Spared from any serious bombings during World War II, Heidelberg retains its undeniable Old World charm with plenty of wonderfully ornate buildings on peaceful streets, including hotels, grand homes, St. Peter’s Church (the oldest church in the city, from the 1100s) and the gorgeous university library.
For the best view of it all, I rode the funicular up to Schloss Heidelberg, the largely ruined castle that overlooks the city. After exploring one of the most important Renaissance structures north of the Alps, with its earliest parts dating back to 1214 and unbeatable views of the city and the Neckar River below, I meandered into the Christmas market on the castle grounds. Inside and around heated white canvas tents, vendors sold some products I hadn’t seen anywhere else, like grilled corn on the cob, baked apples, and hand-carved and -painted wooden geese Christmas tree toppers, including one dapper fellow sporting a top hat and a green necktie.
I skipped the funicular on the way back down, opting instead for the meandering path and staircases past lovely storybook homes, to Heiliggeistkirche (Holy Ghost Church, completed in 1544). Next to it, the Christmas market in Marktplatz was surprisingly uncrowded, especially when compared to the madness of the Stuttgart markets a couple of days before. I attributed the uncongested markets here to the fact that it was a Monday afternoon and, presumably, most Germans were back at work.
Waving (fake) polar bears greeted me as I entered the square. Commanding attention at its center, the Christmas pyramid stood atop one of the food stalls. Quite a few markets featured this decoration — a rotating multi-tiered carousel topped by what looks like a propeller or an enormous ceiling fan. The figures standing on each level, traditionally made of wood, could be angels, toy soldiers, mountain villagers, or everyone present at the very first Christmas. I took a little break here to admire its workmanship as I snacked on a sausage made with cheese and some pomme frites.
After I left this market, I strolled to one of the city’s signature structures — the famous Karl Theodor Bridge, or, more commonly, the Alte Brücke, the old bridge (1788, the ninth on this site) spanning the Neckar River that leads into the city, guarded by the city’s iconic two gleaming-white and striped towers. I crossed the bridge to gaze back at this gorgeous city and then strolled along the river as I made my way to the Christmas market at Universitätsplatz, running alongside the University of Heidelberg Museum. I browsed the stalls while enjoying a pork schnitzel with onions. The storefront windows here were tastefully and blithely decorated — a blue-and-white winter scene in one; Bavarian cuckoo clocks and steins in another.
At the final market, at Kornmarkt, a six-sided windmill atop a large food booth attracted my attention, as did the vast assortment of hand-painted blue and white mugs with names on their side — a lovely souvenir for yourself or a gift for your loved ones, especially if they’re named Brigitte or Brunhilde, Dieter or Dietmar.
More beautiful than I anticipated, Heidelberg had enchanted me like no other city, and I wished I had chosen to stay here instead of Frankfurt. Perhaps the aura of Christmas swayed me in its favor, but I’m sure it would have bewitched me in any season. This would be hard to beat, and I hoped that my final city, Cologne, would rise to the challenge, especially since it had the one thing I wanted to see more than anything else on this trip, the High Cathedral of St. Peter, or as it’s commonly known, Cologne Cathedral, as well as some of the prettiest Christmas markets in Germany.