Up there with Germany’s favourite tourist destinations, Heidelberg is a historic university town that has survived unscathed since the 18th century. You have to come for the Baroque architecture and the phenomenal ruins of the Renaissance castle, which for hundreds of years was home to the Imperial Prince Electors of Heidelberg.
Those ruins have inspired generations of people, most famously the Romantics at the start of the 19th century. And part of that allure comes from the Odenwald terrain, as Heidelberg is couched in a wooded valley by the Neckar where hills on both sides of the river offer storybook vistas of the city.
Let’s explore the best things to do in Heidelberg:
Heidelberg’s glorious old town rests in the shadow of the ruins of Schloss Heidelberg.
The Altstadt has many of the things people love about German old quarters; sociable squares with bar terraces at Kornmarkt and Marktplatz, cobblestone streets and a catalogue of historic landmarks.
These can be Gothic or Baroque churches, or monuments like the statue of Mary on Kornmarkt from 1718, a symbol of Heidelberg’s complicated relationship with Catholicism.
One of the interesting features of the Altstadt is that it has a uniform Baroque appearance, a result of fires caused by a French assault in 1693 during the Nine Years’ War.
The Town Hall was built in the aftermath and dates to 1701, still featuring the electoral coat of arms sculpted by Hungarian artist Heinrich Charrasky.
2. Schloss Heidelberg
Perched 80 metres above the Altstadt and Neckar is the former seat of Heidelberg’s Prince Electors, now one of the most beautiful ruins in the world.
The castle was begun as a fortress in the 13th century, but in the 15th and 16th century was expanded into a palace fit for Heidelberg’s imperial rulers.
The next 300 years weren’t exactly kind to Schloss Heidelberg as the property suffered fire from thunderbolts and repeated destruction during the Thirty Years’ War in the 1600s and the Nine Years’ War less than 100 years later.
From then the complex was only partly reconstructed, and its ruins inspired Germany’s Romantics and were depicted by Turner during two separate stays.
Visit for an audio tour of the extraordinary Renaissance ruins, and for the Pharmacy Museum, which we’ll cover later.
3. Alte Brücke (Old Bridge)
Crossing the Neckar between the Altstadt and the Neuenheim district on the right bank, the Alte Brücke dates in its current form to 1788 during the rule of Elector Charles Theodore.
Despite being more than 200 years old, this structure is the ninth bridge to be built on this spot.
Each bridge built from the 1200s to the 1700s was wrecked by ice floes in spring, but the current one has survived because it was the first to be built entirely from stone.
The bridge is embellished with two sets of sculpture, one paying homage to Charles Theodore and another to the Roman goddess Minerva.
These are replicas, and the originals were transferred to the Kurpfälzisches Museum for safekeeping.
On the bank of the Altstadt is a pair of towers from Heidelberg’s Medieval fortifications.
4. Kurpfälzisches Museum
Heidelberg’s Palatinate Museum is in the 18th-century Palais Morass and has painting, sculpture and applied arts, as well as archaeology recording the long human history of the Lower Neckar Valley and Heidelberg’s time as the Electoral Palatinate residence.
Bridging a host of disciplines, there are many memorable exhibits to look out for, like the Renaissance sculptor Tilman Riemenschneider’s Altar of the Apostles from 1509 or paintings by Lucas Cranach the Elder, Anselm Feuerbach and Max Beckmann.
There are also rooms furnished in the styles of the 1700s and 1800s and rich with glassware, period clothing and porcelain made by the feted 18th-century Frankenthal Factory.
5. Deutsches Apotheken-Museum
Across 11 rooms in Schloss Heidelberg is a museum documenting the history of pharmacies and medical science in Germany.
There are 20,000 pieces on display here, but what really captures the imagination are the seven complete pharmacy sets, the earliest dating back to the Renaissance.
The museum has what is claimed to be the world’s largest collection of 18th-century earthenware, as well as valuable majolica, faience and technical glass containers and equipment from the 1600s to the 1800s.
There are also fascinating home or portable pharmacy kits, including a sensational example made mostly from silver in Augsburg in 1640. And you can learn more about the strange things that went in these pots, like bezoar stones, mandrake root and mummia (sometimes made from powdered Egyptian mummies!).
6. Heidelberg Tun
In the cellar of Schloss Heidelberg is a marvel that also needs its own entry.
The Heidelberg Tun is an enormous wine barrel.
It was built in 1751 during the reign of Charles Theodore and when it was completed was able to hold 221,726 litres.
Since then its capacity has shrunk by a couple of thousand litres as the wood has aged.
A container of this size required timber from130 oak trees! The Heidelberg Tun is in fact the fifth in a line of outsized wine barrels at the palace, going back to the first barrel from the 16th century that was destroyed in the Thirty Years’ War.
The barrel has only been used for wine a few times in its history and was filled just three times.
This was done from the floor above via a hole in the ceiling of the cellar.
On the right bank of the Neckar is a two-kilometre path on high ground presenting views over the city and Schloss Heidelberg across the river.
The path climbs from the Neuenheim district up the Heiligenberg Hill, but you can also access the trail from the Alte Brücke on the east side.
If you do start the walk in the west you’ll start by passing villas and the university’s physics institute in one of Heidelberg’s most affluent neighbourhoods.
Later you’ll arrive at the Philosophengärtchen, a supreme terrace garden where the best views down to the Altstadt and over the Upper Rhine Plain can be had.
Amongst other monuments in the garden there’s a bronze relief of one of the most famous Romantics, Freiherr von Eichendorff, who would use this walk to ruminate, as well as a sandstone platform from which the 17th-cenetury engraver Matthäus Merian captured the city.
You can take a detour off the Philosophenweg to spend some time exploring the Heiligenberg.
This sandstone hill is 440 metres high and features Heidelberg’s oldest signs of habitation.
The oldest of all is the Celtic defensive wall going back to the 4th century BC. Keep going to the summit and you’ll be met by the ruins of the 11th-century Monastery of St Michael, which was abandoned almost 500 years ago.
There are also two viewing towers you can climb: The Heiligenbergturm dates to the 19th century but was actually built with sandstone blocks from the defunct 11th-century Monastery of St Stephen.
There’s also a tower honouring the first German chancellor Otto von Bismarck, erected in 1903.
9. Church of the Holy Spirit
Heidelberg’s main church first took shape in the 13th century, but was at the turn of the 15th century that it got its current Late Gothic design.
For centuries this building was the burial place of the Palatinate’s Prince Electors.
Today only tomb effigies for the 15th-century Rupert, King of Germany, survives as the 53 others were destroyed in an attack by the French during the Nine Years’ War.
Although this church is protestant today, it changed denomination several times in its past, and for more than 200 years up to 1936 had a barrier so that both Catholics and Protestants could worship here.
Monday to Saturday it’s also possible to scale the tower to look over Heidelberg from the tower’s platform at 38 metres.
On Augustinergasse in a Baroque building at the back of the Old University is a small jail where students were temporarily locked up for minor offences.
The jail was in use from the 1770s to the dawn of the First World War, and students would end up here for any number of reasons.
For many it was because of drunken behaviour, practical jokes on the university or city authorities or even duelling, which remained a common activity right up to 1914. Students would be released to attend lectures, but were expected to return to the jail to stay out their sentence, which could last for up to a month.
The reason you have to see the Studentenkarzer is for the graffiti and pictures covering the walls of the jail by students bragging about their exploits.
11. Haus zum Ritter (House of the Knight)
Any visit to Heidelberg’s Altstadt requires a stop at this marvellous building, the oldest burgher house in the city.
The Haus zum Ritter was built in 1592 for the cloth merchants Franziska and Carolus Belier, protestants who had fled Habsburg-controlled Valenciennes.
It is the only burgher house to have survived Heidelberg’s fire in 1693 during the Nine Years’ War and has only recently taken on its current role as a hotel, even if it served as a guest house for a time 300 years ago.
The name of the house comes from the bust of St George in knight’s garb on the pediment.
The largest green space in the centre of Heidelberg has an idyllic position along the right bank of the river at Neuenheim.
The Neckarwiese cuts inland for an average of 50 metres and between its large lawns are groves of alders, lime trees, poplars and willows, as well as avenues traced by chestnuts.
This space was an ancient ford of Heidelberg’s Roman bridge, which collapsed in the 3rd century.
One of the reasons the Neckarwiese has been left free of housing is because of the annual floods, which still occasionally inundate the park in spring.
On sunny summer days the park is full of people out relaxing enjoying picnics and barbecues.
Located in what was once Heidelburg’s jesuits’ quarter, this Baroque church was built in two phases between 1712 and 1759. Straight away you might sense something unusual about the Jesuitenkirche, because the building isn’t oriented towards the east like most churches, but to the south instead.
For a Baroque church the inside is relatively understated, save for the 18th-century altar painting.
In the northeast corner of the building is the simple tomb for the 15th-century Elector Palatine Frederick I (The Victorious).
On the opposite side of the Neckar Valley from the Heiligenberg is another tall hill, crested by communications masts.
The hill is named the King’s Seat as Heidelberg Palace is on its lower reaches, presents another picturesque view of the city and rises to 567 metres.
You can get up there by taking the Heidelberger Bergbahn, a two-leg funicular railway departing from Kornmarkt in the Altstadt and also serving the palace.
But Königstuhl isn’t just about the views: There are forest walking trails, a small theme park for younger children known as “Märchenparadies” and a falconry.
But maybe the most fascinating thing here is the observatory where the astronomer Karl Wilhelm Reinmuth made almost 400 significant discoveries between 1912 and 1957.
15. Heidelberg Thingstätte
Something else to see at the summit of Heidelberg is a relic from the Nazi period.
The Thingstätte is an amphitheatre built in 1934/35 for Thingspiele.
Essentially, these were propaganda theatre performances, normally rooted in romanticised German folklore.
Very few of these arenas survive, and the dimensions are almost mind-boggling.
Heidelberg’s Thingstätte could seat 8,000 people and has room for another 15,000 standing spectators.
On Walpurgis Night, on the 30 April the arena is filled with people celebrating by lighting traditional bonfires.