Heidelberg Castle (Schloss Heidelberg or Heidelberger Schloss) is one of my very favourite castles in Europe – and is undoubtedly one of the most impressive castles in Germany.
The ruins of this awe-inspiring old fortress are scattered across the dark green hill of the Jettenbuhl.
The castle’s silhouette is clearly visible from nearly everywhere in historic Heidelberg, the town which gently spreads out from the foot of the hill.
It’s hard to capture the romanticism of Heidelberg Castle in words and photos alone. The ruins are magnificent – sunset-coloured sandstone structures which have partially crumbled, or been blown into jagged chunks as a result of Heidelberg’s turbulent history.
The town of Heidelberg itself is an achingly-quaint little wine-riviera, crammed with interesting cobbled pathways, touristy German cafes, and the evocative, winding, river Neckar.
Lightning Sometimes Strikes Twice – The History of Heidelberg Castle
The history of Heidelberg Castle is a cycle of construction and destruction. It’s thought that the first foundations were laid in the c11th, divided into two separate complexes – an ‘upper’ and a ‘lower’ castle.
There’s surprisingly patchy archaeological evidence to tell us much about these original buildings, but the evidence we do have points to simple, defensive structures, with little in the way of comfortable chambers or grand rooms for state function.
However, the buildings of the ‘higher’ castle were struck by lightning in 1537, and were destroyed by fire. The ‘lower’ castle became the site of the ruins we can see today.
From 1508 onwards, under the eye of Elector Ludwig (Louis) V, Heidelberg really began to blossom. Ludwig commissioned many of the main, fortified buildings, including the entrance gate.
The subsequent Elector, Otto-Heinrich, commissioned grander, more palatial buildings- the Renaissance Wings. The next Electors, both named Friedrich, added the baroque palace; the English wing, and the beautiful Hortus Palatinus gardens.
Then disaster befell. Friedrich was forced to flee during the 30 Years War from 1618; and, although the castle survived this initial onslaught, the elaborate gardens didn’t. Despite this narrow escape, the castle’s time was almost up.
During the late 1600s, the French forces unleashed their wrath upon the castle. Intending to lay waste to the Palatine lands which surrounded their territory (thereby protecting France), they brutalised the castle in 1689. Most notably, they blew apart the Powder Tower.
In 1693, they returned to complete unfinished business, and laid most of the castle in ruins.
The residents of Heidelberg tried in vain to restore the castle, but their efforts were futile. Despite some efforts at rebuilding, the Electors chose to move their court to adjacent Mannheim, effectively condemning Heidelberg Castle to obscurity.
As another freakish occurrence, in 1764, the remains of the castle were again struck by lightning – igniting a fire which swept across the ruins. From this moment, Heidelberg’s fate as an eternal ruin was sealed.
A Romantic Ruin: Heidelberg in Art and Literature
The attraction of Heidelberg Castle isn’t so much due to its history, but more due to the romantic appearance of the magnificent ruins which loom over the town.
Heidelberg is very much a place for artists, writers and poets, who want to muse upon the ivy-wrapped decay of once grand buildings, from hundreds of years ago.
During the 1800s, the ruins of the castle were idealised by the Romantic movement.
Victor Hugo (the leading French Romantic; and author of the Hunchback of Notre Dame) waxed lyrical over the beauty of the castle within his writings. Additionally, Turner painted the ruins from many different angles, choosing to emphasise the castle’s sublime, awe-inspiring beauty.
Turner sought to emphasise the intransigence of a once-mighty man-made fortress, now left in ruins and surrendered to nature.
However, it was Mark Twain’s descriptions of Heidelberg which have made the castle internationally famous.
In his seminal piece of travel-writing, A Tramp Abroad, Twain described the castle was “deserted, discrowned, beaten by the storms, but royal still, and beautiful”.
Strange Tales of Heidelberg Castle: The Prize for Biting Through a Door-Knocker….
When visiting the Heidelberg Castle, it quickly becomes apparent that the experience is designed to be a romantic, Disney-ified experience for day-dreaming tourists.
It’s a little bit light on on actual history (you won’t find any signs or historical plaques scattered about the place).
However, guidebooks to the castle are filled with weird stories and interesting tidbits which are designed to grab the imagination.
Here’s the first interesting story: legends tell that the castle will be handed to any individual who manages to bite through the iron-ring door-knocker on the thick wooden door to the residential courtyard.
Apparently, a witch managed to sink her fangs some distance into the ring, but failed to bite through it completely.
…And the World’s Largest Wine Barrel
One of the castle’s other claims to fame is that it’s home to the world’s largest wine barrel – so huge that it took 130 trunks of oak to make the thing. The barrel was used to collect wine as a tithe from the local population.
The barrel is so huge, the story goes, that an entire orchestra could fit into the thing – and that’s exactly what happened, during the Elector Karl Ludwig’s banquet to herald the organisation of the marriage of Countess Palatine.
However, the orchestra were smuggled into the barrel in secret, and sat patiently until the end of the banquet, when they suddenly burst into music. The sudden huge echo throughout the barrel achieved the intended effect of surprising the life out of most of the audience.
The Hortus Palatinus – Once Described as the ‘Eighth Wonder of the World…’
It’s incredibly difficult to imagine nowadays, but the gardens which surround Heidelberg Castle were once proclaimed ‘the Eighth Wonder of the World’. They would have been a stunning display of Baroque imagination – a multi-layered extravaganza of fragrant flowers, grottos and fruit trees.
It’s even said that the gardens would have included mechanical singing birds and elaborate mazes, along with statues chosen to evoke classical Greek mythology – raising the gardens to a level of heavenly importance.
Fredrick V commissioned these elaborate decorations for his wife Elizabeth Stuart in the early 1600s. Unfortunately, these treasures were soon destroyed.
The advent of the 30 Years War in 1618 sent the pair into exile, and they had to abandon the gardens just years after their completion. The gardens were subsequently ruined – armed troops used them as a base for the bombardment of Heidelberg below.
Nowadays, there is greenery where the gardens once were, but it’s nothing more than an average park – certainly not the eighth wonder of the world. Grand plans are afoot to restore the gardens to their Baroque glory- but this won’t be for a very long time yet, I’d wager.
Getting There and Away: Arranging a Visit to Heidelberg Castle
It’s easy to get to Heidelberg Castle. You can either stay in the Medieval town of Heidelberg (recommended), or it’s an easy daytrip from Frankfurt or Stuttgart. Stuttgart is around 45min away by train, and is a pretty city in itself.
Visiting Heidelberg as a daytrip from Frankfurt
I visited Heidelberg Castle as a daytrip from Frankfurt.
Frankfurt is home to Germany’s biggest airport, and is the impressively sky-scrapered banking capital of the EU. As a result, most international flights to Germany land here.
From Frankfurt Hauptbahnhof (main train station) it’s about 1hr to Heidelberg. Outward trains in the morning are about every 45min; strangely return trains are less frequent. Check times before you head out for the day.
If you’re searching for a hotel in Frankfurt, I stayed in the Bristol Hotel – it has great traveller reviews and I’d really recommend it.
The hotel is literally a minute from the train station and boasts small but clean modern rooms. The breakfast was incredible – everything from exotic fruits to shots of ice-cold vodka!
If you’re arriving in Heidelberg by train, the main station (Hauptbahnhof) is some distance from the historic centre (Altstadt). I’d be tempted to take a bus or a taxi – otherwise it’s a rather boring, and lengthy, walk.
Reaching Heidelberg Castle requires you to walk up a relatively steep footpath with exactly 315 marked steps (typical German accuracy). It’s not a long walk, but some visitors will find it difficult.
As an alternative, there’s a little funicular train which’ll take you up there.
There’s a great deal to see in Heidelberg town – much more than you can fit into one day, really. It’d definitely be worth finding somewhere to stay over night and spend a day or two walking around the town and the nearby valley.
Staying in Heidelberg Town
I unfortunately didn’t have time during my trip, but I wish I’d had the chance to stay in Heidelberg town.
Heidelberg is extremely pretty and the city centre has a real Medieval flavour.
There’s a profusion of excellent places for tourists to stay. I’ve spoken to other travellers and one recommendation would be the achingly beautiful Hotel Hollander Hof, which overlooks the old bridge of Heidelberg and the River Neckar.
The Hollander Hof hotel dates from 1787, and was built on the site of two previous Medieval inns, constructed in 1588. The place oozes historical charm and visitors frequently fall in love with it.
During my trip to Germany, when I visited Heidelberg Castle, I also stopped by the fairytale Burg Eltz. You might enjoy reading more about it – or perhaps discovering the great castles of Bavaria, Germany’s most touristy and evocative region.