A recent visit to Heidelberg began with the best introduction possible: a sunny stroll from my hotel along the Neckar River to the city’s Old Town, where I spent a couple of hours exploring the cafés and shops along its cobblestoned streets, then relaxed with a cold drink in a shady courtyard next to a 400-year-old stone armory.
It wasn’t long, but time enough for me to understand why visitors ranging from 18th-century German writer Johann Wolfgang von Goethe to American humorist Mark Twain were so charmed by Heidelberg, home to Germany’s first university and the picturesque ruins of Heidelberg Castle. And to see why this city of 150,000 continues to be a favorite with travelers. Heidelberg was included on the travel website Travelbird’s 2016 list of the world’s top 10 most inspiring cities, ahead of Paris.
CHAMPAGNE ON THE NECKAR
Goethe called the city’s “entire surroundings” in the Rhine Rift Valley ideal, and our host hotel, the Heidelberg Marriott has an enviable perch on the Neckar from which to take it all in. I joined a group of nine hosted buyers — eight from the United States and one from Russia — all on their way to IMEX 2017 the following week, on a two-day fam hosted by the German Convention Bureau. During our group’s first evening, we sipped champagne as we toured the property’s 8,000 square feet of meeting space, making note of the views from the meeting rooms. Dinner was at the relaxed Grill 16, which overlooks a terrace that’s a popular spot for receptions and dinners.
Among the criteria that landed Heidelberg on the list of world’s most inspiring cities was the number of startups, and we got a chance to see local creativity firsthand at the Frauenbad Heidelberg. Built in 1900 as a traditional bathhouse, with separate facilities for men and women, the space has been restored and repurposed as an event venue, with a bar, soaring ceilings, and two decks, plus rooftop space. The top floor, which looks out over the city’s red-tiled roofs, features a kitchen where groups can host cooking demonstrations, tastings, and seated dinners.
It’s hard to imagine a more romantic setting for a meeting than the red-sandstone Stadthalle convention center, our next stop. Built in a neo-Renaissance style, with Art Nouveau interiors that feature marble columns and polished wood paneling, it opened in 1903 for the centennial celebration of the rejuvenation of the University of Heidelberg. Now equipped with Wi-Fi throughout, the Stadthalle offers 23,250 square feet of meeting space and 13 meeting rooms. We sipped more champagne on a balcony overlooking the river, then lingered after lunch in the center’s green side yard.
GOING OLD SCHOOL
Next up was a guided tour of Old Town. Heidelberg is small and compact enough that it feels familiar after a few hours, as Charlotte, our American-born tour guide, pointed out, but it’s packed with attractions. We paid particular attention to the historic presence of the highly regarded University of Heidelberg, which has made the city a scientific hub, home to internationally renowned research facilities, including four Max Planck Institutes — specializing in medical research, astronomy, nuclear physics, and international law.
For many visitors, the university’s biggest draw is the so-called Student Prison, where unruly students who ran afoul of local citizens were quartered between 1784 to 1914, and covered the walls with graffiti. Nearby is the dignified, church-like Old Auditorium, which seats 320 people and can be used for meetings and events.
Then a funicular took us 300 feet up the Königstuhl hills to Heidelberg Castle. While the city escaped bombing in the 20th century, the castle, which dates from 1300, was destroyed by French troops twice in the 17th century. It lies in partial ruins, but some buildings have been restored, and meeting and special-event facilities can accommodate groups of up to 1,400. Also resurrected was an old bakery that now houses two restaurants, the Michelin-starred Scharff’s Schlossweinstube and the more rustic Historical Bakehouse.
We sat at a long table at the Bakehouse, where we were joined by chef Martin Scharff, who oversees both restaurants and grows herbs and vegetables for their kitchens on site.
After admiring the Neckar all weekend, we got a chance to get out on it on our nal day. A boat that’s part of Weisse Flotte — the “White Fleet” — picked us up at the dock directly behind our hotel. The boat can fit up to 600 passengers for events or meetings, but on that morning, we had it all to ourselves. As we sipped coffee and sparkling water and ate finger sandwiches, we cruised below the Old Bridge, which is bookended by medieval towers, and enjoyed views of the castle and a Benedictine monastery.
Our final stop in Heidelberg was at the serene, five-star Europäischer Hof, which has been operated by the same family for four generations. (The current owners work in open-door offices on the ground floor.) Opened in 1865, the hotel has been updated and expanded over the years — the owners hand-select the wall coverings and fabrics for in-house upholsters, and maintain their own renovation team. The property now offers more than 100 guest rooms and suites, 11 meeting rooms, and seven restaurants and bars. Since 2010, the Europäischer Hof has been both a Certified Business Hotel and a Certified Conference Hotel.