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Guide to Heidelberg, Germany

“I went often to look at the collection of curiosities in Heidelberg Castle, and one day I surprised the keeper of it with my German. I spoke entirely in that language. He was greatly interested; and after I had talked a while he said my German was very rare, possibly a ‘unique’; and wanted to add it to his museum”.

Mark Twain 

Heidelberg is a city located in southwestern Germany, about a 30-40 minute drive from the French border, and an hour or so south of Frankfurt.  It’s a hub of science and education, with nearly 40,000 students making up around a quarter of its population.

The city of Heidelberg

Heidelberg has become a very popular tourist destination for those touring Germany or Europe as a whole.  The temperature remains mild year-round, and this region is considered one of the warmest and most pleasant throughout Germany.  

There are a great variety of things to do in Heidelberg as well.  It presents a blend of old and new, antiquity, and modernity.  It’s also quite scenic, with its beautiful location in the fertile Rhine Rift Valley.  More than 3.5 million people visit Heidelberg each year.

History of Heidelberg

While human life in the area that is now Heidelberg can be dated back several hundred thousand years, permanent settlement of the area can be traced to around the 5th century BC.  

First settled by the Celts, and later the Romans, the area remained in Roman control until Germanic tribes conquered the Roman settlement in the mid-200s AD. 

Christianity gradually took hold throughout the Middle Ages, as the area remained part of the Holy Roman Empire.  Local rule took precedence in the late 1100s, as the county (Palatinate) was administered by the local Counts in succession.  

Heidelberg played a big part in religious growth during this time period, as well as an important role in the Reformation, and the conflicts between Lutheranism and Calvinism. 

By the 1600s, religious and other conflicts saw Heidelberg captured during the Thirty Years’ War.  First, the Catholic League took the town, and around a decade later, the Swedish.  With French reinforcement, Catholic forces were repelled in 1634 in their bid to retake the town and castle. 

Religious conflicts continued after the end of the Thirty Years’ War, with turbulent periods from the mid-1600s to the early 1800s, when the region fell under the Grand Duchy of Baden, and later the Prussians until 1850.  

It was part of the German state formed in 1871, and largely spared damage during the Second World War, after which the University of Heidelberg, a staple since the late 1300s, was swiftly reopened, and remains a pre-eminent center of scholarship today.

Attractions and Things to Do

There are many things to do in Heidelberg today.  With such a rich history and being a center of learning, there are naturally many historical and heritage sites to visit.  But that’s far from the only things to do in Heidelberg.  Below, we summarize just some of the most common things to do and places to visit during a trip to Heidelberg.

  • The Old Town district, which contains late 1700s and early 1800s architecture, buildings, and more. It’s here you’ll find the remains of Heidelberg Castle, the old stone bridge, Main Street, Church of the Holy Spirit, Karls’ gate, the house of Knight St. George, and stables.
  • Philosopher’s Walk, along the side of the Saints’ Mountains, provides beautiful scenic overlooks of the entire town, especially the Old Town district and the castle.
  • Numerous churches of various denominations and historical periods, including the Church of the Holy Spirit, the Church of the Jesuits, St. Peter’s Church, and St. Bonifatius Church.
  • Heidelberg University and its associated buildings and architecture throughout the university portion of town is always worth a visit. Especially striking is the University Library and Old University Hall, juxtaposed with some very modern buildings that make up some of the newer science facilities at the university.
  • There are numerous tourist-centered events throughout the year, with perhaps the most popular being the famed Heidelberg Christmas Market. Other examples include the February Ball of the Vampires, Heidelberg Spring which features an Easter egg hunt and classical music festival, fireworks in the late spring and summer, the Old Town Autumn Festival, a jazz festival, film festival, and much more. 
  • There are many cultural attractions including several museums, art galleries, and other exhibitions, befitting a Romantic-era town such as Heidelberg.
  • Heidelberg also has an excellent zoo which is fun for people of all ages, along with many parks and gardens throughout the city.

Some of the most picturesque towns can be found on the Mosel river and Viking visits these. Find out more about the destinations for the City of Lights and Swiss Alps cruises in the itinerary highlights section.

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