Three million people visit Heidelberg every year, making it one of the most visited cities in Germany, yet it appears to manage the associated tourist baggage with ease.
Of course, fun and games occur, particularly along the city’s Untere Strasse, which hums with the sounds of stag and hen parties – particularly as night draws in – but its bar owners have a keen sense of knowing when to close the doors and send the tottering merrymakers on their way back to their hotels.
There is, then, a balancing act between the utter charm of the Old Town and Castle area – a perspective that is directly connected to the city’s image of being a crucial element of the Romantic Era – and the cosmopolitan sensibility that is apparent from the utilitarian buildings of the Natural Sciences Institute at nearby Neuheimer Feld.
Eating out in Heidelberg is a no-fuss procedure – no airs or graces, no pretention. Instead, think hearty and heartfelt, traditional and contemporary. Specialties come from the neighbouring regions of Baden and Kreichgau (asparagus, in particular, is termed, bizarrely to my mind, as “the king of vegetables”), while the town areas of Handschuhsheim, Bismarckplatz, and Neuenheim offer a wide array of eateries that will suit any budget (for which the student population is, no doubt, very thankful). What follows is a personal selection of the best five places to eat in the city.
One of the more atmospheric in the Old Town is Schnookeloch (Haspelgasse 8). Archive photos of uniformed university students and their teachers line the walls, while the prices on the menu are pitched perfectly for academic and tourist alike (you can’t really argue with dinner and a pint of beer for no more than €20, can you?).
Meanwhile, the Schnookeloch is known for its regional specialities. Appetisers include air-dried ham, salami, various cheeses, gherkin, olives, and hot peppers. Mains include the signature dish, Heidelberger Pfännchen (pork loin with onion and bacon sauce, roast potatoes and salad). If you fancy something that is distinctly German try any number of Vesper plates – essentially, large snacks between main meals.
Again, there is a signature/favourite version here: the ‘Schnookeloch’ plate, a sizeable meal in itself that includes Schwartenmagen (also known as ‘headcheese’, a terrine or meat jelly/loaf made with flesh from the head of a pig or calf), cheese, black pudding, liverwurst, sausage salad, potato salad, and bread. If you can eat something like between meals, then well done, you.
If your budget allows for something a tad ritzier, then head to Kurfürstenstube (Friedrich-Ebert-Anlage 1). If you think you have entered into a restaurant through some kind of time machine, we won’t blame you – located in the grandiose Hotel Europäischer Hof, in Heidelberg’s Old Town, the interior is straight out of the good old days: wood-clad walls and ceilings adorned with delicately crafted inlays, ornate chandeliers, copperplate engraving, and a level of what can only be described as unambiguously Germanic tradition.
We say traditional (and it most certainly is that) but that doesn’t mean to imply the food is cut from similar cloth. While the fare blends typical indigenous food with international options, what marks Kurfürstenstube apart from virtually every other restaurant we have been to is its Wine List, which amounts to approximately 600. When in Rome, as they say, so we would strongly suggest for just one meal to leave behind wines you are familiar with, and instead opt for various regional specialities such as Riesling, Mosel, Baden, Palatinate, Rheingau, and Württemberg.
If Kurfürstenstube is a tad too rich (in every sense of the word) for your tastes, and if you want to see something unusual while eating Italian food, then a visit to Pop (Untere Strasse 17) is a must. Well-known musicians and actors have enjoyed superb cooking here over the years, while works of art by the likes of Andy Warhol and Roy Liechtenstein adorn the historic (and protected heritage site) interior.
Prices are quite reasonable, with starters from €6 (including, at €8.90, Pecorino Glassato – glazed sheep’s cheese on arugula, with green olives, pepperoni, tomatoes, honey and balsamico) and pasta mains from €7.90 (although we always go for the most expensive, at €19, Spaghetti Pop Art – with grilled prawns and seafood mix in a tomato, lemon and vodka sauce).
More of an authentic Heidelberg experience, Wirtshaus zum Nepomuk (Obere Neckar Strasse, and part of Hotel Zur Alten Brücke) is located a very short distance from the old bridge – hence the hotel name. The Nepomuk is the kind of rustic restaurant that gives ‘charm’ a good name – there is nothing clichéd about this place, despite its location in a touristy part of the city. Perhaps because of its location, traditional fare comprises a large part of the menu.
Starters include Palatine Grumbeer (potato) soup, with crispy bacon. Mains include a few signature dishes: Maultaschen from the ‘Schwäbisch Hällischen’ (meat-filled pasta dumplings with Schwäbisch Hall pork), Beef Roulade, with homemade red cabbage and a Dijon mustard puree, and what is lovely to eat but not to read on any menu – Butt of Grazing Steer, with fresh horseradish, bouillons, and potatoes.
Desserts include baked Bavarian apple fritters, and Kaiserschmarrn (chopped sweet pancakes, named after the Austrian emperor Franz Joseph I). The food here is toothsome, sometimes moreish, and presented with no airs or graces; the service is attentive and friendly – even in the tourist season. What makes Nepomuk so highly recommended, though, is its sense of comfort.
Some restaurants (and we know which ones) have an inordinately high opinion of what they do. This one knows it’s good, but it just gets on with what it’s supposed to do. If only there were more like it.
Speaking of which, have you heard the one about an ivy-covered restaurant, with pretty shutters on the outside, layers of colourful flowers sitting neatly on the windows, and vines surrounding the garden area? You know, the kind of restaurant in a tidy German city that is likely the clichéd representation of what restaurants in tidy German cities should look like? Say hello to Zur Herrenmühle (Hauptstrasse 239).
Located on what tourist offices would proclaim is the longest pedestrian shopping street in Europe, Zur Herrenmühle is a traditional eatery (it dates back to the 17th century), viewed indigenously as part of the ‘Landhausküchen’ style of small rural kitchens. With Zur Herrenmühle located on such a tourist-trap main street, you would think that over the years it might have compromised on its food, but not at all.
While staying true to European and German food customs, the menu plays with various flavours and blends that hint at adventure without being silly about it. Starters include Yellow Fin tuna on sweet’n’sour black rice with savoy cabbage salad; mains include saddle of veal (with chanterelles, black garlic butter sauce, vegetable tempura and potato taler (cut/shredded). Although pricey enough (Yellow Fin tuna is €21.50; saddle of veal is €32.50), Zur Herrenmühle offsets the euro deficit with style, charm and character. Much like Heidelberg itself.
Tony Clayton-Lea is a freelance pop culture/travel writer. His primary aim when travelling is to avoid obvious tourist traps, to make sure an intriguing laneway never goes undiscovered, and to unearth the perfect place for people watching.
Stay up-to-date with Tony’s writing by visiting his website, tonyclaytonlea.com.