Travel Guide to Heidelberg

Summary: The story of Heidelberg’s cityscape is reflected directly in the story of its reconstruction, the dichotomy of lofty aspirations and hard politics.

Heidelberg has a cityscape that tells a unique story, a center of culture rising from the ashes of foreign occupation, whilst laying the foundation for a new style of architectural expression. The ruins of the towering Renaissance castle served as inspiration to many 19th century romantics pondering forgotten glories. The focus of this article will be exploring and guiding you through this narrative of Heidelberg’s architectural heritage.

If you want to know if Heidelberg is worth visiting first, see this article below:

Traveling Around Heidelberg

Once at Heidelberg main station, don’t make the mistake of walking to the old town. As with every German city, Heidelberg was not spared wartime destruction, and the large stretch of city between the main station and Bismarkplatz was cleared in the postwar period (Though even here, there are still some nice corners, but not really worth chasing after).

Justin Bunch | CityscapeTravel A complete overview of the old-town. Note the detached segments to the north and south, those are largely historicist districts and not part of the traditional old town of Heidelberg.

To reach the old town, you can take a tram, bus or continue on a light-rail connection to the Altstadt Station, which will deposit you at the heart of the old town. The preserved old town can be divided into three parts, of which only one will likely be of interest. The portions of Heidelberg to the north of the Neckar River and to the south-side of the city are beautiful pieces of 19th century urban planning, full of late Historicist and Art Nouveau architecture. There is not anything else special to mention about them, for the most part, the quality of the buildings in these area is fairly average. Unfortunately, the richest collections of 19th century architecture would have been around the main station and these were lost in the war.

The rest of the tour will focus on the city center and explore the cityscape in chronological fashion. I hope this will highlight the narrative of the Baroque style and the reconstruction of the Palatinate following the destruction of the War of Palatine Succession.

Justin Bunch | CityscapeTravel The medieval gate on the old bridge has been baroque-ified to fit the style of the reconstruction. Though the twin-tower design was a popular throughout the medieval Rhineland.

Before the Fall

In 1697 Heidelberg was reduced to ash on the orders of King Louis XIV during the War of Palatine Succession, more broadly part of the French Wars of Reunion. The King had been denied his decisive blow on the Holy Roman Empire and was forced to concede that would be unable to annex the entire left bank. Instead he launched a scorched earth campaign, burning cities, blowing up castles and driving the population across the Rhine. His goal was the utter destruction of the Rhineland, and the region never fully recovered from his campaign.

Heidelberg played the role as capital of the Palatinate, a mid-sized state in the Holy Roman Empire that had the right to cast a vote for the Emperor. It was the only political entity with any strategic relevance on the left bank of the Upper-Rhine. Among other reasons, this was a prime motivating factor the for the French conquest and later destruction of the city.

Justin Bunch | CityscapeTravel This map highlights all of the standard tourist destinations, not just the ones from Medieval Heidelberg. Such a map would have only two points marked on it, the big church and the castle.

Church of the Holy Spirit

So complete was the destruction of of Heidelberg in 1697, that there is virtually nothing left which predates this period. Indeed only the Church of Holy Spirit on the main market square offers a preserved interior space from Medieval Heidelberg. This is remarkable, given that the Church was not only targeted by French forces besieging the city but also intentionally sacked and set ablaze. It has a number of interesting characteristics which make it worth nothing.

The current building replaced a late Romanesque basilica that had been completed around 1300. A century later, in 1389, Elector Ruprecht III ordered the choir to be broken up for a more modern Gothic-hall design to suit his new status as King of the Germans. The remainder of the church was then replaced a century later in 1441 in a later Gothic style typical reflecting south German stylistic preferences. This can be seen with the inclusion of raised Galleries, a feature more typically associated with the Middle-Rhine and but also with later Renaissance churches in the east.

Justin Bunch | CityscapeTravel The rather barren looking church is due mostly to renovations in the 20th century, but the key style elements are visible: the galleries and the hall-church choir.

The most unique stylistic feature of the building is the visual axis down the nave towards the choir. From the back of the church, the focus is placed not on the windows, but on the supporting pillars. This is enabled by the hall-church design of the choir, and draws the eyes to the triumphal arch created at the intersection of the nave and choir. This was a design paradigm found occasionally in South German architecture, most famously in the Church of the Holy Cross in Schwäbisch Gmünd, the largest hall church in Germany.

Of the once rich collection of epitaphs and effigies celebrating the local nobility and patrons of the city, most were destroyed and plundered by the French. Only the sarcophagus of King Ruprecht III remains, in its late Gothic glory. Additionally, several fresco survived the centuries including the angelic concert in the nave ceiling and the list of family arms on the southern transept wall. Most of the baroque furnishings were distributed after WWII to other churches emptied of their inventory, and today only the pulpit remains of the original liturgical inventory.

More visible from the cityscape is the exterior roof of the church. Once the French allowed people to return to the ruined city, the church was the first building to receive repairs. On this note, the roof is special, being one the first, and the oldest surviving mansard roof in Germany. It reflects the beginnings of the architectural ambition that would shape the reconstruction of Heidelberg and later Mannheim.

The Palace of the Electors

But Heidelberg had also in centuries past led the way to new architectural ambitions. The gem of Heidelberg is the mighty castle ruin overlooking the city. It is a monument that inspires both awe and melancholy, or so thought the romantics of the 19th century, famously including the US author Mark Twain. It is also a landmark in the architectural development of Germany, featuring the oldest surviving examples of Renaissance architecture on German soil, and whose great gardens contributed greatly to the development of court garden culture.

Justin Bunch | CityscapeTravel From the city, the reconstructed Friedrichsbau is visible in its Renaissance glory.

The Electoral palace has its roots in a late medieval castle complex, likely completed around 1300, when the Palatinate passed into the hands of the Wittelsbach dynasty. The city of Heidelberg itself was relatively young by this point, having been raised to the county capital only in 1225 when court arrived from Bacharach on the Middle-Rhine. As a result, the castled remained small and was deemed insufficient in 1401, when King Ruprecht III ordered the castle transformed into a palace worthy of his stature. The remains of his medieval palace are still visible in the pointed arches of the Ruprechtsbau.

The most architecturally significant components of the Palace are the Ottheinrichsbau and the Friedrichsbau, both early examples of the German Renaissance. Of course, by the end of the 15th century when both buildings were constructed, the renaissance had been underway for almost a century in Italy. Both buildings would better be described as part of the Mannerist movement, evident in the allegorical program of statues from Greek mythology representing the Elector. The composition reflects the Renaissance view of an organized universe, the figures at the base representing human achievement, such as military conquest, overlooked by Christian virtues such as justice and loyalty, themselves governed by God and the higher powers of nature and fate.

Wikipedia The Ottheinrichbau is one of the earliest Renaissance buidlings in Germany.

Though both buildings would be destroyed by the French, preserving only their facades, the Friedrichsbau would be rebuilt before religious conflict in the city saw the Elector abandon the reconstruction effort. The interiors of the Friedrichsbau are, however, not original to the time period. Though some furnishings date to the reconstruction, most are 19th century interpretations of what the interior would have looked like prior to the French sack of the castle. Overall, the effect is quite tasteful and worth a visit if you have the time to spare. Though, I think a visit to the interior may underwhelm somewhat, and can be skipped without worry.

The Reconstruction Begins

In this section, I have marked a series of specific buildings (for some of which I unfortunately do not have a picture of) that reflect the different stages of the reconstruction period, and what the architecture says about that time period. The reconstruction proceeded in roughly four stages:

  1. Local Traditions: The use of traditional styles from the Lower Neckar and Upper Rhine dominated in the immediate months following the return of the civilian population.
  2. Plans of the Elector: Elector Karl Philipp set forth his plans to rebuild the city, proposing a unified style and constructing a series of model houses as a proof of concept. Religious conflict and protests against his plan ultimately led to the failure of these efforts.
  3. The Homes of the Burghers: Though Heidelberg would never attain its prewar glory, the city would be filled with homes following a unified architectural style noteworthy for its simplicity.
  4. The Residences of the Nobility: Local nobility would establish themselves in the city over the following centuries as the effects of the war faded. Numerous palaces of varying quality and architectural significance are scattered around the city.
  5. Civic Places: Despite the destruction, many civic institutions would survive and continue to thrive in the post-war period, such as the famous University.

Other than the elector himself, perhaps the most important figure in this story is the Court Architect Johann Adam Breunig. He would design most of the buildings that we will be looking at in this article. It is also rather appropriate that his death in 1727 corresponds with the move of the capital to Mannheim, thus largely ending the story of reconstruction in Heidelberg.

Stage One: Local Traditions

Justin Bunch | CityscapeTravel The blue squares mark the buildings in this section. I chose only three, but there are at least a dozen scattered around the city.

The first buildings to be reconstructed after the war ended in 1697 followed traditional wooden-frame designs from the region. In particular, this style of gable construction with an open facade facing the street, dates back to the middle ages and was popular in Swabia and Württemberg among other places (e.g. Tübingen is perhaps the best example of this cityscape). The buildings from this period reflect to some extent how Heidelberg would have appeared in previous centuries, and in at least one case (Zum Seppl) is built on the original medieval foundations of the previous building.

It’s unlikely that many buildings of this style were completed before the Elector began to plan for a unified reconstruction effort.

Stage Two: Plans of the Elector

Justin Bunch | CityscapeTravel The green triangles mark the buildings for this section, and are only representative of the style rather than definitively encompassing it.

The Elector Johann Wilhelm intended to use destruction of his city as an opportunity to build a modern and representative capital. Even before the war had ended, he had plans drawn up for a unified style. His efforts are evident in the main market square, with “Model Houses” built on the south side and north side of the market square, along with a representative town hall.

The designs are likely influenced by sketches from the Belgian architect Bertholet Flémal and represent simple appeals to the baroque style. Each building has three main components, the ground floor, facade and roof, each with the same number of stores. Despite the relative uniformity, each building displays a degree of uniqueness, including varying widths and differing levels of ornamentation. The Town hall was expanded in the 19th century, with the original facade now surviving as only the central portion of the new one. In its original symmetric configuration, it was heavily influenced by examples from the lowlands (c.f. Maastricht, Liege, Lier and etc.).

That the homes appear so different from each other despite efforts to create a unified image program for the city has much to do with the independence of the property owning class. Most of the homes were built on the remnants of the medieval foundations, which in large part predetermined the size and position of the new homes. This was due in no small part by the dire financial straights that the city and its citizens were suffering under in the post-war period. Which in turn also affected the style, favoring a reserved unadorned facade for most of the homes.

Justin Bunch | CityscapeTravel The old town hall is only the center portion of the building (the risalit) and resembles design patterns more common in the Netherlands and Belgium than in Germany.

Finally, it was the religious conflict that would eventually drive the Elector from Heidelberg. Seeking to enforce the Counter Reformation in his capital, the elector would adopt the symbols of a catholic monarch to enforce his rule. This ranged from the establishment of the Jesuit Monastery to the incorporation of religious statues throughout the city. The effect was to enrage the populace and increase the resistance to his grand ambitions. By 1720, the new Elector Carl Philipp had given up and moved the capital to his planned city in Mannheim, giving the residents of Heidelberg more freedom but reducing the city’s economic and political relevance.

Stage Three: Homes of the Burghers

Justin Bunch | CityscapeTravel On the left side we can see the main characteristics of the “Heidelberg Baroque” already, the street-accessible cellar, the raised ground floor and the window above the door.
Justin Bunch | CityscapeTravel The red circles mark the main sights in this section

The cityscape of Heidelberg would come to reflect the hierarchy of status in society. The rich and famous could afford to live on the Hauptstraße (Main Street) and on the various plazas throughout the city. The wealthy burghers could find an affordable home on the Untere Straße (Lower Street) and the remaining workers and craftsmen would inhabit the many radiating side streets and alleyways.

The “Heidelberg Baroque” is not really a coherent term in the sense that it conveys a set of stylistic preferences unique to the city. Most of what makes the buildings in Heidelberg unique are due to the destruction of the entire city, the planned reconstruction efforts and the need to reuse medieval foundations to save money. As a result, there are many buildings with shared characteristics, but these do not extend beyond the unique history of the city, and the Court in Mannheim would ultimately be the driver of architectural innovation in the Palatinate.

The typical homes of the middle-classes can be characterized by a number of features:

  • Simple and symmetric designs with little to no ornamentation
  • Ornamentation is limited to profiled window and door frames, which over time would become increasingly intricate. Heidelberg in particular had a particular attraction to the volute geometric design.
  • The re-use of medieval foundations and cellars led to complications and odd-shaped buildings. One notable consequence was that the ground floor often had to be raised a half-story above the street level to incorporate street access to the cellar. This resulted in elaborate doorways and door-window combinations to ensure that the entrance stairway could be both accessed and illuminated from the outside.

One special case worth mentioning is the Haus zum Ritter on the main market square. Constructed in 1592 by a religious refugee from France, it is the only surviving secular remnant of pre-1697 Heidelberg. The facade is constructed in an elegant late Renaissance style. The structure has a strict symmetry and follows the traditional orders. The building has a great deal in common with the Renaissance styles found elsewhere in Germany, such as the Main and Weser regions, and like those styles likely took inspiration from Flanders.

Stage Four: Residences of the Nobility

Justin Bunch | CityscapeTravel This late baroque room in the Palais Morais shows changing tastes at the end of the 18th century

With the reconstruction in full swing, the nobility would return and begin to reconstruct palaces and residences reflecting the return of wealth and status of the city. Unlike the regular citizenry they were not bound to the original medieval city plan, and many of the places would take the place of ruined medieval institutions such as hospitals and monasteries. These new palaces would introduce the high baroque to the city and this can still be seen today. The palaces in general display a collection of provincial styles based on French and Italian models. Below is a list of some of the more interesting ones to see.

Justin Bunch | CityscapeTravel The Red squares mark the points of interest in this section. Here there are a lot more special cases to discuss, and I won’t be taking about each one in detail.

Haus zum Riesen (Hauptstr. 52)

Build Year: 1707
Architect: Johann Adam Breunig

In the most resplendent example of the early Baroque places, we see the central axis covered in rich details describing the characteristics of the owner. At the top is Lord Venningen himself, on the left musical and scientific instruments and on the right hunting and military motifs.

Palais Morass (Kurpfälzisches Museum)

Build Year: 1712
Architect: Johann Adam Breunig

Constructed on the site of a ruined hospital for a Professor of Law, Philipp Morass, the palace is the only one with a preserved interior. The facade is simple with with an 11 window axis. The facade has a strong vertical focus thanks to the ornamentation under each window.

Travel Tip: The Museum has some fantastically preserved interiors, artifacts and clothing showing the lifestyles of the Heidelberg elite throughout the centuries and up into the modern day. Its worth a visit.

Palais Rischer (Untere Str. 11)

Build Year: 1713
Architect: Johann Jakob Rischer

As with the Pfälzer Hof, the design is influenced by the Italian palazzo, with the facade framed by a more traditional Corinthian column, and heavily accented window-frames.

Pfälzer Hof (Hauptstr. 127)

Build Year: 1721
Architect: Johann Jakob Rischer

The facade is framed nicely by two elaborate pilasters on the sides, a balustrade above the shop floor and a continuous Ionian roof-line. The design hints at a more provincial Italian baroque.

With growing religious and civil unrest, the capital was moved to Mannheim, an act that made Heidelberg largely irrelevant to the members of the Electoral court. As a result, major palace construction would cease and many of the established families would sell their palaces and move to Mannheim. Heidelberg would remain an important city to the Electors of the Palatinate, even as it began to lose political relevance. The prestigious university in particular would increasingly define the identity of the city.

Stage Five: Civic and Religious Life

The civic life in Heidelberg was characterized by increasing religious strife. The largely Reformed (Calvinist) city became the target of increased counter-reformation efforts by the Catholic Elector. Symbolically this included the construction of the Jesuit monastery, the catholic hospital of St. Anna and the incorporation of catholic symbols around the cityscape.

Justin Bunch | CityscapeTravel

The Jesuit Monastery is perhaps the most significant construction in this category. Begun in 1711 following plans by the court architect Johann Adam Breunig, it broadly follows the template set by the (then) Jesuit monastery church of St. Martin in Bamberg. The distinctive hall church design was fashionable at the time in southern Germany. The Facade is also somewhat unique for the German baroque, being a loose copy of the Jesuit mother-church Il Gesu in Rome.

Justin Bunch | CityscapeTravel The Jesuit hall church followed a number of fashionable trends from the period, but remains unfinished

The church was unfinished when the capital moved to Mannheim and construction would not resume for nearly 30 years as funds were diverted to the Mannheim Jesuit church. This kept much of the design to a simplistic minimum. Additionally, there is no original inventory to speak of, and the many artifacts in the interior date from the 19th century.

While the Jesuit church would be the largest symbol of the counter reformation and Electoral Power in the reconstruction period, the cityscape has numerous other artifacts from this period. Below is a list of some of the more noteworthy inclusions.

Haus Meder (Hauptstr. 168)

Build Year: 1720s
Architect: Johann Adam Breunig

In perhaps the best example of the counter reformation in Heidelberg is the Meder House. The late Baroque ornamentation is the riches of any non-noble residence and unusually for its purpose as a secular residence, is covered in religious iconography. The reliefs display symbols of the trinity, along with the life-size statue of St. Mary as the ruler of heaven.

St. Anna Hospital

Build Year: 1714
Architect: Johann Adam Breunig

One of the first major civic works undertaken was a hospital to replace the many that had been destroyed in the fire. It was built on the site of the field hospital which had initially managed the casualties related to the siege. The building is otherwise only noteworthy for its distinctive Baroque facade, mirroring that of the Jesuit Church. The building was likely never finished, construction being simplified after the capital was moved to Mannheim.

Old University Building

Build Year: 1712
Architect: Johann Adam Breunig

The university building is a very simple construction, marked only by the repeating pilasters on the exerior walls. This reflects the decline in importance that the university faced with the move to Mannheim, and it wouldn’t be until 1820 when it would see new life.

By now it should be clear that with the move to Mannheim, the story of Heidelberg’s reconstruction comes to an end. The influence that the city would have on regional patterns of architecture is transmitted through its influence on the architecture of the new capital in Mannheim. Though not negligible, other sources of influence, particularly from France, would dominate the construction paradigms of the new capital. That Heidelberg would never attain the cultural and political influence it had during the Renaissance is perhaps all the better, as it would be Mannheim that consequently would bear the weight of destruction in WWII.

Heidelberg Opening Hours

The main sights in Heidelberg have accessible opening times, so there’s no need to plan your day in advance.

DestinationOpening Hours
Castle Ruin (Museum)Everyday 10am–5pm
Church of the Holy SpiritEveryday 11am–5pm
Jesuit ChurchEveryday 10am–5pm
Kürpflälzisches MuseumTuesday-Sunday 10am–6pm


Heidelberg is a charming town with a unusually coherent cityscape and narrative attached to it. The city deserves its status as one of the top destinations in Germany, though it falls short of the hype due to its small size and limited tourist capacity. It is nevertheless worth taking a day to enjoy the city and its environment.

Selected Bibliography

  • Wikipedia for a lot of the dates and names, see the embedded links
  • If you speak German, the website Heidelberg im Barock has an excellent breakdown by building with pictures.
  • Mueller, Carla, and Katrin Rössler. 2007. Barockschloss Mannheim. München: Dt. Kunstverl.
  • Luzie Bratner, and Rheinland-Pfalz. Generaldirektion Kulturelles Erbe Rheinland-Pfalz. 2014. Mit Allen Sinnen : Reisewege Zum Barock in Rheinland-Pfalz. Regensburg:Schnell & Steiner.

Image Credits

  • All Maps made with Datawrapper
  • St. Anna: Wikipedia
  • Old University: Wikipedia

Return to the Electoral Palatinate

Electoral Palatinate

Once the heart of the medieval Holy Roman Empire, it was put to the torch by its many enemies. Today only enigmatic monuments betray its past glories.

Leave a Reply