Port of Heidelberg
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With a population of 150,000, Heidelberg remains a small, charming city in a beautiful setting nearly 150 years after Mark Twain penned a glowing review in his 1879 travelogue "A Tramp Abroad." And Heidelberg's most charming aspects are, just as they were in Twain's day, focused on the quaint Altstadt (Old Town) and its surroundings. Below the ramparts of Heidelberg Castle nearly 300 feet above, the Old Town and its narrow, cobbled Hauptstrasse (main street) are nestled in snug, picturesque fashion between the Neckar River and the castle hill.
Heidelberg has truly ancient roots. Evidence of human habitation dates back thousands of years -- 500,000-year-old fossilized remains of a likely human ancestor were found nearby and named after Heidelberg -- and the city is also rich with a more tangible history, in its mishmash of ancient, medieval and modern architecture. And this is, perhaps, what makes Heidelberg such a pleasing place to visit. Amid its beautiful natural surroundings, the city's cultural landscape creates a kind of continuous historical narrative that visitors can follow back through the centuries. From the "Old Bridge" -- originally built of wood in the 13th century and most recently rebuilt after much of it was destroyed in the final days of World War II -- to the 2,500-year-old Celtic ruins of the Heiligenberg, you can hardly turn a corner without being confronted by some enduring edifice and its fascinating stories.
Where You're Docked
Because Heidelberg lies about 10 miles east of the Rhine along the Neckar River, most visits to the city begin after disembarking the ship at the nearest major port, often Mannheim, and boarding a shore tour bus.
Cruise ships don't stop in Heidelberg, so if you want to maximize your limited shore-excursion time for relaxed pursuits like eating, drinking and shopping, stay near to the Hauptstrasse (main street), a mile-long pedestrianized road that runs the length of the Old Town. Although the Hauptstrasse is dotted with chain stores, boutique shops and cafes can be found there and on many side streets, too.
Good to Know
The city has a comprehensive network of well-marked cycle paths, but jaywalking visitors distracted by the surrounding sights can pose a hazard when they meander in front of oncoming cyclists. The cyclists don't always pay close attention, so look carefully before you cross.
On Foot: Despite its modest population of around 150,000 inhabitants, Heidelberg is a challenging city to cover on foot. Some sections of the city are steep, it spans both banks of the Neckar River, and most of the pedestrianized areas are at least partially laid with cobblestone. The Altstadt's Hauptstrasse is, at a mile long, more than enough territory to cover if you're only in the city for a short time and determined to walk.
By Bike: If your cruise ship doesn't have bicycles available for use, your best bet for hiring one in Heidelberg is Fahrradverleih Heidelberg an der Alten Brucke (Heidelberg Bike Rental at the Old Bridge; Neckarstaden 52 / Lauerstrasse 11; +49 (0) 62 21 / 65 444 60).
By Cable Car: A tram runs up the hillside from Heidelberg to the castle above. The mountain railway runs between four stations (including the castle), linking the old city on the level of the river with the summit of the Konigstuhl Mountain, about 1,312 feet above the city. The Heidelberg Card, a tourist pass that includes public transportation, many museums and the lower section of the mountain railway (a separate fare is required for the upper section), can be bought at the tourist information center located just outside the main station, where most tour buses park. (Heidelberger Seilbahn, Oberstrasse 37)
Currency & Best Way to Get Money
Germany's currency is the euro. For current currency-conversion figures, visit www.oanda.com or www.xe.com. ATM's and banks are plentiful, particularly at the west end of the Altstadt, and credit cards are widely accepted in restaurants, bars and shops.
German is the local language, but English is widely understood and spoken in Heidelberg and much of Germany. A few handy phrases in German will always enamor you to the locals, though, so try these:
Hello / good afternoon: Guten Tag (GOO-ten tahg)
Please / Thank you: Bitte / Danke (BIT-tuh/DAHN-kuh)
Yes / No: Ja / Nein (yah/nine)
Excuse me: Entschuldigen Sie (ent-SHOOL-de-gen zee)
Beer: Bier (beer)
Food and Drink
With its population of hungry (and thirsty) students and a consistent tourist throng to feed, Heidelberg has no shortage of restaurants, cafes and bars. Eateries in the Altstadt along the Hauptstrasse can be very touristy, but there are plenty of solid options, nonetheless. German food has a reputation for being hearty and somewhat stodgy, with an emphasis on meat (Wurst, or sausages, in particular), potatoes (Germany is one of the world's top potato-consuming countries) and bread. There is considerable regional variation, with the culinary influences of the country's international neighbors reflected in local dishes. Thus, in the Rhineland region, you'll pick up hints of Belgium and the Netherlands in dishes like Halver Hahn (a giant slab of Dutch gouda with a Roggelchen, or rye roll) and Dicke Bohnen mit Speck (boiled white beans with hefty boiled bacon slices on top).
Budget to Mid-Range: If you're looking for traditional German food, try Weinstube Schnitzelbank, a tavern tucked around the corner from the Hauptstrasse. Schnitzelbank has a long history with wine -- a cooperage and wine shop was founded in 1882 -- but the best thing about this tavern is definitely the food. With a focus on local produce and fresh ingredients, the food is simple and satisfying German fare. If you're hungry, try the "Halb und Halb" (or half and half) for a sampling of German dumplings and bratwurst with sauerkraut. Lighter fare, including soups and salads, is also available. Wine is available by the glass or bottle. (Bauamtsgasse 7; +49 6221 21189)
Beer: Vetter's Alt Heidelberger Brauhaus, at the east end of the Hauptstrasse, is a great spot to try locally brewed German beer; they brew their own on site. They serve food, too -- typical German pub grub -- but the reason to visit is definitely the beer. Try the dark Hefeweizen if you like wheat beers; also on tap are Marzen, Maibock, Helles and Radler, a half lemonade and half beer concoction that's refreshing on a warm summer day. If you're there around Christmas, the Weihnachtsbock Frisch is the seasonal favorite. (Steingasse 9 - Im Schoneck; +49 6221-165850)
High-End: If you want a high-quality meal with nice views overlooking the Old Town, and you aren't concerned about budget, award-winning chef Manfred Schwarz's eponymous Schwarz Das Restaurant is the place. Five- and seven-course combinations of continental-style cuisine are available for dinner or you can order a la carte. There's also a wine-pairing option, which costs extra. The menu changes frequently, but some appetite-whetting examples are: scallop and saffron truffle, goose liver and apple brioche or grilled prime rib with orange-almond ragout and stuffed artichoke. And don't forget the chocolate and verbena pears for dessert. You'll need to book in advance, but for a slightly less formal (and much less expensive) experience, two- or three-course set menus are available at lunch. (Kurfursten-Anlage 60; +49 6221-757030)
The Hauptstrasse and side streets leading from Heidelberg's Old Town offer plenty of boutique shops to explore. Everything from ceramics and leather goods to specialty foods and alcohol are within convenient reach, but the sweetest souvenir certainly comes from the Cafe Knosel.
As the story goes, the family-run 19th-century shop -- named for its founder Fridolin Knosel -- was a favorite of young women from the city's finishing schools, who were accompanied on trips there by their protective governesses. Young men from the university quickly became enamored of the shop as well, and in order to foster young romance (or make a little extra dough), the owner created a confectionary called the Studentenkuss (students' kiss). A gentleman could present these sweet treats to a young lady who caught his eye without arousing the ire of her governess. Herr Knosel's chocolate-dipped praline, nougat and wafer confection has been winning hearts since 1863 -- and you can surely win some by bringing a box home with you for friends and family. (Haspelgasse 16; open daily 11 a.m. to 7 p.m.)