Born by the Moselle River as Augustus Treverorum back in 16 BC, Germany’s oldest city has managed to keep hold of its Roman past. Trier has a city-wide UNESCO World Heritage Site, protecting incomparable monuments like the largest Roman gate outside Italy, a palace hall built by Emperor Constantine and a sensational bathing complex.
You could spend a lot of time under Trier’s spell, rapt by Roman treasures at the Landesmuseum, navigating the cellars below the amphitheatre or the passageways at the Imperial Baths. After the Romans, Trier was ruled by Archbishop-Electors for hundreds of years, leaving the city with bountiful Medieval heritage, from churches to patrician houses and palaces.
Let’s explore the best things to do in Trier:
1. Porta Nigra
The largest Roman city gate north of the Alps took shape at the end of the 2nd century and there’s no better place to begin your tour of Trier’s Roman wonders.
The gate has two semi-circular towers, the larger climbing to four storeys and you can venture through it on stairways.
Porta Nigra was made with blocks of local sandstone that were fastened in place with iron clamps.
On the eastern staircase you can still make out one of these iron fasteners, and in other places there are rust where the iron was plundered in Medieval times.
The name, Porta Nigra, comes from the dark colour of the stone, caused by centuries of residue.
The gate became a holy site in the Middle Ages when a Greek hermit was holed up in the eastern tower, after which it was incorporated into a church.
2. Aula Palatina
When it first went up in the 4th century this church was the audience hall for Emperor Constantine’s palace.
The proportions of the hall are mind-boggling, measuring 33 metres in height by 67 metres in length.
And one thing that ensured the hall’s preservation was that it became a residence for the Medieval Bishops of Trier, who made various modifications.
Then in the 17th century the Archbishop Lothar von Matternich joined the hall to his new Baroque palace.
The Aula Palatina was returned to something like its original form in the 19th century when it became a Protestant place of worship, making it the oldest building used for a church in Germany.
3. Rheinisches Landesmuseum
In a city like Trier, which is teeming with Roman sites, you can’t pass up on the archaeological museum.
No other German museum has such extensive and multifaceted exhibitions of Roman culture.
But there are also artefacts from long before the Romans arrived, like the 3,600-year-old Trassem hoard, containing a gold bangle, needle, decorative gold spirals, a sword and axe.
Of the many Roman finds, give yourself time to pore over the Neumagen wine ship, a stone model of a wine ship carved for the tomb of a local wine merchant.
The 3rd-century Polydus Mosaic is also a must, and was in a house that was destroyed a century later to make way for the new baths.
The museum also holds the Trierer Goldmünzenschatz (Trier Gold Coin Treasure), 2650 Roman gold coins brought to light during construction work in the city.
4. Cathedral of Trier
After Constantine converted to Christianity he set about building a complex of four basilicas in Trier on the site of the current cathedral.
When it was finished this had a footprint four times the area of the sizeable building standing now.
The current cathedral is an intoxicating jumble of different styles, as over time the building was extended rather than rebuilt.
So there are three Romanesque naves with Gothic vaults, and some theatrical Baroque flourishes like the stuccowork vault of the western choir.
The oldest surviving piece of sculpture is the sandstone tympanum on the south wall of the portal towards the Liebfrauenkirche, dating to 1180 and showing Jesus on his throne flanked by Mary and Saint Peter.
Head out in to the Gothic cloister to size up the cathedral from the outside, and make for the treasury which has a magnificent reliquary for one of the holy nails.
5. Trier Imperial Baths
Augusta Treverorum’s 4th-century bathing complex had a magnitude that was almost unmatched north of the Alps, and large chunks of its arched 19-metre walls are still in place.
The baths were never completed, and despite their enormous size, they weren’t actually the largest in the city at the time, as that honour went to the older Barbara baths.
In a designated archaeological park, the Imperial Baths are in superb condition considering their age, and this is partly because they were repurposed for Trier’s Medieval city wall.
You can explore the excavated labyrinth of subterranean tunnels and marvel at the size of the hot water bath, which is big enough to seat 650 people for opera performances.
Four of the original six boiler rooms remain.
6. Trier Amphitheater
Like any Roman city worth its salt, Trier had an amphitheatre for blood sports, and this is just past the Imperial Baths outside the medieval walls.
The monument is on the Petrisberg hill, and one explanation for this location is that the amphitheatre’s builders could use the natural slope of the hill for seating so earthworks were only needed for one half.
The amphitheatre dates to the second half of the 3rd century and would have witnessed fights with animals, gladiator battles and executions before the western empire fell two centuries later.
One of the amphitheatre’s special features is its intact cellars, where gladiators and animals would have been hoisted to the surface on lifts.
7. Electoral Palace
The palace attached to the Aula Palatina is held as one of the best expressions of Rococo art in Germany.
The Rococo south wing was added to Lothar von Matternich’s Renaissance palace from the middle of the 18th century when the Elector Johann IX. Philipp von Walderdorff moved to the city.
Now, Trier’s District Government is based in the palace, so access is restricted, but you can sign up for guided tours of the courtyard, foyer, staircase and “Baroque room”, which are all sumptuous.
The palace’s Baroque gardens are also glorious and boast rows of 18th-century sculptures by Ferdinand Dietz.
Germany’s earliest Gothic church is right on the south wall of Trier Cathedral.
The Liebfrauenkirche was built over a Roman-era church at the beginning of the 13th century.
One of the first things that will hit you is the circular building plan, with circular portals and altar niche combining to form the outline of the 12-petalled rose, a symbol of the Virgin Mary.
The 12 supporting columns are painted with the 12 apostles and soar to vaults with filigree patterns.
See the decorative tomb of the Bishop Karl von Metternich, and the western portal’s tympanum of the Mary Enthroned, the annunciation and the Adoration of the Magi.
The soul of Medieval Trier, this marketplace was laid out in the 10th century after the previous one was ransacked during a Viking raid a few decades earlier.
The three-metre market cross was erected to commemorate this event in 958 and has a Carolingian capital, while its column was used as a pillory for public punishments from the 13th century on.
On the south side is the Renaissance Petrusbrunnen, dating to 1595 and topped with a statue of Trier’s patron saint Peter.
He stands above allegorical statues of the four cardinal virtues, justice, fortitude, prudence and temperance.
Hauptmarkt is also framed by photogenic historic buildings like the Steipe, the ceremonial banquet hall with a hipped roof and decorative crenellations.
On the Steipe’s wall you can see the official yardstick, used by market traders in days gone by.
Entering old Trier on Simeonstraße via the Porta Nigra you’ll soon be confronted by another remarkable monument.
Painted white and with colourful patterns around its semi-circular windows, the Dreikönigenhaus is a Romanesque and Gothic patrician house from 1230. At that time defence was the first thing wealthy families were worried about, which is why the house is more like a fortified tower.
You can see that the front door is actually a few metres above the street, and householders would have used a ladder to get up or down.
In the Middle Ages Trier had as many as ten residential towers like Dreikönigenhaus, and this is now one of three to remain today.
11. Basilica of St. Paulinus
At a Roman graveyard up from the Porta Nigra there’s a majestic Rococo church that is the third in a succession of religious buildings going back to the 300s.
The second, Romanesque church was destroyed by the French army during a siege of Trier in 1673. Its successor was begun six decades later and consecrated in 1757. Unlike Trier other composite buildings, the Basilica of St. Paulinus has a planned, uniform style, with exuberant Rococo stuccowork, frescoes and fittings.
The interior was designed by the feted architect Balthasar Neumann and the stupendous fresco on the ceiling in the nave work of Christoph Thomas Scheffler.
This depicts the life of St Paulinus and the martyrdom of the Theban Legion in 286.
The 11th-century college adjoining the Porta Nigra is an exciting venue for Trier’s city museum.
The collection here is pretty diverse as it comes from donations from prominent Trier citizens.
Along with Medieval, Renaissance and Baroque paintings, sculpture and handicrafts there’s an exhibition of Egyptian Coptic textiles, paintings, oil lamps and furniture from the 2nd to the 9th century.
The naturalistic sarcophagus portraits dating back to the 2nd century have to be seen to be believed.
In the college’s cloisters are 18th-century statues sculpted by Ferdinand Tietz for the Electoral Palace garden, while on the second floor is an assortment of East Asian Art.
If you’re new to the city you can also get up to speed, viewing a model of Trier as it was in 1800 and a movie about Roman Augustus Treverorum.
13. Barbara Baths
Between 2000 and 2015 Trier’s older bathing complex from the 2nd century was closed off for conservation.
At the reopened archaeological site there are metal stairways and footbridges lifting you over excavated pools and through archways.
Slowly you realise the size of these ruins: In their day the baths covered four hectares making them the largest in the Roman World after the Trajan Baths in Rome.
The site was a quarry for hundreds of years, so none of the walls are above a few metres, but there are nine information boards showing reconstructions of the baths and their luxurious furnishings 1,900 years ago.
14. Karl Marx House
West of the centre of Trier is the house where Karl Marx, the epoch-changing economist and philosopher was born in 1818. The building has 16th-century origins and was extended and remodelled in the 1720s when a member of the Electorate’s chamber council lived here.
As soon as the significance of the house was realised in 1904 it was bought by the SPD (Social Democrat Party). A bumpy few decades followed and the museum reopened in 1947. Drawing on artefacts like a first edition of Das Kapital, the museum’s permanent exhibition considers the life, work and influence of a figure whose impact on the modern world is immeasurable.
When this article was written the Karl Marx House was closed until May 2018 for renovations.
Visible for miles at a height of 300 metres on the left bank of the Moselle is a Marian column placed here in the 1860s.
The monument towers above the woodland at the top sandstone cliffs and was funded by donations from Trier’s Catholic congregation.
The combined height of the Neo-Gothic pedestal and its statue is 40 metres.
The sculptor of the statue of Mary at the top, Gottfried Renn used some sandstone blocks from Trier’s Roman wall, perhaps in recognition of the city’s Roman Catholic tradition dating back to the 400s.
You can catch a bus to just 20 metres below the column, and on the platform you can soak up an all-encompassing view of the Moselle and Trier.