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.
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!].
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.
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.
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!).
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.
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.
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!
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.