Square. The Christmas markets are held in that very square. University Square can sometimes be difficult to find, so look for the end stop for busses 31 and 32. That’s at the “Universitätzplatz” stop.
The Old Bridge
For many years, this picturesque bridge was the only bridge over the Neckar River in Heidelberg. It was partially destroyed in World War II but was quickly rebuilt into the beautiful bridge that is still there today. Heidelberg’s old city gate still stands at the end of the bridge as a welcome into the city. For a perfect picture of the castle, I recommend going to the second little alcove in the bridge for the best location. If you decide to walk all the way across the bridge, turn to the left and follow the stairs down to the river. There is a beautiful little walkway and some benches that are a great location to have a picnic at. An added bonus is that you’ll have an incredible view of the castle, bridge, gate, and old city!
If you aren’t afraid of a little hiking, I suggest hiking along Philosopher’s Way. It is directly across from the old bridge and takes you up the opposite side of the mountain. The path is called Philosopher’s Way because it is where many great thinkers, including Mark Twain, have gone to contemplate their lives. Philosopher’s Way takes a little bit of hiking but the views from the top are completely worth it.
WHERE TO EAT
How can I even begin to tell you where to eat? There are so many incredible restaurants and stands in Heidelberg that I could write an entire book on it. But since you’ll likely only be in town for a short while, here are some of the best restaurants that should not be missed.
This café opens at 9 in the morning and is the perfect place for coffee or brunch. Each of the rooms has a different theme and is an eclectic chic. During warmer months, the back of the restaurant is opened up and you can enjoy your food in a beautiful courtyard. Even during the winter months, there is a glass room that still lets you feel like you are outdoors so you can watch the snow fall.
Everything I have ever tried there is delicious, but my favorites include the Toast Hawaii (toast with melted cheese, ham, and pineapple) and a raspberry tart. If you’re a bit hungrier, there are options for huge baskets that include bread, fruits, cheeses, meats, and almost anything else you can imagine. Schafheutle also sells freshly made chocolate truffles, which are perfect to snack on as you explore Heidelberg.
Legend has it that in the castle’s heyday, there was a little Italian man who loved to drink. If anybody asked him if he wanted another drink, he would always respond, “Perché no?” Gradually it was slurred into the words “perkeo?” and that’s what he was called by everyone at the castle. Perkeo is one of the beloved people of Heidelberg and there is now a restaurant in his memory. The Perkeo restaurant is also located on the Hauptstraße and has a hotel directly above it.
If you are searching for quality food for a decent price, Perkeo is the way to go. The best food is their mushroom cream sauce spaghetti. Their baked pastas are also very flavorful and even their salads are huge! Another bonus about Perkeo is that they give you very generous glasses of wine. You can’t beat that!
Chill vibes? Check. Delicious food? Check. Amazing cocktails? Double check. Regie’s is a cool restaurant that is best known for its Flammkuchen and cocktails. Flammkuchen is a very thin pizza-type bread and you can order a variety of toppings. Regie’s offers a wide variety of toppings for their Flammkuchen and I haven’t found one that isn’t good.
As far as their cocktails go, Regie’s crowns themselves as, “die Cocktail macher” or the cocktail makers. They certainly deserve that title because the cocktails they make are delicious. An added bonus is that if you order three cocktails on a Tuesday night, you can get them for only 5 euros each!!
If you’ve spent any amount of time in Europe, you’ve undoubtedly noticed the massive spits of Döner meat rotating inside Turkish shops. The thin, delectable strips of meat can be put on anything. Döner Kebabs, on top of salads, in Döner boxes, eaten by itself or with anything you can concoct! The best place to eat Döner in Heidelberg is at Yufka’s. A small family business, Yufka’s offers delicious food for cheap prices. One of the best parts about it is you can take it to go! The owners are extremely nice and love their clientele. I went there so many times that I even have my picture on their TV screen! Yufka’s is located right across from the Holy Ghost Church, which puts it in a prime location to eat and take across the bridge for a picnic.
It wouldn’t make sense to go to Germany and not try Schnitzel. Thankfully, Schnitzelhaus is located in Heidelberg and is a mecca of Schnitzel. Located past the very end of the Hauptstrasse, Schnitzelhaus is an intimate restaurant and serves every type of Schnitzel imaginable. If you need a good, hearty meal, that’s the place to go.
WHERE TO DRINK
Come on, it’s Germany. You have to taste some of the best beer on the planet. And if you want the best beer in the south of Germany, Heidelberg is the place to start.
Kulturbrauerei is a restaurant and a microbrewery combined into one. Their menu is simple – schnitzel and noodles – but their beer is superb. I would definitely give Kulturbrauerei the title of the best beer in Heidelberg. It’s strong, smooth, and tastes like freshly brewed heaven.
If Vetters had frequent-drinker rewards program, I would probably be their most valued customer. I’m not kidding, I probably still have Vetters beer in my system and I haven’t been there for over four months. Like Kulturbrauerei, Vetters brews their own beer in-house. They have light and dark beer, as well as a seasonal beer that changes throughout the year. Vetters feels like a true German beer hall. In addition to their amazing beer, they also serve authentic German food.
The most wonderful thing about Vetters is that they have beer to-go. Yes, you read that right. For just 3 cheap euros, you can buy an entire liter of beer and take it on the road with you. A liter technically costs six euros but you return the bottle and receive three euros back. The price (and taste) cannot be beaten.
The only thing that can beat three-euro liters of beer is the promise of four-euro cocktails. Just in front of the Holy Ghost Church is Palmbrauhaus, a restaurant that turns into a fun bar when the sun goes down. Happy hour is from 6 p.m. to 11 p.m. and all cocktails are only four euros. Plus, you can get them to-go! Just ask for a certain cocktail “zum mitnehmen” and the bartenders will set you up with a delicious drink to enjoy on the road!
You don’t go to Shooters, you end up at Shooters. Tucked away on a quiet side street off the Hauptstraße, Shooters is home to the two-euro shots. Many people consider Shooters the best place to go to end a wild night of partying. There’s a bouncer at the door, which makes it a fun game to get into the bar. I enjoy Shooters but if you aren’t into the young, partying scene, don’t bother going.
This street in Heidelberg is known for its clubs and bars. Untere Straße leads directly to the Holy Ghost Church (like almost everything in the city) and is the heart of Heidelberg’s nightlife. There are clubs and bars for everybody’s taste and you can find whatever you like on this street.
So what’s not to love about this little town? Heidelberg has the history, the charm, and the beauty that can only be found here. I absolutely love Heidelberg and enjoy sharing my city with everyone.
Have fun and safe travels!