As Heidelberg is not very large, the sights in the Old town can be discovered easily on foot. With 15 parking houses, the city centre offers enough space to park a car, yet Heidelberg also boasts an expansive public transportation system with Park & Ride parking lots in the Neuenheimer Feld and at the Neuer Meßplatz in Kirchheim. If you are only spending a few days in Heidelberg, you should invest in the Heidelberg-Card, valid for either 1-2 or 3-4 days. This allows you to travel free on buses and trams and reduced (and often free) admission into many museums and the castle.
Perhaps the most important visitor’s attraction in Heidelberg (a town which entertains about 3.5 million annually) is the Old town with its sights and narrow, picturesque roads. This area extends to an area of 2 km on both sides of the lively Hauptstraße from the Bismarckplatz in the west along the south bank of the river Neckar and east to the foot of the famous Schloss. The castle lies majestically enthroned on a small plateau above the river and town. Other areas that certainly belong amongst Heidelberg’s most important locations are the Universitätsplatz (University place), the Marktplatz (Market place) and the Alte Brücke (Old bridge). Most of Heidelberg’s museums are to be found in the Old town, along with theatres, cinemas and countless restaurants and pubs.
The Neckar valley leads upstream in an easterly direction. Schlierbach lies here on the southern side. It was first documented in 1245 as having hardly more than 3,000 inhabitants and it is arguably the smallest district in Heidelberg. To the north, Ziegelhausen is located which was founded about 850 A.D. It is beautifully situated between the Neckar meadows and the Odenwald forest and is a fantastic starting point for hiking-tours. The Textile Museum Max Berk and the Benedictine cloister Stift Neuburg are both popular visitor’s choices.
West of the Old town and castle, between the Kurfürsten-Anlage and the Neckar, the district Bergheim reaches from the Bismarckplatz in the centre to the motorway. In 769, Bergheim had already been mentioned as an independent settlement, but in 1392, the inhabitants were resettled within Heidelberg’s town walls. The area was only built up again in the 19th century, characterised by institutes and the university hospital, small businesses and residential premises.
South of Bergheim lies the Weststadt, with its beautiful old facades. It is a district much in demand amongst housebuyers today. To the west of it, you will find the Main railway station. It is only recently, since 1935, that the Südstadt has developed and expanded and it now joins the Weststadt along the Mark-Twain-Village and the NATO Headquarters, with the former village Rohrbach to its south. Rohrbach had already been documented as early as 766 and, like Heidelberg itself, suffered damage in the Thirty-Years-War and the French-Palatinate War of Succession. The districts of Boxberg and Emmertsgrund are situated on a rise above Rohrbach, and have only really grown in the last 50 years.
The westerly Kirchheim is also an old settlement. Tombs of Merowinger from the early stone age (3500-1800 B.C.) were found here. Kirchheim itself was first mentioned 767. It, too, suffered from the wars in the 17th century and afterwards seemed to develop at breakneck speed. From a population of just 350 inhabitants in 1766, it had expanded to 2,000 by 1861. In 1920, it was incorporated into Heidelberg and is now home to some 17,000 inhabitants. Like Rohrbach its new infrastructure presents a wide range of gastronomical and shopping possibilities.
Pfaffengrund lies North-west, close to the highway and was largely the project of ‘The Garden City Movement’ at the beginning of the 20th century. This group’s objective was to bring about low-priced housing with gardens for working-class families and other socially disadvantaged citizens. With this background, the Pfaffengrund developed in several phases of building: 1920, 1934 and 1948-53. This focal point has remained, yet Pfaffengrund has since grown considerably and now has a population of about 8,000.
Wieblingen lies Between the highway and a bend of the river Neckar. Not only was a mammoth tooth found here, but also traces of human settlements dating from the stone age. Wieblingen itself was first mentioned in a deed of donation in 767. In the following centuries, the Wieblinger inhabitants made their living from agriculture and fishing, but this hamlet was plundered on several occasions and burnt down in the wars of the 17th century. In the 19th century the first crafts workshops and industrial companies flourished. The residential character changed from village-like structures to working-class dwellings, and, like Pfaffengrund, a garden city with small houses and gardens was set up. Nowadays Wieblingen even has a speciality museum, the Bonsai-Museum which is certainly worth a visit.
The former village Neuenheim is situated just north of Heidelberg’s centre. Its origins date back to a Roman Castellum. In 765, Neuenheim was first mentioned and developed (like the hamlets around) into a settlement for peasants and fishermen. In the ‘Thirty Years War’ and again in the French-Palatinate War of Succession it was completely destroyed. Later, in the 19th century it became the favourite residential area of university professors and today one still can admire the beautiful art nouveau villas. With the beginning of the 20th century, the university institutes for natural sciences were relocated from the town centre to the close-by Neuenheimer Feld. Besides two Max-Planck-Institutes, the German Cancer Research Center (DKFZ) is also based here. Furthermore, you will find a cluster of sports grounds, an open-air swimming-pool, the Schwimmbad Music Club, the Youth Hostel and last but not least the visitors’ attractions Heidelberg Zoo and the Botanical Garden.
Heidelberg’s most northern district is Handschuhsheim, first mentioned in 765. Over many centuries, until 1600, it belonged to the aristocratic dynasty of Handschuhsheim, whose last male heir lost his life in a tragical duel. The impressive Tiefburg, surrounded by a deep moat, once belonged to this dynasty. In the St. Vitus Church, the oldest church on Heidelberg grounds, several members of the family line are buried in old and fascinating sepulchres. The Handschuhsheimer Schlößchen, and the many restaurants and pubs (far from the tourist bustle) make a visit to Handschuhsheim (or Hendesem as the local say) more than worthwhile.
As a whole, Heidelberg consists of 14 districts in which about 140,000 people live today. Most of the university’s 25,000 students live in and around Heidelberg and contribute greatly to Heidelberg’s young and dynamic flair. Heidelberg’s mild winters (at sunny and protected spots even fig trees, palms and other exotic plants survive this season outside) and many sunny summer’s days offer ample opportunity to visit tourist attractions in Heidelberg’s Old town, or go on day trips to enjoy a glass of wine, a tasty meal and to take in the country and its culture.
History of Heidelberg
Traces of human existence around Heidelberg date from the dawn of history: 500.000 years ago the Homo heidelbergensis lived in this area and from the Stone Age potsherds and stone weapons have remained. About 800 B.C., the Celts settled on the Heiligenberg. Later the Romans were here and some important archeological artefacts from this period have been found (providing knowledge about the viniculture). They were driven away by the Alemannic tribe in 260 A.D. A lasting settlement was only founded in the 6th century and the villages Neuenheim and Bergheim developed quickly, followed by Handschuhsheim (765 mentioned first), Rohrbach (766) as well as Wieblingen and Kirchheim (both 767 first mentioned).
The title of the Count Palatinate at Rhine was first granted to Konrad of Hohenstaufen, a brother of Emperor Friedrich I of Barbarossa, in 1155. The name Heidelberch was mentioned for the first time in 1196, in a deed of the Cloister Schönau. The history of the castle starts in 1225, when the Wittelsbach Ludwig I., Count Palatinate 1214-1231, gained a castle as a feudal tenure from the Cloister Lorsch, with the aim that he might protect the trade road into the Neckar valley. In 1356, the electoral title is embodied in the constitution: from that date on, the Count Palatinates held one of the seven titles as Imperial Electors.
In 1386, Ruprecht I. founded the University and even in 1392, Heidelberg extended as far as the present-day Bismarckplatz, and in 1400 the building of the Holy Ghost Church began. In the same year, Elector Ruprecht III. was elected as the German King Ruprecht I. and following his death the Palatinate was divided between his four sons. His son Ludwig III. succeeded him in Heidelberg, and the town was praised in the work of the medieval poet Oswald von Wolkenstein, an acquaintance of the king: “Ich ruem dich, haidlberg” (I laud thee, haidlberg).
In the following years Heidelberg and its castle flourished. Ludwig V. (1508-1544) enforced the fortress elements of the castle, among them the Artillery Garden and the Herb Tower. During this time the Library and the Ladies Building were erected and the Economy buildings enlarged. In 1524 Ludwig V. added the Ludwigsbau and the Hall-of-Mirrors Building was erected under Friedrich II. in 1549. Elector Ottheinrich (1556-1559) began the transition of the castle into a splendid Renaissance building by commissioning the Ottheinrich Palace. Friedrich IV. (1592-1610) added the Friedrichsbau Palace, and also founded the city of Mannheim in 1606/07. Following this, both the castle and Heidelberg flourished dramatically. Peasants, fisherman, craftsmen and traders settled here, but due to the War of Succession hardly anything has remained. An especially beautiful example of a feature that did at the market place, however, is the house Zum Ritter St. Georg which was built by a Huguenot trader in 1592.
Heidelberg and its Electors became repeatedly involved in political and theological arguments about popes and the question of the true faith. In 1415, on Imperial order, Elector Ludwig III. was forced to give up the Bohemian heretic Johannes Hus to death by burning in Constance. By 1518, however, Martin Luther was given an opportunity to defend his theses unmolested in the Heidelberg Augustinian Cloister. As early as 1556, the Palatinate converted to the Reformation. Under the Electors’ influence the university had developed to a hotbed for the reformists and the 1653 published Calvinistic “Heidelberg Catechism” became most prominent handbook of this religious body in Europe. In 1608, Elector Friedrich IV. became leader of of the Protestant Union and the conflict between Catholic and Protestant German countries got significantly stronger. Inspite of these political thunderclouds Friedrich V. (1613-1623) , the Winter King, arranged the Castle even more splendidly. He unveiled ambitious plans and limited himself not only to buildings reminiscent of the English Palace but also demanded that the Castle Garden be turned into the eighth wonder of the world. After having been elected King of Bohemia in 1619, he was defeated as early as 1620 in the Battle of the White Mountain and lost, due to his haughtiness, both his title and land. This conflict formed the foundations of the Thirty Years’ War (1618-1648).
In 1622 the Imperial General Tilly captured Heidelberg and had the famous Bibliotheca Palatina carried off to the Vatican. The university was closed in the course of the war’s turmoil, and the Palatinate consequently fell to Bavaria’s Catholic domination. During the war Heidelberg and its vicinity were ransacked and destroyed on a number of occasions. The land lost three-fourths of its population, either through the war or as a result of epidemics such as typhoid fever, pocks or pestilence. With the Westphalia Peace in 1649, Karl Ludwig, son of Friedrich V., became Elector Palatinate and opened the country to the Protestants again. Many Huguenots, Flemings, and Wallones settle in Heidelberg in the following years. The university was reopened in 1652.
1671 Karl Ludwig married off his unhappy daughter Elisabeth Charlotte (1652-1721), called Liselotte of Palatinate , to Philip of Orléans, the brother of the French Sun King Ludwig XIV. As in 1685, the Pfalz-Simmern lineage of the Wittelsbach house became extinct. The Sun King declared the Palatinate the property of France and started the Palatinate-French War of Succession . The surrounding town and villages were destroyed in 1689. Handschuhsheim alone was burned down three times, the dead were buried in mass graves. In Heidelberg the rebuilding began quite soon, yet in 1693 town and castle were once again captured, by General Mélac, and this time the French troops caused systematic devastation: the castle was blown up and the town burned to the ground.
The re-building of Heidelberg was not begun before 1697. The Hauptstraße was rebuilt along the markings of the medieval streets, but in Baroque style: from 1701 the Town hall was begun, 1712-1715 the Palais Morass with today’s Electoral Palatinate Museum and between 1712-1735 the Old University. Alternative motives accompanied the patching up of the new Elector’s residence in the Lower Rhine region: the new and from now on Catholic Wittelsbach lineage attempted to convince the Protestant Palatinate of the glory of Catholicism, erecting Madonnas (among them the Kornmarkt Madonna) and the Jesuit Church. A new conflict arose between the population and the Elector, whereupon he abandoned all plans to restore the Heidelberg Castle and in 1720 made the Mannheim Palace (besides the summer residence in Schwetzingen) his residential Palace.
Elector Karl Theodor (1742-1799) began eagerly building during his reign. His plans produced the Great Barrel (1750), the Karlstor (1775-1781) and the Old bridge (1786-1788). Yet when the half restored Castle burnt down anew by lightning strike in 1764, any building activity was abandoned and the Castle was left nearly unnoticed. It was only in the early 19th century that Count Graimberg advocated the conservation of the Castle ruins, gaining praise and adoration for the town and castle of Heidelberg. Big names such as Clemens Brentano, Achim von Arnim and Joseph von Eichendorff as well the first foreign guests like Edward Bulwer, William Turner or Mark Twain depict the scene, consisting of river landscape, town and castle in impressive pictures.
However, Heidelberg has developed its own character, independent of that of the castle. In 1803, the university was reformed by the Grand Duke of Baden Karl Friedrich (and has since then been known as the Rupertus-Karolus-University, using the name of both founders). The institute of the natural sciences is to be found in Neuenheim today. With the incorporation of the villages around Heidelberg, it has considerably expanded and its economy has developed steadily. Today’s Heidelberg is a city with a time-honored past, but it also has built a name as a young and lively city.