Everyone knows that flight prices to Europe go down in winter, but in many places that’s for a good reason: in many towns there’s not a lot to see or do and most of the shops and restaurants are closed up for the off season. The cities are a different story, however, including the German ones like Heidelberg that look like something out of a fairy tale. That city gets especially dressed up for its annual Christmas market. The center of it is in the main plaza, but it extends out from there on one of the longest pedestrian zones in Europe.
Heidelberg is known as one of the most romantic cities in Germany, a magnet for poets and artists in the past. It’s home to the country’s oldest university (founded 1386) and the ruins of the 13th-century castle on the hill make it feel like a special place. Unlike many cities in Germany, this one mostly escaped the World War II bombings, so the old city can still feel like a step into centuries past.
This area of Southwest Germany goes all-out for the holidays, with Heidelberg hosting a carousel, walking tours, open-air skating rink, and lots of vendors selling gifts and treats. You walk around smelling mulled wine, cinnamon, almonds, and hot chestnuts.
The German Christmas Market
The epicenter of the holiday market is the pedestrian-only Marktplatz Square, by the Heidelberg Town Hall and dominated by the Church of the Holy Ghost at the far end. There’s a fountain that dates back to 1709 in the center. Some of the market stalls are quite elaborate, looking like miniature wooden German houses or cabins.
From the start of the Christmas Market on November 25 through January, there’s also an ice-skating rink in the square. You can strap on some skates and join the locals to really get into the holiday spirit. With the castle lit up in the distance, Christmas music in the air, and twinkling lights around, it’s a festive scene.
There are five main areas for the market scattered around though, parts of it on cobbled streets, so wear good walking shoes if you attend this one. You’ll also want to take a stroll over the Nectar River on the Old Bridge, which dates back to the 1800s. Keep going if the weather’s nice and hike along The Philosopher’s Walk, which provides great views of the old city from above.
If you’re worried about freezing in Germany in the winter though, it’s not much of an issue here. Heidelberg is actually one of the warmer spots in the country, averaging 34-42°F in December. Just layer up and have a warm hat so you can stay out for hours.
For serious shopping, it’s best to go soon after the markets open. After 6:00 or so, they can get quite crowded, especially on weekends. It can be fun, but it’s harder to browse for gifts in a leisurely way then.
If you are drinking a lot of glüwein, weißglüwein, or kinderpunsch, you won’t have to search in vain for a toilet. Business that display the “Nette Toilette” sticker or sign will let you use their facilities even if you’re not sticking around as a customer.
Winter Travel Deals in Heidelberg
I mentioned before that flight prices from North America are great in the winter, but the deals don’t stop there. If you look at the promotions page on the Heidelberg Tourism site, there are some great incentives to get you to visit. If you avoid the four weekends of Advent, you can get three nights for the price of two. Call or use the chat function on their site during business hours, in German, English, or French.
And it doesn’t stop there. You also get a Heidelberg Card if you’re booking those two nights, which is a €17 value.
The Heidelberg Card gets you unlimited local transportation, a funicular ride to the castle, castle admission, and discounts with more than 60 partners, from attractions to restaurants. If you’re buying one, you can extend it to two or three days for just two euros more per day. Get more info here.
You can drive to this city in a rental car, but parking is going to be a major hassle. It’s better–and often faster–to catch a train from where you’re coming from instead. Then in the city there’s a good public transportation system and ride services.
See more on Heidelberg at the official site or on the regional tourism site for “the sunny side of Germany.”
All photos by Tobias Schwert except vertical shot below by Brina Blum on Unsplash.