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Visiting Heidelberg: A Local’s Guide

Visiting Heidelberg: A Local’s Guide

After several years living in the beautiful city of Heidelberg, I know some of the best sightseeing, cafes, Instagram spots, and views in this romantic, historic town. Whether you call them Sehenswürdigkeiten or seeing the sights, here is a local’s guide to Heidelberg, Germany.

Visitors often come through Heidelberg on an organized bus trip from one of the river cruises or as part of a larger tour of Germany. My son’s school used to be near the pedestrianized high street, the Hauptsraße, and I would work on my laptop in the mornings in the local cafes in the Altstadt. I have directed many a lost tourist to the Christmas decorations shop Käthe Wohlfahrt, or helped them find a USB cable or SD card for their camera. While these trips are nice for a quick taste of our beautiful riverside town, it really doesn’t do it justice. The comment I see most often from visitors is they wished they had stayed longer.

A very brief Heidelberg history overview

A jawbone from a prehistoric human dated between 600,000 and 200,000 years ago, was found in the nearby town of Mauer, which was named Homo heidelbergensis. So it is safe to say humans have always lived in and around Heidelberg, ever since there were humans. In the 5th century BCE, Celts lived on the Heiligenberg (the mountain opposite the castle, across the river), and the remains of the fort is still visible. By 40 CE, the Romans had built a fort here, again on the opposite side of the river from the castle. The old stone supports from their bridge across the Neckar still stick up out of the ground in the park by the Neckar. The Romans remained until the local tribes took over in 260 CE. The first reference to a place called Heidelberg is from 1196, and the first castle was built around this time as well.

Looking at the Heidelberg Castle through Elizabeth’s Gate

Heidelberg Castle

Of course, our castle is one of the big attractions of our town. Even after many years here it doesn’t cease to feel magical to me. Definitely spend a half-day up there exploring, and if I can tell you one thing, it is this: take the tour inside. It’s the only way to see the interior and the tour guides are local history buffs, it’s very worth doing. I’ve detailed everything I know about visiting the castle as a local who has taken so many visitors up to Heidelberg Castle right here. After your visit to the castle, consider taking the old funicular further up the Königstuhl. There is a stop midway between the castle and the peak, where you can get a beautiful view over the Altstadt and Alte Brücke, and a little café offers snacks, tea and coffee during the spring and summer. When you continue up to the peak, you can hike around in the forest, or enjoy a meal at the new hotel and restaurant with biergarten when it opens [2021 note: I will check this out for you and report back as soon as it’s open!].

A view of the Altstadt and the Alte Brücke from the Königstuhl lookout point.
Take the old funicular right to the top of the Königstuhl
The Kurpfälzisches Museum in Heidelberg

Heidelberg Museum

Its actual name is the Kurpfälzisches Museum, and it is an excellent overview of the history of the region, with details on the extensive Roman settlement, the history of the castle, and the several uses of the Heiligenberg, the mountain opposite the Königstuhl where the castle is – including the Celtic hillfort, the Roman temple to Mithras, and the medieval monastery. It is very reasonably priced and has an excellent English-language audio tour. Plus part of the museum is in the Palais Morass, one of the most beautiful buildings on the pedestrianised high street. It makes me crazy that this lovely museum is left off nearly every Heidelberg blog post I’ve ever read. I’ve detailed the best route to take through the museum and some of the highlights for you here.

The cute farm shop at Neuburg Abbey

Neuburg Abbey

Just down the river is the Neuburg Abbey, a still functioning Benedictine monastery. Originally established in 1130, the monastery has had a complicated and varied history, weathering funding problems, changes of religion of the local ruler, and wars, many times over the centuries. Now, you can tour the complex with one of the resident monks, however they only offer these tours on the last Sunday of the month at 2pm. You can visit the attached monastery brewery and take a brewery tour but you need to register in advance here (you can arrange an English tour, but they don’t offer these as a matter of course). A tour includes tasting three of their beers, and some pretzel of course. Even if you don’t take the tour, stopping by the little brewery shop means you can pick up a few bottles for later, and wander through the small farm, waving at the cows. There is a small restaurant and farm shop on site as well, but the ownership is in flux, I will update here when there are more details and I’ve had a chance to test it for you. In December, they have a small Christmas market up here and it is beautiful. You can take one of the small ferries from Heidelberg to the monastery and then hike up the hill to visit from April to October, check Weiße Flotte’s schedule here.

>>Looking for the best way to get from Frankfurt Airport to Heidelberg? I’ve outlined them all here.

Come explore the back streets of the Altstadt on my audio tour

Altstadt tour

The Heidelberg Altstadt is very pretty, but if you’re looking for half-timbered houses, this isn’t quite the place. The French burned down nearly all of the buildings and houses in the late 17th century (except for the Hotel zum Ritter, opposite the Church of the Holy Ghost), so the rebuilding was more in the neoclassical style. The city tourism’s team does a good job with their English walking tours led by local people deeply interested in our city’s history, but they are only offered twice a week, even during the high season, and they are quite long – about 2 hours. Book ahead on their website here. If you’re looking for something a little more condensed and half the price, try my GPS-enabled Altstadt walking tour you can do on your phone anytime through Voicemap. It’s about 40 minutes long, and I have quite a few good reviews on TripAdvisor. 😉

>>Want to know where to eat in Heidelberg? I have you covered, with the best places for quick lunch, good coffee, schnitzel, and more

Tiefburg in Handschuhsheim

A short tram journey out of the Altstadt will bring you to Handschuhsheim, a very cute neighbourhood that was once its own vibrant village. You will see all over this area the symbol of a glove with red lining, and this is the coat of arms of Handschuhsheim. The village was first mentioned in 765, and although the name translates literally to ‘glove home’, it was not a village of glovemakers, but probably some kind of family name of the original Franconian people who lived here. The dialect spoken here is still Franconian, though you’re unlikely to hear it much these days. The small castle’s origin is lost to history, but it has been mentioned as far back as the 13th century, though parts of the buildings have been built and rebuilt many times over the years. The surrounding castle park has disappeared as houses were built in, but the original walls are incorporated all over the place in buildings that are still standing now. The moat was originally filled with water from the stream that came down the mountain, after passing six mills – you can trace the path by following the Mühltalstrasse (literal translation: mill valley street). The castle itself is owned by the city, and used for events like the local Christmas market and other seasonal festivals. Here’s a secret for you: there was a knight in full armour bricked up in one of the walls. No one knows why he was there, or what his name was – the noble who owned the castle in the 1770s found the body, and took him out. The armour was passed around in various collections of nobles, but is now lost. To get to Handschuhsheim go to the Bismarckplatz, the big bus and tram transfer point. Take the number 5 or 23 trams towards Schriesheim, and get off at the Handschuhsheimer Burgstraße (if your tram doesn’t immediately head towards the river and cross the bridge after leaving Bismarckplatz, you’ve gotten on one going the wrong way, so hop off at the next stop and try again!).

Handschuhsheim’s coat of arms
Peeking inside the Tiefburg during a local art festival

Heiligenberg

The mountain opposite the castle is the Heiligenberg, or Holy Mountain. This peak has been important to people for thousands of years, and it’s fascinating how many groups of humans have built temples or other places of worship up there. The Celts built a hillfort at the top, the double ring of earthworks is still visible, and indeed form the base of some of the paths. The Romans built a temple to Mithras, and medieval Christians built a monastery, parts of which are still standing. On sunny weekends, local families hike up here, and kids climb the ruined walls and play games on them. The other big structure up here is the Thingstätte, a huge outdoor amphitheatre built by the Nazis in the mid 1930s. It now sits empty and mostly unused, although each year on Walpurgis Night (30 April) there was a big unofficial festival where up to 15,000 people would come and dance by torch light. Revellers started some big fires in the last couple of years, and the city has now banned this practice! Watch our drone footage of the site, and see the burned spots on the ground, that’s from the last Walpurgis Night festival held there. There is a Biergarten up here, open during the late spring and summer, but it is of variable quality. It’s fine for a beer and snack break. If you don’t want to hike all the way to the top of the mountain, there is a bus that goes there in the spring and summer from Handschuhsheim, the number 38.

The Monastery of St Micheal on the Heiligenberg in Heidelberg
The Monastery of St Michael on the Heiligenberg in Heidelberg from above

>> Visiting Heidelberg with kids? I have a post just for you!

Looking down the river Neckar towards the Alte Brücke, you can just see the castle on the hill to the right

River Neckar tour

There are a few ships to choose from on the shore of the Neckar, and while the Neckarsonne, the solar powered boat, is very nice and quiet, the tour is very short. I would suggest a trip down river to Neckarsteinach, the town of four castles, with Weiße Flotte. None of these castle ruins are ones you can explore, but the little town has some nice corners to explore and it makes a bit of a change of pace. The views along this stretch of river are quite pretty, and these tours include a stop at the Neuburg Abbey as well. It’s worth noting this is just transportation, there is no guide involved – it’s more of a hop-on, hop-off kind of thing, like those bus tours in bigger cities.

>> How do you get from Frankfurt to Heidelberg? All the details right here.

Schwetzingen

A half hour bus ride from Heidelberg is the town of Schwetzingen, and the gorgeous summer palace of the Prince Electors of the Palatinate (the same people who built the castle in Heidelberg). The palace buildings themselves are not that interesting, and I wouldn’t recommend touring the inside, but 72 hectares of gardens are incredible. The plans for the version of the gardens you can see today were begun in the 1750s, when the highly regimented French style was all the rage. Over the next 50 years, styles changed and the wilder, less organised English style became popular, and the Schwetzingen gardens are a living monument to that switchover in horticultural tastes. The manicured lawns and grand fountains greet you as you walk through the archway in the middle of the palace, but wander down the paths and little scenes present themselves: a faux mosque, an English folly, an Italian grotto, little corners with stone benches for a picturesque rest, and more. We’ve visited over seven times and I’m still discovering parts of the garden I didn’t even know existed. In the summer, you will be able to witness lots of wedding parties in all their finery coming into the gardens for photos. In early spring, try and catch the cherry orchard in bloom in the walled garden, it is magical. Have a relaxing lunch on the Schlossplatz at one of the cafes with extensive outdoor seating, I suggest the Grüner Baum for traditional German and then heading across the street for gelato from Amami, definitely try their pistachio gelato – the man who owns this shop and one in Heidelberg is from Sicily and knows what he’s about when it comes to gelato!

You can see the French-style gardens right in front of the palace building.

Where to stay when you visit Heidelberg

I have an entire post on hotels in Heidelberg I’ve personally visited or my family and friends have actually stayed in, if you’d like a recommendation.

Where to eat in Heidelberg

I keep this post updated regularly! From traditional German to best breakfast places to coffee shops, I have you covered.

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Kurpfälzsiches Museum Heidelberg

Kurpfälzsiches Museum Heidelberg

Our city museum in Heidelberg has some fascinating exhibits, and I think it’s a shame I never see it in those ‘what to see in Heidelberg’ posts. It does an excellent job of putting the Heidelberg area in historical context – highlighting the extensive Roman settlement, and some of the personalities that lived in our glorious Heidelberg Castle. I highly recommend you make time for a half-day at the museum before you see all the sights of Heidelberg so you get the most out of your visit to my beautiful little town.

Kurpfälzisches – what does that mean?

The region that we now call Germany was once a patchwork, and I mean a very detailed patchwork, of duchies, free states, free cities, and bishoprics that shifted and changed allegiance every time someone powerful, somewhere, died. The term ‘Kurpfalz’ is translated to Elector Palatinate in English. From roughly 1200s through to around the early 1800s, the Holy Roman Emperor was chosen by a group of powerful princes, as well as a few assorted bishops – the number of which shifted over time, but somewhere from seven to ten people. The Kurpfalz refers to a region that covered up to the middle Rhine and Moselle valleys, parts of eastern France, and south down to around Karlsruhe, though the borders changed over time. It was one of the most important electoral regions, and Heidelberg was the capitol for much of this 600 year period. The term ‘Kurpfälzisches’ is the adjective form of this same word, because it’s describing the museum, so in English it would be Museum of the Elector Palatinate Region, essentially.

An overview of the exhibitions at the museum. Turn on the captions and set to auto-translate English to get a sense of what he’s saying

Museum in a palace

When you enter the museum off the Hauptstraße, you come in through the arched gate of the beautiful baroque Palais Morass. This building in itself is a bit of a wonder. Built in 1712 for Johann Philipp von Morass, who was rector of Heidelberg University for a time. Various nobles owned the palace for the next two hundred years (you can see von Bettendorff’s coat of arms above the entranceway from the mid 1700s), when it passed to the city of Heidelberg in 1906 to house the city’s art collection. You get to wander through the rooms of the Palais as you visit the museum, though there have been some modern extensions built in the courtyard.

Even on a dark day in March the courtyard of the museum is inviting.

Famous Heidelbergers

Heading up the staircase, you come face to face with a glorious painting of Heidelberg Castle and its gardens as they were imagined, though not quite completed, and a huge painting of Friedrich V, one of the most famous of the Prince Electors to live in the Heidelberg Castle. His wife was Elisabeth Stuart, daughter of James I of England, and it was for her that Friedrich commissioned the gardens. Moving through the nearby gallery, you can listen to stories in English on the audio guide about the dwarf tailor from Italy called Perkeo who became a vital member of the Heidelberg court.

Liselotte von der Pfalz, the original painting is on display at the Reiss Engelhorn Museum in Mannheim

Liselotte forever

My favourite Heidelberg historic personality has to be Liselotte. If you’ve watched the TV series Versailles, you’ve met her already. The acerbic wit of the French court of the Sun King, Liselotte grew up at Heidelberg Castle, and had many fond memories of climbing trees and exploring. She was married off to the French king’s brother in 1671, leaving her beloved Heidelberg behind forever. Her 60,000 letters to her friends and family back home in Germany are a masterclass in snarky observation on the French court. You’ll notice a few of the small tour boats and ferries on the river Neckar are named ‘Liselotte’ in her honour.

Salon in the Palais Morass

Walk with the ghosts of Goethe and Chopin

The next parts of the museum are in the Palais Morass proper. Wander these beautiful rooms, knowing that you’re standing where Goethe attended a dinner party, and Chopin gave a thank you concert to the surgeon who operated on his hand. I particularly like listening to the music samples played on the fragile and beautiful fortepiano – look for the numbers on little signs near the instrument. In the cabinets you can see some delicate examples of early Frankenthal porcelain, produced when the secret to making it was still new to Europe. Don’t forget to look up, there are some dramatic and unusual chandeliers in these rooms.

Replica of one of the reliefs in the Roman Mithras temple in Heidelberg

Roman Heidelberg

When I bring visitors to the museum, I skip the paintings and head downstairs for the archeology exhibits. Our castle tends to overshadow Heidelberg, in more ways than one, and your average day trip visitor may never hear about our extensive history as a Roman settlement. On the opposite bank of the river Neckar from the castle is the neighbourhood of Neuenheim, whose pretty Jugendstil (Art Nouveau) villas and riverside meadow make it an attractive place to live. Underneath the houses, though, are the remains of the Roman fortification and settlement. If you walk along the Neckarwiese (Neckar meadow, the green park on the riverside where everyone goes to barbeque) today, you can still see a few of the Roman stone bridge supports sticking out of the ground. In the archeological sections of the museum, you can see a life-size reconstruction of part of the Roman burial ground. The hilltop across the valley from the castle was special to many groups of people, hosting a Celtic hillfort, Roman temple of Mithras, and a monastery in the middle ages, and the museum has recreated several of these structures in models. Make sure to look at the 4-metre high Jupiter column, rescued a well shaft and nearly perfectly preserved. Possibly my favourite part of these exhibits is the discussion of a discovery of a shaft full of pottery, nearly 2,000 pots, tossed away. Most of them weren’t broken, so why were they disposed of? I can only imagine some poor pottery shop made 2,000 pieces in the wrong colour or something, but we’ll never know!

It’s hard to miss this bright red facade on the Hauptstraße

Visiting the Kurpfälzisches Museum in Heidelberg

It’s easy to stop in at the museum on a stroll down the Hauptstraße, it’s a little bit of a walk from the centre of the Old Town.

The museum is open year round from 10am-6pm, Tuesday to Sunday excepting holidays (Christmas Eve, Christmas Day, New Year’s Eve, New Year’s Day, Shrove Tuesday and 1 May)

Entrance is only €3 per adult, €1.80 on Sundays, and the audio guide is included in your ticket price

Children up to 16 years old are free

Audio guides are available in German, English, and Russian

There are free lockers for coats and large bags directly past the Admission desk, and they ask that you don’t take these into the museum.

Occasionally there are special exhibitions that require an additional entrance fee if you want to visit them.

There is a café in the garden, but it is not strictly attached to the museum, I have never tried it as the prices are a bit steep for me. If you’re looking for lunch after your museum visit, I recommend Gino’s for a wrap on house-made flatbread, it’s a short walk along the Hauptstraße towards the castle (number 113A) – it’s super tasty, very reasonably priced and the staff are lovely. If that’s not quite to your taste, I have a whole post on where to eat in Heidelberg that might help.

Kurpfälzisches Museum Heidelberg
Hauptstraße 97, 69117 Heidelberg, Germany

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Visit Castle Lichtenstein (Schloss Lichtenstein), the fairy tale castle of Baden-Württemberg

Visit Castle Lichtenstein (Schloss Lichtenstein), the fairy tale castle of Baden-Württemberg

If you are as obsessed with castles as I am, chances are you’ve seen photos of Schloss (Castle) Lichtenstein perched on a clifftop in Baden-Württemberg (NOT in the small principality of Liechstenstein). This little jewel of a castle is definitely worth visiting on your trip to southern Germany.

Please note: Schloss Lichtenstein is currently closed due to COVID-19 restrictions. Please do save this post for your future planning!

When you come through the entrance gate, don’t forget to turn around.

This is an old castle, right?

Actually, no. This is a new build from 1840, but the old castle ruins are about 500m away. The old castle was built around 1100, the property of the local count, who had a long-running unfriendliness with the nearby free city of Reutlingen. Skirmishes and all-out battles destroyed the old castle twice, despite its impressive location on the cliffs. Changes in the political landscape meant it was abandoned in the 16th century. The old castle saw a little action in the Thirty Years War that ravaged most of Baden-Württemberg in the first half of the 1600s, but by that time the last member of the Lichtenstein family had already died. In typical unsentimental fashion, King Frederick of Württemberg took apart the ruins and built a hunting lodge on top of it in 1802.

Ivy-covered building in the courtyard of Schloss Lichtenstein

Who built the Lichtenstein Castle?

Romanticism was in full swing in the 1800s, and a full-scale nostalgia for a largely imaginary medieval past full of knights and ladies had gripped the upper classes of Europe. German poet Wilhelm Hauff wrote a historical novel set in medieval Swabia (this region of Germany), and called it Lichtenstein. King Frederick’s cousin Count Wilhelm von Urach was so taken with the novel, he purchased the land in 1837 and built a castle on it, as he imagined it would have been in the 1500s. The castle is still owned by the descendants of Wilhelm von Urach.

While this castle is very picturesque, you may be a bit surprised when visiting as it really is not very big. The interiors, however, make up for its small size by being covered, on every surface, with a riot of colour, pattern, and ornament. I don’t have photographs of the interiors, as with most privately owned castles (!) you can’t take photos on the tour. Take a quick look at the gallery part of their website, however, to get a sense of the maximalism.

One of the most fascinating elements of the castle, for me, was the dining hall. It is connected to a room above and to the side by a large vent, covered with a decorative screen. For parties, the Count (later he became a Duke, as one does) would have his house musicians play in this adjoining room, and the music would float in to the dining hall.

>> Five more castles to visit in this region

Do I need to take a tour of Schloss (Castle) Lichtenstein?

Like most castles in Germany, a guided tour is required to see the inside of the building, and it is well worth your time. The tour is only half an hour, you can buy a ticket for a tour when you buy your castle courtyard entry ticket, though you don’t need to book a specific time but do ask when the next English-language tour starts when you buy your tickets. The groups for the castle tour meet on the bridge to the castle, so if you’d like a good photo from this vantage point, it’s best to catch the lull between tours. It’s worth noting here that there are stairs involved in the tour, so wear comfortable, sturdy shoes.

There aren’t many formal gardens around the castle, but the fortification wall offers some spectacular views down into the valley. There are some lovely meadows and hiking paths too. If you’re interested in the local hiking, there are maps to several local routes on the castle’s site here. The ruins of the old castle are very underwhelming, you might come upon them when wandering in the grounds. The stones have been thoroughly plundered for building the new castle!

Adventure park and cafe

Outside of the castle courtyard there is the adventure park, with a rope climbing course up in the trees. This is a popular type of activity in Germany, called a ‘Kletterwald’ or climbing forest. You get kitted out in a helmet and harness, and climb along ropes or narrow boards high in the trees. Children from eight years old can climb with an adult, and you can have up to two children climbing with you. This is adventure park is completely separate from the castle, but it’s literally next door, so they share a parking lot. To climb for three hours, it costs €23 per adult, and €17 per child, though there are family rates as well. You need to have a scarf to wrap your hair with under the helmet, and if you don’t have one they will sell you one for €3 each. Do check the rates and restrictions beforehand.  There’s also a little fast food café there too with tables outside, if you’re looking for something less formal than a sit down meal.  

View through the Schlosspark

When is the best time to go?

The Schloss Lichtenstein is open from March to December, 9am-5:30pm (April-October) and 10am-4pm (March, November, and December), though they close for Christmas each year from 24-26 December. It’s best to arrive as close as you can manage to the opening time for a less busy visit. The summer is of course a nice time to visit, but the autumn foliage in October is absolutely gorgeous.

How to get to Schloss Lichtenstein

There is no question that getting to Schloss Lichtenstein is easiest by car. However, it’s not impossible by public transport. The town of Lichtenstein is not, confusingly, the closest town to the castle. Buses leave hourly from Reutlingen, the nearest city, to Honau, the village in the valley below the castle. The hike up to the castle itself is fairly uphill and can take about half an hour. I have not done this walk myself so I can’t speak to the difficulty, but I have driven up the windy road and I would expect this hike would be too much if you’re travelling with kids and expecting to then explore the castle and grounds. There are organized tours to the castle, but as the grounds are currently closed, I can’t point you to any. Once this changes I will update this post!

Top image: Jacqueline Brooker

You can reach Reutlingen easily by train, you can book a ticket here in English.

PS – Looking for more great day trip ideas from Stuttgart? I have more here!

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Pile Dwelling Open Air Museum on Lake Constance

Pile Dwelling Open Air Museum on Lake Constance

The day we visited the Pfahlbau Museum Bodensee, or Pile Dwelling Museum on Lake Constance, it was absolutely pouring. It was in the shoulder season, so there was only one tour that day, and we all crowded under the eaves of the information centre waiting for our guide, while getting pounded by the rain. It seemed a fitting kind of day to explore these examples of prehistoric pile dwellings found around the Alps. 

I love a good open-air museum

If you’ve ever watched those shows where people attempt to recreate life from another time period, you’ll remember how devastating heavy rain can be. If you’re wearing wool, it could be days before you’d dry out. Looking out at the houses on stilts over the lake, connected by slippery wood walkways, I could only imagine how long you’d have to stay inside, huddled together, waiting for storms to pass before you could do anything. Well, for us, even if not all of the tour group was appropriately dressed, we stamped out in the rain to investigate the villages regardless.

What is there to see at the Pile Dwelling Museum?

There are 20 buildings in all, arranged in small clusters. These buildings are, of course, recreations of structures from the Neolithic and Bronze Age (4000 – 850 BCE), based on extensive archeological evidence. But you might be surprised to learn that two of them are 100 years old themselves. In 1922, an open-air museum society built two pole dwellings, and they have been refurbished and repaired over the years, probably much like the originals were. Evidence of prehistoric pile dwellings like these have been found in lakes across this region, in Switzerland, Germany, Italy, and France, and this museum, is a UNESCO World Heritage site. It seems counter-intuitive, but these pile dwellings by their location have left much for archeologists to find. Bogs and marshy lakebeds are terrific preservers of wood – whole sections of floor, piles, roof pieces, and walls have all been found, even pieces of furniture. 

But why did they build their houses on poles?

The lakes near mountains, while incredibly rich in flora and fauna (ie food), and water to drink, are also prone to major flooding when the spring comes. Lake Constance, for instance, can rise up to three meters in the spring, and very quickly. Presumably from experience, our ancestors figured out that having their houses up on stilts meant they wouldn’t be washed away each year. 

Visiting the Pile Dwelling village

In the off and shoulder seasons, there is one tour a day, and the guide takes you around the little village clusters, and brings you inside several of the buildings to look at the dioramas set up with realistic looking mannequins using period tools. The tour is in German, but you are provided with some documentation in English. In the spring and summer months, guides are waiting in the buildings to explain things, but you are free to wander about. Even at the end of our tour, we were left to explore the houses on land near the information centre on our own for awhile. The tour is quite leisurely, and we didn’t feel rushed at all.

My favourite part of a good open-air museum visit are the moments you can feel what it might be like to live there. To listen to the wooden joists groan and creak in the wind, the water slap at the poles underneath you, and wonder whether the house can stand up to the storm raging outside! But stepping out on a walkway afterwards, watching the clouds race away across the lake, that also must have been satisfying. Unlike most of the other open-air museums I’ve visited that focus on the middle ages and a bit later, this life is so far removed from our own, it’s quite fascinating to experience. There’s so much we don’t know about these people, and even what some of the artefacts the archeologists have found might have meant to them. I think the museum has made a good attempt to fitting it together, but as the guides will tell you, sometimes they’re just not sure. 

Visiting the Pile Dwelling Village with kids

While we went in shoulder season, it would be easier for non-German speakers to visit in the summer so you can take your time exploring with the English brochures the museum has available at the ticket counter. Kids are encouraged to explore, and like other open-air museums, it’s quite easy for them to grasp some of the history just by standing in the houses or walking along the walkways. If you have an under-6 who likes to run, this may be a bit of a challenge as the walkways do go over the lake quite a long way. If you’re doing the self-guided visit, you’ll be fine, but the tour takes an hour and that might be too long to stay focussed for the littlest among us. Definitely check their website for the details of their tours and opening times. 

Getting there

To get to the museum, you can walk from the Uhldingen-Mühlhofen station (Oberuhldingen), it takes about 25 minutes, or take a taxi from the station. There is a wharf right next to the museum, so your best bet is to take a ferry from Konstanz or another stop along the lake – you can see the ferry routes and timetables here. The stop for the Pile Dwelling Museum is Unteruhldingen, and it’s a pleasant walk through the park to the museum itself. You could always combine your trip to a visit to Mainau, the garden island, as well. Do check for combination tickets, someone at the ferry ticket desk can help with this. For shoulder and off-season visits, do check the schedule well ahead of time as the ferries don’t run as often or stop everywhere.

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Heidelberg Christmas Market: A Local’s Guide

Heidelberg Christmas Market: A Local’s Guide

Our Christmas market in Heidelberg fills every one of the squares in our Old Town, stretching along the decorated pedestrian main street culminating in an ice rink right below our glorious castle. It’s full of locals enjoying the season every year. We go to the market five or six times each year, as well as visiting other nearby markets too, at all times of day, and all days of the week. It’s one of my favourite places to buy gifts to send home to my family. If you’re the kind of person who collects special ornaments from your holidays, you will have so many to choose from it will make your head spin. 

Is the Christmas Market enjoyable if you’re not really a Christmas person? Definitely! This is much more of a wintery, festive thing than an overtly consumerist, flashy religion thing. The religious content is very minimal, and you’ll find everyone celebrating the cold weather and… well… Glühwein!

So pull on your warm socks and walking shoes, here’s your local’s guide to enjoying our lovely Christmas market here in Heidelberg.

Gift stalls in the Heidelberg Christmas Market in the Universitätplatz

When is the Heidelberg Christmas Market open?

For 2021, the dates for the Heidelberg Christmas Market are 22 November – 23 December, 2021. Obviously it’s impossible to know what the travel situation will be like then, but I will keep you updated when I hear more!

Generally, the schedule runs like this: each day, the stalls and ice rink opens at 11am, and close up around 9pm, except on Saturdays when they stay open a bit later until 10pm. 

NEW in the HEIDELBERG CHRISTMAS MARKET as of 2019!

This year the market vendors have gone all out to make it feel even more special and Heidelberg-y. One stallholder spent nearly half a million Euros building a half-size replica of the giant (and I mean seriously ginormous) wine barrel at the Heidelberg Castle for the Christmas Market. Not only can you buy Glühwein, but you can reserve a table INSIDE the wine barrel (which has several tables and a chandelier, because obviously), and even stand on top on the special patio. This incredible structure is in the main Marktplatz next to the large church. The beautiful pyramid Glühwein stand with the traditional revolving structure has now shifted to the big market at the Universitätplatz. This year they’ve also put special emphasis on stallholders using as much local produce and wine as possible.

Where is the market?

There are little markets spread all along our pedestrianized main street, the Hauptstrasse. Starting at the Bismarckplatz, the main bus exchange, you can visit six along your walk. Some are just a small collection of stands serving food and drink, with a smattering of mugs and decorations, like the one at Bismarckplatz. But the last three, at the Universitätplatz, Marktplatz, and Kornmarkt are quite large. I’ve made a special map just for you, scroll down to see it.

>> What else is there to do in Heidelberg? I have a full guide to our lovely little city here.

Is there a Christmas market up at the Heidelberg Castle?

You will probably read about a market at the Castle, but this is no longer happening as of 2016. Endangered bats nest and hibernate in the tunnels below where the Christmas market used to be held. It was decided that the market was too disruptive for the bats, so the stalls that used to be there were moved down to another square in the city that year. It was off the usual route, however, and I don’t think they did that well, because the next year those stalls were included in the main market locations. However, you can enjoy ice skating in the Karlsplatz directly below the castle.

Carousel in the Heidelberg Christmas Market in the Universitätplatz  

What is there to do at the Heidelberg Christmas Market and when to go

Just soaking up the festive atmosphere is one of the best activities, to be honest, but a gentle stroll through the markets is what we locals do. The most magical time is around dusk, when all the lights come on and it feels like you’re walking through a Christmas card. If you’ve got kids with you, head straight for the Universitätplatz market to save little feet. At the centre is a big old carousel, and even though my son knows it well, he always wants at least three rides! The Kornmarkt is set up as a little forest, with loads of pine trees on stands, all entwined with lights. Between the trees is a mini-train the kids can ride, and again, a good two or three times around seems to be required! The giant windmill-style Glühwein stand that is an iconic Christmas market staple is set up in the main Marktplatz, as well as a smaller carousel. The ice skating rink is one market square beyond the little wood, in the Karlsplatz. You can rent skates there, and take a few turns around the rink to music, with the castle lit up right above you. 

Each day, the stands and the ice rink opens at 11am, so if you’re looking to buy gifts, early afternoon is a great time to do so with minimal crowds. Because the market is so spread out, it doesn’t often get too crushed. The stalls close up around 9pm, 10pm on Saturday nights. Weekends are definitely busier than weekdays, as daytrippers come in from across Europe. 

Glühwein mug, and Flammkuchen

What to eat at the Heidelberg Christmas Market

What not to eat?! Come hungry, because there’s lots to choose from. The ubiquitous Bratwurst is everywhere of course, served in a small bun (think of it as an edible handle). If you like it spicy, go for the Feuerwurst. There are steaks and venison sausages cooked on the big round grills. There are usually several vegan food stalls as well, if you’d rather skip the meat. Local to our region is the Flammkuchen, a very thin crust pizza topped with onions, bacon pieces, and a mild soft cheese more like cream cheese than mozzarella. There are infinite variations you can get though, including ones with mozzarella on them, veggies, pesto, and more. These are cooked to order, and are a good crowd-pleaser, as everyone just tears a piece off. Just keep ordering until everyone is full. 

One of my favourite treats is the Kartoffelpuffer, which is a bit like a hashbrown patty, but it’s deep-fried fresh to order, and you can have either Apfelmuss with it (apple sauce) or avail yourself of the ketchup and mayo there. Sweet and savoury crêpes are available all over, as well as sides of salmon grilled over an open fire. Hot waffles drizzled in Nutella, or sprinkled in sugar and cinnamon is another favourite. My son’s tip for the best sweet crêpe: order the Kinder Riegel one, where they put a thin chocolate bar (or two if you’re lucky!) made of milk and white chocolate in the middle, and it melts and gets all gooey inside the crêpe. There always seems to be a few stands that will dip a skewer of fruit in molten chocolate for you as well. 

If you’re looking for a more portable treat, cotton candy, or Zuckerwatte, is popular, as well as bags of candied nuts. There are always colourful stalls full to the brim with candy that seems to attract children like a magnet. The decorated heart-shaped cookies hanging outside are pretty, but pretty hard to eat. 

Would you like to sit down inside somewhere and eat? Here’s my post on all the best places to eat in Heidelberg.

What to drink

Glühwein of course! Because Heidelberg is in the middle of several wine regions, if you do a little searching you can find the more delicately spiced Weißglühwein, which is my particular favourite. If you order it ‘mit Schuß’ you will get the choice of a shot of rum or Jägermeister in your hot sweet wine for an additional Euro. For some theatre, seek out a Feuerzangenbowle stall to watch them set a rum-soaked sugar cone on fire, above a cauldron of Glühwein. And then have a mugful, obviously. For kids and nondrinkers, you can find Kinderpunsch at every stand that serves Glühwein, which is a hot spiced fruit juice. The mug you’re served your Glühwein in is reusable, and when you buy your first mugful, you have paid a deposit, or Pfand. You can walk up to any other Glühwein stand in the market and pay for a refill. If you’d like your deposit back, when you’re finished the night you can return your mug to any stand selling drinks, and they will refund you – don’t forget, it’s 3€ a mug! I think everyone in Heidelberg has a few of these at the back of the cupboard!

Wooden toys at the Heidelberg Christmas Market

What to buy

On average, I find the prices at the gift stalls very reasonable for the quality of the work. A lot of these people spend all year making things to bring to the Christmas markets. Some of my favourite things to buy as gifts at the market include:

Sheepskin slippers

We are a farming region down here, and there are a few stalls that only sell sheepskin products, and the slippers are so incredibly warm. They have gorgeous proper sheepskin throws as well, but these are pricey. They are also the best quality ones I have ever seen.

Felted pouches

Who doesn’t need another pouch to keep train tickets, small change, or glasses in? These stands also feature some incredibly detailed children’s slippers with curled toes. If you have an elf-obsessed small person, this may be your perfect choice. There’s also a good selection of felted flowers to pin to a coat or hat.

Wooden puzzles

The wooden puzzle booth is always a favourite stop. From classic ball mazes to more complicated Escher-like twisting baubles, everything is made in good-quality wood, oiled and stained. Not just for kids, most of these games would look perfect on a bookshelf or desk.

Christmas decorations and lanterns

It’s a tradition in southern Germany to put a lit-up star lantern in your window. Accordingly, some of the most beautiful stalls are the ones hung with many lanterns, all glowing in the evening. There are metal punched-hole ones from Morocco, and paper ones of all shapes and sizes. The paper kind will flatten down, if you’re concerned about suitcase space. There are many options for more traditional wooden decorations as well. If you really want to invest, visit the Käthe Wohlfahrt store at the corner of the Unveristätplatz market –– they have full Christmas scenes that move with the heat from a candle, miniature (and not so miniature) Christmas pyramids, and pretty much everything Christmas you can think of. The prices are much higher in here, but if you’re looking for an heirloojm piece, this is the place. 

Chocolate tools

This sounds so strange, but there is a stand behind the carousel in the Universitätplatz market that sells chocolates in intricate shapes of tools, cameras, cars, keys, and kitchen implements. It’s worth a look even if you don’t buy anything, because they are incredible. 

The Christmas pyramid in the Heidelberg Christmas Market in the Marktplatz

Christmas Market Insider Tips

We visit many times over the season, as well as many other Christmas markets in nearby towns. Here is what we’ve learned:

  • Wear comfortable shoes and warm socks because you will be walking and standing the whole time
  • Bring a reusable bag for any purchases
  • Wear a hat and a scarf, and bring gloves, it gets quite cold when you’re out for several hours
  • Don’t bother with an umbrella if it’s raining, there are too many people, just wear a hat
  • If you’re not into walking a long way, take the bus to the centre of the market and start there (see below)

How to get to the Heidelberg Christmas Market

The Christmas Markets are easy to reach in Heidelberg, as is Heidelberg itself. Regional trains reach the city with a change in Mannheim – for more details on how to get from Frankfurt to Heidelberg, I’ve written a whole post for you. From the Hauptbanhof (main train station), you can take any tram or bus marked for Bismarckplatz to walk the whole length of the markets. If you’re looking to save your energy, take the 32 Bus to Universitätplatz and that will bring to the heart of the bigger markets. If you’re driving, you will want to park around the edge of the Altstadt and walk in. I’ve marked two good parking garages on the map below, as well as where the markets are, the train station, and where the bus drops you. 

 

BONUS market to visit: Kloster Neuberg

NOTE: The Kloster Neuberg market is open again as of 2019!

Not part of the city markets, but well worth a visit is the little market at the Stift Neuberg. This is a still functioning monastery down the river a bit from the city. The market is on the grounds of the historic farm that is run separately from the monastery these days, and it features cows, goats, and an excellent brewery. If you’ve been craving beer but could find nothing but Glühwein, this is your stop. It is much smaller than the other markets, but it’s much more rustic. The craft stalls are inside the barns, and there is sometimes a small carousel. Fresh Flammkuchen is always available, along with hot waffles, Kartoffelpuffer, and Bratwurst. If you’re lucky, they will be roasting a pig on a spit above a woodfire. This market is much quieter, so if you want a little magical local experience, this is worth it. 

To get there, you can take the bus 34 to the bottom of the hill where the monastery is (marked on the map above), or you can take the Weisse Flotte boat along the Neckar (departure pier also marked on the map). The boat is more like a little ferry, you don’t need to book ahead. I wouldn’t recommend driving, as parking is a right pain. It is a big walk up a hill, but there are more sitting options than in the bigger markets, so you can take a rest once you get up there! Also, wrap up warm, it is at a higher elevation. If you’re really lucky, it will snow!

Enjoy your trip to the markets in Heidelberg, we really love this time of year in our adopted home.

PS – Here is my overall guide on how to do German Christmas Markets, and if you’re looking for other things to do in Heidelberg with kids, I’ve got you covered there too.

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