Visiting the Heidelberg Castle Ruins in Germany
As a friend pointed out, it wouldn’t be a European family vacation for us without visiting a castle. Luckily, Germany had countless royal homes for us to explore during our visit a few weeks ago. Located 300 ft on the hill overlooking its namesake city and the Neckar valley, Heidelberg Schloss (castle) was a special place and a memorable visit. A bonus for the grown-ups was the world’s largest wine barrel.
Construction of the castle started around 1300. The castle was used as a royal residence for many years by many of Germany’s Prince Electors. Its buildings with splendid facades were considered wonderful illustrations of great Renaissance architecture.
Unfortunately, the palace was a casualty of war in the late 17th century. It was attacked and destroyed. Some repairs were made but the reconstruction wasn’t completed. Bad luck followed it again when it was struck by lightning twice in 1764 resulting in fires. The palace was ultimately left in ruins and considered uninhabitable.
Count Charles de Graimberg started the huge undertaking of trying to preserve the castle ruins in 1800. Unfortunately, Heidelberg citizens used some of the castle’s stones to build their new homes when the castle was in ruins.
The governing body finally decided to preserve the complex instead of rebuild it. Only one building was restored. Today, Heidelberg Castle is known as one of the world’s most famous palace ruin. It has inspired many artists and poets for centuries.
While it’s possible to drive as close to the castle as possible and park nearby, the street was closed by the time we got there. We saw some people walking up. But, we decided to save our legs and energy.
The best option to reach the castle, especially when traveling with kids, was through the funicular. It was a short walk from the funicular station to the castle complex.
We were lucky enough to be here on a beautiful, sunny day. It made for a very pleasant stroll through the castle grounds. This was our first glimpse of the castle.
We entered a stone bridge and the ornate Gate Tower. It opened into an inner courtyard with several buildings. The red sandstone of the main building was the focal point and immediately caught our attention.
The Friedrich Building was impressive and unique. This was the building that wasn’t heavily damaged so it was reconstructed. The facade was made up of figures of Wittelsbach on the Rhine representatives and the Wittelsbach dynasty rulers.
This building’s interior and re-creation of some furnished rooms can be visited as part of a guided tour. I now regret not doing the guided tour that allowed us to see a sampling of the interior. Tours were available in German and English.
Near the Friedrich is the Ottheinrich Building. This 16th century building’s facade was made up of Biblical figure statues and famous Romans. This area was once colonized by the Romans.
Looking around, you can almost imagine this castle at its prime and how magnificent it must have been. It was quite sad to see it in ruins now. There was a sense of melancholy looking at this courtyard and seeing parts of prominent buildings look like this now.
One of our favorite parts about visiting the castle is the fantastic panoramic view of Heidelberg city and the Neckar River from the Great Terrace. The wonderful thing about visiting the castle first was that we got to see which sights and area we wanted to explore more in the old town below.
We didn’t know too much about this area. I wish we had a bit more time to cruise on the Neckar River. Those verdant valleys looked so beautiful from the castle.
One thing we’ll always remember about visiting Heidelberg Castle is seeing the “World’s Largest Wine Barrel” or Heidelberg Tun. This giant wooden barrel, as you can see from the photo below, towers over the visitors. It was 23 feet (7 m) high and 27 feet (8.5 m) wide. It can hold 58,000 gallons or 220,000 liters. They supposedly used 30 oak trees to build this.
Prince Elector Karl Theodor built this massive vat in 1725 for all the wine the Palatine wine growers and producers paid as taxes. During that time, public taxes were paid using goods and since this was a wine-making region, the rulers received a lot of wine.
There was a staircase that led to the top of the barrel that was used as a dance floor. With all that wine, there was much cause for dancing and celebrating. Although, this wine barrel has actually been empty for most of its existence.
The giant barrel was located in the cellar area of the castle. There’s also a smaller barrel about a third of the size of the giant one. Visitors pass a small cafe and wine tasting area on the way to the barrel. My husband and kids highly recommend the pretzels and bratwursts in the cafe.
Another interesting area within the castle was the German Apothecary Museum or Deutsches Apotheken-Museum. Ever wondered how people from the 17th to the 19th centuries cured themselves? This museum covered it all.
Its vast collection included over 20,000 objects that covered over 2,000 years of the history of western pharmacy. The self-guided tour, exhibits and several recreated rooms detailed how remedies evolved from pre-historic times using herbs to modern laboratories.
There was a lot of information displayed throughout the museum in English and German. My kids found it a bit overwhelming though interesting.
Heidelberg Old Town Area
Don’t miss a walk around the charming old town area of Heidelberg. While the castle is the most visited and well-known attraction here, the city is also actually known for Germany’s oldest university. Heidelberg University was founded in 1386 and has about 30,000 students.
The old town area was a pleasant place for a stroll. Like many of Europe’s historic towns, colorful buildings lined the cobblestoned streets.
This city was also spared from damages during World War II so much of the beautiful beautiful and historic buildings were left intact. There were many shops, cafes and restaurants here.
We loved our short walk to the riverside area and to the Old Town bridge (Alte Brucke). My kids enjoyed watching all the activity on the river including this party boat on a Sunday afternoon.
The bridge also had the best view of Heidelberg Castle from below.
We really enjoyed exploring Heidelberg castle. I had low expectations coming here knowing most of it was in ruins. But, its troubled history and old architecture added to the uniqueness of the castle. The grounds were well kept and those views of the town were unrivaled.
Having the giant wine barrel and the apothecary museum on the castle complex grounds made our visit even more interesting. It may only be a skeleton of what was once a grand palace but it was still worth a visit.
Tips for Visiting Heidelberg Castle
- Admission Ticket for the Palace, funicular, Great Tun and Apothecary Museum: Adults € 7.00; Children (ages 6-14) € 4.00
- Guided tours are available which is an extra fee to admission prices. Adults € 5.00; Families € 12.50; An audio guide is also available in several languages for € 5.00
- Get there early. The palace grounds open at 8:00 AM daily. We found that more tour buses lined up the street as the day progressed.
- Walk around the nearby gardens which also has similar panoramic views from the terrace of the river and valley.
- There are four ways to get to the castle:
Car: There are few parking spaces but in low tourist season, it’s possible to park here s my brother (who lives an hour away has done). Though, the road was already closed during our visit.
Bike: The bike route is the same road for cars.
Walk: We saw signs to go up to the castle next to Rathaus and Kornmarkt. Burgweg is the route to the castle which eventually splits into two routes. There is scenic route with no steps and the shorter route with steps.
Funicular: The funicular or Bergbahnen is the most popular way to get to the castle. We parked our car in one of the parking garages in the Old Town area and went to Kornmarkt to buy tickets there. The castle is the first stop and the funicular goes all the way to Heidelberg’s highest point, Konigstuhl.
*Have you visited Heidelberg Castle or a similar castle ruin?
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