Heidelberg: Europe’s oldest settlement?
- Recommended for:
- Cultural, Short Break, Budget, Expensive, Mid-range
With its massive ruined castle, historic old town and beautiful setting in the Neckar Valley, Heidelberg is one of the most popular cities in Germany
Eat, drink, and be merry… and have the added bonus of a beautiful town and centuries of history, all set in a glorious location. That pretty much sums up one of Germany’s most popular cities, one of the most visited, and certainly one of my favourites.
Heidelberg is known to be amongst the oldest settlements in Europe, a fact supported by the discovery of a human jawbone that is around 500,000 years old. It was an important Roman base, and for 500 years stood as the Palantine capital. Only when the French decided that they quite fancied this region for themselves, in the late 1600s, was Heidelberg’s dominance (along with the castle and much of the town) destroyed.
For me, though, that was the real creation of its charm. It has a kind of feel that it’s a city that has got up, dusted itself down, and is now getting on with its slightly less grand life. The castle ruins still look threatening as they overlook the town, the old bridge still stands grandly as the main crossing point of the River Neckar, and the domed tower of the Heiliggeistkirche still dominates the town's skyline as it has done for over 600 years. But my impressions today are not of barons and their ladies taking the air, nor the Electors in their finery promenading along the river. More it’s the hordes of tourists that spill off the endless lines of coaches, and the crowds of students who noisily occupy the most popular cafés and bars.
Don’t get me wrong, though; this isn’t a bad thing. On the contrary, it's this hustle and bustle that gives the city its vibrancy, its energy, and makes you want to do more than explore… it makes you want to be part of it.
Ruins and views
The castle can be reached by a relatively inexpensive, and quite pleasant, ride on the funicular railway from the Kornmarkt. I find it more interesting to walk, though, as you get a far better impression of the sheer scale of the fortifications if you approach it slowly on foot. The French actually did a wonderful job, in my opinion, destroying just enough to allow the visitor to get a feel for the battle, but leaving plenty to get a feel of how it would have looked. Sections such as the Powder Tower have suffered such neat damage as to give the impression a wall has been cut away just for the tourist to examine the architecture behind! At the western end there are great views across the town from Frederich V’s pleasure gardens, but also seek out the Fassbau. This is reached by a passageway by the Schlosshof, and contains the Great Vat – a 50-thousand-gallon wine barrel that is said to be the largest in the world.
Back down in the town, many of the original historic buildings fell foul of the French destruction, making way for the grand 18th-century town houses that are so representative of the Romantic period. The most visually appealing areas are around the marketplace, where you can (for a small fee) climb to the top of the Heiliggeistkirche tower. From here, there are panoramic views over the rooftops and the river.
I always try to visit in the summer months, when there are wonderful festivals with music, historical pageants, and using the castle as a backdrop for spectacular firework displays. One thing I have learned – whenever you are going to Heidelberg, book early, as its popularity means it can be difficult getting a room at any time of year. Hotels with the best locations are naturally the most sought after. Those like the Goldener Hecht, next to the Alte Brucke, or the Molkenkur, which overlooks the whole valley from its position at the top of the hill above the castle, are worth the forward planning to get in. But my personal choice is a small inn hidden away in the Haspelgasse: the Schnookeloch has recently celebrated its 600th anniversary, and absolutely everywhere you look the students have carved graffiti into the woodwork.
Heidelberg is a town where I personally enjoy simply wandering. The tree-lined walks along the riverside and the dark red stone walls around the university area are both worthy of some time. The incredibly long pedestrianised main street is full of interesting bars and cafés, which it would be rude not to investigate. The Biermuseum, about halfway along, has a wonderful atmosphere, and supposedly more than 100 different beers to choose from.
The Café Knosel is well known for its speciality chocolate-and-nougat ‘Heidelberg Student Kiss’, but the one I generally head for is Hemingways in the Old Town. Always lively and popular with students, it has beautiful cream cakes, thirst-quenching local beers, and gardens overlooking the Neckar. Sitting here, watching the barges and river cruisers glide by, with the hum of the busy city in the background, and the steep valley sides of the north bank rising up to the dark forests on the top, it's easy to understand why I love to visit Heidelberg so much.
Where to eat
- Zur Herrenmuhle, Hauptstrasse 239.
- Simplicissimus French Restaurant, Ingrimstrasse 16.
- Hemingways, Fahrtgasse 1.
The Heidelberg Card gets you free travel on trams, buses and the funicular railway; free admission to the castle and a wide range of museums; reduced prices for all city tours; and many exclusive discounts.