Heidelberg, located only an hour away from Frankfurt, is one of Germany’s most charming cities with a little bit of everything. Combine the country’s oldest university, a gigantic castle on the hill, the river that inspired Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn, and busy marketplace with shops and restaurants, and bingo, the perfect place to bring out-of-town guests. Not to mention, the place is filled with tales and legends.
Having started late on our journey, we only had time for a visit to the castle, which is officially called a palace. I plan to return later this summer and explore the rest of the city. The castle is probably the main attraction as it’s visible from all directions. If there is one thing to see in Heidelberg, of course, it’s the palace. Here’s what to know and not miss when you travel with your teens.
1. The Castle is Half Palatial and Half Ruins
Heidelberg Palace dates back to somewhere between the 11th and 12th century. It was both destroyed in wars, and then later struck by lightning, twice, in the 17th century. We’re starting to see that all castles and palaces have many layers where a kings and princes over the years add their stamp to make it theirs. This one is similar, but the museum shows you the progress through they years.
We took the English guided tour, which is offered every hour. Take one as there is no way to go into the castle without the tour, and there are not any plaques in English outside. Plus, the palace has many fun stories and myths that you might otherwise miss. I would not recommend the tour for younger kids, but my teens said they really enjoyed learning more about the castle.
Make sure you walk around toward the gardens to see the tower that was struck by lightening and then just left. It’s an interesting contrast to what you see inside the palace.
2. Home to the World’s Largest Wine Barrel
As you stroll along the courtyard, there’s a sign for the “Big Barrel.” They aren’t kidding! When you walk in, there is a big barrel on the right. That’s not it. Keep going and there you will find an even bigger barrel. The Heidelberg Tun was built in 1751 holds 220,000 liters (58,124 gallons) of wine. Building wine barrels to outdo the neighboring king was a thing. Sort of like “keeping up with the Jones” or in this case the Ludwigs. You didn’t want your neighboring kingdom to have a bigger barrel than you.
Climb to the top and look down. You’ll see Perkeo on guard. Prince Karl Phillip brought Pereko, a dwarf from the Austrian-Italian Tyro, to Heidelberg in 1720 to serve as court jester. His common nickname reportedly came from his answering “why not” in Italian whenever asked if he’d like another glass of wine. As master of the castle wine stocks, he lived to a ripe old age of 80, legendarily only drinking wine, until he became ill. A doctor gave him a glass of water to drink and he died the following day.
3. Bite the Ring, Own the Castle
Once upon a time, there was a prince who was dying, and he worried about who would be his successor. He promised to offer the palace to whomever could bite through the thick iron ring on the castle door. Because whomever is strong enough to do that, would surely make a good ruler. [insert eye roll here.] Many tried and all failed. One day a witch came along to try her luck, and she almost succeeded until losing her teeth at the critical moment. Hence the mark left in the ring called the “witch’s bite.”
When entering through the main gate of the castle, there is a smaller door cutout of the large door. There is the big iron ring for the taking. The first time I heard this story was on a Girl Scout trip when I was eight years old. Each of us tried our luck then, too. When I showed my kids this time, sadly, no one wanted to try.
4. German Apothecary Museum
An entrance ticket to castle also includes entry into the Apothecary museum. To be honest, I didn’t give this museum enough time while we were there. The plaques are in both German and English and very thorough in explaining the history of healing, how it related to the church, what herbs were used, and how they were processed. There’s even an interactive kids section that was a little too young for my kids, but they still enjoyed smelling all the different herbs and guessing what they were.
I’m not entirely sure why the museum is housed here, but it was a nice little addition to the trip. If your teenagers are interested in chemistry or medicine, this is worth the price.
5. The “8th Wonder of the World”: French Gardens
Don’t neglect the palace gardens attached to the castle. They were commission by the prince (or I think they called them electors) at the time for his new wife. If you have seen French gardens, then you’ll notice these look very French. It’s because a French architect was responsible for designing the beginnings of these gardens. They became famous around the Europe and known as the ‘Eighth Wonder of the World’ because of their magical foundations. (Kind of like at Versailles.) The gardens were never finished, but they are lovely to walk through and seem mysterious next to the castle ruins.
6. Getting There By Funicular
In all honesty, I didn’t know there was a funicular. We parked at the bottom of the hill and walked up. But I spotted not just one, but two funiculars while there. You can take one up to the castle — which seems to be how most people get up the hill — and then another (older looking one) up to the top of the mountain. We will be heading back to Heidelberg this summer so this is on our list to do for next time. There has to be a reason to come back.
Garden Photo by Tony Buchwald on Heidelberg Marketing.
Train Photo by Reinhard Zabel on Bahnbuilder.
All other photos ©Linda Kerr, TravelTeening