Heidelberg’s official song “Ich Hab’ mein Herz in Heidelberg Verloren” translates to “I Lost my Heart in Heidelberg” and was first recorded in 1925 by Fred Raymond.
This schlager version came later and can be heard all over town:
And it’s true. I really fell in love with Heidelberg. I may have felt more blissful there than in my beloved Munich.
Heidelberg is a college town in the Southwestern region of Baden-Württemberg, Germany; home of the famous Heidelberg University and a major hub for science.
This highly respected college was built in the late 1300s and remains one of the most prestigious academic and scientific centers in Germany and worldwide.
The climate is the warmest in Germany and it has provided fertile ground for non-native plants and animals, making it a center for nature studies. The Tinnunculus Falknerei here is a refuge for endangered peregrine falcons, and it is not uncommon to see flocks of exotic birds and fruit trees growing here that are typically found only in the Mediterranean.
Two bridges, Alte Brücke and the Theodor Heuss Brücke, frame the old town district of Heidelberg known as Altstadt. The bridges were blown up in World War II by German soldiers to keep an Allied forces attack at bay, and rebuilt shortly after.
Heidelberg’s sandstone Old Bridge was built in the late 1780s after several of its predecessors had been destroyed.
Everyone’s favourite statue here is the Heidelberg Affen. This cheeky monkey was originally sculpted in the 1500s with one hand holding a mirror and the other grabbing its behind, but the statue went missing during once of France’s many attacks.
The statue you see now has been changed, with the latter hand showing the ancient sign of the horns. It is quite comical if you think of him as a rock-n-roller, but when fingers are facing down, it is historically an old world gesture to ward away evil.
Superstition says that touching the fingers will bring you back to Heidelberg some day, touching the mirror brings wealth, and finding each of the mice nearby will bring loads of children. I was sure to avoid those mice.
On the opposite side of the gate there is a bronze “memo” with a poem written in 1632 by Martin Zeiler, posing the mocking question:
“Why are you staring at me?
Haven’t you seen the old Monkey of Heidelberg?
Look to and fro,
There you will find many more of my kind”
From my interpretation, all of this combined creates an epic insult. The monkey’s behind is pointed toward the nearby town of Mainz, which Heidelberg electorates had serious beef with back then.
The monkey’s mirror is a way of suggesting that the Mainz government should really check themselves, grabbing its behind was an obvious vulgarity, and the poem is basically saying “You think I’m an ass? We all feel this way about you!”
Hotel Goldener Hecht
I stayed in the historic Hotel Goldener Hecht located immediately near the towers of the Alte Brücke gate. Tourists come here at all hours to take photos, pose with the monkey, and walk across the iconic bridge.
Drinking coffee and people watching from my bedside window was very entertaining. I could not find a better location either, most of the places I wanted to visit were within a dozen blocks.
The windy weather here was heaven for me:
Theodor Heuss Brücke
Heuss was a celebrated journalist who became the first President of the Federal Republic of Germany in the late 40s. This bridge, his namesake, frames the opposite side of the Alt Stadt just across from the Alte Brücke.
A gorgeous tree-lined promenade connects the two main bridges. The main districts are Altstadt and Bergheim, and across the river is Neuenheim. It is an easily navigable town, and it is impossible to get lost if you can see the water.
Heiligenberg & Schloß Heidelberg
Up on the Heiligenberg mountain is the Heidelberg Schloß (castle) and the Königsstuhl (King’s Seat). The station tower is slightly visible in the top left corner of the photo below:
From Kornmarkt square, there is a Bahn station that goes directly to the castle, or you can purchase your ticket and walk up the hill for free.
The Heidelberg castle is the most popular site of castle ruins in Germany, and the prominent Renaissance castle north of the Alps.
Above the castle is the Königsstuhl (King’s seat), a station that holds the Falcon sanctuary, several parks, a cafe, an exhibit on the Bergbahn, and some other beckoning places I did not dare enter.
Taking the funicular to the top was a highlight of my stay. At Königsstuhl you will be a staggering 1,804 feet above sea level and 1,436 feet above the city.
To learn more about the castle, the funicular, and the Königsstuhl, check out my blog The Ruins of Heidelberg Castle.
There are more places to eat in Old Town than anyone could conquer in a few days. I wandered through many of the central squares taking inventory of it all before committing.
Most streets in the Alt Stadt are made of cobblestone and there are cafes, restaurants, bars, souvenir shops, department stores, boutique hotels, and bakeries on every block.
On my first night, I ate at a place with no sign. What drew me in was the graffiti and hip hop vibe. From outside under the neons, it looked like a dive but inside it was spacious and tidy.
They were blasting Dr. Dre and gave me something called “The Heavy Breather” so my reservations were quelled.
From my credit card statement, I learned the restaurant is called Joe Molese Burgers. I could hardly get through a single, but they have triple burgers covered in any type of sauce or add-on you could imagine. Now that I have seen the photos on their site, I definitely sold myself short.
Another great place to eat is called Bier-Brezel. My #foodgoals for the day had been to find Rahmschnitzel, and I did, and it came with salad and spätzle. I opted for the Moroccan mint tea service also.
Standard German fare can be found everywhere here, but I must give credit to the Goldener Hecht restaurant. On my last night there, when I had not eaten a single meal with them, they invited me down for their specialty wurst, sauteed cabbage, caramelized potatoes, and an ice cold Jever. It was the perfect send off.
For drinks, my favourite place was Vetter’s Brauhaus. It was not the most exciting or youthful place, but was perfectly cozy and had lots of window spaces with wide wooden sills to curl up in and read my book when my feet were too achy to walk any more.
Vetter has won awards around the globe for having the highest alcohol content in their beers. The barman and I had a joke that since it was just a few steps from my hotel, we could tie a rope around my waist to my room door so I could really let loose one night and just reel myself in later. Maybe if I had stayed a few days longer.
Walking Around Old Town
It was easy to figure out the main roads here. Hauptstraße begins near the Karlstor gate by Heidelberg University and leads all the way through Alt Stadt to Bismarckplatz, the main transportation hub.
Steingaße (Stonegarden) is the short street that begins at the Alte Brücke gate, meets the patio of Goldener Hecht. It stretches another block or so until it intersects with the main street, Haupstraße, one of the longest pedestrian shopping streets in all of Europe.
The trek from bridge to bridge is approximately 1.5 miles; a 3+ mile route each loop. I made it countless times. There are many large, open squares filled with clothing and specialty shops, memorial fountains, and sculptures along the way.
The Heiliggeistkirche (Holy ghost church) was nearby and open for free tours.
The Philosopher’s Way is another popular spot in Heidelberg. Poets, philosophers, writers, professors, and scholars including Martin Luther, Mark Twain, and Victor Hugo walked this path. It is still utilized by students and other visitors when a little inspiration or time to reflect is needed.
From the busy hub of Bismarckplatz where Hauptstraße reaches the Theodor Heuss Brücke, I took Uferstraße to Bergstraße in order to reach the beginning stairs of the 1.5 mile Philosophenweg nature walk.
The trail follows along the Neckar River from an elevated curve in the mountain and ends with Schlangenweg trail which leads you back down the mountain to the Alte Brücke.
There are other paths you can take but that could lead you around for hours, and I would not recommend doing that by yourself. I have heard the Philosophenweg is best enjoyed by taking the route in the reverse direction to spare you the steep climb, but I did not have time to try that out.
Mark Twain wrote “I have never enjoyed a view which had such a serene and satisfying charm about it as this one gives” in his book A Tramp Abroad and it still rings true.
But Heidelberg is also full of many past and present mysteries, some darker than others. Brutal attacks from foreign armies, inexplicably destructive lightning bolts, and questionable fires plagued the land in earlier centuries, among other problems of the time.
In 1907, a jaw bone was found belonging to Homo Heidelbergensis, the earliest living proof of humans in Europe. Some dating methods place him living here around 600,000 years ago.
During the 1930s and 1940s, the town was a Nazi hot spot. Faculty of the Heidelberg University had compiled a list of outsiders (non-Aryans) to hand over on their own volition before Hitler took the reins, sending a large amount of their colleagues and neighbours straight to their deaths.
A secret formerly-Nazi amphitheater called Thingstätte still has its home high in the mountains, though it is mostly used for Walpurgisnacht / Hexennacht parties and raves.
The first Youtube video shows the design of the ampitheater itself and the second gives an idea of what the nighttime events are like.
Then there is the creepy Studentenkarzer jail for students of the University, with haunting drawings scrawled over the walls and sharp iron gates.
The Student Jail was first used for misbehaving university students as early as the 1600s when being jailed became a rite of passage for many students.
Inevitably the jail turned into a party house, and now the building serves as a living memoir of campus life and of those who stayed. The museum contains their works of art, political expressions, artifacts, furniture, books, plans for rallies, and other student activities over the centuries.
The list continues, but the average tourist would never suspect anything amiss of this beautiful, sunny, peaceful town divided by the lovely Neckar River.
On my last night, after finishing off a farewell stein at Vetter, I stepped out into the frigid air for one last view of the castle before tucking in.
Next morning, on the train to Köln.
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