Drink With The Ghosts Of Napoleon, Marilyn Monroe And Mark Twain: A Pub Crawl In Heidelberg

In Germany, one can go on a pub-crawl and claim to be sightseeing. There are centuries old pubs the size of postage stamps, beer halls one could land a plane in and more beer gardens than post offices. One could spend a lifetime exploring Germany’s historic drinking emporiums but if you’re looking for a medium sized city to base yourself on a beer tour, consider Heidelberg.

Heidelberg is a college town that boasts one of the oldest universities in Europe, founded in 1386, and where there are students there are great bars. Students, and wannabe students, have been guzzling prodigious amounts of beer in Heidelberg for centuries. And if you stay in the altstadt, you’ll hear them singing and partying at all hours of the night. Mark Twain, who spent three months studying German and art in the town in 1878, documented student drinking habits in hilarious detail in his travel narrative “A Tramp Abroad.”

“At a signal they all fall loading themselves with beer out of pint mugs, as fast as possible, and each man keeps his own count,” he wrote. “When the candidate can hold no more, a count is instituted and the one who has drank the greatest number of pints is proclaimed king. I was told that the last beer king emptied his mug 75 times.”

According to Twain, students settled their drunken quarrels by dueling, and those who were particularly unruly were sent to the studentenkarzer, or students’ prison. (see photo) On my first day of beer crawling in Heidelberg I emptied my mug only four times, but managed to guzzle four tasty beers in four of the city’s most interesting drinking emporiums, all within a 400-meter radius. The total cost of the four 1/3-liter beers was just under 12 euros. (My kids drank juice and their drinks cost the same.) This beer crawl is long on beer and short on crawling.

Zum Roten Ochsen (Red Ox Inn) – 217 Hauptstrasse – This dark, inviting bar/restaurant is one of the city’s oldest student drinking clubs. It was opened in 1703 and has been owned for the last 170 years by the Stengel family, some of who live upstairs. When you walk in, take a look at the stained glass windows – each devoted to a different field of study – and take a lap around the place to check out the black and white photos of some of the famous people who have supposedly quaffed beers here. Surely this is the only bar in the world that can claim Marilyn Monroe, John Wayne, Otto Van Bismarck and Mark Twain as former patrons.

Nearly every inch of wall and table space is scarred with the graffiti carvings of drunks from the last few centuries. I had a Heidelberger dunkel on draft that I didn’t want to put down. Our waitress explained to us that the club used beer tokens as tender until 1965, largely because the family who runs the place didn’t trust their waitresses so they’d make them buy the beer with tokens and then resell it to patrons.

Zum Sepp’l – 213 Hauptrasse – In a perfect world, everyone would have a bar like this in their neighborhood. The stunning stained glass windows, antique signs and dark, oak tables – all carved with generations of graffiti – make this place an incredibly atmospheric location to have a drink. The place was founded in 1642 and the history of the place oozes out of the carved up walls.

Our waitress told us that Napoleon used to frequent the place but said she’d never heard of Mark Twain or John Wayne. Other than a tiny little TV inside a picture frame silenced on mute, the only sounds we heard were the clinking of glasses and the conversations of other patrons. I wanted to move into the place, but settled for just one beer – a deliciously tart Easter beer brewed by the Kulturbrauerei, our next stop, right around the corner.

Kulturbrauerei – 6 Leyergasse – The current incarnation of this microbrewery dates to 1998 but breweries have existed on these premises since 1235. The main dining room has an ornately tiled ceiling, massive wood columns and atmospheric chandeliers. The food is first rate and the beers are even better. Try the maibock or the cloudy lager.

Vetter Brauhaus – 9 Steingassee – This microbrewery, which has indoor and outdoor seating, dates only to 1987 but you’d never know it. The long, candlelit tables, high ceilings and beautiful old bar give the place a timeless quality. I had a marzen beer that sent me into a reverie so deep that I almost wanted to do the old “SNL” sprockets dance – almost. It was so good that I could almost imagine how a beer king could down 75 mugs of it.