The Essential Guide to Heidelberg and the Neckar Valley

Germany’s oldest and most famous university town, Heidelberg is known for its striking Old Town, beautiful setting on the Neckar River, and evocative hilltop castle. Destroyed by French troops in the 1690s, rebuilt during the 18th century, and miraculously unscathed during World War II, it’s proved a source of inspiration for everyone from Goethe to William Turner to Mark Twain. Equally romantic is the surrounding valley, full of forests, fortresses, castles, and charming villages like Bad Wimpfen.

Karlstraße, 69120 Heidelberg, Germany
Commissioned in the 18th century by Prince Karl Theodor, Heidelberg’s famous Alte Brücke (Old Bridge) is a town landmark—and a historic example of stone bridge building. Made from local Neckar Valley sandstone, it connects the Old Town to the eastern end of the Neuenheim district, a route that was previously connected by wooden bridges often destroyed by floods and wars. On the main town side, visitors can find the medieval Bridge Gate, which formed part of the city wall. An iconic site in its own right, it features towers that once served as dungeons for local criminals. On the bridge itself stand two sculptures by Konrad Linck—one of Prince-elector Karl Theodor, the other dedicated to the Roman goddess of wisdom (a nod to the prince-elector’s commitment to the arts and sciences). As you walk along the span, keep an eye out for the “bridge monkey,” a modern re-creation of a historic feature. Local lore says he holds a mirror to remind visitors crossing the bridge that they’re no better than those on the other side.
Mercedesstraße 100, 70372 Stuttgart, Germany
Designed by Dutch architects Ben van Berkel and Caroline Bos, the Mercedes-Benz Museum occupies a sleek futuristic building inspired by the double-helix structure of DNA. Inside, exhibitions focus on the German carmaker’s past, present, and projected future achievements. Mercedes-Benz being the world’s oldest motor manufacturer, the museum’s historical displays span more than 120 years of automobile production, covering nine floors of the building with a combined 177,604 square feet of floor space. Needless to say, you can easily spend a whole day here checking out the 160 vehicles or touring the more than 1,500 exhibits loaded with historic photos. Be sure to visit the Fascination of Technology display, which provides insight into the day-to-day workings at the company and examines future ideas of mobility, then refuel at the restaurant on the lower level, where you can find both German and international food. There’s also an impressive gift shop, stocked with the inevitable Mercedes-Benz-branded merch.
Konrad-Adenauer-Straße 30-32, 70173 Stuttgart, Germany
Dating back to 1843, this massive museum has grown and modernized over the years, especially with the addition of the Neue Staatsgalerie (New State Gallery) in 1984 and a modern hall specially built in 2002. Spanning some 96,875 square feet of exhibition space, the collection focuses on early Swabian panel painting and 19th-century Swabian Neoclassicism, but also includes modern pieces like Oskar Schlemmer’s Figurines for the Triadic Ballet, Matisse’s famous Back Series, and a Joseph Beuys room that was installed by the artist himself. Other highlights range from Dalí’s Raised Instant and George Grosz’s The Funeral to Miró’s Bird with a Calm Look. Opt for a guided tour to ensure you see everything, then visit the museum shop and the Fresko café-restaurant. Note that, on Wednesdays, you can visit the permanent collection for free.
Tübingen, Germany
This charming Swabian town is deservedly popular for its vibrant atmosphere, handsome castle, and medieval center, which boasts winding, cobbled lanes and half-timbered town houses joined by narrow alleyways. The key sights include the Stiftskirche St. Georg, a late-Gothic church with stained glass windows and city views from its tower; the delightfully yellow Hölderlin Tower, which will reopen as a museum in 2020 and is best viewed from across the river; the striking 15th-century City Hall, with its painted facade and astronomical clock; and, of course, the turreted Hohentübingen Castle, set attractively on a hilltop and home to the Museum of Ancient Cultures. The town is also famous for its university, which is one of Europe’s oldest. It’s attended by a large number of students (about 20,000), who add to Tübingen’s lively spirit by filling the sidewalk cafés, restaurants, wine taverns, and pubs.
Bauamtsgasse 7, 69117 Heidelberg, Germany
Before becoming a small tavern, this hole-in-the-wall spot served as a cooper’s workshop that made barrels for the local winemakers. Today, its modest confines have been made cozy with a few wooden tables (actually former workbenches), a smattering of candles, and old tools from the workshop. Its appeal lies not just in the convivial atmosphere that comes from being a family-run restaurant since 1992, or the fact that strangers eat in close quarters, but also in the hearty menu, which offers classic dishes from Baden and the Pfalz region like Schäufele (pickled and slightly smoked pork shoulder), Saumagen (sow’s stomach stuffed with meat and potatoes), schnitzel, and deliciously creamy Käsespätzle. The wines are also excellent, meaning Schnitzelbank is usually packed. Arrive early for a better chance at a table.
Hauptstraße 217, 69117 Heidelberg, Germany
Built in 1703, Heidelberg’s oldest and most famous tavern has certainly had some illustrious patrons. Mark Twain, Marilyn Monroe, and John Wayne are just a few of the celebrities who drank and dined here—a fact that’s proven by the many photos of famous faces hanging on the walls. Notable clientele notwithstanding, Zum Roten Ochsen is all about simplicity. Still run by the same family that opened it hundreds of years ago, it serves rich local dishes, from goulash soup and bratwurst to Swabian Maultaschen (meat-filled ravioli) and Käsespätzle (cheese-covered noodles), as well as fresh herring, boiled beef, and several vegetarian options. Also on offer is a drinks menu heavy on regional wines and local Heidelberg beer, all of which are complemented by the restaurant’s old-fashioned interior, friendly service, and live piano player in the evenings.
Schlosshof 1, 69117 Heidelberg, Germany
Perched picturesquely on a rocky hilltop overlooking the city, Heidelberg Castle is enigmatic, romantic, and one of the few castles in Germany that hasn’t been fully restored. Dating back to the 1300s, it served as the seat of the Palantine electors for several centuries. While it expanded substantially during the 16th and 17th centuries, it was plundered and destroyed on many occasions and now consists of mainly Renaissance and Baroque ruins. It’s free to roam the gardens and exterior, but guests must pay an admission fee to visit the interior. Take a guided tour for a historic overview and access to highlights such as the English Wing (built in 1612 by Elector Friedrich V), the graceful Renaissance courtyard, and impressive rooms like the Knight’s Hall and the Imperial Hall. The Grosses Fask (Great Cask) in the cellar is also worth seeing—the world’s largest functioning wine barrel, it’s made from 130 oak trees and can hold some 58,117 gallons of wine.
Hohenzollern, 72379 Bisingen, Germany
For many centuries, the Hohenzollerns were one of Germany’s most powerful families, their influence only diminishing with the end of the monarchy after World War I. During their dominance, they lived in this majestic neo-Gothic castle, visible from miles away thanks to its prime location on a conical hill. Inside, a series of opulent rooms remain resplendent with period furnishings and valuable oil paintings. The Treasury—which hosts personal items of Frederick the Great and Queen Louise, the Prussian Royal Crown, and a great deal of expensive porcelain and silverware—and the royal chambers can only be seen via a guided tour, but the grounds are free to explore. Also open to the public is the café-restaurant Burg Hohenzollern, with decent regional food and an outdoor beer garden in summer.
schlosshof 1, 69117 Heidelberg, Germany
A restaurant inside Heidelberg Castle was never going to be modest or inexpensive, and Scharff’s Schlossweinstube is nothing if not upscale. With classic parquet flooring, sparkling chandeliers, and stucco ceilings, it’s romantic and refined, its Baroque decor only outdone by its Michelin-starred fare. Informed by classic German and French techniques, head chef Martin Scharff serves local favorites like Swabian ravioli, as well as roast duck, unique dishes such as veal kidneys, and a delicious cheesecake with raspberry sorbet, all perfect for pairing with an extensive selection of international wines.

If you’re not looking to splurge, try the neighboring Bistro Backhaus, with a more rustic appeal including vintage furnishings, a huge baking oven, and a casual menu of coffee and cake. It also features a shaded terrace and the same wine list as Scharff’s.
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