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North Hills Monthly

Romance, History at Heart of Heidelberg’s Charm

Jan 30, 2017 07:44PM ● By Vanessa Orr

The Old Bridge (Alte Brücke)

February is a romantic month, and while many couples will be tweeting, texting and calling their partners with special words of love, in the olden days, it wasn’t always so easy to express such forward sentiments. Yet young love will always find a way, which is how the Student’s Kiss, created in Heidelberg, Germany, came to be.

Back in the 1800s, the young women who attended Heidelberg’s finishing schools often gathered at Café Knösel, which was owned by Fridolin Knösel, a chocolatier and master confectioner. Noting that the young ladies often attracted the adoration of male students from the University of Heidelberg, who were then shooed away by the women’s governesses, he created a chocolate treat that could be used as a small token of the men’s affections. Soon, students were sending Student’s Kisses (Studentenkuss) to each other as a discreet signal of their interest, and the treat—and the tradition—live on today.

Stepping into the small shop in the heart of Old Town (Altstadt), which is now run by Knösel’s great-great-great-great-great granddaughter, you can’t help but feel the love. The boutique is filled floor to ceiling with chocolate delights, most notably the “kiss” itself, represented by the silhouettes of a young woman and young man inches away from kissing. 

I imagine that it’s easy to fall in love in Heidelberg—I certainly fell hard for the city itself. Walking along the Hauptstrasse, the longest pedestrian-only street in Germany, I was enchanted by the mix of history, culture, and awe-inspiring architecture on every corner. The views from the Old Bridge (Alte Brücke), erected in 1786, were phenomenal; it was hard to choose between watching boats cruise along the Neckar River, admiring the medieval Old Bridge Gate, or staring in awe at the ruins of Heidelberg Castle, a Gothic and Renaissance marvel which towers roughly 300 feet above the town.

Despite its rich history, the town itself has a young, energetic vibe, which can be credited to the many students who live in and around Heidelberg and attend the university, which was founded in 1386. According to our guide, Charlotte Frey, of the roughly 150,000 people who live in Heidelberg, approximately 33,000 are students, or one out of every 45 people. “Heidelberg does not represent wealth; it represents academia,” she explained, adding that the University of Heidelberg’s library ranks number one of the 62 university libraries in Europe with more than 3.5 million books.

Of course, where there are students, there are also student pranks, which back in the 1800s often included letting the townspeople’s pigs out of their pens to run wild or ‘nighttime carousing.’ The result was that a Student Prison (Studentenkarzer) was built to house the rich frat boys who needed a time out, and this prison is a must-see when you’re touring the city. The walls showcase a colorful gallery of student art created by those who stayed there, and far from being scary, it was considered a status symbol to end up in prison, where the ‘incarcerated’ could still attend classes, visit with friends and have food and wine sent in.

You can also tour the University Museum as well as visit the Great Hall, which was designed in 1886 by architect Josef Durm for the university’s 500th anniversary. The neo-Renaissance style of the room is striking—most especially the ceiling frescoes that feature the four faculties of the university—theology, law, medicine and philosophy. It’s hard to imagine being able to pay attention to any lecture in here because there is so much to see; luckily, the room is now mainly used for ceremonial events.

Of course, no visit to Heidelberg would be complete without a trip up the mountain on the funicular (similar to Pittsburgh’s incline) to see Heidelberg Castle, which was the home of the Palatinate Price-Electors of the Wittelsbach Dynasty for more than 400 years. Destroyed during the War of Palatine Succession in 1693, much of the castle still stands: hand-carved statues stand as sentries watching down on visitors from its high walls, and you can still see the marks carved into the sandstone by craftsmen wanting to be remembered for their exquisite work. You can tour an apothecary museum on the grounds as well as visit the world’s largest wine barrel, said to hold 58,650 gallons—it’s not hard to imagine building up a thirst when erecting a castle of this size.

While I found it hard to pull myself away from Old Town even for a minute, I would suggest a boat ride down the Neckar to visit the Stift Neuburg Monastery, located on the outskirts of town on the northern bank of the river. Situated in what used to be the largest ivy farm in the world, this tranquil and picturesque abbey is home to monks who brew organic beer and make cheese and other products that they sell on-site, as well as in the abbey’s charming restaurant, Zum Klosterhof. 

I unfortunately only had a day in Heidelberg, but I can’t wait to go back and explore more of this absolutely magical area of the Neckar Valley.

To learn more about all there is to see, visit