Heidelberg, Germany: The Philosophers and Snakes Workout

While traveling, people often worry about how to stay in shape.

My answer: Heidelberg.

The picturesque, romantic city, nestled between two banks of the Neckar river in south west Germany, is quite overrun with tourists. If you’re a first-time American traveler anxious about not being able to understand the language, Heidelberg is the place to go: in the four hours I spent in the city this week, I overheard three times as many American English speakers than any other group, even German.

That said, Heidelberg still has a lot to offer, particularly if you want easy access to the German countryside, a moderately intense workout, and a walking tour through a picturesque city.

Start at the Theodor-Heuss bridge, the middle of Heidelberg’s three bridges, from the castle side of the city. I walked to the bridge from the central train station across town, but some street cars will take you to the base of the bridge. Cross the bridge and turn right after two blocks, following signs to the “Philosophenweg,” or Philosopher’s Path. The well-paved walk winds steeply up the hill at first, but then slowly levels out to a multi-level garden. At this first resting place, you’ll find several benches – some even situated under ancient trees, providing much-appreciated shade. A small kiosk nearby sells ice cream and chilled water, and you can enjoy either while you take in the stunning view.

Heidelberg castle and old bridge from philosophenweg June 2015

The path forks right next to the kiosk, with one path leading up and into the woods, and another less challenging path continuing to follow the river. Head up and into the woods. You’ll find you still get glimpses of that beautiful view across the river, but you’ll encounter small fields with playgrounds, hikers, bicyclists, and other locals enjoying life off the beaten path. As you circle around, you’ll find the Bismarcksturm, a lookout tower built from red sandstone, first built in 1903. The spiral staircase inside (74 steps) provides another beautiful view of the castle. Ambitious walkers can climb even higher to view ruins of two monasteries dating back to the 11th century, and a celtic fort dating back to 4th century BC – but I decided to head for the snake path.

Schlangenweg von philosophenweg Heidelberg June 2015

The “schlangenweg,” or snake path (pictured above), is named not for an abundance of reptilian slitherers, but for the winding, switchback nature of the path, which zigzags back and forth down the steep hill. The walk is narrow and steep, but broad enough for two people to pass each other by. Part cobblestone, part brick, and part “we’ve got some extra stones here, let’s just jam ’em in here, all right?”, the walkway is steep, so it’s important to watch your step. Even on a clear day, you might find yourself slipping on stones worn smooth by thousands of travelers over the centuries. You’ll pass gardens, fields and houses, and at the very bottom of the walk, you’ll find yourself at the “Altbruecke,” or Old Bridge, officially called the Karl-Theodor bridge.

Bottom of schlangenweg Heidelberg June 2015

While thick with tourists, the old bridge – built in 1788 – is popular for a reason: it’s charming and the architecture really is lovely. Heidelberg was largely spared from bombing during WWII, in large part because Allied forces hoped to use the town as their headquarters, but the bridge was not so lucky: retreating German forces blew up the bridge on March 29, 1945. Local forces began a fundraising campaign to rebuild the bridge, and the reconstructed bridge was reopened just two years later.

As you cross the bridge, you’ll pass beneath the bridge gate. The two white curved towers date back to the 15th century, when they served as the entrance point to the gothic walls that surrounded the city. Continue forward, past the crowds of tourists near the monkey statue  (if you have a killer Dieter impersonation from SNL, now is the time to break out your “Touch my Monkey!” line), and you’ll walk right to the “Heiliggeist Kirche,” or Church of the Holy Ghost. Walk in and pay the 1 euro donation fee.

Church of the Holy Spirit Heidelberg

Inside the church, you can sit down, cool off, and admire the beautiful architecture. The church was built in 1398, but references to a church of the same name exist as far back as 1239. One of my favorite windows in the building is just above the choir loft: it has incredibly rich reds and blues, and has a Marc Chagall-feel to it.

Church interior Heidelberg June 2015

West Window Church Heidelberg June 2015

Once you’ve had a chance to cool off, exit the church from the other side, emerging into the old city center. Hang an immediate left and walk a few blocks. You’ll see a mariensaule, a small pillar with a madonna and child on top, immediately to your right. Walk past it and you’ll find two options for climbing the other bank: a slow incline to your left, and a series of steps – called “Kurzer Buckel,” or short hump (that’s what she said!) – to your right.

The signs will tell you both routes to the castle are a 10-minute walk. I say be bold, and take the stairs.

The steps – 303 of them, to be exact, because many have counted – are a short but steep climb to the ruins of Heidelberg castle. The steps receive a fair amount of traffic, and are much broader than the previous snake-steps as a result. Occasionally, take a moment to catch your breath and look over your shoulder. Look how far you’ve come!

Kurzbuckel steps to the castle Heidelberg June 2015

The steps end with the castle immediately to your left (whatever else it may be, Heidelberg is efficient). You can purchase a ticket to enter the castle and tour the grounds if you like, or just wander the exterior grounds for another beautiful view of the city. I decided to take the local road directly to the right of the castle entrance, and walk up the hill for a slightly different view of the castle’s facade.

Top of the Schloss Heidelberg June 2015

All told, you’ve now walked 4.5km (just short of 3 miles) – although a fair amount of that was vertical! Now it’s time for the best part: a leisurely stroll back down. Wander down the cobblestone roads until you reach the old city, or take the steps back down again. Walk back to the church of the holy spirit and then keep going on the “Hauptstrasse,” the main street. You’ll recognize it by the throngs of people shopping, having a beer with friends, or just having an ice cream and people-watching. If crowds make you uncomfortable, walk a few blocks to your right until you reach the Neckar. You can walk along the river’s edge all the way back to your starting point, the Theodor-Huess bridge, to bring your mileage to 7.25km (4.5 miles). If you keep your purchases to bottled water (as I did, purchasing two), that’s a full day of wandering and sightseeing, going from sitting alone in the woods, listening to the birds sing, to people-watching in the grounds of a stunning castle for just 4 euro ($4.45). Go get yourself a beer!

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