Step into a Fairytale: Exploring Heidelberg with the Family

Story and photos by Kathryn Streeter


  • Direct flights from Houston to Frankfurt, Germany via Lufthansa or United (9 hour, 45 min flight).
  • Frankfurt International Airport is 44 miles from Heidelberg.E
  • nglish is spoken, especially in the hospitality environment and among the younger generation.
  • Currency is the Euro (€). The conversion rate fluctuates.
  • Heidelberg tourism: www.tourism-heidelberg.com.
  • Heidelberg events: Follow the “Go Out” tab on www.heidelberg.de.

Once upon a time, in a valley surrounded by towering hills, there was a magical town with a magical castle perched overhead.

We lived in Germany as a young American expat couple and have since traveled back numerous times to visit our favorite city of Heidelberg. Yet, I still felt a thrill this past summer when our family drove across the bridge toward Bizmarckplatz, the main transport square, into the heart of this medieval city, which was largely spared in WWII. Perhaps it’s the magical castle on the hill which makes it so treasured, or the peaceful Neckar River flowing past the city through the valley, or its bustling pedestrian zone. It certainly doesn’t hurt that Heidelberg is home to Germany’s oldest university, contributing to its charming aura with students and professors walking about. Truly, the combined total of Heidelberg’s individual features are what make her special today as when the song, “I Lost My Heart in Heidelberg” was written in the 1920s. 

We’d arrived at Frankfurt Airport, hopped in our rental car and made quick work of the 44 miles to Heidelberg on Germany’s famously fast highway (Autobahn). Though the Goldener Falke boutique hotel on the main plaza (Marktplatz) is our favorite place to stay, the “multibed room” wasn’t available. Using Expedia, we booked at the Hotel Holländerhof only to have our reservation transferred to the Marriott Hotel outside the old city (Altstadt). Though the service and amenities left nothing to be desired, our preference remains to stay in the Altstadt. 

A signature attraction, Heidelberg’s popular main street (Hauptsraße) is car-free, allowing pedestrians to stroll the mile-long stretch packed with shops and eating establishments. It’s often crowded with tourists, local residents, university faculty and students alike. There’s something for everyone, from stands selling German pretzels, kitschy souvenir shops, fashion labels, ordinary chain retail shops to the familiar Starbucks and, of course, bars and restaurants of every stripe.  

The Palmbräu Gasse, a favorite restaurant, sits on the Hauptstraße near the Marktplatz. Order their delicious German pasta (Spätzle) to share for a tasty side-dish. As you enter the Marktplatz, stop to visit the protestant church (Heiliggeistkirche, circa 1400) which anchors the plaza. Costing 5 €/person it grants access to the tower (which your kids will definitely want to climb), offering a great view of the Altstadt. To properly appreciate the Marktplatz, I recommend ordering a cappuccino or German Pilsner (“Pils”) at one of the many cafes sprinkled about to take in the people and the overall loveliness of the city. For the kids, any variation with the word Eis (ice cream) on the menu will be a hit. 

We absolutely never miss a stop at the Vetter, our hands-down favorite restaurant near the old bridge (Alte Brücke) which combines fantastic ambience with great beer and sausage (Wurst). Remember, with 1200 types in Germany, dining on Wurst at every meal is practically a given.

Get ready to take some memorable family photos on your walk across the Alte Brücke, a pedestrian-only bridge. If you look closely halfway up the mountain on the other side of the bridge, you’ll see people walking along a famous old path called the Philosopher’s Way (Philosophenweg). It’s a bit of a walk uphill using the stairs found across from the bridge, but with its unparalleled view of the city, you’ll not want to miss it. Once you reach the top and catch your breath, walk the entire promenade, drinking in the picturesque castle, town and river far below. While your kids skip and sing at your side, imagine the philosophers and poets of the 19th century who loved to ramble and think on this very path. 

A trip to Heidelberg is incomplete without a visit to Heidelberg Castle (Schloss). Add the tour for the family entrance fee for an additional 12.50 €. Depending on the ages of your children, take the steep walk up the mountain (nearly 400 steps) to the castle’s entrance. Alternatively, ride the funicular “Bergbahn” instead, which takes you to the castle entrance. Ask about getting a combination ticket, which includes transportation and castle entry. If the kids have the energy, climb aboard the funicular after the castle tour to continue up the mountain to Königstuhl the highest point which offers fantastic views and a café, perfect if tummies are grumbling. Otherwise, let the kids get the wiggles out after the castle tour by running freely around the expansive castle greens. 

At some point, even a fairytale needs a reality check. When this happens, head west along the north side of the river to the city park (Neckarwiese), complete with creatively designed playground equipment, beach volleyball and open, grassy fields. Abutting the river, the park offers a great view of the city so parents don’t feel they’ve sacrificed beauty to let the kids play freely with local children. One can’t look past the opportunities to get on the water, too, by renting paddle boards and kayaks, or perhaps a river boat cruise on the Weiße Flotte is a better option for your family. Alternatively, take a break from the walking to hop on rented bikes and head east out of town along the north side of the river. The well-maintained bike path runs parallel to the snaking river, offering a different take of the area, one which also illustrates the high quality of life residents enjoy. 

Heidelberg is undeniably charming, attracting tourists from across the globe. Yet what makes this fairytale place even more enchanting, is that it’s authentic, remaining an exciting, thriving city even after visitors like me sadly bid it good-bye. 

Kathryn Streeter writes for Houston Family Magazine. Find her on Twitter, @streeterkathryn.

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