Most small- to mid-sized cities in Germany conjure up romantic images of serpentine cobblestone alleyways, colorful 18th Century facades and the characters who have inhabited them for generations. Heidelberg, a magical town at the mouth of the Neckar Valley in Baden-Württemberg, does this better than the rest.
Tourists from six continents flock to Heidelberg each year to take in the city’s stunning scenery and revel in the history that has taken place there over the years. Popular English-speaking writers like Mark Twain and Somerset Maugham found inspiration in Heidelberg, and many famous scientists and academics have called Heidelberg home. Robert Bunsen, a chemist most noted for his invention of the Bunsen Burner, Gustav Kirchoff, a physicist who developed revolutionary methods to analyze electrical circuits, and Daniel Bernoulli, a famous mathematician, all studied or worked at the world-renowned Ruprecht Karl University of Heidelberg. The University, founded in 1386, is the third-oldest in Europe and is considered the best in Germany.
Surrounding the city is the Neckar Valley, a set of forested mountains flanking the Neckar River. Standing behind the Altstadt (Old Town) is the Königstuhl (King’s Throne), the tallest mountain in Heidelberg. The famous Heidelberg Castle is on this mountain and looks out onto the valley and its inhabitants. Walking paths, a high-incline tram and a downhill mountain bike trail are ways to get down. Across the river is the Heiligenberg (Saints’ Mountain), home to the Philosophenweg (Philosopher’s Way). This meandering trail was a favorite of Mark Twain and is frequented by countless residents and visitors daily. The Alte Brücke (Old Bridge) takes you back to the Altstadt and serves as an excellent venue for photo-ops or a refreshing beer. More recreational activities can be had on the Neckarwiese, a huge park on the northern bank of the river. Vast expanses of green provide room to play sports, grill out with friends or just lay around. The Neckarwiese is a favorite meeting spot among Heidelberg’s many students.
The Altstadt itself offers the most entertainment. While the Hauptstraße (Main Street) has become commercialized and touristy, all the little side streets and alleys have something original to offer. Although there are a host of bars and nightclubs to choose from in the Untere Straße (Lower Street), the best atmosphere for great food, drink and conversation is Schnookeloch (dialect for “Mosquito Bite”). Here, one street over from the Alte Brücke, one can marvel at the huge collection of student memorabilia – ranging from the colored hats the fraternity students wear to the swords they use when dueling with one another – and feel as though one is part of an unending historical tradition. The tables sport carvings done by students dating back to the 1800s, and the pictures and paintings on the wall are even older. The tavern itself has been around since 1703.
A trip to the castle is always great for an afternoon of fun and discovery. Patrons are amazed by the size of the wine-keg housed in the cellar, and the legend of Perkeo, the dwarf who kept watch over said keg, brings smiles to all. Inside the castle are numerous rooms and salons featuring stunning artwork, and a marvelous garden is only a short walk from the drawbridge. The gardens are open all the time and are a great place to spend a lazy couple of hours and take in the vistas. Directly beneath the castle gardens stands the Haus der Burschenschaft Allemannia zu Heidelberg (House of the Fraternity Allemannia in Heidelberg), made visible by its signature black-white-red flag. This was my place of residence in Heidelberg and consequently my favorite hangout. With its classic styling, private Biergarten (beer garden) and fraternal atmosphere, I always found a way to enjoy myself. One afternoon, at the suggestion of a friend, three buddies and I celebrated the long-awaited summer by leaping from the Alte Brücke into the Neckar. Another time, we snuck into the castle and raised our colors on the turret flagpole. Countless nights were spent merrily roaming about the Altstadt, and I fondly remember the Studentenlieder (student songs) we sang.
My experience living and studying in Heidelberg was the highpoint of my college career. In fact, I was so in love with the city that I decided to pursue my Master’s there. The benefits I reaped from spending so much time in Heidelberg are priceless; independence, new friendships and increased self-confidence are all treasures to be taken from living abroad. Moreover, the language skills you develop when living in a native-speaking country are not to be underestimated or missed. In my opinion, every student should spend a year living in a foreign country, and Germany, more specifically Heidelberg, is an excellent place for this. It is beautiful, engaging, modern and, most importantly, safe. Many young adults do not trust themselves to make this leap, but coming from somebody who has, it certainly pays to do so, and you will not regret you did.