Heidelberg is a beautiful city in southern Germany best known for its historic castle and university. Here are the top things to do in Heidelberg, Germany, plus answers to FAQs about the city!
Immortalized over the centuries by artists and writers (like Mark Twain!), Heidelberg is a city unlike any other in Germany. Heidelberg is first and foremost a university city. It boasts the oldest university in the country — Heidelberg University dates back to 1386 and was chartered by Pope Urban VI!
In addition to its historic university, Heidelberg is also famous for its castle. Although the 13th century castle is now largely in ruins, it can still be seen towering high above the Old Town. Moreover, Heidelberg was named a UNESCO City of Literature in 2014!
You’re bound to fall in love with this historic city nestled along the Neckar River. I visited Heidelberg during Christmas market season and experienced seemingly every form of bad weather possible — sleet, snow, rain, hail — and I still LOVED the city.
In this post, I’ll be sharing the top things to do in Heidelberg, Germany and will also answer some FAQs about visiting it. I’ve broken down the must-see Heidelberg attractions into broad buckets, and listed specific things to do in each area to make it easier for you to plan your trip.
1. Schloss Heidelberg (Heidelberg Castle)
Heidelberg Castle (Schloss Heidelberg) is mostly in ruins, but there are still plenty of areas for you to explore and learn about. The first part of the castle was built in 1300, and additional wings were added to the castle over time. You can tell which parts of the castle were built at later dates simply by looking at the facades — the entire effect is stately but slightly haphazard, but that’s what makes the castle so unique!
During the Nine Years’ War, King Louis VIXX first set fire to the castle in 1689. He returned in 1693 to finish the job by blowing up a portion of it. After that, the castle sat empty for many years. Preservation efforts didn’t begin until 1800, and rather than rebuild the castle to its former glory, it was left in a state of partial ruin.
If you’re dying to see the inside of the castle (what little you can tour, that is), you have to sign up for a guided tour, which costs extra. Otherwise I highly recommend paying the few Euros extra for an audio guide. The audio guide is very thorough; without it, you won’t learn much about the castle as there’s no signage anywhere outside for you to read.
Below are the main highlights of Heidelberg Castle. These include the giant Heidelberg Castle wine barrel, the pharmacy museum, and the terrace and gardens.
Tip: Many websites list these as separate attractions, which confused me when I was doing my initial research on the city. So, just to be crystal clear you must buy a castle ticket to see the following Heidelberg attractions!
Heidelberger Tun (Giant Wine Barrel)
The Heidelberg Castle wine barrel is the largest wine barrel in the WORLD. (What a niche accomplishment!) If my friend Rachel weren’t obsessed with this barrel, I never would have thought to visit. In the end, I’m glad she convinced me to pay a visit because it’s truly massive. You guys, photos don’t do this thing justice. It’s so large that they put a dancing platform on top, for Pete’s sake!
The wine barrel was built in 1751 by Prince Elector Karl Theodore. At the time, wine was collected as a tax and it was all poured into this giant barrel. The royal court drank from this barrel, and I’m sure the various wines mixed together tasted … unique.
By the way, the wine barrel holds 220,000 liters of wine. Yowzas.
I’m not sure why there’s a pharmacy museum inside this historic castle, but it was surprisingly fun! Throughout 11 rooms, the basic history of the pharmacy is explained. The history lesson wasn’t that interesting to me, but I loved the historical pharmacies they had on display. There are interactive touch screen monitors you can use to learn more about specific objects and drugs in the pharmacies’ collections, which I found fascinating.
There’s also a complete pharmacist’s office, a lab, and over 1,000 raw drugs on display to showcase medicine from the 17th to 19th centuries. If you’re looking for a weird but fun Heidelberg activity, definitely check out the Pharmacy Museum.
Tip: You’ll need about 45 minutes to go through this small museum.
I don’t have much to say about the castle’s terrace, except that the view is stunning. I visited on a blustery, snowy day and about froze my fingers off taking photos, but it was more than worth it. From the terrace, you have an unparalleled view of the Neckar River, Old Town, and opposite bank. I’m sure the view is even more romantic in the springtime when the trees begin to bloom!
The Heidelberg Castle gardens were built in the early 1600’s and, like the castle itself, were destroyed during the Nine Years’ War. The gardens are unique in that they’re built on terraces. Again, I visited during deep winter on a freezing day so I didn’t have the will to explore the gardens thoroughly. I imagine it’s the perfect spot for relaxing come summertime!
2. Tram to Königsstuhl
While you’re near the castle, be sure to ride the Bergbahn (funicular railway) up to the Königsstuhl outlook. This is the type of attraction that I’d normally worry would be a tourist trap, but the ride up the mountain is genuinely one of the best things to do in Heidelberg!
From the castle railway station, the ride up to the Königsstuhl outlook takes about 20 minutes. The original railway cars are still in use, so the ride feels like a trip back through time. (I actually felt like I was traveling to Narnia, what with all the snow that day!)
Alas, I don’t have a photo to share with you of the view from Königsstuhl. Supposedly it has the best view in the area — the city and Neckar River stretched below you. However, it was so snowy and foggy the day I visited that the view was completely obscured. But I still loved the railway ride!
If you’re lucky enough to have good weather the day you ride the Bergbahn, note that there’s a small kiosk selling snacks and drinks at the top. The funicular comes every 15 minutes, and you can stay at the top of Königsstuhl as long as you’d like.
3. Altstadt (Old Town)
You can spend the better part of a day exploring just the Old Town of Heidelberg. If you’re not sure what to do in Heidelberg, Germany, start at the Hauptstraße (main street) and work your way towards the castle. You’ll find plenty of things to do and see along your walk!
At 1.8km in length, Heidelberg’s Hauptstraße is one of the longest pedestrian streets in Europe. You’ll find lots of shopping and dining options here, although they’re mostly chains. Be sure to take the side streets off of the Hauptstraße to discover more of the local boutiques and bookstores!
While walking along the Hauptstraße, you’ll pass the Heidelberg attractions listed below.
Tip: If you need a midafternoon pick-me-up, stop by Cafe Schafheutle for a slice of cake and a pot of tea or coffee.
Church of the Holy Spirit
The Church of the Holy Spirit is located in the center of Heidelberg’s Old Town. It’s the largest church in the city, and it was constructed between 1398 and 1441 in the Renaissance and Gothic styles.
For 200 years, the church was fought over by the Roman Catholics and Protestants of Heidelberg. The church was divided down the middle by a wall — the Catholics used one side, and the Protestants the other. The church was finally united in 1936 and now has a fully Protestant congregation.
While inside the church, look for the Physics Window. It features Einstein’s mass-energy equation as well as the date the atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima. Also, be sure to find the graves of the Princes of Palatine near the altar.
House of the Knight (Haus zum Ritter)
Opposite the Church of the Holy Spirit is the House of the Knight. This beautiful building was constructed in 1592 and now enjoys a protected status. It’s the only building in the Old Town that survived the burning during the Nine Years’ War (the benefit of being made of brick rather than wood!). Today, the house is used as a hotel. You can’t go inside unless you’re a guest, but it’s lovely to admire from the street!
Housed in a lovely Baroque house since 1908, the Kurpfälzisches Museum displays art, cultural artifacts, architectural finds, and more from the area. The museum focuses specifically on Heidelberg’s history and its relation to nearby cities. Artwork from the Middle Ages to the present day shows how Heidelberg has transformed over time. You’ll also see personal documents, letters, and artifacts from past citizens and visitors.
After checking off all the things to do in Heidelberg, be sure to rest your feet in one of the city’s pretty squares. The Universitätsplatz is the largest square in the Old Town, and it’s situated in front of the old university building. In the winter, my favorite Christmas market in Heidelberg is located here!
Further down the street is the Marktplatz, in the heart of the Old Town. The Church of the Holy Spirit is located here and there are lots of eateries near it.
For a perfect shot of the castle, head to the Kornmarkt. It’s a very small square with a Baroque fountain in the center. From the fountain, you can look straight up to the castle! The funicular stops at the Kornmarkt, and you can ride it up to the castle and then further on up to the Königsstuhl outlook, if desired.
4. Alte Brücke (Old Bridge)
The Old Bridge is one of the best-known Heidelberg attractions. This gorgeous sandstone bridge was originally in the 18th century by Elector Karl Theodore. It connects the Old Town to the popular neighborhood of Neuenheim. When crossing into the Old Town you’ll pass under the medieval bridge gate, which is one of the last surviving remnants of the city wall. The bridge was destroyed during WWII and was quickly rebuilt thanks to donations from the locals.
Tip: You can access the Philosophers Walk via the Old Bridge (more on that next!).
5. Philosophenweg (Philosophers Walk)
Historically speaking, the Philosophers Walk was simply a dirt path that wound up the northern banks of the Neckar River, opposite the Old Town. However, it was renamed the Philosophenweg during the Romantic period. It’s said that professors and philosophers liked to walk the path the mull over their thoughts in solitude, and to admire the view from the top of the hill.
Tip: The Philosophers Walk can be accessed via the Old Bridge, but there are a lot of steps leading to the start of the path. Once you get to the path, you only need about 30 minutes to ascend the hill.
6. Heidelberg Day Trips
There are lots of day trips from Heidelberg: Speyer, Worms, Schwetzingen Palace, the list goes on! Heidelberg is also a stop along the Bergstraße, or “Mountain Road.” It’s a historic trading route that connects many cities, towns, and castles in the area. You can easily visit some of the towns via train or car from Heidelberg, over the course of a couple days.
However, I only took day trips to Mainz and Mannheim while I was in Heidelberg. I visited during Christmas market season, so I specifically sought out these cities because I’d heard that they had good Christmas markets.
If you’re familiar with the life of the printer Johannes Gutenberg, chances are good that you’ve heard of Mainz. Gutenberg was the inventor of the printing press and was born in Mainz. The Gutenberg Museum has two original Gutenberg bibles on display, plus lots of other books and printing presses that walk you through the history of the printed word in Europe.
Other highlights of a day trip to Mainz include a walk through the Old Town and a visit to St. Martin’s Cathedral. You should also keep an eye out for the gnome-like Mainzelmännchen in the crosswalk lights! The Mainzelmännchen were popular cartoon characters from the area, and they add a touch of whimsy to the everyday crosswalk lights.
Time needed: I thought that one day in Mainz was the perfect amount of time to see the main sights. I arrived around 11am and took the train back to Heideleberg around 6pm, and I managed to see pretty much everything I wanted to in that time period.
Tip: The Mainz Christmas Market is one of my all-time favorites in Germany!
Mannheim and Heidelberg are only 20 minutes away via train, but the two cities couldn’t be more different! Mannheim is incredibly industrial (i.e. ugly — sorry, but it’s true!). The main attractions are the Baroque Palace and the Jesuit Church.
The palace is primarily used as a university building these days, but one wing has been restored and can be toured with an audio guide. The Jesuit Church is a quick walk from the palace and is absolutely stunning. It’s a Baroque church that’s very light and airy inside, with painted panels meant to look like green and red stone.
Another interesting tidbit about Mannheim is that it’s divided into a grid. So, instead of giving an exact address for a place, you simply look up the quadrant it’s in on the map (A1, A2, B1, B2, etc.).
Time needed: I thought that a half day in Mannheim was enough to get a feel for the city, but you may need a full day if you plan on visiting other museums besides the palace.
FAQs About Visiting Heidelberg
How many days are needed to see Heidelberg? I think two full days is enough to see the main attractions. However, I stayed in Heidelberg for four nights / five days and used it as my homebase for day trips in the area and would also recommend going that route.
What are the absolute must-see Heidelberg attractions? If you do nothing else on this list, be sure to ride the Bergbahn and visit the castle. Then, walk back to the main train station via the Hauptstraße and wave to the well-known churches, monuments, and sights as you glide past them.
What’s the best way to get around Heidelberg? If you’re staying in or near the Old Town, you can easily get everywhere on foot. I stayed in a hotel near the main train station and occasionally took the tram or bus to the Old Town to save my poor feet the extra minutes of walking. Personally, I don’t think you need to rent a car to get around Heidelberg.
What’s the best time to visit Heidelberg? Visit in late spring / early summer to get some sunshine and decent enough weather to enjoy Heidelberg’s beautiful scenery but still avoid the worst of the crowds. Or, visit in December to see the Christmas markets!
Until Next Time, Heidelberg!
There are so many wonderful things to do in Heidelberg, Germany, and I know that this post doesn’t cover them all! However, I only ever recommend places and activities that I personally have tried. I guess that means I’ll have to return to Heidelberg to check the rest of the activities off of my list!