Living in Heidelberg, the castle is a constant presence. Every morning on the way to school, my son and I see it up on the hillside as we cross over the river Neckar. My son goes with his school to see plays there in the summer, and we even had his birthday party up at the Heidelberg Castle – which was possibly the coolest thing I’ve ever pulled off as a parent.
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So let me share with you the best ways to experience this amazing castle in southern Germany, from someone who has been there many, many times.
Planning your trip to the Heidelberg Castle
There are many bus tours that offer visiting Heidelberg Castle as part of a day trip. If at all possible, spend a night in Heidelberg and experience a bit more. Reading posts about the castle, everyone wishes they had more time to explore the city as well. Unlike many other German castles, Heidelberg Castle is right in the town, so it’s easy to visit without a car. There is the famous stairway, but it is quite an uphill trek, and you will be doing lots of walking when you’re up there. I’d recommend getting the funicular railway from the old town – you can get a ticket which includes your entrance to the castle, and find out when the next guided tour leaves.
What does ‘Schloss’ mean?
‘Schloss’ is a word you’ll see, along with ‘Burg’, used to describe what we would call a castle in English. A Burg is more of a fortress, a building or complex of buildings, used for active military use and defense. A Schloss tends more on the palace end of the castle spectrum. One word you don’t use with any castle is ‘Berg’ – this means mountain rather than fortress! You will notice that Schloss Heidelberg has a bit of both fortress and palace going on. This castle complex has been in use for such a long time, it started life more as a fortress, and then over the years became more decorative in function. Unfortunately, by the time the French rolled in during the 17th century, canons and explosives were the weapon of choice for sieges and not even those thick, sandstone walls could compete with that, fortress or not.
The History of Heidelberg Castle
Like many castles, this one has been built, destroyed, and rebuilt many times. There aren’t many records pertaining to the first castle structure higher up on the Königstuhl, but the current castle complex’s history seems to start around 1200. Ruprecht made the first enlargement that you can still see evidence of today, and in fact he and his wife Elizabeth of Hohenzollern (her family has some amazing castles too) are buried in the Church of the Holy Ghost in the market square.
Romantic Heidelberg stories started a long time ago!
Frederick V, who took the position of Elector Palatine in 1610, has a special place in the hearts of Heidelbergers. He married Elizabeth Stuart, daughter of James I of England and Scotland, and by all accounts he was quite besotted with her. Look for the Elizabeth Tor (gate) in the gardens, which was carved and created in pieces and then assembled in the garden overnight to surprise Elizabeth on her birthday. The extensive formal gardens that were started, but never finished, were also the work of Frederick, ostensibly to entertain Elizabeth. Unfortunately, he accepted the crown of Bohemia right at the beginning of the Thirty Years War, and could not hold it for more than a season. Frederick and Elizabeth lived the rest of their lives in exile, earning them the titles the Winter King and Winter Queen.
The Elizabeth Gate at Heidelberg Castle is just the thing to post on Valentine’s Day. The Prince Elector Palatine Frederick V had stonemasons build this garden arch in pieces, and then assemble it overnight as a birthday surprise for his wife, Elizabeth Stuart (yes, daughter of James I of England and Scotland) around 1613. I thought that was possibly the most romantic thing ever, don’t you think? // Das Elisabethtor am Heidelberger Schloß ist die perfekte Post am Valentingstag. Die Kürfurst Freidrich V. ließ diesen Gartenbogen in Stücken bauen und über Nacht als Geburtstagsüberraschung für seine Frau Elizabeth Stuart (ja, Tochter von James I. von England und Schottland) um 1613 zusammenbauen. Ich dachte, das wäre die das romantischste überhaupt, denkst du nicht? . . . . #gofurther #dreamoflivingabroad #showthemtheworld #familytravels #familytravelblogger #letsgosomewhere #letsgoeverywhere #wanderwithme #familytravelblog #tinytravels #exploringfamilies #takeyourkidseverywhere #almostfearless #fearlessfamtrav #familyadventures #familytraveltribe #havekidswilltravel #familygo #familytraveler #familyjaunts #castleheideblerg #mytinyatlas #living_destinations #myeverydaymagic #pathport #abmtravelbug #visitbawu #visitbawü #historynerd #valentines
Perkeo is another personality associated with Heidelberg Castle. Clemens Pankert was a buttonmaker in South Tyrol, where he met Prince Charles III Philip. When Prince Charles became Elector Palatine in the first half of the 18th century, he brought Pankert up to Heidelberg with him. It was here that he was nicknamed Perkeo, because his response to being asked if he’d like another glass of wine was always ‘perché no?’ (why not)? Perkeo was a dwarf, and was essentially an entertainer at court in Heidelberg, though apparently he knew a lot about wine besides how to drink vast quantities of it. He alone kept the keys to access the famous Heidelberg Castle wine barrel. The legend goes that he drank nothing but wine through his entire life, but when he was sick and he drank water, at the behest of a doctor, he died the next day. To be fair, most people didn’t drink water at that point, it was quite sensible! You will notice pubs and restaurants named after Perkeo around town.
Romantic Heidelberg Castle ruins
I was surprised to learn on my first visit that none of the damage was the result of the Second World War. All those tumbling down walls and half-collapsed towers are the work of the invading French army in the 17th century, lightning strikes, and the local populace making off with stones. After that final disastrous war with the French in the 1600s, the Prince Elector began the monumental task of rebuilding Heidelberg Castle, when it was struck by lightning several times, setting the castle alight. This was just too much. If you visit Heidelberg in the summer, look out for the special fireworks and light show, called the Heidelberg Castle Illuminations or Heidelberg Schlossbeleuchtungen, that commemorates the burning of Heidelberg Castle, as well as the wedding celebrations of Frederick and Elizabeth (yes, Heidelbergers still celebrate this!).
After the Elector Palatinate gave up on the constant rebuilding of Heidelberg Castle in the late 18th century and moved the court to Mannheim, the castle buildings fell into disuse. Heidelberg residents started to take the stones, metal, and wood to rebuild their own houses. But the pile of disintegrating red Neckar Valley stone was stirring the hearts of Romantic poets and painters, who started to arrive in droves just to experience the atmosphere. Goethe, of course, and William Turner, are some of the most famous visitors, though Turner’s paintings of the castle involve quite a bit of creative license when it comes to the surrounding landscape.
We can thank, ironically, a Frenchman for saving the castle ruin when the government of Baden wanted to knock it down. Charles de Graimberg volunteered as a castle guard in the first half of the 19th century, and his many sketches of the romantic ruins brought tourists to Heidelberg. His residence was near the entrance to the funicular down in the Altstadt, off the Kornmarkt, I point it out in my audio tour.
There’s a wonderful animation of how Heidelberg Castle towers have looked at various points in its history, it’s worth a watch.
Should you do the Heidelberg Castle tour?
There are audio guides available, and they will share with you much of the history I’ve detailed above, and more, including the story about the world’s largest wine barrel in the basement of the castle. However, it really is worth doing the guided tour of our partially restored castle ruins. Like most German castles, you can’t see the inside Heidelberg Castle without a guided tour. It takes about an hour, and you tromp all over the place, so bringing kids along isn’t as much of a chore as you’d think. The guides are lovely, quite keen local historians, and they have lots of stories about Heidelberg Castle to tell that you won’t find in the guidebooks or on Wikipedia. If you think you only have time for either the audio tour or the guided tour, I would do the guided tour. Ask at the ticket desk when the next English language tour leaves. Do remember to wear warm clothes (if it’s autumn or winter) and sturdy shoes, as you will be climbing many imperfect steps, and the castle buildings are unheated.
German Pharmacy Museum
Tucked into the basements of one of the Heidelberg Castle buildings is the German Pharmacy Museum. If you’re with older children, and you don’t read German, you will get more out of this corner of the castle with the audio guide. However, it’s also quite a fascinating place to wander through even without a guide, so if your travel companions are running out of steam, it’s still worth a quick visit. Inside, you’ll find several apothecary shops set up nearly in their entirety, as the museum has been bequeathed a number of shop interiors. It’s fascinating, seeing all the many drawers and jars and bottles that would have been the stock and trade of a pharmacist not all that long ago. There’s a Kinder Apotheke (children’s pharmacy) where younger kids can pretend to examine someone and give a prescription. It’s worth noting that it’s very cool down here on hot summer days, and heated in winter. Entrance to the museum is included in your castle entry ticket. It’s also a great way to see some of the underground levels of this wing of the castle.
Restaurants at Heidelberg Castle and nearby
While there is a fancy Weinstube (wine tavern), little cafe in the basement, Backstube (bakery restaurant) in the castle courtyard, and a cafe with Bratwurst in the garden, I would suggest eating your main meal down in the town first. The cafe is adequate for a coffee and cake, or an ice cream, but the staff is disorganized and harried. I highly recommend Mahmoud’s for a great falafel or döner, tucked down a side street with a view of the beautiful red sandstone catholic church. If you’d rather do easy Italian, Vapiano (opening summer 2018) across from the big church in the main square has a solid and affordable kids menu. Hans im Glück, also in the main square, is a local burger chain that has a really neat interior full of birch trees. They don’t have a specific kids menu, but it’s easy to find something most children will eat. If you’re looking for dinner, Hans im Glück fills up fast, but you can make a same-day reservation if you stop in earlier in the morning.
Special Heidelberg brunch at the Castle
If you want a special Heidelberg Castle experience, I really recommend booking a Sunday Brunch at the Heidelberger Schloss Weinstube. You absolutely have to book ahead for this, there are no walk-ins. It’s a lovely experience with a mixture of table service and buffet options. Definitely arrive hungry and ready for a relaxed few hours, because this is an event not to be rushed! I took my mum for Christmas brunch one year and it was just wonderful. They have lots of options for vegetarians, but if you have any other dietary restrictions do contact them ahead of time, they are a lovely group of people there and will find a way.
Take a picnic
Most of the other restaurants in the square are tourist traps, best avoided. If the weather is good, your best bet will be to pick up sandwiches at a bakery, or a few big soft Brezeln, and picnic in the gardens. We had a picnic after my son’s birthday party, and the Heidelberg Castle staff told me it’s perfectly fine – so don’t panic if you don’t see anyone else doing it! The closest bakery to the foot of the funicular is the Mantei Backerei, but there are many further along the Hauptstraße (the main pedestrianized street with all the shops).
I’ve got a full post on the best restaurants and cafes in Heidelberg here, too.
Where is Heidelberg Castle, opening hours & more
- Entrance to the castle courtyard and Pharmacy Museum (doesn’t include the castle interiors, you need to go on a guided tour to see that) costs 7€ for adults and 4€ children, and this ticket includes the funicular railway up and down from the castle to the Old Town, on the opposite side of the big church from the Old Bridge (Alte Brücke)
- The castle courtyard and the Great Barrel is open daily from 8am – 6pm, with last entrance at 5:30pm, with special times on Christmas Eve and New Year’s Eve, and closed on Christmas Day
- The Pharmacy Museum is open daily from 10am – 6pm (1 April – 31 October), and 10am – 5:30pm (1 November – 31 March), with special times on Christmas Eve and New Year’s Eve, and closed on Christmas Day
- Guided tours are about 1 hour in duration, and in the summer (1 April – 31 October) English language castle tours run every hour from 11:15am – 4:15pm on Mondays – Fridays, and 10:15am – 4:15pm on Saturdays, Sundays and holidays. In the winter (1 November – 31 March) English language castle tours run every hour from 11:15am – 4:15pm on Mondays – Fridays, and at 11:15am, 12:15am, 2:15pm, and 4:15pm on Saturdays, Sundays and holidays.
- Guided tours cost an additional 5€ for adults, and 2.50€ for children, though there is a family rate of 12.50€
The great thing about the Heidelberg Castle is it’s right above the old town, so there’s no need for a tour bus out to a remote site. Heidelberg is very easy to get to from Frankfurt, it’s about an hour by train. From Munich (Munich-Heidelberg), it’s about three hours, so you would want to stay overnight here. That’s not a bad idea, as the comment I see most is ‘I wish I had longer to explore the city!’ when I’m reading comments from visitors. From the Heidelberg train station, you hop on one of the many trams just outside the station. There is a tourist information booth right outside the station as well, and the people there can help you get your bearings. Once you get into the old town, you will want to take the funicular up to the castle itself, the station is just around the corner from the Kornmarkt square.
You can drive to the castle, but there is very limited parking nearby. You can walk up to the castle, but I think it’s worth saving your energy for exploring the castle and grounds and taking the funicular instead.
Book a train right here, in English:
It’s worth noting that your train tickets are cheaper the earlier you book, up to three months ahead.