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It was first mentioned in the 12th century and was until 1720 the capital of the Palatinate, derived from the ancient and medieval office of Count Palatine, a nobleman who held judicial powers and controlled various imperial castles where Holy Roman emperors stayed while travelling. The city was one of the chief strongholds of German Protestantism throughout the Reformation, however French troops destroyed the town during the Thirty Years’ War (1618-1648). Later, between 1689 and 1693, French troops invaded again and created most of the destruction done to the famous castle. Due to Heidelberg’s emotive beauty, General Patton fell in love with the city and refused to see it bombed, hence the city survived WWII and became the headquarters for United States’ forces in Europe following the war. Ironically Patton was highly criticised for his lenient policy towards the enemy and was fatally injured in a traffic accident in Heidelberg just after the war ended. He wasn’t the only famous American to have fallen victim to its heavenly charm. Mark Twain is rumoured to have named Huckleberry Finn after the mountains of Heidelberg.
There are a number of options on ways to get to Heidelberg, but the cheapest should be the Schönes Wochenende (Happy Weekend Ticket, also valid on holidays). It’s valid for one day of travel on all S-and Regional Bahn trains in Germany for up to five people and costs €28. Trains leave from the Hauptbahnhof to Heidelberg every hour, and also make the return journey once an hour. The journey time is 1.5hrs each way. This ticket is also good for all local public transportation while you are in the city, so you needn’t purchase any other train or bus tickets for the day. Individual tickets on the high-speed ICE train will get you there a bit quicker, but prices vary depending on time of purchase and number of travellers. Private and group tours by car or shuttle bus are also a popular way of getting to the city.
Willy-Brandt-Platz 1, 06221/ 194 33, www.cvb-heidelberg.de. The centre is located just outside the main train station. Maps in English with sightseeing descriptions are available for €1.50, as is the very helpful Heidelberg Magazine (also €1.50). The staff are helpful and speak English, so you should have no problems arranging boat, walking, or bicycling tours. They also offer the Heidelberg Card; good for two to four days, depending on your needs. It costs €12 and gets you into almost all the sites in town for free or at a dramatic reduction, and provides for all local transport. Certain shops and restaurants also honour it for 10 percent discount. Open 09:00-19:00. Sun & Holidays 10:00-18:00.
Ticket Office 06221/ 53 84 21. Heidelberg has innumerable wonderful sites, but the first and foremost site is the famous castle ruins and its gardens. The picturesque symbol of the city looms majestically over the Old Town and the River Neckar like a fairly tale castle, and served as home to the Palatinate Prince Electors of the Wittelsbach family. The interior of the castle is far less exciting than a walk around the grounds and gardens. Of particular interest are the four granite columns in the castle courtyard, which were once part of a castle belonging to Charlemagne. Older areas of the castle that have been exposed to reveal classic examples of medieval and Renaissance architecture, its grandiose ruins functioning as the epitome of the German Romantic movement. Located in the cellar is the famous Heidelberg Tun (Grosses Fass), the largest barrel in the world to have ever been filled with wine, with a capacity of 220,017 litres (58,124 gallons). On the opposite wall is the plaque of Perkeo, a famous dwarf who served as court jester whose namesake can be seen in names of cafes and buildings throughout the city. He is also symbol of the Carnival. An Italian from South Tyrol, the name is supposed to be a corruption of the Italian Perche no? or Why not?. When asked if he’d like another glass of wine, his answer was always Perche no?. Legend has it that he died from drinking a glass of water.
Included in the price of admission is entrance to the German Pharmacy Museum (06621/ 258 80), which is an extensive exhibition of the history of pharmaceuticals and medicine from the 16th to the 19th century, located in the Apothekenturm. The most enchanting way up to the castle is via the funicular railway, the Bergbahn, a 100-year plus old cable rail system that brings you all the way to the castle but it’s age has led to renovations though, and buses will take you to the castle until the end of 2004. Or walk and admire the houses (and posters: Stop MAD Cowboy Disease, around an image of Dubya à la Alfred E. Neuman).
Open 08:30-17:30. Admission €2.50/€1.20.
From the main train station, take bus N°41 or 42 to Universitätsplatz. The Old Town, which came into existence circa 1200, consists of predominantly of confined spaces with Gothic and half-timbered structures along narrow, twisty streets, making every turn more mesmerizing than the last, particularly in comparison to the cold and corporate streets of Frankfurt. The Alte Universität, a grand Baroque structure in the midst of Uniplatz, is the oldest university in Germany, founded in 1386 by Prince Ruprecht I. Check out the historical University Museum (Grabengasse 1, 06621/ 54 21 52). Admission to this museum is coupled with entrance to the Alte Aula, which is the elaborate assembly hall of the university, exquisitely decorated from ceiling to floor and dating back to the 19th century. A trip to the Studentenkarzer (Students’ Prison, Augustinergasse 2, 06221/ 54 35 54, www.unishop-hd.de) is also included in the ticket price, and is the best site of the three. See what happened to students whose indiscretions, except for murder, were punishable only by university wardens. It is a colourful attic that still has hand-drawn paintings and silhouettes from the many incarcerated students. The combined ticket price is €2.50/€2.00.
In the northern part of the Old Town are the Älte Brücke (Old Bridge) and the Brückentor (Bridge Gate), which beautifully frames the Heiliggeistkirche (Church of the Holy Ghost, Heiliggesitstr. 17, 06221/ 211 17.) The towers of the Bridge Gate were built as part of the original medieval fortifications, and provide a dramatic picture-taking opportunity of the castle and the Heiliggeistkirche. (The church is a fabulous setting for concerts, and its tower can be climbed for a mere €0.50.) There are several statues along the bridge, including one of its founders, Prince Elector Karl Theodor. The Old Town is filled with museums, cafés, restaurants, bars and shops. Tours depart daily from the Universitätsplatz, and are available in English. Check tourist information office for times and ticket prices.
From Bismarckplatz, cross the Theodor Heuss Bridge to the south bank of the Neckar. This side of the river is home to most of the new university buildings, the zoo, the public swimming pool, youth hostel and a café quarter called Petit France, a chic area with some upscale French dining. The most well known site is that of the Philosopher’s Path, on which must climb a steep hill to join the litany of great philosophers who have been inspired here. Considered one of the best panoramas north of the Alps, this is where poets, thinkers, and scholars such as Heidegger, Goethe and Jaspers used to stroll, taking in the beauty of numerous exotic plants thriving on the natural balcony of the path.
Where to stay
With over 75 pensions and hotels dotted around the city, you should have no trouble finding a place to stay in Heidelberg. Here are some recommendations.
Hotel Zum Ritter, Hauptstr. 178, 06221/ 13 50, Fax 06621/ 13 52 30, firstname.lastname@example.org, www.ritter-heidelberg.de. This listed building is one of the most spectacularly detailed in the Old Town, and hardly needs pointing out on walking tours due to its magnificent façade. It was built in 1592 by cloth-dealer Carolus Belier and his wife, and luckily survived destruction during the many invasion of Heidelberg. It has been used as a hotel since 1705. Every detail, inside and out, is ornate and elegant, and above all romantic. 39 rooms from €80-241.
Hotel Zum Pfalzgrafen, Kettengasse 21, 06221/ 204 89, Fax 06221/53 61 41. A traditional and hospitable hotel with family-style comfort in the middle of the Old Town. Prices include a lovely breakfast buffet, and the rooms are comfortable. 24 rooms from €69-140.
Weisser Bock, Grosse Mantelgasse 24, 06221/ 900 00, Fax 06221/ 90 00 99, www.weisserbock.de. With a banquet hall, bar and restaurant, this cosy little places should satisfy. Rooms are designed as romantic hide-aways and provide the comforts of home. Conveniently located with gracious family friendly service. Breakfast is not included. 23 rooms from €85-130.
Where to eat
A great place to grab a coffee and revel in the international press atmosphere is Café Journal (Hauptstr. 162, 06621/ 16 17 12). Attentive and friendly service, and a great place for people watching on their outdoor seating area. A famous place to grab a meal is the Zum Sepp’l (Hauptstr. 213, 06221/ 143 30, www.zum-seppl.de), which has been operating as a student café since 1850. Names are carved into every nook and cranny of their walls and tables, and the stained glass windows and stolen signs floating about give it a unique character well worth visiting. For traditional German cuisine and surroundings, you must visit Brauhaus Vetter (Steingasse 9, 16 58 50, www.brauhaus-vetter.de.) The food is delicious and the beer brewed to perfection: its brewery uses only water, yeast, hops and malt according to a 1516 purity rule. In fact, they had the strongest beer in the world here, Vetter 33, as documented in the 1994 Guinness Book of World Records. For a more upscale and trendy German culinary haunt and brewery, try the Kulturbrauerei Heidelberg (Layergasse 6, 06221/ 50 29 80, www.heidelberger-kulturbrauerei.de). It’s a slightly more expensive and upscale dining experience than the many local watering holes around town, but its cuisine is cooked to perfection, and the service, food and drinks are spot-on. If you’re not in the mood for German food, we highly recommend the Thai restaurant Siam (Steingasse 1, 06221/ 250 03), located just at the edge of the riverbank near the Old Bridge. It’s the perfect place for a meal by the river on a beautiful day with delicious dishes and seafood specialties, plus a fairly inexpensive lunch menu.