Memorable Experiences in the Heidelberg Castle District
Heidelberg is a vibrant university town set amongst some of most beautiful scenery Germany has to offer. This pulsating small city has an impressive Castle District with roots reaching back to the 13th century. There is a week’s worth of things to do here, but like many visitors I had just two days to experience the magic. Deciding where to concentrate my efforts was a challenge, but I decided to focus on the Castle District for a first-time, two-day stay.
What follows are my personal recommendations for you. I wish I could say everything was my idea, but it wasn’t; I had help from the Heidelberg Marketing Association. Not many people tend to use the help offered by marketing associations, tourist bureaus, or convention and visitor bureaus, but they should. It’s these people’s business to know where to stay, where to go, what to eat, and what discounts there are to ask for. They really do hold the keys to the insiders’ scoop in any region anywhere you go in the world.
There are several places to stay in Heidelberg. You won’t have a problem finding something, but trying a more “local” hotel experience is my recommendation for you. It should have some history to it and be close to where you will be going.
Located on a slight hill above the River Neckar and about a 10-minute walk from the Castle District, Die Hirschgasse Hotel has it all. You are going to appreciate the Champagne greeting and each individually decorated Laura Ashley-themed room. Rooms are large and comfortable.
The hotel’s historic restaurant Mensurstube features a culinary showcase of regional dishes. Local wines are featured on the menu. The morning breakfast is huge, locally sourced, creative, and yummy.
Service in all parts of the hotel is outstanding. There is an elevator and on-premise laundry service. Pricing is what you would expect for nicer lodging.
Purchase a HeidelbergBeWelcomeCARD from the Heidelberg Convention and Visitors Bureau for the chance to see many Heidelberg attractions and events, either free of charge or at a discounted rate. It also includes free bus and tram transportation, a city guide, and a magazine. Buy a Combiticket (multi-pass) for the funicular and free admission to the castle and discounts at many shops and restaurants.
The CARD can be purchased at the Tourist-Information Center at the main train station (Hauptbahnhof) or the beautiful Town Hall (Rathaus) located on the market square (Marktplatz) in the Castle District, as well as in many hotels in Heidelberg.
Try taking a healthy approach to your sightseeing efforts. I wanted a “carless in Heidelberg” experience. This place is walker and biker-friendly—but both share the same sidewalks. The city has a comprehensive network of well-marked paths, but visitors distracted by the surrounding sights can pose a hazard when they meander in front of oncoming cyclists. It was my experience that the cyclists don’t always pay close attention, so be aware of your surroundings at all times.
For your first dinner, I would suggest heading over to the entrance of the Castle District for dinner at the traditional Old-Town-Restaurant located at the Hotel “Goldener Hecht.” This is a local’s favorite, so you know the food is going to be good and not overpriced. The restaurant is located right across from the end of the old bridge in Heidelberg. Just step through the gates, look to your right, and there it is. We ate outside on a warm summer night. The place was packed. Imagine sitting outside on the plaza and drinking in a river view and a local beer as well as enjoying some yummy schnitzel. Life is good.
We started with some of the local beer and some dry Riesling, which was very good; both naturally complimented our meals. I’ve never had a bad beer or wine in Germany, and the trend continued at Goldener Hecht.
The atmosphere is classically German. The service was good with moderate prices. The portions are generous and cooked to perfection. Someone mentioned the menu is Austrian-themed, but we just noticed the quality and variety of deliciously cooked dishes. We ended the evening with the restaurant’s famous apple strudel covered in vanilla ice cream; it was delicious. Goldener Hecht is definitely worth a visit when in Heidelberg.
On your first day out discovering the castle, for heaven’s sake, hire a guide. Ours was city guide Susanne Fiek; you can get her information from Heidelberg Marketing. Susan met us at our hotel, and we told her we were going to be handful since I love food, wine, and shopping and my husband loves history. To my great delight she was able to juggle the two distinct interests all day long. She showed us the historic Old Town area and center marketplace, the Heidelberg Castle grounds, shopping activities, special bars, restaurants, a wine bar, and a bakery. She even shared her favorite food truck with us; I have never had a better Bratwurst sandwich in my life. Having Susan’s insight and connections made our guided tour more like a homecoming. She seemed to be friends with all of the business people, and they treated us like long-lost relatives. This is a special experience you must try as it sets you up to do your own exploring on day two.
Take a day boating trip on the solar-powered boat “Neckarsonne.” You’ll get to see great views of the city while the ship gently glides by scenic venues. You’ll even get a peek of the university life and some other areas you are missing by just concentrating on the Castle District. During the 50-minute trip on the river, passengers receive information about the solar shuttle and the highlights of Heidelberg and its outlying areas. Drinks, snacks, coffee, and cake are available. Pick up the boat at the Old Bridge right after you go through the gates. There is a 10% discount with the Heidelberg Card. Note: The boat and the jetty are both wheelchair accessible.
Make sure you go back on your own to the Castle District. This time, you can pick and choose the things that interest you most. There are a few things you must do. Most notably for me was the wine bar within the castle walls known as Heidelberg Castle Gastronomie. You can do some fun and affordable wine tasting in the historic barrel cellar. Just show up or make an appointment with sommelier Frank Schulte. There are formal and informal tastings available. Frank will tell you everything you ever wanted to know about wine. Taste wine from top winemakers from the regions of Baden and the Palatinate Würrtemberg before you buy.
Next to the wine bar is the Grosses Fass (“Big Barrel”), the largest wooden barrel to have ever been filled with wine. The barrel was constructed in 1751 and can hold more than 221,000 liters. There’s a short walkway that takes you across the top of the barrel, which was sometimes used for dancing.
For those who want a more “locals” kind of castle experience, go to the end of the old bridge, step through the gates, continue straight, and turn right at the main thoroughfare. You’ll have about a mile or so of shops that aren’t quite so touristy.
Once you’ve made the trek up and down the cobblestone streets you’ll probably be looking for refreshment. Café Schafheutle is the best of the best. It is one of the oldest coffee houses in Heidelberg and has been providing excellent service, premium quality sweet treats, and a traditional coffee house culture for three generations. One look at the display of small delights and you’ll be in love; one taste and you’ll be hooked forever.
You can get a real feel for the energetic life of Heidelberg’s pedestrian zone from the sidewalk tables, but go inside to browse the changing art exhibitions from local artists. You can enjoy your coffee and pastry in non-smoking rooms, or (my favorite) indulge in treats and relaxation in the popular interior garden. It’s a grand old lady not to be missed.
If you love air conditioning and staying in modern hotels take a tour of—or stay at—the Heidelberg Suites. The hotel overlooks the River Neckar and is situated next to the old bridge leading to the Castle District. Every room is provided with a magnificent view of the castle. It’s a five-star hotel that’s lovely and comforting.
Heidelberg Suites offers a unique dining experience, the floating restaurant-ship “Patria” on the River Neckar. I thought this might be a touristy activity, but it turned out to be one of the best experiences in Heidelberg and worth the money.
Chef de cuisine Franco di Battista serves exquisite Mediterranean food using fresh, local, and natural ingredients from his tiny galley kitchen. He presents traditional Italian-inspired cuisine in amazing variations and with surprising finesse.
This is an elegant yet casual and private atmosphere where you’ll order à la carte and every seat has a water view. It is not a T-shirt and jeans kind of night, but you also do not have to wear your formal suit. Think white tablecloths. The Patria is the perfect place to enjoy a great evening while sipping on premium cocktails and wine. You get all that and a unique picture-perfect view of Heidelberg. Plan about two hours for the floating dinner. Anything you order is going to rock your world. Yes, it’s that good.