The great Charlemagne chose Aachen as his royal palace in the early 9th century. As the first Holy Roman Emperor, his dream was to turn the city into a new Rome. For the next 600 years or so, every Holy Roman Emperor was crowned in the city. And today, five hundred years after the last coronation, Aachen still shines in the garb of those ceremonies.
Inside the cathedral are golden shrines that resemble reliquaries containing the remains of Charlemagne, while the cathedral’s treasury is a breathtaking treasure trove of medieval wealth. Today, Aachen’s tourist office has developed a “Route of Charlemagne” that takes you on a tour of sights related to his former ruler, such as the town hall, where his palace is located, and where the royal coronation feast was held.
Let’s explore the best things to do in Aachen:
1. Aachen Cathedral
Charlemagne designated this monument as the Palatine Chapel at the end of the 8th century, and this monument was his burial site in 805. From 936 to 1531, the cathedral also saw a long list of coronations of Holy Roman kings.
Charlemagne’s throne, a simple staircase leading to a modest seat, dates back to 796 and was used for every coronation in the cathedral.
A few meters away is the Karlschrein, a golden reliquary from 1215 containing bones excavated by Charlemagne.
This is just one example of medieval goldwork, along with the Marianne Palace, the Barbarossa chandelier, Henry II’s Ambon (pulpit) and a gilded altarpiece dating from 1020. The cathedral was the first site in Germany to be awarded UNESCO World Heritage status for its architecture and the landmark events that took place here over the centuries.
2. Cathedral Treasure
Part of the same UNESCO site, the treasury houses one of the most valuable collections of medieval ceremonial art in Europe.
The works are displayed in a building in the cathedral cloister and date back to the Late Antiquity to the Gothic period, some 1,000 years old.
It is incredible that these various reliquaries, crosses, holy water vessels, codices and the golden bust of Charlemagne survived together for so long.
There is also an olifant (an ivory hunting horn) thought to belong to Charlemagne but actually dating back to the 1000s, and his hunting knife, which dates back to the 700s.
You’ll be dazzled by the collections that Renaissance artist Albrecht Dürer witnessed 500 years ago.
The basement is a textile collection featuring ceremonial coronation capes.
3. City Hall
Just by visiting Aachen’s town hall, you can follow in the footsteps of Charlemagne, whose Royal Palace was located here.
There’s more left than you might think, as Granusta survived the demolition of the 13th-century palace, whose lowest four floors are all pristine.
Completed in 1350, the Town Hall is one of the greatest secular buildings of the Gothic period.
As a preserve of Charlemagne’s palace, Aachen was asked to include a coronation hall for Holy Roman kings, where ceremonial feasts were held.
A total of 31 coronations have been held in the building, as well as an exhibition of replicas of the royal family made in 1915.
At the top of the city, all streets leading to the square in front of Aachen Town Hall have to climb a steep slope.
When the weather is nice, the Markt is packed with people leaning against the railing of the Karlsbrunnen fountain or sitting on the café terrace.
Market days on the square are Tuesdays and Thursdays, with stalls selling produce and freshly prepared delicacies from 07:00 to 14:00. While the Town Hall is the main attraction, there are some fine listed buildings in the square.
At Marktplatz 43 is Haus Brüssel designed by the famous 18th century architect Jakob Couven in Aachen.
Built in 1344, the 41-year-old Gothic Haus Löwenstein is one of the few buildings that survived the Great Fire of Aachen in 1656.
5. Charlemagne Center
The Aachen Museum reopened in a new glass building in 2014 and entered a different phase of the city’s past.
You’ll start with the earliest Celtic settlements in the area and learn about the foundations of Aachen as a thermal resort under Roman rule.
Much attention has been paid to the Carolingian period and to Charlemagne’s role in turning Aachen into the city of imperial coronation.
These are recounted in great detail before you learn about the religious upheaval during the 16th century Reformation, which ended the glory days of the Empire.
Afterwards, you’ll trace the city’s rebirth as an 18th-century spa resort and its development into an industrial powerhouse in the 19th century.
Temporary exhibitions are held regularly, showcasing discoveries from automobile manufacturing to the city’s numerous archaeological excavations.
6. Three Kingdoms Point
Southwest of Aachen is the border of Germany, Belgium and the Netherlands.
These lines meet at the 320-meter-high Vaalserberg summit, which also happens to be the highest point on the Dutch mainland.
The point is marked by a simple waist-high obelisk, and you can do the cliché of crossing the border to connect your hands.
On the Belgian side is the Tour Badouin, 50 meters high, with a transparent elevator to the observation deck.
There is another building on the Dutch side, the Wilhemina Tower, which has a “sky bridge” with nothing but tempered glass under its feet.
There’s also a small amusement park, several snack bars, and a hedge maze that takes about 45 minutes to solve.
7. Kuwen Museum
In an exquisite 17th century townhouse, 34 rooms showcase the bourgeois lifestyle of the 1700s and 1800s.
The attraction is named after Rococo architect and master builder Johann Joseph Couven and his son Jakob, who conceived dozens of Burgher houses in the city.
The interior of the townhouse is decorated with a variety of furniture popular during this 200-year period, from Louis XVI to Napoleonic Empire styles to superb Aachen-Lüttcher woodcarving (Aix Liege in French). From 1663 to In 1878, the house had a pharmacy, installed in room 5, with Albarrero and majolica from the 1600s to the 1800s in 18th century wooden cabinets.
8. Sulmond Ludwig Museum
The Suermondt-Ludwig-Museum is named after the banker and art collector Barthold Suermondt, who donated his art collection to the city in the 1880s.
Since then, the museum’s stock of paintings and sculptures has grown steadily from the 12th to the 20th centuries.
Some of the most valuable old works are by the Renaissance sculptor Tilman Riemenschneider, as well as Lucas Cranach the Elder, Aelbrecht Bouts and Joe Paintings by Joos van Cleve.
Later works by Francisco de Zubaran, Jacob Jordans, Anthony van Dyck and Frans Hals.
The modern art collection includes paintings by August Macke, Otto Dix and Alexej von Jawlensky.
The museum’s well-regarded printing room houses sensational works by the likes of Goya, Rembrandt and Albrecht Dürer.
9. Ellison Brunnen
This classicist gazebo and colonnade from 1827 symbolizes the rebirth of Aachen as a spa town. The monument is named after Elisabeth Ludovika of Bavaria, the future wife of Frederick William IV of Prussia.
You can see her bust in Elisenbrunnen’s Rotunda.
The water coming out of the two fountains inside is Kaiserquelle at 52°C, and long before you get close to it, you can smell a strong hydrogen sulfide smell.
But that didn’t stop some celebrities from drinking the water, with the names of famous tourists such as George Friedrich Handel and Giacomo Casanova being recorded on marble plaques.
Built in 1320, Pontor is one of the last fragments of Aachen’s city walls and one of only two remaining gates.
The fortifications were demolished during Napoleon’s occupation of the city at the turn of the 19th century.
The structure, made of an outer urn, a gatehouse with gates and bridge access, on a moat protected by a sawtooth, was threatened with demolition in the late 1800s, but was preserved and restored.
If you like medieval architecture, you can wander around this sandstone gate for a few minutes to see details like the pointed arches behind the porch and the Shrine of Mary.
Another fixture on the market is the fountain crowning the statue of Charlemagne.
The sculpture was cast in the Belgian city of Dinant in 1620. When the French army took over Aachen in the 1890s, the statue of Charlemagne was confiscated as a trophy and reunited with the city a few years later after negotiations with the city’s mayor.
The statue is now a replica, and the original is in the Coronation Hall of the Town Hall.
In the 1730s, Johann Joseph Couven designed the limestone basin and its two bronze fishes to make the fountain more ornamental.
12. Euregiozoo Aachen Zoo
To the southeast of the city centre is Aachen’s zoo with around 1000 animals from 200 species.
The zoo may be small, but it’s beautifully furnished with plenty of space for residents, and admission is 6 euros for adults and 3 euros for children.
While the park is primarily geared towards native German animals, there are also exotic species such as cheetahs, ankole-watusi cattle, Asian camels, zebras, antelope, a range of monkeys and African ostriches.
There is a sign at the entrance telling you the different feeding times of the day, and special guided tours in the morning if you book in advance.
The last stop on the Charlemagne route is Fischmarkt, just a few moments from the cathedral.
With its stately Gothic façade, the Grashaus (1267) is one of the oldest secular buildings in the city and was Aachen’s first town hall.
This comes after Aachen’s wealthy citizens demanded a greater say in city management.
The connection to the Carolingian dynasty stems from the fact that its lower walls are older, and may date back to the 8th or 9th century.
After being replaced as a town hall in the 14th century, Glasshouse became a dungeon and courthouse for four serious crimes.
Today, the Grashaus is an extra-curricular learning centre for young people, but with guided tours.
14. Ludwig Forum für Internationale Kunst
On the eastern outskirts of Aachen is a contemporary art museum converted from a former umbrella factory.
The building is half the attraction of the 1928 Bauhaus design. The museum’s collection spans from the 1960s to the present and includes works by Roy Lichtenstein, Nam June Paik, Wolf Vostell, Joseph Beuys, Duane Hanson and Jörg Immendorff.
There are 3,000 works in total, including Soviet and Chinese artworks by Ilya Kabakov and Ai Weiwei.
Also keep in mind the temporary exhibitions: recent themes are architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and American artist Nancy Graves, while the Cuban Art Show will run until 2018.
15. Elizabeth Hall
Not many tourists know about this charming city pool, which is one of the few Art Nouveau baths in Germany.
Elisabethhalle opened in 1911 and is still used as a public swimming pool today.
So, as long as you’re not distracted by marble panels, cast-iron railings and soaring ceilings, you can combine culture with sport.
Since it was originally separate, there are two swimming pools.
The larger pool was originally intended for men and features the imposing Neptune Fountain at one end, while the smaller pool features figures of Roman bathers, both created by local sculptor Carl Burger.
Original accessories are used throughout this listed building, right down to the wooden furniture at the ticket office.
Where to Stay: The Best Hotels in Aachen, Germany
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