Germany: Heidelberg and the Student Prison

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Heidelberg gets 3.5 million visitors a year. In the “Tour Europe in a week” itineraries beloved by tour operators in the States and Asia (because annual leave is so short), Heidelberg often bags a prestigious spot en route.

Heidelberg castle
Heidelberg Castle from across the river

The castle towers overhead, in red brick which matches much of the town’s rooves, walls and bridges. The Old Bridge which led to the town’s north gate used to be made of wood; now it’s red stone with pretty pepperpot towers at the entrance.

Heidelberg Old bridge
The towers at the north gate of the Old Bridge.


There are lots of nice places to eat. One I wouldn’t necessarily recommend is Gundel who won’t give you a glass of tap water along with your lunch unless you pay for it. One of my travel peeves. There are 3.5 million visitors in town a year, oh greedy cafe owner. Surely you can make your profit on that, and the quiche and cakes we bought.

If you want something sweet on the move, there’s a bakery in the old town called Diller which sells only one type of cake – Schneeballen. A whole shop full of enormous snowballs with different flavours running through them. Strips of shortcrust pastry are wound loosely around a stick and then fried. Mine had marzipan running through it. The plain ones are dusted with icing sugar or cinnamon. They’re bigger than a tennis ball, so they take a bit of eating.

Schneeballen Diller bakery Heidelberg
Schneeballen at the Diller bakery in Heidelberg.

These snowballs are said to date back to the Middle Ages. They are a popular souvenir because they keep for 6 weeks. My luggage was full of them on the way home.

Lots of things in Heidelberg are ancient. The library, built in 1421, is the oldest existing public library in Germany. Possibly Heidelberg’s biggest claim to fame is “Heidelberg Man“; the remains of a human jaw bone were found nearby in 1907 and have been dated at between 200000 and 600000 years old. That makes it the oldest evidence of human life in Europe. “Modern” Heidelberg was established around the 5th Century as a Celtic settlement.

Heidelberg University is also ancient – founded in 1386, it’s one of the oldest universities in Europe. In response to a demand for women to study there in 1871, it argued that “never before had it come to pass that a wench had been matriculated or completed her doctorate”. Fortunately, things have changed.

The university has also had a somewhat difficult recent history. Heidelberg was a Nazi stronghold, and by 1935 all Jewish civil servants and lecturers were ‘retired’ and stripped of their permission to teach. The new rector was a fervid National Socialist and a member of the SA. Again, fortunately, things have changed.

You might notice walking about that there are many, many Japanese visitors and students. There’s now a partnership between several universities in the area and Kyoto, Osaka and Tohoku.

Student prison Heidelberg university
Entrance to the student prison, Heidelberg University

The thing which caught my eye in Heidelberg was the Old University Student prison. Between 1823 and 1914, if you were a student, woe betide if you got into a bit of a stramash on a Saturday night. “Night time carousing” or other public disorder offences earned a student from 2 days to 4 weeks in prison. I would have perhaps thought twice about battling for (and winning, with another Jen, thank you Jen) our Student Freshers’ week Three Legged Pub Crawl at Aberdeen University in Scotland. Two days into our promising student careers and we had won a gallon of whisky. I didn’t even like whisky very much.

Back in Heidelberg, depending upon the seriousness of the offence – tapping a policeman’s cap off was a major do-do of the highest order – you were instead incarcerated within the student prison, to be let out for, and only for, lectures.

Great hall Heidelberg
The university Great Hall, Heidelberg.

This is the Great Hall where lectures took place. The ceiling frescoes depict the four faculties: law, medicine, theology and philosophy. It was done up like this in 1886 for the 500th anniversary of the University. It would still have smelled of fresh paint in the hey day of the prison.

Student prison Heidelberg
A prison cell and bed.
Student prison Heidelberg
Another decorated prison cell.

The walls of the prison are grandly decorated too. They are emblazoned with the markings and art of the inmates. Some with the date – 10 June 1889, 2 July 1907 – painted on the wall or carved into the wooden handrail or bedside. Some are caricature heads of wayward students – for it seems to me that it was pretty cool to be locked up here. Some of the graffiti provides names for the cells: “Sans souci” (no worries) or “Palais Royal”.

Immortalising yourself, and having your great great grandchildren look back at these scribbles on your prison cell wall nearly 200 year later, is indeed pretty cool. I mean, irresponsible. Cool just slipped out.

Years later, it all got normal: students are now free to vomit wherever they wish on a Saturday night. And vie for such ridiculous titles as Three-Legged Pub Crawl Champion. The young today…….


A combined ticket to the University Museum, Great Hall and Prison is 3€. If you want to teach anyone under 8 about the wrongs of Saturday night misdemeanours, entry is free.

By Jen

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