Just 78km south of Frankfurt on the banks of the Neckar river sits Heidelberg, Germany, a charming and romantic university town with a rich and complex history. Not only is this old city incredibly picturesque, with a riverside setting and wooded hills all around, but it's also home to countless fascinating sights like the 16th-century Heidelberg Castle and the 14th-century Heidelberg University, one of the most prestigious universities in Europe and the oldest in the country. Unlike much of Germany, Heidelberg remained completely unscathed in World War II, which means there's lots of stunning pre-war architecture to admire. And its reputation as a centre for research and science has attracted many a famous figure, from Mark Twain to Goethe and the painter William Turner.
And yet, Heidelberg is so much more than just a historic town. One in five residents is a student, which creates a lively and youthful atmosphere, and also means that there's an abundance of cultural and social events all year round. Throw in a few offbeat attractions, like the world's largest wine vat, and you've got yourself quite the intriguing destination. If you're road tripping around Germany, considering a unique getaway or looking for day trip ideas from Frankfurt, Heidelberg is a worthy detour to make.
The story of Heidelberg begins about 600,000 years ago, when "Heidelberg Man" died in the nearby village of Mauer. In 1907 scientists discovered his jawbone and determined it was the oldest evidence of human life in all of Europe. In the 5th century BC, the Celts set up camp in the area, establishing a fortress and a place of worship on Heiligenberg, the wooded mountain overlooking Heidelberg. And from about 80 AD, the Romans took over, establishing a permanent settlement on the banks of Neckar river that eventually became the town we see today.
In 1386, Prince Elector Ruprecht I founded Heidelberg University, which was only the third university to be established in the Holy Roman Empire (after Prague and Vienna). Since then, the town has become known as a centre for research and science, and today is home to numerous research facilities including four Max Planck Institutes.
During World War II, the US Army took over Heidelberg and used it as the HQ for the American armed forces and NATO, protecting it from any major destruction. And today, it's home to about 150,000 people and attracts millions of visitors each year, drawing people to its charming Baroque-style Old Town, superb shopping options and spectacular restaurants.
Here's one for the trivia buffs: among Heidelberg's many points of interest, it's also home to the biggest wine vat in the whole world. Built from 130 oak trees, Heidelberg Tun is capable of holding an incredible 221,726 litres of wine. It was built in the 18th century, when - oddly enough - it was rather fashionable to build oversized wine barrels. Today, it's stored in the cellars of the castle, and tourists can climb the scaffolding around it to see it up close.
One of the most popular activities in Heidelberg is walking along the Philosopher's Way (Philisophenweg), a scenic path on the north side of the river with panoramic views of the town below. It begins just above the Old Bridge and cuts through terraced vineyards until hitting the woods.
According to legend, this walkway got its name from the Heidelberg University professors, who enjoyed contemplating philosophical and intellectual matters while admiring the views from the path. Go in the late afternoon for a chance to watch the breathtaking sunset.