Red sandstone ruins, majestic views over the Neckar Valley and green forests, the world’s largest wine barrel – the castle of Heidelberg is one of Germany’s most charming and romantic sights.

Mark Twain, Victor Hugo, J.M.W. Turner and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe are among the many artists and poets who took inspiration from Heidelberg. This despite much of the castle being in ruins.

Heidelberg Castle (sometimes called Schloss Heidelberg) was actually built in several stages. The earliest structure was built in the beginning of the 13th century and expanded into two castles less than a century later. These were further expanded in the years that followed until the armies of the French armies of Sun King Louis XIV burned and blasted them to the ground 400 years later.

In the 19th century, there were numerous discussions whether or not to restore the castle to its original glory. The Grand Duchy of Baden even established a “Castle Field Office” to develop plans to preserve or repair the main buildings. After all, these are among the most important and majestic Renaissance structures in the world and fit with the sweeping Romantic ideas of the time in taking pride in the nation’s illustrious history. However, upon review, these plans were decided as not feasible and only the Friedrichsbau (which was the one structure not completely destroyed) saw a restoration.

Along with the Friedrichsbau, visitors always drawn to the Ottheinrich Building in the Palace. Elaborate sculptures on the façade still stand, memorializing German rulers, figures from antiquity and Roman rule and even Elector Otthenreich himself. An artistically designed fireplace, door jambs and colonnades as well as a ballroom survive. The castle is also home to the German Apothecary Museum, Palace Gardens, a Goethe memorial tablet and two restaurants. Romance is alive here throughout the year – but certain months you can even elect to get married on the grounds.

Think you’ll be thirsty after all that castle exploring? Then the Great Vat, aka the Heidelberg Tun, will be a welcome sight – even if you can’t drink from it. The vat is the world’s biggest wine barrel, with the ability to hold over 58,000 gallons of your favorite pick-me-up. It’s so large that there’s even an adjacent staircase that you need to climb in order to reach to the top of the vat – while there, be charmed by the dance floor and some of the best views of the city. In the castle’s heyday, the vat was filled with wine, part of the taxing program the prince electors utilized. Sound delicious? Perhaps, but since each subject offered various blends of wine, the flavor certainly suffered. Not to mention some ‘taxes’ were likely watered down or mixed with other readily available liquids. Years later, unaware that the wine vat had long been drained and emptied, even Napoleon’s armies tried to get in on the wine fun, attempting to break through the barrel – their axe marks are still evident! (Literature lovers will remember that it is referenced in Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables and Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick – as well as works by Mark Twain and Washington Irving).