Heidelberg on Foot

Excellent signage guides visitors on a walking tour of the Old Town. The signs show not just maps but explain—in German and English –the history and significance of the location.

The Hauptstrasse (Main Street), Germany's longest pedestrian street, leads to the Old University, popular with tourists more for its Student Prison (Augustinergasse 2) than for its architecture and history. From 1778 to 1914, minor transgressions—disturbing the peace, excessive drinking, rudeness to school officials—landed students in jail from a few days to several weeks, during which time students attended classes. Imprisonment, at least once, was seen as a mark of honor. Student sketches, paintings, and graffiti offer a glimpse into their lives and humor.

The Hauptstrasse ends at the Market Square and the late Gothic Church of the Holy Spirit, built in the 15th and 16th centuries. Facing it is the Zum Ritter Sankt Georg (Knight St. George), with a vibrant Renaissance façade. It is one of few buildings to survive the 17th century and perhaps Heidelberg's most magnificent structure.

Enter the Jugendstil (art nouveau) University Library and view one of the city's less-seen treasures, an extensive manuscript collection dating to the Middle Ages. Across the street is the 12th-century St. Peter's Church.

Escape the throngs and find compelling shops and less visited restaurants on the many side streets, like the Untere Gasse, with its funky boutiques and bistros. Tourists don't seem to have found the Weinstube Café Burkhardt (Untere Gasse #27), with two small, quiet rooms and a peaceful inner courtyard. The fare is mildly exotic—vegetable risotto with pesto, couscous with lamb and vegetables, and chicken breast with carrot-ginger vegetables and basmati rice—and comes in at less than €10.

Head to the Steingasse for a concentrated collection of cafés and pubs like the Brauhaus Vetter, the Casa del Caffe, and the Sylvia Bar. Slip into the hidden courtyard behind Steingasse 9 with its half-timber gallery.

Heidelberg's Funicular

After two years of renovations, the Bergbahnen (Funicular) is back in operation. The first stop is Heidelberg Castle—otherwise reached by foot over one of several routes, including one with signs that alert walkers of the 133 steps that lie ahead. Painted numbers on the steps tell breathless climbers know how many steps they've ascended.

While many visitors get off at the Castle, much more lies ahead. Buy a roundtrip ticket to the top, or the Königstuhl. At the next stop, transfer at the Molkenkur station to the historic and fully restored original 1907 wooden cars of the Königstuhl Bahn. The ride is a bit bumpier and the quarters a bit tighter, but this train has character as it pulls up grades ranging from 28 percent to 43 percent.

The view to the Neckar Valley stretches brilliantly, and the Castle and town take on almost toy-like qualities. Across the way, the trails of the Philosophenweg (Philosopher's Walk) zig-zag across the southern slopes of the Michelsberg and Heiligenberg.

At the top station, signs announce that travelers are now 549.8 meters (1804 feet) above sea level. (Heidelberg itself is at 437.8 meters or 1,430 feet about sea level.)

Here in the Heidelberger Stadtwald, the name "city forest" is an oxymoron because there's nothing in this evergreen forest that hints of a city just below and out of sight. The only sounds are the cries of birds and the occasional tolling of bells carried on a perpetual wind.

Delights Across the River

There's more to see across the river. Head over the Old Bridge from the Altstadt and follow signs to the Philosophenweg, a wooded path that winds up the hillside of the Michelsberg and the Heiligenberg above it. Walk through a stand of 19th-century villas to the quiet woods where Heidelberg's philosophers, poets, and scholars once walked, talked, and gained inspiration.

From the Old Bridge, take a 10-minute walk downstream to Neuenheim (you can also drive or take the #34 bus from the Hauptbahnhof). It's a once-medieval, sometimes-chic, always-charming quarter with abundant character and few tourists. Bistros, cafés, boutiques, and shops abound, including some of Heidelberg's more exclusive restaurants and stores. Neuenheim's market (on Wednesdays and Saturdays from 7 a.m. to 1 p.m.) is bigger than the one in the Altstadt and more authentic. During off hours, kids play ball and older residents play chess in the shadow of the 12th-century tower of the Market Church.

Stop at the Bar d'Aix en Provence (Bergstrasse 1, tel. +49/6221/41 98 95), a cozy tapas bar with tasty nibbles like Spanish pistachios, plums wrapped in bacon, dried tomatoes and Catalonian sausage, and green olives filled with anchovies, or a mixed cheese platter with four types of cheeses and a baguette. In the equally intimate surroundings of Le Coq Bistro and Restaurant (Brückenstrasse 17, tel. +49/6221/411133), enjoy more substantial upscale fare like gnocchi filled with mushroom cream, Argentinean steak in Port wine sauce, and duck breast in orange sauce (reservations suggested on weekends).

Just past Neuenheim, Handschuhsheim is the oldest part of Heidelberg (dating from 765)—and a rustic surprise. Barely 10 minutes from the hectic downtown (take the #3 tram), this former village lies between sprawling vineyards and the wooded slopes of the Heiligenberg. Its tree-lined, cobblestone streets lead past the Tiefburg, a moated castle built during the early Middle Ages, and the Romanesque St. Vitus Church, built in part during the 11th century over 8th-century ruins. Don't miss its extensive 16th-century frescoes. If thirst or hunger intervene, stop at the relaxed Gilberts Goldener Adler or, for more upscale fare, at the 300-year-old Gasthof Lamm (Pfarrgasse 3, +49/6221/479 30), where you have your choice of historic inner rooms or the outdoor beer garden and courtyard. Handschuhsheim is a hidden gem.