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German Romance, Education and Debauchery in Heidelberg with Viking River Cruises

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Rich with history, Heidelberg is home to Germany’s oldest university, the ruins of a romantic Renaissance castle, and the world’s largest wine barrel. Intrigued? Come along to explore the romance, education and debauchery of Heidelberg with Viking River Cruises.

Heidelberg Castle as viewed from the city below - Heidelberg, Germany with Viking River Cruises

Heidelberg Castle as viewed from Old Heidelberg (Photo credit: Colleen Lanin)

Heidelberg Castle

Heidelberg Castle, with its impressive red sandstone buildings and stately position above the River Neckar, evokes romantic images of the days of princesses like Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty. Once inhabited by kings and counts (or palatines), the castle remains one of the grandest palaces of the Renaissance period.

Heidelberg Castle remains partially in ruin today - Germany's Heidelberg with Viking River Cruises

Heidelberg Castle remains partially in ruin today to preserve a romantic aesthetic (Photo credit: Colleen Lanin)

The castle, which is made up of several buildings with a central courtyard, began construction in the 1200s. Of course, the true history of Heidelberg Castle is much more gruesome than fairy tales would have us believe. Damaged in multiple attacks and wars over centuries, the castle fell into ruin in the 17th century. Restoration began in the 20th century. Today, it provides the city’s primary draw for tourists – one million per year, in fact.

The Heidelberg Castle angels in Heidelberg, Germany

The Heidelberg Castle angels (Photo credit: Colleen Lanin)

A pair of angels sits above the archway to a building called “Ruprecht’s Palace,” named for a German king who resided here in the 1400s. It is rumored that the master builder had the sculpture made to memorialize his twin sons, who died while playing on the site while their father oversaw the construction of an addition to the castle.

View from Heidelberg Castle - Germany's Heidelberg with Viking River Cruises

View from Heidelberg Castle (Photo credit: Colleen Lanin)

The world’s largest wine barrel

Thirsty? Heidelberg Castle is home to the world’s largest wine barrel, the Great Heidelberg Tun. Our Viking River Cruises tour guide explained that this barrel was used as a symbol of wealth and debauchery when it was first constructed in the 1700s. Legend says it took 130 oak trees to create the barrel. The vat could hold over 50 million gallons of wine. Alas, it is empty.

The world's largest wine barrel, the Great Heidelberg Tun - Germany's Heidelberg with Viking River Cruises

The world’s largest wine barrel, the Great Heidelberg Tun (Photo credit: Colleen Lanin)

Germany’s oldest university

The oldest university in Germany, Heidelberg University (also known as Ruperto Carola), was established in 1386. Although there was no time to visit the university during our Rhine Getaway Viking River Cruise, our tour guide hailed from the university and regaled us with stories about his alma mater.

Just one portion of the sprawling Heidelberg University, Germany's first university

Just one portion of the sprawling Heidelberg University (Photo credit: Heidelberg University)

Incarceration in the university’s Student Prison was seen as a status symbol among its young male students, from 1712 to 1914. Drunkenness, disturbing the peace, brawls and other lurid behavior could land students in the prison. The rowdy students proudly sported scars hard “won” in duels. Prisoners were allowed to attend classes via a special prison door and even indulge in alcoholic beverages during their sentences, which lasted anywhere from a few days to four weeks. These student prisoners decorated the cell walls with graffiti galore, which has been preserved for tourist viewing.

Graffiti in the Student Prison at Heidelberg University - Heidelberg, Germany

Graffiti in the Student Prison at Heidelberg University (Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Today, a more gentrified atmosphere has been restored, with 30,000 students currently in attendance. But, our student tour guide said there are still some students who scar their faces in keeping with the university’s wild past.

A Hercules fountain in the center of the Marktplatz in Old Heidelberg - Romance, Education and Debauchery in Heidelberg with Viking River Cruises

Marktplatz in Old Heidelberg (Photo credit: Colleen Lanin)

Heidelberg’s Old Town

Beneath Heidelberg Castle lays Old Heidelberg, or Altstadt, a mile-long stretch of shops, restaurants and market squares. A fountain of Hercules (representing the strength of the town’s citizens) sits in the center of the central Marktplatz, which is surrounded by outdoor cafes, and flanked by the Church of the Holy Spirit on one side. This is the kind of town where locals sit at cafe tables sipping beer well before noon. After our castle tour, we joined them for a couple of lagers and regional fare.

The Frog Prince chocolate treats at the Lindt Boutique in Old Heidelberg - Romance, Education and Debouchery in Heidelberg with Viking River Cruises

The Frog Prince chocolate treats at the Lindt Boutique in Old Heidelberg (Photo credit: Colleen Lanin)

Souvenir shops and carts abound in the Marktplatz. Pop into the Lindt Boutique for a sweet pick-me-up. Although Lindt is a Swiss company, I purchased a chocolate memento shaped like the Frog Prince, a character from the German Brothers Grimm fairy tales. My husband and I found a cart peddling Heidelberg post cards on which we could have our photo printed. Cheesy and touristy? Yes. Fun? Absolutely!

Postcard souvenir of Heidelberg, Germany

Our cheesy but fun postcard souvenir of Heidelberg, Germany

Would you like to visit Heidelberg with Viking River Cruises? Let us know in the comments below!

A Note from The Travel Mama: Our cruise and optional excursion was hosted by Viking River Cruises. All opinions are mine, as always.

About Colleen Lanin

Colleen Lanin is the founder/editor-in-chief of As the author of her book, "The Travel Mamas' Guide," she teaches parents not only how to survive a trip with children, but also how to love exploring the world with their offspring. Her stories have appeared online and in print for such outlets as the "Today" show,, Parenting Magazine, Orlando Sentinel, Chicago Tribune, Expedia, San Diego Family Magazine, and more. Colleen gives tips on television, radio, and as a public speaker. She has a master’s degree in business administration with a background in marketing. She lives in Arizona with her husband and two kids.

  1. Did Heidelberg suffer damage during Word War II ? If so, has the town been rebuilt?

    • Colleen Lanin, The Travel Mama says

      Funny, I was going to include information about World War II in this post, but I thought the story was getting too long. Since Heidelberg is not an industry or military center, Heidelberg was spared by the allied troops. Also, upon capturing the city, the Americans intended to use Hiedelberg as a military stronghold for the allied forces. Plus, it is such a beautiful city, they did not want to destroy it.

  2. Lance | Trips By Lance says

    I keep hearing about these river cruises and how fun and educational they are. I haven’t been to Germany and considering my ancestors are from there it’s a trip I really need to make. It looks like great fun.

    • Colleen Lanin, The Travel Mama says

      Lance – A Viking River Cruise would be a wonderful way to explore you Germany heritage if you ask me!

  3. I would love a visit with Viking cruises but kids need to be above 12 years old. So we are waiting until they get older! The whole university prison thing is wonderful trivia! I love that little tidbit of info that they could could still attend classes and drink.

  4. The view from Heidelberg Castle did it for me. I wish the age restriction was a different so my daughter could join, but Viking Cruises are on my radar.

    • Colleen Lanin, The Travel Mama says

      Lesley – Yes, I wouldn’t recommend a Viking Cruise with your daughter, but it would be a wonderful option for a romantic getaway or vacation with your besties!

  5. Dean @ La Vida Global says

    Although my years of travelling with kids comes to a close this year as my daughter finishes school and heads off to see the world alone, our last trip is through the German Christmas markets this December.
    Heidelberg is now a definite for the trip.
    We will not be river cruising but, as a Travel Agent, I send many people to Europe to travel this way. And I can vouch for the great quality of the Viking product.

    • Colleen Lanin, The Travel Mama says

      Dean – Enjoy the Christmas markets with your daughter! What a wonderful experience to enjoy together before she finishes high school!

  6. Katja - globetotting says

    That is one BIG wine barrel!! I visited Heidelberg as a kid and I hadn’t really given it much thought until I read your post, I thin I need to go back! It’s great to read more about the Viking Cruises too, I’ve heard some really good things about them so it might be time to try them out. Thanks!

  7. Claudia Laroye says

    We spent some time in Heidelberg a few years ago on a tour through Germany, and I was so wonderfully surprised by the town and the area. It’s a great place to spend some days discovering the history and hills around the town centre. So glad you enjoyed it too!

  8. Victoria@celebratetheweekend says

    I saw Viking passing by as I was day cruising the Rheine this past August! River cruising keeps you close to land so it does sound an alluring option for seeing Europe. Maybe in a couple of years. Right now I am all into road tripping:)

    • Colleen Lanin, The Travel Mama says

      Victoria – I hope you’ll give Viking River Cruises a chance someday. They do such a good job and getting to experience so many cool locations along the river is incredible.

  9. Francesca (@WorkMomTravels) says

    I’m not exactly in love with Viking Cruises but I wouldn’t rule out another river cruise option. I am, however, in love with Germany, and the debauchery of Heidelberg makes it seem like my kinda place. Oh, and the history, too.

    • Colleen Lanin, The Travel Mama says

      Francesca – That’s too bad! What didn’t you like about Viking? My husband and I agree that this was one of the very best trips of our lives! At first my husband and I were worried that we were the youngest people on the cruise but then we wound up loving being the “youngsters” in the crowd. We’re both in our 40s, so that doesn’t happen often anymore! Plus, we had a great time with our travel mates of all ages and found a fun group from the Midwest in their 50s with whom we hung out quite a bit. I think for our next Viking River Cruise, I’d love to sail with friends or family. So much of the success of any trip has to do with your travel mates!

  10. This Viking Cruise sounds like so much fun to me. I love the history of it all, especially the student prison, of course, the students all wanted to be imprisoned – haha! That giant wine barrel is also just too funny! I would love to consider this cruise when we travel to Germany.

    • Colleen Lanin, The Travel Mama says

      Brenda – Viking was such a fun way to see Switzerland, Germany, France and the Netherlands all on our Rhine Getaway cruise. I recommend staying a night or two before and after the cruise to make the most of your vacation!

  11. Looks fun! I am originally from a town close to Heidelberg and haven’t been to the place for a long time. Makes me dream of visiting Heidelberg soon.

  12. Trish Caron says

    i’m taking this cruise in May and plan to do the Heidelberg excursion. how much free time did you have while you were there? how was lunch with the students?

    • Colleen Lanin says

      Like most of the Viking River Cruise excursions, we spent the morning on the tour and then had the choice of taking their provided transportation back to the boat right away or staying in town to explore on our own. (Of course we stayed!) I don’t recall eating with students — this must be an addition to the tour. You could always opt out of this portion of the tour if it doesn’t appeal to you. I think we ate a delicious (and huge) lunch in town at a local restaurant, if memory serves. Enjoy Heidelberg and Viking River Cruise Line!

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