Heidelberg is a pretty tourist-beaten town. I've heard people go so far as to call it a tourist trap: not worthy of the visitor traffic it receives, full of fakeness and schlock. While there are a strangely large number of opportunities to buy little figurines of Neuschwanstein, a popular castle completely unrelated to Heidelberg and several hours away, I don't think I'd agree that it's a trap. Heidelberg's popularity with tourists is well-deserved. The natural setting of the river, hills, and plains all meeting together is incredible, and the castle ruin is definitely the best I have seen.
With so many tourists it's not easy to come up with a list of local things that are worthwhile and not overrun, but here are some suggestions:
1. Climb the Heiligenberg. Most tourists don't go past the Philosophenweg. If you continue up the hill, following signs to Heiligenberg and heading ever upward, you'll reach two monastery ruins, an amphitheater built during the Third Reich, an area called the Celtic ring which was settled before the Romans ever came through, and a little pit stop where you can get food & drink. There are great views of Heidelberg from up there, too. Those with lots of time can follow signs in the woods to hike to other towns, with great views of the Neckar if you head east, or of the Rheinebene (plains) if you head north.
2. Ride up to the Koenigstuhl. The same Bergbahn (funicular rail) which you catch in the Kornmarkt to ride up to the castle can take you all the way to the top of the Koenigstuhl (King's chair), the highest hill in the area. Halfway up, you'll transfer from the more modern Bergbahn to a creaky old one, even steeper than the first! When you reach your destination you can view the mechanisms that make the Bergbahn function. At the top of the hill are incredible views on a clear day, all the way to Mannheim and beyond. There's also a falconry and a kid's park up there, as well as some nice trails. You can also hike to the top if the Bergbahn isn't your style.
3. Go for a bike ride to Ladenburg. I hope stepping outside Heidelberg a bit counts! Bikes can be rented from a place right near the Old Bridge in the Altstadt. Ride across the Neckar and head away from the hills, sticking as close to the Neckar as you can. Ladenburg is right along the river northwest of Heidelberg. You'll pass through a tiny little village with a place for food/drinks on the way there, in case you want to stop. The ride isn't far and it's flat the whole way. You'll pass through strawberry fields, see people out walking or biking or flying kites, and have nice views across the Neckar or back to the hills of the Odenwald. Ladenburg itself is a tiny town with pretty houses, a grassy park along the Neckar, and lots of cute little nooks and crannies to discover. If you've reached your biking limit for the day by the time you get there, you can always ride back to Heidelberg on the S-Bahn. Just get a bike ticket so you can bring it along on the train. Cars with space for bikes are marked on the outside.
4. Ride down the Neckar and hike up to Dilsberg. You can pick up the S-Bahn heading eastward at the Hauptbahnhof or Karlstor and ride along the Neckar to Neckarsteinach. After getting off the train, cross the Neckar on the footbridge across the hydroelectric dam and make your way through the woods up the hill on the other side. At the top you'll discover what feels like a surprise after all the solitude of the woods - a whole wall-enclosed village atop the hill, complete with a tiny church, a castle and tower, and a community that was even made fun of by Mark Twain in A Tramp Abroad. It doesn't look like he describes anymore, but it's still very quaint and the views from the castle tower and the path outside the town walls are incredible - even better than any of the hilltop views near Heidelberg. I highly recommend doing this by walking from the train, but for those who are not interested or able, there's also a bus that can get you to Dilsberg from Heidelberg.
5. Picnic with the locals. Gather up some goodies from the bakery, deli, and/or grocery store and cross the Neckar from the Bismarckplatz into Neuenheim. On a nice day, the green grassy area to the left of the bridge will be completely packed with locals of all ages playing sports, sunning, or picnicking! Find a patch you like and join in. And remember, you can even drink beer in public, so it's not off-limits for your picnic. :)
Thanks to Christina G. for the challenge!
Coming soon: Photos from our recent trips to Wuerzburg and the Black Forest!