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Philosophers' Walk offers a breathtaking view of the town, but it takes a 15-minute climb up a steep series of staircases to reach it.

Germany's storybook town

Places to stay and dine

By Dennis Callan
Special to the Star-Bulletin

Heidelberg is one of the prettiest and best-preserved towns in Germany, set in picture-postcard perfection alongside the Neckar River, with a classic castle towering above. Filled with Old World charm, it's like something dreamed up by Disney -- but this is the real thing. Heidelberg's historic center of picturesque, 18th-century buildings, about a mile long and four blocks wide, is an ideal size to explore on foot.

Three days can be easily filled with walks through the Old Town streets and into the main squares, visiting shops, restaurants and bars, exploring the castle and taking a boat ride on the Neckar or the Rhine to quaint villages.

Map of Germany

Most who come through Heidelberg on bus tours get a quick look at the castle and a snapshot glimpse of the town, but it is worth visiting for several days.

Heidelberg is full of charming four-story buildings that share similar facades and earthy color schemes, topped by clay-tile roofs. No two buildings are alike, yet they all blend seamlessly in a simple Baroque style. While the exteriors may be centuries old, the shop interiors are totally contemporary, with all the latest goods on sale, while restaurants will delight you with gourmet fare and beer.

Allied commanders during World War II earmarked Heidelberg as their postwar headquarters, so they avoided bombing this city. Most other German cities suffered severely, so the majority of the nation's historic-looking buildings are reconstructions. But in Heidelberg these are the originals. Ironically, the well-preserved historic town center is a result of extensive war damage from earlier times -- a tale that goes back a thousand years.

Heidelberg history

A sign welcomes visitors to charming Heidelberg.

The foundations of Heidelberg's buildings are Gothic, built from the 12th through the 16th centuries, along a grid street pattern. The roads may have been built as early as the first century when the Romans established a camp here. They were noted for their engineering skills in laying out rectangular cities. Going back further, evidence of the earliest known human culture in Europe -- a Homo erectus specimen dating about 550,000 years ago, called the "Heidelberg Man" -- was found here in 1907.

It is believed that the first village was started in the fifth century. One of the more significant events was the construction of the huge castle on the hill, begun in the early 14th century. Two hundred years later, the castle was expanded in the Renaissance style, firmly establishing Heidelberg as the center of government for a vast area. The castle is the city's major visitor attraction.

Germany's first university opened here in 1386, and it is still an important part of Heidelberg. The town grew peacefully until the 17th century, when several wars broke out between Catholics and Protestants, complicated by foreign invasions, including control by Sweden from 1633 to 1634. Heidelberg survived it all until the massive invasion in 1688 by Louis XIV, who claimed control over the region in his campaign to expand the borders of France. The entire Old Town was flattened, and the castle was partly destroyed.

Survivors rebuilt the city in the early 18th century. Most of the buildings are from that period, so you are looking at structures that are about 300 years old. Modern developments have been kept away from this old part of town, thanks to a strict zoning code.

The Old Town is about 20 blocks long, stretched out along the Neckar River, so there are ample nooks and crannies to keep you busy for days. Most of this area is a pedestrian zone, so you can enjoy relaxed strolling. The main lane is the Hauptstrasse, which extends the entire length and is lined with shops, restaurants, bars and cafes. This is one of Europe's greatest streets for walking and will be your main focus, along with the castle.

Heidelberg Castle is a romantic ruin whose mix of beauty and decay reflects its turbulent past. Crumbling walls and towers flank a palace with a fully restored interior, showing how grand it was as far back as the 15th century.


Walking tour in the Old Town

Main Square: The traveler is often faced with a paradox: You visit a place because it is attractive, but so does everybody else, and then it becomes less attractive. To minimize the crowds, get an early start with a walk in the "Marktplatz" and the little alleys around this main square.

The center of the Marktplatz gives you a fine perspective on the town, with the Holy Ghost Church ("Heiliggeistkirche") on one side and the old City Hall on the other. This Gothic church was built in the early 15th century with the red sandstone typical of Heidelberg. You can climb the church tower for a small fee and listen to concerts here on summer evenings.

The marketplace has always been the main square, hosting activities from food sales to public executions.

People are still drawn by outdoor tables for dining, drinking beer and watching people. There are little shop stalls built into the wall of the church between the buttresses, in a tradition that has been carried on since the Middle Ages. The stalls are good places to buy postcards, T-shirts and souvenirs. On Wednesdays and Saturdays there is a farmers' market, with fruits, vegetables and cheeses.

Back streets: Numerous alleys around the Marktplatz will lead you through interesting neighborhoods. Cars are allowed only by special permit. In the summer there could be a thousand people in the square, while the residential zone a block away remains empty. A few shops and offices are on the ground floor of these alleys, with apartments upstairs. Don't miss Untere Strasse, a serene alley parallel to the main street, with some lovely little boutiques and cafes.

The main street, the Hauptstrasse, features shop after shop in a mile-long lineup of historic buildings, whose old facades and modern interiors make for a winning combination. There are also plenty of cafes and street musicians in this pedestrian zone.

This combination of low-rise buildings with medium density, in a comfortable mix of residential and commercial, creates what planners call a "human scale," where numerous people can live without crowding. Many modern towns are struggling to re-create the old mix to overcome suburban sprawl, traffic and inner city decay.

You will be drawn down the Hauptstrasse, the "high street," because it is so alluring, with one shop after another in a lineup of historic buildings that continues for a mile. Old façades with modern interiors make for a winning combination. There are plenty of cafes and snack bars along the way. Stop and listen to the street musicians, and be sure to leave a tip. Keep going to the end of the pedestrian zone.

Those who love to shop could continue beyond the Hauptstrasse into the modern section of Heidelberg, to the Galeria Kaufhof, a big mall on Bismarckplatz.

However, this is where the magic ends, for you are now in the "Neuenheim" section, full of contemporary buildings and traffic.

Kurpfalzisches City Museum: Along with the shops and eateries, Heidelberg is home to some fine cultural institutions. This is the city's most outstanding museum, located midway along the Hauptstrasse, and housing paintings, sculpture, graphics and decorative arts in a beautiful Baroque palace. The masterpiece of the Kurpfalzisches' collection is a carved wooden altar made in 1509 by Germany's most important Renaissance sculptor, Tilman Riemenschneider.

Across the street is the most famous pastry shop in town, Schafheutle, with seating in front, inside, or in the beautiful garden out back. This "Konditorei" offers a full menu all day.

Kurpfalzisches Museum houses paintings, sculpture, graphics, furniture and decorative arts, but the masterpiece of its collection is a wooden altar carved in 1509 by Tilman Riemenschneider, Germany's most important Renaissance sculptor.

University: Walk two more blocks along Hauptstrasse to the university district, centered around Universitatsplatz. While many classes take place a few miles away in the new part of Heidelberg, the original campus in this middle section of the Old Town is still active, and extends from the river to the hillside. Its most famous site is the library, built in the Baroque style and housing 2 million books. Another interesting structure is the student cafeteria, in a former arsenal along the river. Seven Nobel Prize winners have taught at this school, which is one of Germany's top universities, where there is an emphasis on science, technology, research and development. One in every five residents is a student.

Just on the other side of campus you will see the Baroque façade of the Jesuit Church, which looks more Italian than German. The inside is rather plain but worth seeing. This was one of the first buildings constructed after the wars of the late 17th century. From here, walk along Ingrimstrasse six blocks to Kornmarkt.

Kornmarkt: A block east of the Marktplatz you will come upon this important town square where corn was sold in the old days. The marketplace is paved in old cobblestones, and surrounds a Baroque statue of the Madonna standing on a fountain pedestal. There is a bank on the corner that takes travelers checks, an ATM machine and a currency exchange machine, which takes dollars and gives back euros. Another block along Hauptstrasse will take you to the next small square, Karlsplatz, with a modern fountain at its center and a nice view of the castle.

The Student Prince: Two famous student pubs are here, the Red Ox and Zum Sepp'l, both offering bar meals, beer and occasional music. The Red Ox was featured in the classic operetta, "The Student Prince" -- which helped make Heidelberg famous in the early 20th century -- and again in the Hollywood film version made in 1954, featuring Ann Blyth.

As the story goes, a young prince is sent to Heidelberg University for a final fling and falls in love with a commoner bartender, but must eventually return to his proper station in life. This lyrical operetta enhanced Heidelberg's romantic image, which had been established earlier by poets such as Goethe, who called it "an ideal landscape," and Brahms, who composed "Lullaby" while sitting on the riverbank. J.M.W. Turner painted fiery sunsets here, and Mark Twain praised the town so much in "A Tramp Abroad" that he ushered in the modern era of tourism.

You don't need to walk beyond those two bars, unless you want to visit the anthropology museum at Palais Weimar. Hauptstrasse ends at an impressive gateway called the Karlstor on the east edge of the Old Town. There are some quaint alleys toward the river, if you want to explore.

The famous Philosophers' Walk, affords a postcard-perfect view from a terrace overlooking the town.

Old Bridge and Philosophers' Walk: To get to the famous Philosophers' Walk, cross the river on the Old Bridge ("Alte Brucke"), one of the city's signature sites dating to 1786. Pass through the twin-towered gatehouse onto the bridge. Walk a few yards to get a postcard view.

Follow the sign to "Philosophenweg," a foot path that leads up the hill in a steep series of staircases. This 15-minute climb is not for the fainthearted, but it is worth the effort. It will take you to a terrace overlooking the village, with the castle above.

Continue a mile to the path's end and cross over the Neckar on the Theodor-Heuss Bridge to the west edge of the Old Town. At the first viewpoint, sit on a bench to soak it all in, then return to Old Town and get ready for dinner.

There are some great places to eat. Walk to the block-long Steingasse, lined with restaurants, including Hacktaufel, with traditional German cuisine and excellent beer. My four favorite restaurants, all within a few blocks of the bridge are Zum Ritter, Simplicissimus, Weisser Bock and Backmulde. They will knock you over with their rich flavors, fair prices and excellent service. Local specialties include lamb, venison, sausage, wild game, and spaetzel, the wonderful potato dumplings that soak up flavors better than pasta.

There are many casual eating alternatives along Hauptstrasse, serving Mexican, Thai, Chinese, Italian, Spanish and Greek fare, plus some cozy little pubs and bars.


The Castle

Heidelberg Castle: It would be smart to devote most of the day to the most important site in Heidelberg -- the castle on the hill. It is a romantic ruin, with enough buildings still standing to offer a good idea of how wonderful it was from the 15th century to the 17th century. The mix of beauty and decay reflects the turbulent past of this fortification.

Crumbling walls and towers stand next to a palace containing a fully restored interior. It also offers a fantastic view, overlooking the Old Town. This is one of the great vistas of Europe.

Catch a funicular up the hill by walking out the back of Karlsplatz to the lift station. You could walk up the hill along the steep streets behind the lift, but the round-trip fare is less than $5, so you might as well save your strength and take the 5-minute ride on this old-fashioned inclined rail car, which opened in 1890.

Get off at the "Schloss" castle station, go through the gateway and see the grand vista below. The castle is built on steep cliffs to prevent invasion from the front, with high walls and a dry moat protecting the rear. Castles like this were sanctuaries, but when attacked by cannons introduced in the 16th and 17th centuries, the mighty walls could be blasted to dust. The crumbling tower on the corner is testament to this age of destruction that came with the French invaders. You will be delighted to see how beautifully the inside is preserved.

Heidelberg Castle was built on cliffs, with high walls and a moat to protect it from invasion. It was occupied by royalty for three centuries until its destruction in the 17th century.

Purchase your $3 ticket to enter the castle courtyard. For another $3 you can walk through some of the private rooms. The castle was occupied by local royalty for three centuries, until its destruction in the late 17th century. Preservation and reconstruction continued into the 20th century.

As you enter the castle through the fortified Gate House, bridge and Gate Tower, look up into the arch to see the huge portcullis, a pointed gate that would drop down to seal the entrance. Two drawbridges and four more gates complete the barriers intended to keep invaders out.

Central Courtyard: As you stand in the courtyard, surrounded by the castle, your eyes will be drawn to the Renaissance façade of the Friedrich Building, dripping with sculptural and architectural details. Built from 1601 to 1607, as the living quarters for the Duke of Bavaria, it is embellished with 16 statues depicting emperors and kings of the Wittelsbach dynasty. You can find pictures of this façade in history books and on all the postcard racks.

Pieces of the castle stand all around the courtyard. Some are well-preserved, while others are damaged. After the castle was devastated by French artillery, it was struck decades later, in 1764, by a massive lightning storm that burned down half the surviving structures, finishing off hopes of restoration. The Ottheinrichsbau, one storm casualty, is considered the finest example of German Renaissance architecture. It is still pretty, with dozens of statues depicting heroes of the Bible and mythology, framed by neoclassical pilasters, cornices, molding and scrolls.

Giant wine barrel: Be sure to visit the cellar on the left of the courtyard, containing the world's largest wine barrel, made from 120 large oak trees, with a capacity of 275,000 bottles of wine. It is so big that there is a wooden staircase leading to a viewing platform on the top, which then descends steeply down the other side. There was a network of pipes running throughout the castle to deliver the wine in a fantastic plumbing system.

Three times as much wine was stored elsewhere in the cellar, for a total of 1 million bottles. The steady stream of guzzling reportedly averaged 2,000 liters every day.

There is a wine-tasting bar that allows visitors to sample German red and white wine varieties at a reasonable price. The castle also houses a restaurant with an excellent wine collection. This country is famous for beer, but modern Germans are more likely to drink wine. Their vineyards no longer produce only sweet white wines, but have broadened to focus on the dry reds so popular now.

As you emerge from the cellar, an archway leads from the courtyard to the Great Terrace, offering a vista similar to your first view but from a slightly different angle.

Medical museum: Your basic ticket also includes a visit into the German Pharmacy Museum, which has several basement galleries covering the history of medicine and pharmaceuticals. It presents a fascinating collection of laboratory instruments from the 16th through 19th centuries. One room is a reproduction of an apothecary shop, with original cabinets, scales, and jars.

Some of the medicines look ghastly. Displays offer explanations in English. The setting seems grim because you are walking inside the castle's lower level, through rooms that feel like caverns carved out of bedrock.

For the complete castle experience you can visit the private rooms of the royal families who lived here during its three centuries of glory. What looks like a rugged fortification is a splendid palace, with a mix of décor ranging from the Renaissance through the Baroque eras. The rooms feature murals, stucco reliefs, period furnishings, ceramic stoves, marble statues, wood mosaic floors and a large reception hall still used for special events.

The Friedrich Building in the castle's courtyard is embellished with 16 statues that depict emperors and kings of the Wittelsbach dynasty.

The Gardens: As you emerge into the castle courtyard, have a last look at the facades, the fountain, and the variety of trees and flowers because the next stop is the Castle Garden.

The Castle Garden was originally a rocky chasm that provided a barrier, defending the castle's flank. In the early 17th century, King Friedrich V decided to fill it in with statues, fountains, flowerbeds, greenhouses, baths, fish ponds and other delights. It developed a reputation as the eighth wonder of the world, but the king's disregard for the castle's natural defenses backfired during the Thirty Years War, when invading armies used the gardens as an avenue for attack. Subsequent wars destroyed the landscape, which was abandoned, then redesigned in the early 19th century in the simple English style you see today.

When finished with the gardens, you can take the 5-minute funicular ride down to continue your explorations and shopping in the Old Town. Or take a longer funicular ride to the top of the mountain, at 1,600 feet, where there is an amusement park, snack bar and observation tower. You could then ride down on the funicular, or walk an easy path downhill a couple of miles through the woods back to town.

The castle and mountain excursion will take most of the day. But you have time for a 40-minute boat ride, leaving from the dock near the university cafeteria, near Bauamtsgasse, about one half-mile from the Marketplatz. The mini-cruise gives you a relaxing view of the city and riverbank parks.

If you are in Heidelberg during July or August, there is a Summer Festival at the castle, with music and stage performances in the courtyard, or inside the Great Hall when it rains. Travel during this peak season means hot days and crowded conditions, but an advantage is that there are more activities. Other celebrations include chamber music festivals in January and June, and a Christmas Market in December.


Excursions out of town

Most of Heidelberg's main sights have been covered, so your third day is ideal for a trip out of town. Your best choice is the boat excursion to Neckarsteinach, a small village on the Neckar River where you could spend a few hours having lunch and exploring the ruins of several small castles.

It takes 90 minutes to reach. The medium-sized river ship holds several hundred people, with comfortable chairs indoors and on the deck, plus a decent snack bar.

Neckarsteinach is known as the Town of Four Castles, so the main event is walking along the footpath which takes you to the old ruins. The final castle is the best of the lot. You can clamber over its abandoned walls, and walk the crumbled stairs to get a view looking down on the river valley.

Like many castles along Europe's waterways, these were homes to barons who extorted tolls from passing ships, so they needed a view of their prey.

Back in the village center you will find several nice restaurants serving typical local foods. A small brass band sometimes performs at outdoor pubs, so listen for the tunes as you walk around.

This easy half-day trip will get you back to Heidelberg in time for a final afternoon and evening to shop, explore areas you may have missed, and have another great dinner.

Rhine River: There is a more rewarding excursion you could take to the Rhine River, by train and boat. The most beautiful section of the Rhine is close to Heidelberg, between the cities of Koblenz and Mainz, offering views of pretty villages, hillside castles and vineyards. You can get from Heidelberg to Mainz by train in one hour.

From Mainz, take a six-hour scenic boat ride to Koblenz, passing the legendary Lorelei Rock and many other sights, including the little wine villages of St. Goar, Oberwesel, Assmannshausen, Bingen and Ruedesheim. The boat is a river cruiser, with a full-service restaurant and many comfortable chairs inside and on the deck. Return from Koblenz via a 90-minute train ride. This jaunt would be a great way to complete your visit to beautiful Heidelberg.

Dennis Callan is the president of the Hawaii Geographic Society and produces the "World Traveler" television series airing at 8 p.m. Mondays on 'Olelo, channel 52. He frequently leads tours through Europe and writes "Three Days In ..." for the Star-Bulletin the first Sunday of each month, explaining how to get the most out of three days in the world's great places.


Traditional German cuisine includes this meal of sausage with potatoes and sauerkraut, but local specialties can range from venison to the great potato dumplings called spaetzel.

If you go

Here are some places to stay and dine while in Heidelberg. When calling from the United States, add the prefix 011.


(Each houses a fine restaurant)

>> Hotel Hollander Hof: This is my favorite, at 66 Neckarstaden. Call 49-6221-60500, fax 49-6221-605060, e-mail
>> Weisser Bock: At 24 Grosse Mantelgasse. Call 49-6221-90000, fax 49-6221-900099.
>> Gasthaus Backmulde: At 11 Schiffgasse. Call 49-6221-53660, fax 49-6221-536660.
>> Zum Ritter: At 178 Hauptstrasse. Call 49-6221-1350, fax 49-6221-135230.
>> Hackteufel: At 7 Steingasse. Call 49-6221-905380, fax 49-6221-165379.
>> Goldene Hecht: At 2 Steingasse. Call or fax 49-6221-166025.


>> Simplicissimus: At 16 Ingrimstrasse. Call 49-6221-183336.
>> Nordsee Meeresbuffet: At 20 Hauptstrasse. Call 49-6221-22037.
>> Schafheutle: At 94 Hauptstrasse. Call 49-6221-21316.
>> Restaurant Schlossweinstube: In Heidelberg Castle. Call 49-6221-97970.
>> Red Ox: 217 Hauptstrasse. Call 49-6221-20977.
>> Kurpfalzisches Museum Restaurant: At 97 Hauptstrasse. Call 49-6221-24050.



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