More than 1,200 years in the making, Heilbronn on the Neckar River has a few strings to its bow. The city is Württemberg’s wine capital, and has a wine festival in September that pulls in hundreds of thousands of people. Heilbronn also has the heritage you’d expect from a former Imperial Free City, and this is waiting for you inside the Gothic St Kilian’s Church, where there’s a Late Gothic altarpiece of breathtaking beauty.
The banks of the Neckar are as picturesque as they come, especially in the green south Heilbronn around the Wertwiesenpark. And if you’re clued up on German literature, you can come to the Medieval tower where Götz von Berlichingen, the hero of Goethe’s drama was held captive.
Let’s have a look at the best things to do in Heilbronn:
1. St Kilian’s Church
Heilbronn’s main historic building, St Kilian’s Church is a Gothic hall church made from Heilbronn’s sandstone.
The oldest architecture dates back the 1200s, while the bulk of the building is from the 14th and 15th centuries.
Except for the tower, as this is a little newer and was started in 1508, showing some of the first hints of a Renaissance influence north of the Alps.
Like nearly all of Heilbronn, the church was badly damaged in the war, first by an air attack and then by artillery fire.
But its valuable decorations and fittings had long been moved to safety.
The pièce de résistance is an expertly carved Late Gothic altar by Hans Seyffer dating to 1498, and measuring 11.64 metres by 7.86. It shows Mary with Child, flanked by saints in the middle panel.
The delicate reliefs on the wings depict scenes like the Crucifixion and the Death of Mary.
2. Astronomical Clock
On the gable of Heilbronn town hall’s old Renaissance facade is a fantastic piece of 16th-century workmanship by Isaak Habrecht who also designed the clock at Strasbourg Cathedral.
The clock has three faces: At the top, below the bell is the moon clock, displaying the phases of the moon over 30 days.
Under this is the 12-hour clock with an hour and minute hand.
At the strike of the hour a few automatons come to life: Two angels turn to each other, one with a trumpet and the other marking the toll of the bell with a sceptre.
Under these are two golden rams, and a cock that crows on the fourth, eight and twelfth hours.
And finally, the lowest of the three faces is the zodiac clock, showing the position of the sun and moon in the 12 signs of the zodiac.
After gazing at the Astronomical Clock on Marktplatz you can also come around to the southwest corner of the square to appreciate this beautiful Gothic house dating to the 14th century.
At a time when all homes were being built with timbers, this edifice was built entirely of Heilbronn sandstone, and that’s one of the reasons it has made it to the 21st century.
The three-storey property has Gothic and Renaissance mullioned windows, and on the oriel (bay window) are relief portraits of the Hebrew prophets Isaiah, Jeremiah, Hosea and Habakkuk from 1534. Even though it has no link to the work, the house is named after the Romantic writer Heinrich von Kleist’s play Das Käthchen von Heilbronn, which helped put Heilbronn on the map in the 19th century.
4. MS Experimenta
If you come to Heilbronn before 2019, one of the city’s top attractions will be going through a renovation.
Experimenta is an interactive science centre and laboratory that opened in a former warehouse on Kraneninsel, between the Wilhelmskanal and the Neckar in 2003. Using 150 interactive exhibits, the museum dealt with topics like communication, renewable energy and transport technology.
In 2017 the centre was closed for a two-year revamp, but a lot of its activities were temporarily moved to a 100-metre-long container ship moored on the canal next to the museum building.
5. South German Railway Museum
At the former Bundesbahn locomotive depot in Heilbronn’s Böckingen district is a museum with a small fleet of locomotives and wagons, mostly from the first half of the 20th century.
There are roughly 80 exhibits to check out, among historic maintenance infrastructure like a roundhouse dating to 1893. As for the locomotives, the exceptional engine here is the Prussian P8, which is part of a line manufactured between 1908 and 1926 has been restored to full working order after serving on Romania’s railways.
The P8 is one of more than ten steam locomotives in various states of repair, along with a handful of diesel locomotives, a collection of Saxon and Prussian passenger coaches and an I-gauge model railway.
This former commandery for the Teutonic Order goes back to the 1200s and has some of the oldest surviving architecture in Heilbronn.
After Heilbronn was taken by the Electorate of Württemberg in 1805 the complex had all sorts of uses, becoming a barracks, court and then a government building.
There’s Romanesque, Gothic, Renaissance and Baroque architecture around two large and peaceful courtyards.
These open spaces hold markets and concerts in the summer, while the buildings have a cafe, a cultural centre for temporary exhibitions and a museum about the city’s history, which we’ll come to next.
7. Haus der Stadtgeschichte
Drawing on Heilbronn’s municipal archives, the Haus der Stadtgeschichte is a neatly presented museum about the history of the city.
The attraction reopened in 2012, recording Heilbronn’s story from the High Middle Ages to the 21st century in two large rooms.
The smaller of these has a detailed 3D model of Heilbronn in 1800, in which even individual buildings can be identified.
Also here are Medieval certificates granting the city privileges, liturgical sculpture, oil portraits of famous figures, tomb effigies and an 18th-centruy porcelain collection.
The larger room covers the 19th and 20th centuries, using newspapers, everyday products, stamps and archive photography to give you a feel for life in Heilbronn during the Empire, Weimar Republic, National Socialism and the reconstruction after the war.
The oldest park in Heilbronn dates back to 1575 when the foundation stone for the Trappenseeschlösschen was laid.
This small palace still sits on an island on the Trappensee lake on the east side of the park, and is one of the prettiest sights in Heilbronn.
The remaining nine hectares or so were redesigned in 1934 for a horticultural exhibition.
The park is well-appointed, thanks to restoration efforts over the last couple of decades.
Kids will adore the playground, which has a giant slide on a pyramid, while on the Pießsee lake there’s a 35-metre-wide wooden deck where you can soak up the tranquillity of the lake and the rich vegetation on its banks.
The little palace in the Trappensee deserves a bit more attention.
Away from the centre of Heilbronn this cute Baroque building was unaffected by the war.
As we mentioned, it was begun in 1575 for the mayor of the city, Philipp Orth.
The building took on its current Baroque form in the 1780s when it was acquired by the Dutch admiral and diplomat Heinrich August von Kinckel, who had been born in Heilbronn.
Although the building is still in private hands today, it still forms a charming backdrop for a meal on the terrace of the Trappensee Restaurant.
In front of the church on Kilainsplatz is a fountain that is as old as the city itself.
The well providing this water may have given Heilbronn its name in the 8th century.
The name “Siebenröhren” comes from the fountain’s seven pipes, and the fountain sits under a Renaissance pavilion from the 1540s with vaults and a gable.
The 19th-century reliefs here depict important figures from Heilbronn’s past, like Carloman, the 8th-century Duke of the Franks whose name accompanied the first documented mention of the city.
Also carved into the stone is an image of Emperor Charles IV, who raised Heilbronn to the status of Imperial City in 1371.
Right on the Neckar, Heilbronn’s other inviting park was started in 1982 to be ready for Baden-Württemberg Landesgartenschau (State Garden Show) in 1985. People visit to amble on either bank of the river, which you can cross on a footbridge, and to have barbecues in the designated area on summer evenings.
There’s another fun playground for youngsters, a skate park for teenagers, an outdoor swimming pool and a mini-golf course.
The Wertwiesenpark also has horticultural value for its individual gardens for perennials (13,000 plants),roses, grasses and fragrances.
12. Bollwerksturm and Götzenturm
Two towers from Heilbronn’s once fearsome defensive walls have made it to the present day.
The Bollwerksturm (Bulwark Tower) dates from the Hohenstaufen dynasty in the 11th and 12th centuries and was on the northwest corner of the city wall.
It was a prison for the most heinous criminals, and the Franconian knight and poet Götz von Berlichingen, subject of Goethe’s eponymous drama (1773), did time here after being captured by the Swabian League in 1519. The Götzenturm is a little younger, from 1392 and at 30 metres tall is made from the local sandstone.
What’s funny is that the Götzenturm is named after Götz von Berlichingen and became a popular sight following Goethe’s play, even though the hero was in fact kept in the cruder-looking Bollwerksturm.
13. Botanischer Obstgarten
Below the Wartberg hill in the north of the city is a botanical orchard that has a fascinating origin story.
The Botanischer Obstgarten came about in the 1850s to combat some of the social ills that had come with industrialisation.
In an initiative to lift them from poverty poor boys were given an education that emphasised practical work in trades and horticulture, so this garden was founded to help train them.
The orchard has a diversity of fruit trees and was designed to show off the richness and variety of South German agriculture.
Those trees are accompanied by show gardens for herbs, vegetables, as well as a range of flowerbeds.
The whole park is strewn with cute little arbours, garden houses and pavilions in the Moorish and Classical styles.
Wherever you are in Heilbronn you can look to the north and see this Medieval tower watching over the city from Wartberg.
Around the tower there’s a small playground and the Wartberggaststätte, a restaurant that first opened in 1760 and counts Goethe among its former guests.
You could use the tower as the trailhead for a walk in the hilly, forested countryside to the northeast of Heilbronn.
The tower is accessible to the public and from the top you can take in the city and Neckar basin from a height of 330 metres above sea level.
Heilbronn is in the Württembergisches Unterland, one of Germany’s biggest wine regions.
In the vicinity are almost 500 hectares of vineyards.
Most are on the eastern flank of the city, set high on south and southwest-facing slopes to catch as much sun as possible.
Around half of this area is allocated for the Trollinger grape, which makes a fresh, light-bodied red wine.
The German classic, Riesling is the other main grape in this region.
To really get in touch with wine culture in the city, come for the Heilbronner Weindorf, a festival held on Marktplatz in harvest season every September.
At stands around the square you can sample some 300 different wines and buy bottles that suit your taste.