10 Top-Rated Tourist Attractions & Things to Do in Heidelberg
Heidelberg is, without doubt, one of the most romantic cities in Germany, comparable to such locations as Durham in England thanks to its picturesque riverside location, its beautiful old bridges, and castle ruins. Attracting nearly four million visitors each year, the city is chock-full of historic sites and attractions, as well as excellent dining and entertainment experiences. The old capital of the Palatinate and an ancient university town celebrated in song and poetry, Heidelberg lies at the point where the Neckar river emerges from the hills of the Odenwald into the Rhine plain. It's also one of the warmest places in Germany, as evidenced by sightings of the occasional almond, fig, and olive tree, as well as its wild African parakeets.
See also: Where to Stay in Heidelberg
1 Hauptstrasse and the Altstadt (Old Town)
Heidelberg's Hauptstrasse is the place to start exploring this beautiful city. From this narrow main street, you'll find countless even narrower side streets and alleyways just begging to be explored, each bursting with things to discover: unspoiled medieval architecture; splendid old churches; and numerous boutique shops, galleries, cafés, and restaurants. Highlights include the early 15th-century Heiliggeistkirche, the Church of the Holy Ghost, and Haus zum Ritter, a Renaissance building dating from 1592. Other highlights include the Neckarstaden where you'll find Marstall, the old court stables and home of Heidelberg University's art collection, as well as the Stadthalle adjoining the landing stages for the many tour boats from places such as Mannheim. If visiting during winter, be sure to sample the delights of the superb Heidelberg Christmas Market, so large it fills three city squares.
2 Heidelberg Castle
Heidelberg Castle can be reached by the Bergbahn, a mountain railway running from the Kornmarkt, or via a 15-minute walk from the old town. Built of red Neckar sandstone on the terraced hillside some 195 meters above Heidelberg, this 16th-century castle is one of the best examples of German Renaissance architecture. After its destruction by the French, who devastated the Palatinate in the 17th century, it has remained the largest and most picturesque such ruin in Germany. The castle is home to many excellent festivals, most held in its evocative courtyard, as well as theatrical performances, concerts, and firework displays. One of the most popular is the Heidelberg Castle Festival from June to August, which boasts an eclectic mix of theater, choral music, chamber orchestras, jazz, folk, and opera.
Address: Schlosshof 1, 69117 Heidelberg
3 Heidelberg University
On the south side of the Hauptstrasse lies Universitätsplatz, with the Old University dating back to 1711. On its east side, in Augustinergasse, is the Pedellenhaus with the former Student Prison, Karzer, in use from 1778 to 1914. The New University was built in 1928-31, behind which rises the Hexenturm, or Witches' Tower, once part of the town's fortifications. Nearby, in Grabengasse, you'll find the richly stocked University Library whose principal treasure is the 14th-century Manessische Handschrift, an illuminated manuscript of medieval songs. Also of note are the Seminargebäude, the Mensa students' refectory, and the 15th-century Peterskirche, a tiny chapel now used mainly as the university church.
Address: Grabengasse 1, D-69117 Heidelberg
4 Karl Theodor Bridge
Also known as the Old Bridge, Heidelberg's spectacular Karl Theodor Bridge has been immortalized in numerous poems and paintings, testament to the romanticism that surrounds the structure. Spanning the Neckar and joining the two sides of historic Heidelberg, the famous bridge with its lovely sculptures is named after the man responsible for designing and building its nine red sandstone arches in 1788 as a replacement for the numerous wooden bridges that came before. The bridge is well worth strolling along for its views of Heidelberg and its sister bridge, the twin-towered Brückentor.
5 The Philosophers' Walk
Another great way to explore Heidelberg is along the well-marked Philosophenweg, or Philosophers' Walk. On the north side of the Neckar, this wonderful pathway runs along the side of Heiligenberg, or Saints' Mountain, and is where the university's philosophers would walk. It's not hard to see the attraction: the views across the Neckar to the old town are incredible, and provide an excellent excuse to visit a few other notable attractions, including the ruins of the 11th-century Monastery of St. Michael, and the adjoining Thingstätte, a Nazi-era amphitheater. Also making the uphill trek to the trail worthwhile are the ruins of an ancient 4th-century Celtic hill fort.
6 Königstuhl - The King's Seat
Just seven kilometers east of Heidelberg, the Königstuhl - or King's Seat - is a hill rising some 567 meters with spectacular views as far as the Rhine Valley. Access to the summit, part of the Odenwald Mountains, is via the Heidelberg Mountain Railway, the same funicular railway that takes visitors to Heidelberg Castle. It's an excellent place to explore the beautiful countryside surrounding Heidelberg, especially as the difficult part - getting there and back - is taken care of via the railway.
7 Schloss Schwetzingen
About 12 kilometers west of Heidelberg, in the Rhine plain, is Schwetzingen, famous for its spectacular 18th-century palace. Schloss Schwetzingen was built as the summer residence of the Electors of the Palatinate, and today is as well known for its superb program of summer concerts as it is for its lovely gardens. Covering more than 180 acres, Schlossgarten was laid out in a mix of French and English styles and contains a number of 18th-century buildings, including a Rococo theater, built between 1746-52, and a mosque. A variety of excellent guided tours are available and are well worth the small additional cost. If possible, plan your visit to coincide with the Schwetzingen Festival, an annual event held from late April through mid-June that includes opera, symphonic, choral, and chamber concerts, as well as recitals and dance performances. Events take place both inside the Schwetzingen Palace - appropriate, given the fact Mozart performed here as a seven-year-old - as well as outdoors in the Palace Park.
Address: Schloss Mittelbau, 68723 Schwetzingen
8 Heidelberg Zoo and Germany's Oldest Botanic Garden
The Heidelberg Zoo is certainly worth a visit, particularly if traveling with youngsters. On the north bank of the Neckar, this fun zoo has more than 1,100 animals encompassing some 250 species. A registered member of the European Endangered Species Program (EEP), as well as West African Primate Conservation Action (WAPCA), the zoo has a special focus on conservation and breeding programs for endangered species. Afterwards, be sure to visit the Botanischer Garten adjacent to the university. Established in 1593, it's one of the oldest - and largest - botanical gardens in Germany. Another great place for a garden stroll is Skulpturenpark Heidelberg, a sculpture park, which is also next to the university.
Address: Tiergartenstrasse 3, Heidelberg
9 The German Pharmacy Museum
On the grounds of Heidelberg Castle, the German Museum of Pharmacy covers the history of apothecaries during the 18th and 19th centuries. Displays include fascinating old instruments and tools of the trade, as well as examples of the preparations used by these early pharmacists. Furnishings from pharmacies since the Baroque period, manuscripts, pharmacy emblems, and books are also featured, and together make for a pleasant way to spend an hour or two. Guided tours are also available, both during regular hours and after hours (advance booking required).
Address: Schloss Heidelberg, D-69117 Heidelberg
10 The Palatinate Museum (Kurpfälzisches Museum)
Halfway along the Hauptstrasse in Heidelberg, in the Baroque Palais Morass, is the excellent Palatinate Museum. Founded in the late 1870s, the museum is home to a collection that includes a cast of the lower jaw of the 500,000-year-old Heidelberg Man. The museum's Applied Arts collection has many fine examples of area porcelain, as well as medallions, coins, and glassware. Also of interest are the numerous sculptures from the 12th to 20th centuries, including old gravestones and early baroque sculptures.
Address: Hauptstrasse 97, 69117 Heidelberg
Where to Stay in Heidelberg for Sightseeing
Hauptstrasse runs traffic-free through the Altstadt (Old Town), past the Palatinate Museum and 16th-century Renaissance buildings; beside it, along the Neckar River, is the Neckarstaden, where you'll find Heidelberg University's art collection, as well as the Stadthalle and landing stages for tour boats. Heidelberg Castle can be reached from the Altstadt by the Bergbahn, a mountain railway running from the Kornmarkt. Here are some highly-rated hotels in the Altstadt area:
- Luxury Hotels: Two blocks off Hauptstrasse, Der Europaische Hof Heidelberg is in traditional, classic style, with spacious rooms, high ceilings, and superb service, along with a spa and a small indoor pool with an underwater current for swimmers. Mark Twain stayed at the historic Hotel Die Hirschgasse Heidelberg, just across the bridge from the old town near Philosopher's Way; parking is free. Crowne Plaza Heidelberg, at the edge of the Altstadt near the main rail station, has a pool, sauna, and shuttle to Frankfurt airport.
- Mid-Range Hotels: On Hauptstrasse, the landmark Hotel Zum Ritter St. Georg is rich in old-world charm and ambiance, but with modern amenities. Also on Hauptstrasse, Hip Hotel offers imaginatively themed rooms and a free breakfast, but no public areas or lobby. On a quiet side street in the center of the Altstadt, between Hauptstrasse and the river, Gasthaus Hotel Backmulde has large guest rooms.
- Budget Hotels: In the historic Kornmarkt, just off Hauptstrasse at the base station to the Bergbahn funicular to the castle, Hotel Garni Am Kornmarkt has rooms with balconies and views of the castle. Ibis Heidelberg Hauptbahnhof, at the rail station on the edge of Altstadt and a short tram ride or walk from attractions, offers free parking. Hotel Perkeo, on Hauptstrasse in the center of the old town, has good-sized rooms and excellent service, but no elevator.