Heidelberg – Germany’s secret Korean hot spot?

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After celebrating Christmas with family, I decided not to head straight back home. Instead, I took a slight detour to visit some German cities I had never visited before. First up (and the only city I’ll talk about here) was Heidelberg.

My relationship with Heidelberg is a bit weird. It’s certainly a pretty well-known and popular German city, but somehow, my only relationships to it were formed by American professional wrestling, as well as Japanese anime. Over a decade ago, I got into rasslin’ again and joined a message board dedicated to TNA wrestling, a notoriously shitty promotion (but I was young and naïve back then), where I met and regularly interacted with another fan from Heidelberg. That was my first real “contact” with Heidelberg. The second came shortly after when I started watching the anime series ‘Monster’, which is set in Heidelberg. It’s a fantastic and gripping series, that also is noteworthy for how accurately it seems to portray Heidelberg and Germany in general. Anime can be a bit notorious for including random terrible German and getting everything wrong, but Monster displays an incredible attention to detail, be it capturing Heidelberg very well, as well as all the small details like signs, shop inscriptions and all that in flawless German. Go watch it.

But anyway, I digress. Let’s get back to the point. So, I visited Heidelberg for the first time. So what? And why am I talking about it here, on this blog that’s supposed to be all about (my exchange semester in) Korea?

Well, here’s what I encountered when I reached my hotel:

A Korean only sign on a German hostel? That seems highly unusual. At first, I just assumed that maybe this particular place just attracts all the Koreans visiting Heidelberg, as it is called “Lotte Hostel” and thus might be appealing to Koreans since Lotte is one of Korea’s giant conglomerates responsible for everything from hotels, to financial services, to a fast food chain. So maybe this one hostel is just very savvy and caters to this niche market very well? That was my assumption at first. It was disproven as soon as I turned around, as this is what I saw on the other side of the street:

German (souvenir) shops displaying Korean flags and having Korean inscriptions? That seemed highly unusual to me. And those were not the only examples, I saw multiple more all over the old town. Of course, businesses will try to cater to tourists, so you can often see signs in English or other popular languages (say, Italian in Southern or French in Western Germany near the borders). But Korean? This seemed very odd to me. After all, Korea is not exactly a neighboring country.

While it’s not that unusual to see some Chinese characters around popular sightseeing spots (like near the Cologne Cathedral, pictured above), I’ve never seen anything in Korean before. After all, you’re really catering to a niche audience if you specifically go after Koreans. While South Korea’s economic boom is well-documented and Koreans’ purchasing power can make them an interesting target, there simply aren’t that many of them around (compare ~50 million Koreans to 1.3+ billion Chinese, which can often be seen inspecting Germany by the busloads), and you’d expect them to spread out all over the globe. So why does Heidelberg of all places seem to go out of its way to cater to Koreans?

I asked the owner of the hotel about this since the hotel really seemed to go after Koreans hard. Every little piece of information was presented in Korean on top of English and German. She told me a fact that blew me away. According to her, around half of all(!) her customers are from Korea. And while that hotel seems particulary savvy about attracting them, it appears that all of Heidelberg is very popular with Koreans.

Which led me to the next question: But why?

Don’t get me wrong: Heidelberg is lovely and well worth a visit. It seems pretty well-known too, both domestically and internationally, but I still wouldn’t have put it anywhere near my top ten of most popular German places. So, what gives?

I can’t really give any conclusive answers, as a brief search on this didn’t lead to anything. But I have some ideas:

I do think that Heidelberg has a pretty unique charm that you may not find in that many other places, which might make it particularly attractive. It’s not too big and not too small, coming in at around 100k inhabitants, but with a very traditional and quiet old town.

It was one of the few big cities not destroyed in World War II, so it has managed to keep most of its old charm fully intact. It’s surrounded by mountains and runs alongside a river. The castle atop the old town is definitely a big highlight.

It feels a bit like you’re stepping back in time and experiencing middle-ages Germany and it has a lovely atmosphere. I guess that might appeal specifically to tourists looking for an old-timey Germany that doesn’t really exist in that many places anymore.

That might explain why Heidelberg is so popular with tourists, but not necessarily why it attracts so many Koreans.

I also have a second idea about its particular popularity with Koreans:

Now, of course I had to generalize quite a bit due to the character limit, but the point still stands: Koreans seem to have a preternatural ability to pick up on trends and act in unison according to whatever is ‘in’ at the moment. The hotel owner alluded to this as well. When I asked her why she thinks so many Koreans come here, she specifically mentioned that Koreans seem extremely well (digitally) connected, so word-of-mouth about Heidelberg can travel very quickly. On top of that, there does seem to be a pretty strong element of conformity in Korean society as well – if something is ‘in’, then everybody has to do it to fit in (I’m sure that’s putting it a bit too harshly, but you get the point).

So, yeah. What started as just a quick trip to get to know another area of Germany quickly turned into another fascinating brush with Korea. Who would have imagined?

If you’re Korean and know anything about Heidelberg, please let me know more! I’m still a bit puzzled and fascinated by this. Also, if you want to go to Heidelberg (and I recommend doing so), consider staying at Lotte Hostel. It’s located perfectly, right in the middle of the old town and at the foot of the castle, the staff is super friendly, and it’s about as nice as you could possibly expect from a Hostel.

So yeah, stop on by and leave a mark on one of these maps! As you can see, South Korea is very well represented here, but there were even about a dozen dots from North Korea there.

The hostel has a nice lounge with a communal fridge and a reminder to label your food and not take somebody else’s stuff.

This gave me major flashbacks to the dorm back at CAU. At least Lotte Hostel does not appear to use CCTV cameras to enforce this rule and also does not have a penalty system in place. So, while they do a fantastic job of catering to Koreans, there are still some more things they could do to fully capture the Korean dorm feeling. I wouldn’t recommend installing a curfew though.

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