The great Charlemagne chose Aachen as his imperial residence at the start of the 9th century. As the first Holy Roman Emperor his dream was to the 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 glows with the regalia of those ceremonies.
There are brilliant golden shrines in the Cathedral, like the reliquary holding Charlemagne’s bones, while the cathedral treasury is a breathtaking trove of Medieval riches. Today Aachen’s tourist board has set out a “Route Charlemagne” to show you around the sights relating to its former ruler, like the City Hall, site of his palace and where the Imperial coronation feast was held.
Let’s explore the best things to do in Aachen:
1. Aachen Cathedral
Ordered by Charlemagne as a Palatine chapel at the end of the 8th century, this monument was his burial place in 805. From 936 to 1531 the cathedral also witnessed the coronation of a long line of Holy Roman kings.
Charlemagne’s throne, a simple stairway leading to an unadorned seat, dates to 796 and was used for every coronation at the cathedral.
And a few metres away is the Karlschrein, the golden reliquary crafted in 1215 and containing Charlemagne’s exhumed bones.
And this is just one example of medieval gold-work, along with the Marienschrein, the Barbarossa chandelier, the Ambon of Henry II (pulpit) and the gleaming altarpiece the Pala d’Oro dating to 1020. The cathedral was the first site in Germany to be awarded UNESCO World Heritage status, for its architecture and the epochal events that took place here over hundreds of years.
2. Cathedral Treasury
Part of the same UNESCO site, the treasury holds one of Europe’s most valuable collections of Medieval liturgical art.
Displayed in a building on the cathedral cloisters, the pieces date from Late Antiquity to the Gothic period, covering roughly 1000 years.
It’s almost unbelievable that this assortment of reliquaries, crosses, holy water vessels, codices and a golden bust of Charlemagne could survive together for so long.
There’s also an olifant (an ivory hunting horn) that was believed to belong to Charlemagne but actually dates to the 1000s, as well as his hunting knife, which has been dated to the 700s.
You can be dazzled by a collection that enchanted the Renaissance artist Albrecht Dürer when he saw it 500 years ago.
In the basement is the textile collection, featuring the ceremonial coronation cloak.
It can be humbling to think that just by visiting Aachen’s city hall you’re following in the footsteps of Charlemagne, whose imperial palace was at this very place.
There’s more remaining than you might think, as the Granus Tower survived the palace’s demolition in the 13th century and its lowest four storeys are all original.
The city hall was completed in 1350 and was one of the great secular buildings of the Gothic period.
As a holdover from Charlemagne’s palace, Aachen was required to include a coronation hall for the kings of the Holy Roman Empire where the ceremonial feast would take place.
A total of 31 coronations took place in this building, and there’s an exhibition of replicas of the Imperial Regalia, produced in 1915.
At the top of the city, all streets leading to the square in front of Aachen’s City Hall have to climb a steep slope.
When the weather’s good Markt will be teeming with people, propped on the railings of the Karlsbrunnen fountain or sitting at the cafe terraces.
The market days on the square are Tuesday and Thursday, when there are stalls selling produce and freshly cooked delicacies between 07:00 and 14:00. And although the City Hall is the main draw, there are some fine listed buildings on the square.
At Marktplatz 43 is Haus Brüssel by Aachen’s famous 18th-century architect Jakob Couven.
At 41 is the Gothic Haus Löwenstein, dating to 1344 and one of the few buildings to survive the Aachen fire of 1656.
5. Centre Charlemagne
The museum for Aachen reopened in a new glass building in 2014 and goes into different episodes from the city’s past.
You’ll begin with the earliest Celtic settlements in the area and the learn about Aachen’s foundation as a spa resort under the Romans.
A lot of attention is paid to the Carolingian period and the role played by Charlemagne in turning Aachen into the city of Imperial coronations.
These are retold in detail, before you come to the religious unrest during the Reformation in the 16th-century, which brought an end to the Imperial glory days.
After that you’ll trace the city’s rebirth as an 18th-century spa destination and evolution into an industrial powerhouse in the 19th century.
There are regular temporary exhibitions about anything from car manufacturing to finds from the city’s many archaeological digs.
6. Three-Country Point
Just southwest of Aachen is the border between Germany, Belgium and the Netherlands.
The lines converge at the summit of Vaalserberg, a 320-metre hill, which also happens to be the highest point of the mainland Netherlands.
That point is marked by a simple waist-high obelisk, and you can do the clichéd thing of linking hands across the border.
On the Belgian side is the Tour Badouin, standing 50 metres high and served by a transparent lift that rises to a viewing platform.
There’s another structure, the Wilhemina Tower, on the Dutch side, which has a “skywalk” where there’s nothing but reinforced glass beneath your feet.
Also up here is a small amusement park, several snack-bars and a hedge maze that takes about 45 minutes to solve.
7. Couven Museum
In a sophisticated 17th-century townhouse are 34 rooms showcasing bourgeois lifestyles in the 1700s and 1800s.
The attraction is named after the 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 every kind of furniture to come into fashion over this 200-year period, from Louis XVI, to the Napoleonic Empire Style and the masterful woodcarving of the Aachen-Lütticher style (Style Liège-Aix in French). From 1663 to 1878 the house had a pharmacy, which is installed in Room Five and has albarello and majolica vessels from the 1600s to the 1800s in 18th-century wooden cabinets.
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 painting and sculpture from the 12th century to the 20th century has grown steadily.
Some of the most valuable older pieces are by the Renaissance sculptor Tilman Riemenschneider, and there are paintings from the same era by Lucas Cranach the Elder, Aelbrecht Bouts and Joos van Cleve.
A little later are the works by Francisco de Zurbarán, Jacob Jordaens, Anthony van Dyck and Frans Hals.
While the modern art collection has paintings by August Macke, Otto Dix and Alexej von Jawlensky.
The museum’s print room is a well-regarded, and has sensational pieces by the likes of Goya, Rembrandt and Albrecht Dürer.
Aachen’s rebirth as a spa town is symbolised by this Classicist pavilion and colonnade built in 1827. The monument is named after Elisabeth Ludovika of Bavaria, future wife of Frederick William IV of Prussia.
You can see a bust of her in the Elisenbrunnen’s rotunda.
The water that flows from two fountains inside is the Kaiserquelle, which is 52°C and long before you get near it you’ll detect a strong smell of hydrogen sulphide.
That hasn’t deterred some famous people from imbibing this water, and the names of the prestigious visitors like George Frideric Handel and Giacomo Casanova are recorded on marble plaques.
Raised in 1320 Ponttor is one of the last fragments of Aachen city walls, and is one of only two gates left standing.
The defences were pulled down during Napoleon’s occupation of the city at the turn of the 19th century.
The structure, made of an outer barbican, a gatehouse with portcullis and bridge passage over the moat defended by crenellations, was threatened with demolition later in the 1800s, but was saved and restored.
If you have thing for Medieval architecture you could poke around this sandstone gate for a few minutes, taking in details like the ogival arch and the shrine of Mary just behind the portcullis.
Another of the fixtures on Markt is the fountain crowned with a statue of Charlemagne.
That sculpture was cast in the Belgian city of Dinant in 1620. When the French forces took over Aachen in the 1890s the statue of Charlemagne was seized as war booty, to be reunited with the city a few years later after negotiations by the city’s mayor.
The current statue is a replica, and the original is in the Coronation Hall in the City Hall.
The fountain was made more ornamental in the 1730s when Johann Joseph Couven designed the limestone basin and its two bronze fish.
12. Aachener Tierpark Euregiozoo
Southeast of the city centre is Aachen’s zoo, which has around 1000 animals from 200 species.
The zoo may not be large, but is well-presented, provides lots of room for its inhabitants and is affordable at €6 for adult entry and just €3 for kids.
Although the park is mainly geared towards native German animals, there are exotic species like cheetahs, ankole-watusi cattle, Asian camels, zebras, antelopes, a range of monkey species and African Ostriches.
At the entrance there’s a sign telling you about the different feeding times during the day, while in the mornings special guided tours are offered if you book in advance.
The last stop on the Route Charlemagne is on Fischmarkt, a few moments from the cathedral.
With a solemn Gothic facade, Grashaus (1267) is one of the oldest secular buildings in the city and was built as Aachen’s first City Hall.
This came about after Aachen’s wealthy citizens demanded more of a voice in the city’s administration.
The Carolingian connection comes from the fact that its lower walls are much older and probably go back to the 8th or 9th century.
After being replaced as City Hall in the 14th century the Grashaus became a dungeon and a court four grievous offences.
Today the Grashaus is an extracurricular learning centre for young people, but guided tours are available.
14. Ludwig Forum für Internationale Kunst
In Aachen’s eastern outskirts is a contemporary art museum in a former umbrella factory.
The building is half the attraction as it’s a Bauhaus design from 1928. The museum’s collection runs from the 1960s to the present, and has pieces by Roy Lichtenstein, Nam June Paik, Wolf Vostell, Joseph Beuys, Duane Hanson and Jörg Immendorff.
There are 3,000 pieces in all, including Soviet and Chinese art by Ilya Kabakov and Ai Weiwei.
Also keep the temporary exhibitions in mind: Recent subjects have been the architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and American artist Nancy Graves, while there’s a show for Cuban art running until 2018.
Something not many tourists know about is this enchanting urban swimming pool, one of Germany’s few remaining Art Nouveau baths.
Elisabethhalle opened in 1911 and still functions as a public pool today.
So you can combine culture with a bit of exercise, as long as you’re not distracted by the marble panels, cast iron railings and soaring ceilings.
There are two pools as the sexes were originally segregated.
The larger pool, originally for men, has a spectacular fountain of Neptune at one end, while the smaller has an image of Roman bathers, both by the local sculptor Carl Burger.
Throughout this listed building are original fittings, down to the wooden furniture in the ticket office.