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December 3, 2018

Germany: Aachen

The town hall or rathaus in Aachen Germany

Aachen is the westernmost city in Germany. The historic commune is located near the German borders with Belgium and the Netherlands, roughly 61 kilometers to the south and west of Cologne. It is possible to visit Aachen as a day trip from a base in Cologne but we decided to stay in the town for two nights. There’s much to see in the area and in the city.

History is long and important in this area of Germany.

Looking up inside Aachen’s cathedral

The cathedral in Aachen

Humans quarried flint near Aachen during Neolithic times (3000–2500 BC). Later a 25-hectare Roman spa “resort” was established around 124 AD. The Roman civil administration lasted until the end of the 4th and beginning of the 5th centuries. In 451 the Huns pillaged the town capping the end of the Roman era.

In 768, the year of his coronation as king of the Franks, Charlemagne came to Aachen for the first time to spend Christmas. Charlemagne liked Aachen. He spent most winters in Aachen between 792 and his death in 814. Aachen became the focus of his court and the political center of his empire.

The interior of the cathedral in Aachen Germany

Inside the Basilica of San Vitale in Ravenna, the model for the cathedral in Aachen

Aachen’s ascendancy is closely linked to the arrival of Charlemagne, the “Father of Europe”. Charlemagne ruled over a vast empire from his base in Aachen. Parts or all of Germany, the Netherlands, Belgium, Luxembourg, Switzerland, Austria, the Czech and Slovak Republics, France, Italy, Slovenia, and Poland were under his control. Crowned “Emperor of the Romans” by Pope Leo III in Rome in 800, Charlemagne is recognized as the first emperor of Western Europe since the fall of the Western Roman Empire.

Today Aachen’s cathedral is a reminder of the days of Charlemagne and the Holy Roman Empire. Indeed, it is Charlemagne’s final resting place. His body was buried in the Palatine Chapel, now the heart of Aachen’s cathedral, after his death in 814.

The Throne of Charlemagne in the Cathedral of Aachen

The cathedral in Aachen is built in two main architectural styles. At the core is the Palatine Chapel, constructed in the Carolingian-Romanesque style and modeled after San Vitale in Ravenna Italy. The adjacent choir was constructed in the Gothic style. Though the cathedral is small, on the scale of cathedrals, the interior is fabulously decorated. It feels like stepping into a jewel box.

It is remarkable to see a building as old as Aachen’s cathedral basically intact. Part of this is a consequence of its more recent history.

The best overview of the cathedral was on a poster

During World War II, Aachen, including its famed cathedral, was heavily damaged by Allied bombing attacks and artillery fire. Fortunately the cathedral’s base structure survived; many of the cathedral’s artistic objects had been removed to secure storage or protected within the church during the war. After the war reconstruction and restoration took place intermittently over more than 30 years.

In 1978, the Aachen Cathedral was added to the UNESCO list of world heritage sites. It was one of the first 12 items to be listed. Its early inclusion on UNESCO’s list speaks to the importance of the church and of Aachen in the history of Europe.


We visited Aachen in October of 2017.

Be careful around the bronze sculptures in Aachen.

An interpretive view point in Aachen

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