A Day in Heidelberg, Germany: Castles, Cobblestone Streets, and Weißbier
Heidelberg is one of those cities that when you visit, you feel like you've been transported to a place of another time. The castle on hill overlooking the city and the old town streets lined with cafes and shops bring so much charm, it's hard not to fall in love with it! I got to spend a week here for a scientific conference and was lucky enough to have a day before work started to explore and take in the culture and wonderful sites of this place, and of course, get some German beer.
To get to Heidelberg, it's an easy hour long train ride from the Frankfurt airport.. that is, if you buy the right ticket. As efficient as Germany is, I at least didn't feel like they gave us a good idea of where to buy the right tickets, and what the difference between regional and national or express trains is. As a general rule, if you are getting on a red train with a regional ticket, you're probably wrong. So check with the conductor or someone at the train station before boarding, or you'll end up having to pay more on the train. Google transit does a great job of telling you how to get there, but it doesn't show you the cost differences. Regional tickets are much cheaper, but to get to Heidelberg they involve a couple of transfers. I find that it's best to talk to someone at information, or just get the more expensive express and direct ICE train.
Before I get into the details of the day, I need to give a little hotel shine. We stayed at the convenient and clean Holiday Inn Express in the center of the city. Everyone spoke English, so it made communicating really easy. It had a great free breakfast (with to go coffee) and was located close to the train station and right next to the bus stop we needed to take every day to the conference site. The short walk into Old Town was only about 1-2 km and took about 15 minutes, so it was absolutely worth staying there for the much cheaper stay. They also provided extra outlet converters which was great when I got there and realized mine was broken.
Almost all of the major sites in Heidelberg are in the Altstadt (Old Town) on the eastern side of the city spanning over the Neckar River. As you approach Altstadt, you'll immediately see the castle ruins on top of the hill. I recommend starting off your visit like we did with a trip up to the Heidelberg Schloß (castle) grounds. It is the must-see sight in Heidelberg. To get up to the castle, you can take the funicular for 5€ (which includes a ticket in to the castle) but I recommend you save your money and just take the steps up! It's an easy climb, manageable in sandals, though I wouldn't recommend heels. The castle grounds and park are all free to roam, and the views from there are absolutely amazing! To get inside of the castle, it's the 5€ with an optional 4€ for an audio tour. We opted to not go inside, because the inside space seemed limited, and a lot of the castle was able to be seen from the outside. If you opt for the funicular, there's no reason to not go inside and check it out. They do host concerts and other events in the space, so if you're in town for one, it could be an interesting thing to check out.
From the top of the hill, you can look down to all of Heidelberg old town. I love starting off my trip with a climb like this so that I can get my directional bearings for the city. This space was particularly nice because it was so big and offered a ton of different view points so it didn't feel overcrowded at all, even for a beautiful Saturday afternoon. After we took in every view possible from up there (there's so many), we headed back down into Old Town and just got lost in the seemingly endless amount of alleys and cobblestone streets.
If you still haven't gotten your castle fix, Karlsplatz offers a great view of an old time square with the castle in the background. There's a cute Italian-style cafe (Grano) and book store situated in this square too. I got a cappuccino and sat outside for a second in this space (they have WiFi) to rest my feet, get my caffeine fix, and take it all in. After our quick break, we meandered over to Marktplatz (Market place/square) where there was a small Saturday market going on and a ton of people browsing and sitting at the outdoor patios. Yufkas kebab serves an awesome (and cheap) döner kebab.. and I'm a harsh critic after living in Berlin. We continued to wonder around, popping in to a couple of the open churches. Old Town was really one of those places where you turn a corner and you're just so repeatedly charmed by each alley.
After all of our wondering through Old Town, we crossed the river via the Altbrücke (Old Bridge) to the Philosopher's Way (Philosophenweg). It's a slight climb up the hill - maybe just enough to get your heart pumping a bit - but the views at the top are great and offer a totally different view of the city with the castle in the background. We followed the white trail for about a mile (through woods) to get to the old abby-turned brewery and restaurant, Stift Neuberg (facing the castle on the trail, go left). The outdoor seating, scenery & traditional food are great, they offer three beers like a good German restaurant, and it's an atypical tourist attraction that was absolutely worth the walk! There is also a bus that can get you there if you're not up for the walk. On our way back, we walked down the hill first and followed the river back to Old Town. This route also makes for a great running trail, which I did a couple of times in the mornings. Wandering back through, we made the mandatory in-Europe gelato stop (there are a ton of options) and enjoyed it sitting by the river.
Overall - Heidelberg absolutely enchanted me. It had such traditional German charm and I loved staying there!