48 Hours In: Heidelberg

One of Germany's best Christmas markets is held in this historic city – and once you've paid a visit to Santa's house, there are plenty of other distractions, too.
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WHY GO NOW?

The ancient settlement of Heidelberg has a strong claim to be the prettiest and most interesting town in south-west Germany. One of the country's best Christmas markets opens on 26 November; it ends a month today. Between 11am and 9pm daily, festive stalls and an air of jollity take over six squares in the old quarter, most notably Markt (1), where Santa's house is located, while a skating rink in Karlsplatz (2) gives views of the festively illuminated castle (3).

TOUCH DOWN

The easy way in is by air to Frankfurt, which has services from a range of UK airports on Lufthansa (0845 773 7747; www.lufthansa.com), and from Heathrow on British Airways (0844 493 0787; ba.com). Regular express trains (0871 880 8066; www.deutsche-bahn.co.uk) leave the airport for Heidelberg's main station (4), taking 50 minutes and costing €23.50 (£19.60) each way.

GET YOUR BEARINGS

Heidelberg is built in a strip along the banks of the river Neckar, sheltered on either side by densely wooded hills; the old town (Altstadt) is on the south shore, along with almost all places of interest. The spine of the old town is Hauptstrasse, which extends from the public-transport hub of Bismarckplatz (5) via Markt (1) to Karlstor (6).

From the station (4) it is a bit of a hike to the old town, but bus 30 to 33 inclusive will save you the walk. To save the hassle of buying a ticket, call in at the tourist office (00 49 6221 19433; www.cvb-heidelberg.de) opposite the station entrance, which opens 9am-6pm Monday-Saturday; here you can buy a two-day "Heidelberg Card" for €14 (£11.70), which buys unlimited public transport plus admission to the castle, museums and other attractions.

CHECK IN

Heidelberg is the location for Germany's sole Hip Hotel (7), well located at Hauptstrasse 115 (00 49 62 21 20 879; www.hip-hotel.de). It offers chic rooms – each designed to celebrate a particular city – starting at €120 (£100), including breakfast. For a lot less, you can stay at its sister-hotel: the "Hip-Résidence". This is the alternative name for the Hotel Blume (8) at Belfortstrasse 1 (00 49 6221 20879; blume-hotel.de). It has colourful, clean and comfortable rooms for €85 (£71), including breakfast.

The Sudpfanne Hostel (9) calls itself the "comfy hostel at the centre of Heidelberg". Located at Hauptstrasse 223 (00 49 6221 163636), it is part of an agreeable bar-restaurant complex at the east end of town. A bed in a dorm costs €20 (£16.50) without breakfast – and, if you check in between 3 and 6pm you get a free drink.

TAKE A VIEW

Heidelberg, as you will quickly learn, is full of lovely panoramas. The most central location to get an overview, though, is the tower (turm) of the Heiliggeist-kirche (10). The church of the Holy Spirit is breathtaking in its scale, grace and simplicity. You can appreciate its interior as you climb to the viewpoint, which is open from 11am-5pm daily, except Sundays from 1pm, admission is €1 (£0.80).

LUNCH ON THE RUN

In Markt (1), the square outside, there is plenty of choice, particularly along the north side of the square. The Mex Bar is the most attractive, but has least to offer in terms of food; two doors along, at the Marktstube you can get a fast and filling goulash with salad and the local carb speciality, spätzle, plus a small coffee and still have change from €10 (£8.20) – just.

TAKE A HIKE

From Markt (1), it is only a couple of minutes' walk to the Old Bridge (11); this late 18th-century structure is in the final stages of refurbishment. From here, explore the compact network of streets; on Pfaffengasse, call in at the birthplace of Friedrich Ebert (12), the first president of the Weimar Republic (00 49 6221 91070; open daily except Monday, 10am-6pm; free). Follow Untere Strasse (13) west until it opens up, revealing the University (14) across Hauptstrasse. Heidelberg's university is the oldest in Germany. The main building was reconstructed in baroque style after the French destroyed the original in the 17th century. Inside is a magnificent hall, now used only for special lectures. It opens 10am-4pm daily except Sunday and Monday, admission €3 (£2.50). At the rear, on Augustinergasse, is the Studentenkarzer – where errant students were detained.

Just south on Plock is the university library (15), a Jugendstil (German Art Nouveau) masterpiece; it opens to tourists 10am-6pm daily except Sunday, admission €2.50/£2). Continue around the exterior and go north up quiet, quaint Sandgasse. At Hauptstrasse turn left, and very shortly on your right you will reach the Kurpfälzisches Museum (16), in whose elegant surroundings the history of the town and region is described (00 49 6221 583 4020; museum-heidelberg.de; open 10am-5pm daily except Monday, admission €3/£2.50). The star exhibit is a copy of the 600,000-year-old jawbone of "Heidelberg Man", there is is also an excellent restaurant on the premises.

Next Saturday, and on 6 and 13 December, a special Christmas Market guided tour sets off at 6.30pm, with commentary in German only, price €7 (£6) – including a glass of mulled wine. Meet on Markt (1) at the main entrance to the town hall.

WINDOW SHOPPING

Hauptstrasse is the main retail drag, with plenty of places selling Heidelberg's signature confection: the Student's Kiss – a chocolate-covered praline on a base of thin wafer. For some respite, visit the Museum of Packaging (17), along an alleyway and up some stairs off the main street. It opens 1-6pm Wednesday to Friday and 11am-6pm at weekends, admission €3.50 (£2.90).

AN APERITIF

Heidelberg's 35,000 students (representing one-fifth of the population) seem recession-proof, at least judging from the amount of drinking and carousing that goes on in "Bar Street", Untere Strasse (13). A more appealing location is the Marstallcafe (18), part of the university catering set-up. It is an animated, split-level cafe that occupies the former armoury on Marstallstrasse. It is busy throughout its opening hours, 2.30-7pm on Saturdays, 9am-midnight from Mondays to Fridays, for cool music and cold, cheap beer – plus a fug of cigarette smoke.

DINING WITH THE LOCALS

Heidelberg is packed with eating opportunities. The classic bierkeller is the cavernous and convivial Palmbräu Gasse (19) at Hauptstrasse 185 (00 49 6221 28536; palmbraeu-gasse.de), where you can choose from a surprisingly wide and nutritious range of dishes while drinking Palmbräu beer.

For something more exotic and less uproarious, try the Restaurant Akademie (20) at Akademiestrasse 8 (00 49 6221 162000), which specialises in Italian regional fare from Emilia Romagna. It is closed on Sundays.

SUNDAY MORNING: GO TO CHURCH

The pretty Peterskirche (21) is the oldest church in town; parts of the tower are said to date back to the 12th century. Its cemetery has a greater proportion of brilliance than most; illustrious citizens and university professors were traditionally buried here.

A WALK IN THE PARK

Go north across the Neckar on the modern Theodor Heuss Bridge, descend to the riverbank and the restaurant boat Schloss Blick (22). This is the official start of the Philosophers' Way walk, which reputedly inspired poets and thinkers.

Walk upstream along the shore, past stark stone walls that glow pink in the pale winter sunshine. At the Old Bridge (11) walk away from the river; cross the main road and clamber up a steep, winding path, imagining the area thick with vineyards. Eventually the path bears left and flattens out into a promenade. This is the Philosophers' Way proper, which was completed in 1841 and is punctuated with panoramas across to the main town. At the first viewpoint (23), a landscape engraving dating from 1620 shows how little of the place has changed. Heidelberg managed to escape the bombings of the Second World War.

As it gently descends westward, the walk appropriately passes the Institute for Theoretical Physics, then emerges onto a main road, where you turn left.

OUT TO BRUNCH

Heading back towards the river, you pass plenty of options for coffee – but if you're there on a Sunday the restaurant boat Schloss Blick (22) hosts a "romantic brunch" with live music.

TAKE A RIDE

Back on the main side of town, the Bergbahn runs in two stages from and to the summit of the Königstuhl (king's throne), the steep hill that reins in Heidelberg. It starts at the Kornmarkt station (24), and stops at the castle (3) en route to Molkentur station (25); from this point a more ancient train continues the journey right to the top of the hill. The return journey costs €8 (£6.70).

CULTURAL AFTERNOON

The castle (3) (00 49 6221 538431) is the town's most prominent attraction. From the outside it appears to be mainly in ruins, as Mark Twain described it: "deserted, discrowned, beaten by the storms, but royal still, and beautiful". Go into the courtyard, however, to find that more remains than at first appears. A fortification has existed on the site for at least a millennium. The castle expanded at the start of the 15th century, when the Elector of the Palatinate – a regional prince – needed a residence that suited his position. Extra wings were added gradually, and what's left is part baroque, part renaissance. The castle opens 8am-5.30pm daily. A ticket that gets you into the courtyard, the German pharmacy museum and a cellar containing the world's largest barrel costs €3 (£2.50).

The only way to get inside what remains of the castle buildings is to take a guided tour; tours in English depart daily every hour from 11.15am until 4.15pm, and cost an extra €4 (£3.30).

WRITE A POSTCARD

Get all poetic in the Castle Gardens (26), where the bust of Goethe is a reminder that Germany's greatest writer used to walk in these grounds. In the days before the Thirty Years' War the formal geometric design of the Hortus Palatinus was touted as a candidate for the eighth wonder of the world. Today, the park has lost some formality, but still comprises a pleasant oasis.

THE ICING ON THE CAKE

Easily accessible by rail from Heidelberg, the French city of Strasbourg is also en fete between now and Christmas; to make it easy for you to combine the two, it is the place featured in "48 Hours" next Saturday.

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