Heidelberg is home to Germany’s oldest university and a 13th century castle, but what makes it appealing is the city’s charm. Located in southwestern Germany, Heidelberg has an enviable location on the Neckar River, within the Black Forest, nestled among rolling hills. There are hiking trails, historical sights, and a beautiful old town, meant for exploring. You will not be at a loss for things to do in Heidelberg.
How to Travel from Frankfurt to Heidelberg
We flew directly from Chicago to Frankfurt, and immediately boarded the Frankfurt to Heidelberg train. The train is adjacent to the airport. We took the airport bus to the train station, purchased our tickets, and got on the train. Some trains will change in Mannheim, but we had a direct train to Heidelberg that took about 45 minutes.
We visited Heidelberg in November, and it was quite cool, and rained for most of our two days. I would highly recommend packing a rain coat, boots, and umbrella (although most hotels will have one for you to borrow). Throw in a hat and gloves if you get cold easily.
When I began my trip planning, I was quite surprised to see Heidelberg overlooked by a very famous travel writer who claimed the city to be overrun with tourists and without charm. While the city sees close to 11.8 millions visitors each year (per the Heidelberg tourism office), in my book this is never a reason to overlook a destination.
Heidelberg is one of the few major cities in Germany that was spared the devastation of World War II. It was also a favorite of writers and intellectuals during the 19th century including Mark Twain and Goethe. In spite of the recommendation to avoid the city, we planned a visit to Heidelberg for two days, and it was a great decision.
What to do in Heidelberg
1. Heidelberg Castle
It’s hard to miss Schloss Heidelberg, as it lies high above the city, perched on a mountain overlooking Heidelberg and the Neckar river below. It offers some of the best views of the city.
The construction of Heidelberg Castle began in the 13th century and its current buildings and partial castle ruins are magnificent. Take a tour and learn about each of the Prince Electors who lived in the castle and how they added their own stamp to its design.
The originally medieval castle now features Gothic, Renaissance, and Baroque architecture throughout. It is said the original castle gardens were some of the most beautiful in the world, but sadly they were destroyed in the late 17th century.
We had a wonderful guide, Hagar, who worked with the Heidelberg tourism office. She told us about the castle’s history and the fascinating lives of the people who lived there. She was one of our favorite all time tour guides, and I loved when she showed our kids some ballroom dance steps.
Don’t miss what used to be the world’s largest wine barrel, Heidelberg Tun (which holds 34,000 gallons), and wine cellar. There’s also an apothecary (German Pharmacy Museum), gorgeous courtyards and castle grounds, and views of Heidelberg below.
2. Take The Funicular in Heidelberg – Bergbahn
The Heidelberg funicular railway (Bergbahn) was built in 1890 and takes passengers from Kornmarkt, to Heidelberg’s castle (Schloss), and Molkenkur (a park area with multiple walking paths).
From here you can access the upper funicular to Königstuhl (King’s Throne), the highest point in the Lower Odenwald forest.
In the summer, visitors can see falconry shows at the Falconry Center, hear fairy tales at Fairytale Paradise, and take a hike at the top of Königstuhl (The King’s Seat) before heading back to town via funicular.
3. Heidelberg University
The University of Heidelberg was founded in 1386 and was the third university of the Holy Roman Empire. It is Germany’s oldest university and no visit to the city would be complete without a stop.
To make the most of this historic university town, we would recommend buying a combination ticket to see the Alte Aula (Old Hall), University Museum, and Student Prison.
The Student Prison was built in 1778 for university students who were convicted of petty crimes like excessive drinking. Those who were imprisoned believed in memorializing their stay by leaving drawings and portraits on the walls. Our kids had fun imagining themselves as captives in the cells.
4. Walk on the Alte Brücke (Old Bridge of Heidelberg)
The Alte Brucke (also known as the Old Bridge and Karl Theodor Bridge) is an 18th century sandstone bridge that spans the Neckar river. It connects the Neuenheim district and the Old Town. At one end you will find the Bridge Gate, part of the former city wall, and a great picture spot.
Head out to the middle of the bridge for stunning views up and down the river. The castle will be on one side and the Philosopher’s Walk on the other.
On the left side as you are facing the Bridge Gate, you will see the Bridge Monkey, a bronze monkey that has been there since 1979. The story goes that there has been a bridge monkey in Heidelberg since the 15th century and people rub it for good luck.
5. Explore Philosophers’ Walk
Located across the Neckar River from the Old Town on the south side of Heiligenberg mountain, the Philosophenweg (Philosopher’s Walk) offers visitors a fantastic hike through nature and incredible views of Heidelberg across the way.
Be sure to wear appropriate shoes, bring a drink, snack, or even a picnic, and plan on getting some exercise while you enjoy the scenery.
Visitors will enjoy the Philosopher’s Garden and the monastery of St. Michael ruins (from the 11th century). Further up the mountain is Thingstätte, a 20,000 seat open air amphitheater built between 1934-1935 by the State Labor Service and students at Heidelberg University. This is modeled after Greek amphitheaters. The Philosopher’s Walk is a favorite of locals and tourists alike.
6. Visit the Church of the Holy Ghost
Also known as Heiliggeistkirche, the Church of the Holy Ghost is a late Gothic cathedral in the center of old town. The church contains the tombs of the Prince Electors of the Palatinate and a collection of manuscripts.
Church of the Holy Spirit has been home to both Protestants and Catholics through the years. A divider was even erected at one point when both wanted to hold services in the cathedral (it is currently a Protestant church).
While the interior might be considered rather plain compared to others, a climb up the platform is worth it for a spectacular view of the river and town.
Take a quick peak at the town hall (Rathaus) across the square. This ornate building was built in the 18th century after the original one was destroyed during the Thirty Years’ War.
7. Stop at Haus Zum Ritter
Haus Zum Ritter (House of the Knight) is the oldest building to survive Heidelberg’s various wars. Built in 1592 by a Huguenot merchant, it is said to have survived three different fires in the city because it was built of a single type of stone. It has served as a hotel for over 300 years and occupies a prime location in market square.
8. Stroll Along the Hauptstraße
When all else fails, try some shopping and eating! The Haupstraße is quintessential Europe and the city’s main street. It’s the world’s longest pedestrian shopping street and it charms visitors with its cobblestone streets, historic buildings, charming storefronts, delightful bakeries, and cafés.
Stretching 1.6 kilometers, the car free Hauptstraße is the main shopping street and perfect for an afternoon family outing. Be sure to head off and explore its narrow streets and alleyways to find hidden gems and meet the locals!
9. Schwetzingen Palace
If you enjoy exploring castles and palaces, don’t miss Schwetzingen Palace, just twenty minutes outside of the city. This was the summer palace of the Palatine Prince Electors. It reached the height of its extravagance under Prince Elector Carl Theodor in the mid 1700s.
On a walking tour you will see the palace, learn about its history, and take a stroll through its stunning gardens.
10. Day trips from Heidelberg
There are a couple of day trips from Heidelberg we would recommend. Ten miles east of the city is Neckarsteinach, famous for its four castles dating from the 12th and 13th centuries. You can drive on your own or arrange a tour that covers the castles and the Old Town.
Another nearby beautiful city to explore is Baden Baden. This spa town is a quick one hour train ride from Heidelberg. It is known for having some of the best spas in Germany, so that’s a must do if you’re visiting. Some spas do allow children, so be sure and check before scheduling a visit.
We visited the city in November and unfortunately experienced two very rainy days. We visited just as the city’s Christmas market was kicking off, so it was fun to experience the different markets around town.
Thankfully Heidelberg has plenty of indoor activities to keep us busy and we barely noticed other tourists. I am so glad we chose Heidelberg and would definitely recommend it to others. Have I convinced you to put Heidelberg on your Germany itinerary?