The city of Heidelberg, Germany is dominated by the remains of a sprawling red sandstone complex that towers over its old town. Built over a span of 400 years, Heidelberg Castle became a mélange of all the architectural styles that were popular along the way, everything from Gothic to Renaissance. How cool that it's a standard stop on Rhine River cruises.
Why the castle is a shadow of itself
We went there expecting a big, majestic castle that had a bunch of rooms to explore, but that was impossible. The castle is a shadow of what it once was because it was destroyed several times during wars with the French. They began to rebuild it, but gave up when a freak lightning bolt struck the arsenal, causing an explosion and a fire that burned it to the ground. All that was left was the stone, which the locals began to quarry in order to build new houses.
In 1800 a local count decided that Heidelberg Castle should be preserved and put a stop to all that stone looting. It's been slowly renovated since then and it now has a hall that is used for performances, balls and banquets. Each summer the city hosts the Heidelberg Castle Festival, and the courtyard is filled with open air performances, everything from classical philharmonic concerts to musicals to dramatic theater performances. I don't think they'll ever rebuild it, though. It would be way too expensive. (And why should they, if it's already the most popular tourist site in the country?)
Our Heidelberg Castle tour
Our tour of the castle was mostly of the castle's exterior. The red sandstone is dramatic, but don't miss the gardens. They are also beautiful and worth spending time in.
The highlight of our visit to the castle was the incredible view we got from its ramparts. Standing on the walkway and looking over the castle walls, we could see the impressive scenery of the beautiful Neckar River valley, Heidelberg’s famous bridge, the Neckar River itself, and the city’s rooftops below.
The Heidelberg Castle Tun
Back in the day, the local wine growers paid their taxes by delivering wine to the castle. As the years went on and taxes went up the castle couldn't keep up with drinking all the income. Finally in 1591 they had a huge barrel built to store it all in. (The story goes that the court dwarf in charge of guarding the cask had an uncanny ability to drink large quantities of wine. He died after mistakenly drinking a glass of water.)
They built an even bigger barrel in the mid 1700s, so large that a dance floor was built on the top. It's still on display and tourists can still climb the stairs to the dance floor. This massive barrel can hold 55,345 gallons of wine, though I doubt that any still remains.
Tickets for the castle, the vat and the on-site apothecary museum are just €6. After leaving the castle though, be sure to spend time at the bottom of the hill in the actual city of Heidelberg. That's worth a visit, too.