I had the distinct pleasure of visiting Heidelberg for several days this March, and I have to say that I was completely blown away by how distinctive, beautiful, and memorable this city was. This is absolutely a place you have to see for yourself. As this city has elements from the Holy Roman Empire, the French, the Germanic, and, naturally, very modern roots from the trendy University city it has become today, its buildings, streets, and natural landmarks tell a rich tale. You can walk through the Old Town of Heidelberg, look at a building, see its base, know about when it was constructed, see where it has been addended or added to, and read a history about the building by looking at its architecture. The Heidelberg Palace is a prime example of this. You can see its medieval base and also see where it was built up by the French and added to centuries later.
Robert Bunsen (who you may know because of the Bunsen Burner) worked at the university and developed Spectral analysis, the groundwork for modern astronomy, while he was in Heidelberg.
Like any happening town with a mountain of history behind it, Heidelberg also has a plethora of unusual spots you really have to see to believe. So, naturally, this being my favorite point of interest anywhere I go, I found myself scouring its core for the most unique and occasionally strange places that make Heidelberg so special. And of course, I found a plethora of cool unique places in Heidelberg. So, without further ado, I give you the most unique things to see in Heidelberg.
The Heidelberg Bridge Monkey
What originally started out back in the 15th century as a monkey statue placed on the main bridge into Heidelberg to mock the archbishop of the neighboring land has now become a comical statue constructed by Professor Gernot Rumpf that supposedly brings luck to those touch it. This naughty monkey holds up a mirror making fun of those who look into it.
However, it is now rumored that if you touch the finger of the monkey statue, you will return to Heidelberg. If you touch the monkey’s mirror, you will gain prosperity, and if you touch the mice next to the monkey, you will gain fertility. And, if nothing else, you can get a great photo next to a unique bronze sculpture of a baboon.
The Heidelberg Castle Door Knocker- A Knocker with a Bite Out of It
As you enter the gorgeous, towering grounds of the Castle at Heidelberg, you must pass through the walkway and bridge into the courtyard. As you walk through the towering gate, you will notice a little door in it which used to allow visitors into the castle. Castles regularly had small doors for people to crouch into cut within the base of the gate door, as it allowed people to come in by ducking, a position you’d like for the visitors to be in if you quickly realize they are foe, not friend. And on this little door is a big, black door knocker.
This one, in particular, has a huge cut through it that almost goes through the full width of this metal knocker. Rumor (or perhaps just a comical story) has it that at one point in time, the owners of the castle declared that anyone who bit completely through the iron door knocker would inherit the castle.
The only taker was a witch, and she ALMOST bit through it. Unfortunately, she fell just a bit short of accomplishing this task. You can see if for yourself today at Heidelberg Castle and decide if you believe in this medieval tale.
Also if you’re at the castle, you can’t miss the largest wine barrel in the world. Built in 1751, this barrel holds 58,000 gallons of wine. But, hold your excitement! This was filled with the wine tax from the region, so it was all generally the ‘bottom of the barrel wine’- so to speak.
There’s also a very strange and somewhat comical foot print out on the terrace of the castle. Rumor has it that a knight was caught in the bedroom of a noble lady and had to jump down to the courtyard to escape, leaving behind only his footprint.
Student Prison (Heidelberg Studentenkarzer)
If you love strange and unusual pieces of history, then I strongly recommend that you visit the Student Prison in Heidelberg. From 1823 to 1914, students were incarcerated there for reeking havoc around the city of Heidelberg. University students, noble boys who were usually in a fraternity, would have fun by releasing the town’s pigs and chasing them through the city streets, throwing rocks at officers, and just generally acting as unruly students can someones act. Because of this, the University created a prison to punish its students in. However, from the start it never quite worked out the way it was supposed to. The officers who came to arrest the boys were generally of a lower station, so they had trouble taking these young nobles away to prison.
And when the students realized what it was like to be separated in the prison, it became more of a competition, a rite of passage, and an experience for them instead of a punishment. They began having celebrations and parades to lead their fraternity brothers into the prison. Fraternities began competing to see who could have the worst punishments. And the walls of the student prison became a truly unique and (well, somewhat breathtaking) canvas. The boys painted their fraternity colors, ridiculous sayings, and why they were put into prison on the wall. My personal favorite graffiti piece was that of a bunch of cats with the accompanying text “Warning: Feral Beasts Live Here.”
If you’re in Heidelberg, this is really a cool piece of history you have to see for yourself.
It seems that cable-car like railways up the side of mountains are the hip new trend in tourism. When I was in Guanajuato, there was a cool cable car that led you up and down the side of the mountain to overlook the town at the statue of El Pipila. There was also a cable car taking you up to a gorgeous park with charming views in Freiburg im Breisgau. Well, there is one in Heidelberg, as well, except this one is much more unique, as it combines a striking old history with much more modern charm. This unique cable-car like railway ran for the first time in 1890, so it is quite old and rather ahead of its time. It was renovated in 2002, so while the lower car up to the castle is more modern, you can still ride in the original car up the steeper part of the mountain from the castle to the very top of the Königstuhl hillside. It was a beautiful excursion in this car up to the top of the hill, one I highly recommend if you’re in Heidelberg.
The “University Square” or “Campus Square” in the middle of Heidelberg has seen its fair share of history. Perhaps, one of the most eerie pieces of history was some of the Nazi book burnings. Being a University town, Heidelberg residents have generally been quick to jump on new trends and causes, which is likely a reason why Heidelberg saw many Nazi enthusiasts back during World War II. The square looked different back then, as a lot of Nazi flags and slogans were hung around, and book burnings for any materials containing ideas the Nazis deemed too “Radical” were burned here in the square. In fact, many professors were dismissed for political reasons during that time and the ones who were not generally feared for their lives. So while it is a gorgeous, charming place now, it does have a darker history you should look for on your visits (as most places do). For those who love history, a stop into the University Square is essential.
Heidelberger Studentenkuss or Heidelberg’s Student Kiss is a charming place to pick up a sweet treat for a lover. It was said that, a couple of centuries ago, the Cafe Konditorei was a place for young ladies to visit with their chaperones. Fridolin Knosel opened a chocolate shop next door to this cafe in 1863 as a way for young men admirers to give a gift of affection to the young ladies next door. It was the acceptable way to give them a kiss.
The Physics Window at the Church of the Holy Spirit in Heidelberg
Now, when one thinks of science and religion, these are two things that generally don’t go in hand in hand. They are two elements that have been at odds since their conception. So, it’s rather intriguing that you will find a Physics Window dedicated to science at the Church of the Holy Spirit in Heidelberg. The window, created by Johannes Schreiter, was put in as a replacement after the Church’s windows were destroyed in the second world war. There was supposed to be a series put in honoring philosophy, literature, the arts, etc, but after this window was so poorly received, the others were called off. This Physics Window is meant to show the greatest thing that physics created as well as provide the reality of the worst things physics has done- giving you complete perspective. So, E=mc2 is written on the window as an ode to Einstein’s Theory of Relativity with an accompanying date, the date Hiroshima was dropped, perhaps one of the worst things Physics has done. The gravity of this window was, perhaps, not something that people want to admire while attending church, so while the window remains up, the others were quickly cancelled prior to being put up.
Heidelberg has experienced an interesting history with Catholicism and Protestant religions. They were generally Protestant; however, there was Catholic influence in the city for years. So, naturally, under a period of Catholic rein, there were Virgin Mary’s, statues of Jesus, and other extremely Catholic accents placed around the city as a reminder of Catholicism. So, as you go about the town and admire the views, you will see a lot of Virgin Mary’s staring down at you, practically wherever you go- a (subtle?) reminder that you should visit the Catholic church.
All in all, Heidelberg is a charming cultural hot spot filled with art, history, culture, and everything you could want out of a trip. It, of course, also has its own myths, legends, and unusual spots to see! So, I highly encourage you to make your next trip to Germany include Heidelberg, and be sure to reference the spots and items above on your journey!