Top ten things
1. The Schloss: Heidelberg feels like a mixture of Oxford, York and Durham: it’s a quaint town nestled between two hills on the river Neckar, and the Uni is the oldest in Germany. It’s therefore no wonder that it’s full of american and japanese tourists photographing the architecture. This beautiful castle ruin is where they go first. This icon of HD isn’t just for visitors – your climb is rewarded by a stunning panoramic view over the town, as far as the hills of the beautiful Pfalz wine region. The ‘Schlossbeleuchtungen’ spread out over three separate nights between June and September draw a huge crowd: the castle is specially lit up and fireworks shoot up from the castle on the hill and the ‘Altebrücke’ below, their reflection shimmering in the river.
2. Marstall: Consistently voted the most popular student restaurant in Germany, you can instantly see why. This charming sixteenth century building not only as high quality buffet-style food at extremely fair prices, but also a café/bar and lots of beer benches under the trees outside. There are student parties here, and in the summer a huge outdoor screen is set up outside for the big football games, drawing thousands. Marstall also has an adjoining café (the best cake is in the main one though) which is not only a great place to work, but also hosts film viewings, dance classes and gigs.
3. Unterestraße: Situated in the heart of the old town, this is the ‘strip’ of this sleepy town. Kneipen (pubs), bars and clubs are packed one after another down a long and narrow cobbled street. It’s earned its reputation among the older residents as the loud and rowdy bit of the old town. No wonder when you have the draw of the tasty local ‘melonenschnapps’ at 1€ a shot.
4. Neckarwiese: In the winter months this just looks like a pretty strip of grass by the riverbank in Neuenheim, but in summer this is where it all happens. The first heat in late spring brings out the school leavers, enjoying their freedom after their four-hour (!) exams. Summer brings out the students with their BBQs, and families of small children. On a hot night the Wiese is loud and crowded into the early hours.
5. Bismarckplatz: The beating heart of HD’s infrastructure, this is where all the trams and buses meet. The 31 and 32 buses are always full of students taking the final five minute part of their journey to ‘uniplatz’ in the middle of the Altstadt. B.platz is where the ‘new’ town stop and the old begins, and it’s always packed. It’s got the shops everyone needs to go to – Galeria Kaufhof (big department store), Müller (huge three story shop full of toiletries, cosmetics, stationery etc.), dm (the german version of Boots, just without the pharmacy), Saturn (technology), MacDonalds and H&M. Don’t be caught out by the tram/bus frequency coming from London. If you’re travelling after 9pm and haven’t planned your journey you can end up stranded here for some time.
6. Neuenheimer Feld: North of the Neckar lies Neuenheim, the Chelsea of HD. When you move left of this area of expensive housing you hit the expansive Neuenheimer Feld area. This is so much more than just the campus for medics and scientists. It’s almost like its own town with numerous clinics, loads of student halls, another huge mensa (student canteen), zoo and all of HD’s sports pitches and indoor facilities, both of the uni and local sports teams. North of this new-build metropolis (for HD standards) is the real ‘Feld’ – a huge, flat area of allotments and commercial vegetable plots where you’ll always find plenty of cyclists and runners.
7. Philosophenweg: Supposedly named after the famous thinkers who have worked in and visited HD, this is the pretty walk that everyone goes on. It’s a path along the side of the hill on the northern side of the river, and boasts stunning views of the Schloos and the Altstadt below. It’s a healthy climb loved by tourists and locals alike and gets very busy at Sylvester (New Year) and for the Schlossbeleuchtungen for the view of the fireworks. If you have time, carrying on up to the top of the hill is worth the climb – hidden behind the trees is the ‘Thingstätte,’ a Nazi-built amphitheatre built into the hill. This is actually also the site of two beautiful monastery ruins nearby.
8. Hauptstraße: This is said to be the longest high street in Europe, and I have to agree after walking so often from one end to the other (it takes a good fifteen minutes). The street starts with the big commercial names – T.K Maxx, Lush, The Body Shop, Starbucks – and then continues on to pubs and museums before turning into tourist-central in the heart of the Altstadt. Here there are numerous little cafes with outdoor seating, and lots of tourist merchandise shops. It’s extremely busy in good weather and at weekends, and so isn’t always a pleasant walk, but it gets a mention because it’s such a central part of HD’s identity.
9. Weihnachtsmärkte (Christmas markets): In November every ‘platz’ (square) available gets covered in the typical wooden huts of the Christmas markets. The town is the busiest it gets, and students enjoy a mug of Glühwein in between lectures (winter gets a lot colder out here!). The Märkte are a bit love-hate. For the visitor they are charming and festive, but if you live in the Altstadt the unique smell of onions mixed with cheap Glühwein can get a bit wearing. Plenty of locals here are not great fans. Visit once or twice, however, and it keeps its magic.
10. Steingasse: At first glance this appears to be a very touristy little street (‘gasse’ actually translates as alley – there are lots of these!) leading to the picturesque ‘Alte Brücke.’ Look a little deeper and it’s actually got some of the best places for food or a coffee in town. Joe Molese arguably ahs the best burger in HD, and you’ll mostly only hear german voices here. The pizzas, salads and sandwiches are far from typical german cuisine, but are very popular. One of the waiters there is the nicest you’ll ever be served by. Casa del Caffè has the best hot chocolate in town – perfect for meeting a friend on a cold day. It’s so cosy that people stay there for hours. Vetter is the closest HD gets to a beer hall. The food is seen as a bit too Bayerisch by the proud local residents of Baden-Württemberg, but their home-brewed beer is ‘beliebt’ by all. There is always a buzz to the place in the evenings and in summer students buy their giant beer bottles and take them down to the river (before returning the empty bottle to get the ‘Pfand’ back, of course).
Heidelberg is very much a student town. Similar to Durham or St. Andrew’s, the Altstadt is full of students in term time. The large student population has grown significantly over the past few years (on many courses there is no limit on the number of students), which has put huge pressure on private sector student housing. If you sign up for a place in a Wohnheim (halls) – make sure you don’t miss the deadline – it’s down to luck where you end up and what kind of flatmates you get. I know people who’ve had great experiences, living in a flat of social German students, and others who still don’t know their flatmates. Everywhere in HD is reachable by bike: your maximum journey can’t exceed 20 minutes. Absolutely everyone gets a bike – it takes a while to get used to cycling on the right-hand side! If you want to find something in the private sector, start early. Everything goes on wg-gesucht.de, and if you’re lucky you can organise everything through email and Skype when you’re still in the UK. I got really lucky and have a two minute walk to lectures, but that kind of proximity is the exception to the rule. Most people have a ten minute cycle to lectures.
Starting Off: Whatever university in Germany you start in, the first few weeks will be a baptism of fire in the ways of German bureaucracy. I’m talking about forms. Forms for phone contracts, bank accounts, the all important ‘Stadanmeldung,’ forms to confirm health insurance coverage, to register at the library (they will want to see your Stadtanmeldung) and of course to become formally enrolled in the university. Try not to panic and get through them one by one – thank fully it will only happen once.
There is an orientation week for international students before the start of term. The most useful part is your trip to the IT building Neuenheimerfeld. There they help you to work out the internal online system, called the LSF. You’ll get a username and password in your enrolment documents. Despite the fact Erasmus covers tuition fees you’ll still need to pay a small amount to the ‘Studentenwerk,’ which you can do online through the LSF.
Heidelberg, like other Unis, offers a pre-term language course in September. I would really recommend doing one of these (I actually did mine in Munich). Not only can you settle into the novelties of a different culture before term starts, but it also gives you a crucial language advantage as your ears get one month to settle into a new routine.
Another important thing to know from the start is that 1 ECTS point equates to exactly 1 ‘Leistungspunkt.’ You will need 22 per term. How they all add up is the challenge.
Different types of lecture: At King’s you’ll be used to ‘lectures’ of two hours, where the lecturer does all the talking. A ‘seminar’ has usually meant something smaller, additional to a lecture. The Heidelberg system is very different.
- Vorlesung: this does involve a lecturer speaking continually, but you don’t write an essay or an exam for it. You receive 2 LP purely for attending the lectures.
- Proseminar: this is more like a King’s module. Some have an exam in the last week of term. Others are assessed through Referats and has Hausarbeits.
- Referat: this is a presentation where you, the student, have to deliver the content during one lecture of term. Short ones are 15-30 minutes and earn you 1 LP (on top of 2 for attendance), and long ones are 45-60 minutes and earn you 2 LP. So many students require these points that your ‘Proseminar’ is actually only delivered by the lecturer in the first week. After that he is powerless to the broad range of presentation qualities of his students. This takes some getting used to! Referat subjects are handed out in the first two ‘sitzungen’ so you’ll have to make a decision on your toes.
- Hausarbeit: this is an academic essay of a standard length of 15 pages. There are standardised Heidelberg rules about font, page layout etc. It is written after the end of term (with the deadline at the beginning of the new term), and is worth 2 LP. A Proseminar can therefore be worth 3, 4 or 6 points: 3 for attendance and a short presentation, 4 for attendance and a long presentation, and 6 for both a long presentation and a Hausarbeit. You are expected to write your Hausarbeit on the subject you presented on, so you don’t have to do two lots of research. A Referat isn’t graded, so you only get a grade for the module if you have written a Hausarbeit.
- Tutorium: this is an additional weekly session, providing a depper understanding of the content of a Proseminar. It is not compulsory and is only worth 1 LP. Other forms of teaching including ‘Übungen’ are less common in Arts and Humanities subjects.
The list of modules is called the ‘Vorlesungsverzeichnis.’ The one at Heidelberg is challenging to navigate. You’ll need to look in the section called the ‘Neuphilologische Fakultät’ to find modules for the two key departments of ‘Germanistik’ and ‘Deutsch als Fremdsprachphilologie.’ Within the section ‘Philosophische Fakultät’ you can find information for other departments such as History, which would be called ‘Arts and Humanities’ at King’s.
- Departments: Once you’ve completed the enrolment process in the ‘Carolinum’ building at Seminarstraße 2, you are totally in the hands of the individual departments. Each department has its own separate system for how to sign up to modules, how to sign for attendance, and how to sign up for exams. You’ll be assigned an Erasmus co-ordinator within the main department you’re registered to. You can ask them the sorts of questions you’d put to your tutor at King’s. If you want to meet with them you’ll have to sign up to their office hours (Sprechstunde). Some of these should be arranged by email, but for others there’s a physical list on a wall to sign your name on.
- Lecturer responsibility: Each lecturer holds complete responsibility for their module: if you’re ill you have to send the doctor’s note to them individually. They also mark your Hausarbeit on their own: there is no modulation process, and therefore different lecturers give you different kinds of marks.
- Anwesenheit (attendance) and Timings: You are allowed to miss a maxium of three lectures/seminars per semester. Counter intuitively, most lectures start at quarter past the hour. Heidelberg is a very traditional university by German standards, and still operates with the ‘cum tempore’ (c.t.) system, which means a lecture which says it starts at 9am actually starts at 9.15. It will run for 1.5 hours, finishing at quarter to the hour. This practical system leaves half an hour between sessions for discussions with lecturers and getting from place to place.
- Libraries: Unlike at King’s, where all the Arts & Humanities books have been condensed into the Maughan Library, each department at Heidelberg has its own library. You’ll find most of the important and relevant books to your studies here. The main library is known as the UB (Universitätsbibliothek) and houses journals and articles. It does have some books, which cover topics in different departments, but these are ordered in a purely alphabetical system, so you’ll need to spend time on the database (HEIDI) to find the long number of your book. The UB isn’t the easiest to find your way around, so it’s worth taking some time to work out which bits are for book loans, which for are for studying.
- Student Card: Here in Heidelberg (as is common throughout Germany) your student card is more than a library card and proof of identity. You can load money onto it, which then pays for your food and drink in the Mensas and Cafes of the university.
Reflections from home
Before leaving London I had heard plenty of people tell me that clichéd line ‘your year abroad will be the best year of your life.’ Of course I was looking forward to going to Germany, but I felt a bit sceptical about all the hype.
It turns out there’s a reason it’s become a cliché. It’s just true. As everyone says, you will learn a lot about yourself you didn’t know you didn’t know. You will meet amazing people. And most of all you will get to soak up the german language like a sponge.
Heidelberg is a little piece of paradise. The town is, quite literally, something from the front of a chocolate box. You’re worked hard and there are plenty of challenges at this university, but the environment is so conducive to study and it is such an academically excellent institution that I would recommend everyone studying German to put it in their top three choices.
Travel: The RNV (Rhein-Neckar-Verkehr) is the local tram and bus service. As a student you can get a reduced ‘Semester-Ticket.’ Here’s a link to the RNV page.
In the daytime most trams and buses come once every ten minutes. Almost everyone in Heidelberg opts for a bike instead. As a pedestrian you need to be very careful of them (particularly as they come from the other direction…). If you do buy a second hand bike be prepared for the predominant brake system – one hand break for the front wheel, with the back wheel brake applied when you rotate the pedals backwards.
Area and identity: The nearest big town is Mannheim, with great restaurants, department stores and huge cinemas which serve a big population. The general area is full of great sports and concert venues, theatres and more. Heidelberg is just one hour from Frankfurt, one and a half from Stuttgart, with other close towns including Kalrsruhe and Darmstadt.
As Heidelberg is an old university town, most people speak Hochdeutsch, although some members of the older generation speak in a light ‘Heidelberger’ dialect. What you’re most likely to come across is the thick ‘Schwäbisch’ accent, although not many students speak it: you’ll hear it in public places such as shops and hospitals.
Baden-Württemberg is characterised by a certain south German friendliness. People here make fun of the ‘serious’ northerners, but there is a definite sense of rivalry with Bayern. Baden-Württembergers have a clearer sense of belonging with the rest of Germany (it take little over two hours to reach Cologne by car). This part of Germany is also right next to France, and Heidelberg has a real sense of internationalism. Italy and Switzerland are in relatively close reach, and generally the area feels very well connected to the rest of Germany by the impressive autobahn system. Baden-Württemberg also has its own characteristic types of food, such as Spätzle and Maultaschen, and there are numerous local breweries.
Weather: The winters are significantly colder here (though not as extreme as in the north), and the summers are a lot hotter. The Philosophenweg in Heidelberg has the highest average annual temperature in Germany, and I’ve experienced highs of 36 degrees. You’ll need thermals in winter and very light clothes in summer. Heidelberg becomes a beautiful tourist paradise full of outdoor events in the summer months. If you’re here for the summer term, which runs until the end of July, you won’t feel like you’re missing out on the summer holidays back home: you’ll have the better temperatures.
Money: Heidelberg is cheaper than Munich but noticeably more expensive than Berlin. Students expect to pay approximately €300 per month for accommodation, a pizza costs around €7, the beloved German Döner is usually €3.50, and a ‘großes Pils’ is about €4. Do note though that there are offers on work days in most of the bars and ‘kneipen’ in the Altstadt. You’ll be able to budget significantly lower for groceries, but going out for meals and nights out can add up just as easily as back home. Note you can’t pay with Visa and Mastercard here, and almost everyone pays with cash, in almost every context.
Going out: I’ll keep this brief – the fun is in the discovery process. Entry in Heidelberg is rarely more than €5-8, and everyone goes out a lot later out here. The dress code is also very different to London – girls, dress down!
Health: It’s up to you to find a ‘Hausarzt’ (GP) near to you. Word of mouth can be really useful here. Once you get there you’ll be required to fill out two forms (which one gets very familiar with). You will need your EU Healthcard and your Passport (they’ll take photocopies of both). It’s good to carry your Healthcard around with you in case you suddenly find yourself in hospital (yup, it happened to me, and I had left it at home…).
At the start of term you’ll be asked to go to the ‘AOK,’ one of the biggest German health insurance firms, to ask for a document to confirm you’re covered by some form of health insurance. Confusingly, this does not mean that AOK are covering you in any way, but purely that they’ll be processing your forms. Any doctor you go to will ask which ‘Krankenkasse’ is covering you, so you show your Healthcard and say the AOK. Of all the details here, this is the bit I wish someone had told me at the start.
In general, whatever the NHS would cover at home can be covered by your EU Healthcard. If you need a filling with modern thermoset plastic at the Dentist, for example, then that would have to be paid for privately.
Phone: Different people opt for different schemes, but the biggest firms out here are undoubtedly O2 and Vodafone, which both have two shops on the Hauptstraße. If you sign up to a contract be careful to cancel it in time before the end of your stay. You’ll need to provide a German phone number for various forms, including for a new bank account, so the sooner you get a new SIM the better.