Around the World: Heidelberg has Heavenly Sites and Fascinating History
Heidelberg’s marvelous old town – or Altstadt, in the vernacular – boasts an awesome collection of medieval and renaissance architecture that is showcased against the magnificent mountains of Germany’s southwestern region.
Nested on the south band of the Neckar River, Altstadt is a grid of narrow and ancient
cobblestone streets that stretch from Bismarkplatz (with its modern high end department
stores) at its western border to the Karlstor, at the eastern end of town Altstadt’s historical charm, which remains to the present day, is what draws most tourists to Heidelberg, a thriving, modern metropolis and Germany’s fifth largest city.
Running the length of Altstadt is the historic Hauptstrasse (Main Street), which is actually the longest pedestrians-only street in Europe.
It’s wonderful to walk along Haupstrasse, but a Heidleberg sightseeing priority is the thrilling overview of Altstadt and its lush surroundings that can be enjoyed from Heidelberger Schloss (Heidelberg Castle), which is perched 260 feet above the city on the northern face of the Konigstuhl mountainside.
The monumental castle, now the most famous and visited ruins in Germany, is a symbol of Heidelberg’s historic stature and might. Guidebooks and plaques will give you some of the background information, but take a guided tour of the place if you can.
The earliest structure was built before 1214. In around 1294, it was expanded into two
castles. But, in 1537, a lightning-bolt destroyed the upper castle. King Ludwig V.
(1508-1544) enforced the castle’s fortress elements, including the Artillery Garden and
Herb Tower, and enlarged the Economy buildings, added the Ludwigsbau, the Library and Ladies Building. Friedrich IV. (1592-1610) erected the Hall of Mirrors. Expansion
continued until 1650, before the structure was damaged by fires and war. In 1764, another lightening bolt caused further destruction. And, the castle has remained a monumental ruins until the present.
While exploring the castle, be sure to take a look at the world’s largest wine vat. And
visit the fascinating pharmaceutical museum, which chronicles the history of medicine.
The museum has many ancient cures on display, and some of them are astonishing! . The museum’s privately owned, and the guards are ruthless about picture-taking, but it’s worth a visit.
The best way to get to the castle is to jump aboard the Heidelberg Bergbahn,a funicular, that ascends the mountain from old town to the top of Konigstuhl. The castle station is half way up. If you want to continue to the top, you’ll have to change cable cars.
Even if you’re not afraid of heights, the Heidelberg funicular is a first-rate thrill ride. You rise quickly and smoothly, in awe of the view and barely able to catch your breath before you arrive at Castle Station. The funicular, built 107 years ago, is an historic technological wonder. It has been consistently upgraded so it is perfectly safe and as comfortable as can be.
The castle is a short walk from the funicular station. After you’ve explored the buildings and grounds, enjoyed the panoramic views of Altstadt and marked out the old town sites you’d like to visit, you can take the funicular up to the top of Konigstuhl, where you’ll find
a falconry center, a kids’ fairytale park and other attractions -- or you can take it back down the mountain to continue your walking tour of old town.
Or, if you’re heading back to Altstadt, you can descend on foot. There is a clearly
marked path with stairs and switchbacks that make the 20-minute hike fairly easy. It’s
great exercise, and gives you a feeling for the daily trek that was made by men and women of yore.
Based on your overview, you’ll have a good sense of the layout of Altstadt’s squares and streets, and the locations of its must-see sites.
Top among these are Heidelberg’s most splendid churches. The Church of the Holy Spirit (Heiliggeistkirche), a fabulous soaring Gothic structure that towers over the Marktplatz, which is a classic commercial center with built in stalls where all sorts of goods are sold.
There is also the Jesuitkirche (built from 1719 to 1759), a baroque church near the University Square. It’s known for its music, and if you’re lucky, you can experience the church’s exquisite acoustics.
Then, there’s Peterskirche, Heidelberg's oldest church. Founded in the 12th century, Peterskirche actually predates the founding of the city. It has strong ties to the university and many famous scholars are entombed there. Old Heidelberg’s churches are magnificent structures inside and out.
Visit the highly esteemed Ruprecht Karl University of Heidelberg. Founded in 1386, it is Germany’s oldest university, and one of its most progressive. It became fully coed in 1899 and, while consistently expanding through the years, has retained exceptionally high standards of scholarship.
The university buildings -- especially the historic assembly hall -- are also architectural
gems, but what makes touring them extra special is the pervasive spirit of curiosity, inquiry and learning that you feel within their hallowed halls.
And don’t miss the Studentenkarzer (Student Prison), where naughty students were detains for drunkenness, womanizing and other ‘town vs. gown’ crimes. The walls of the cells are covered with fascinating graffiti, revealing the thoughts of those who did time within them -- during the years from 1712 to 1914, when the prison was shut down.
Heidelberg University ranks as one of the world’s finest. Students from around the world compete to enroll, and old town has been and is preoccupied with learning. But it has been and still is a center of commerce, too.
Learning and commerce collide in the abundant supply of bookstores located throughout Altstadt. Hauptstrasse is choc-a-block with booksellers, as well as appealing boutiques, quaint and convenient eateries and souvenir shops of all sorts that occupy the ground floors of mediaeval and renaissance row houses that have pricy apartments on their upper floors.
If you‘re into acquisitions, Hauptstrasse deserves an extensive browse. But even if
shopping isn’t your major interest, you’ll enjoy the people watching. Tourists from around the world who gravitate towards Altstadt find their way to this street. Overall, they provide a fascinating parade of styles. Stop for a drink or snack at a trendy cafes -- sitting outside if weather permits or near a window if not -- and enjoy the show.
Rested and refreshed, walk towards the river to see the Brückentor (Bridge Gate) and Alte Brücke, the beautiful old stone pedestrian bridge that crosses the Neckar. Cross the bridge and look back for exquisite views of Altstadt and the castle. Or better yet, board a river boat for a sightseeing cruise. In addition to historic places, you‘ll see some
world-class graffiti along the riverbanks.
You can cover all of this in two days, but Altstadt is so intriguing you really should
give it more time than that. For more information, browse ‘Visit Heidelberg’ and ‘Destination Germany’ on the Web.