Summary: Depending on your interest in history, you will spend two hours or two days here.
Aachen is a premier special-interest destination in Germany. I say “special-interest” because the city has much to offer, but only to those interested in history or dedicated to exploring Aachen’s cultural scene. The typical visit to Aachen is that of a day trip from Cologne or Düsseldorf, whereby you visit the cathedral, the one old street (old-town is a bit too generous), have lunch, and then leave. A dedicated trip to see everything might additionally include:
- The cathedral museum
- The Couven museum
- A walk through the Burtscheid district
- Even a day trip to the Kornelimünster Monastery
- A craft beer tasting session at a Morrocan cafe
- and etc…
Between a short, cursory glance at the cathedral and a one or two-day-long deep-dive of the city, I’m not sure much else can exist.
Regardless of your level of dedication to visiting every rock that Charlemagne touched, Aachen is worth your time. It’s just a matter of how much time you want to spend here, and this article will hopefully help answer this question.
Should you Visit Aachen?
Aachen has the trappings of being one of Germany’s top tourist destinations. On paper, at least, it has a high-speed rail connection between Cologne and Brussels. The city hosts one of Europe’s most spectacular architectural monuments, Charlemagne’s Cathedral. It has a world-class research university attracting students from all over the world. This connectivity means that infrastructure for tourists, from transport to accommodation and dining, is all taken care of.
The main drawbacks are that, while the city is quite large, the portion worth seeing is tiny. As a result, it tends to become quickly overwhelmed with tourists in the summer. It may not be an ideal destination at peak times, but it is hardly the worst option either. Aachen scores top marks in this category, at 8/10.
Aachen’s scores are pretty low regarding the historic preservation of its city center. While not as devastated as Cologne or Dresden by the war, it was also not rebuilt like Dresden was. Most of the inner city beyond the tourist pedestrian zone is not worth visiting. The few fully immersive streets lose out in peak tourist season, so Aachen scores low at a 4/10.
There is a nice-ish district full of historicist homes from the late 19th century with even a bit of Art Nouveau thrown in. However, for this, Belgium is a much better destination and is only a few hours away by high-speed rail.
Aachen is a very charming city and is one of the cities in Germany that I would personally consider living in. The forests of the Eifel surround the town, and the Netherlands and Belgium are just a short train ride away. The city has its own identity in terms of food, mainly sweets, but also in its connections beyond the borders of Germany.
The student life is charming and ensures a steady supply of craft beer and good food. That, combined with many museums and a world-class heritage site, means something is always happening.
The city loses out mainly based on its size. It’s difficult to feel at home since the tourist district is pure concentrated tourism. Unless you go out of your way to discover the city, you will come, see the cathedral and leave within about 2-3 hours. On that basis, I give Aachen a 6/10 in this category.
Aachen is a very interactive city. There are many things to see and experience, though mainly oriented towards museums and history. If you are more interested in cultural experiences, the options are more limited but still there. Everything for tourists is well run and organized. You will be able to find opening hours for everything online. You will probably need a reservation for popular restaurants even in the off-season.
I give Aachen top marks in this category, subtracting only a few because the options are concentrated in a narrow field of interest and in a single part of town. The city may be highly interactive, but the people interested in interacting with what Aachen offers may not correspond with a general audience. I give it 8/10 in this category.
The Conclusion: Yes, you should visit Aachen, but note, you will either spend two hours or two days here, depending on how interested you are in history.
Travelling Around Aachen
Aachen is an accessible city to walk around, so there will be little need to drive or take public transport. However, walking may not be an exciting proposition as there will be little to see between destinations. To help you plan your trip, let’s have a look at what there is to see in Aachen.
Outer Areas of Old-Town
The core of any trip to Aachen is very concentrated in the city center (see below). For any extended trip to see old buildings, several areas have varying levels of preservation. I try to focus on streets where at least half of the buildings have been preserved, but you will find pretty corners spread throughout the city. The best-preserved area is the Frankenberg district. Built around the old Frankenberg Castle, it has numerous streets filled with high-quality Historicist and, occasionally, Art Nouveau buildings.
The other main Historicist street is Wilhelmstraße, where you find the extravagant Suermondt-Ludwig Museum, a fully preserved palace from the Belle Epoch. The street itself is pretty mixed. At best, 40% of the facades are somewhat intact, but it’s better than the rest of the city.
Perhaps of more interest to those not interested in historicist architecture, we have the Burtscheid District and a massive Baroque Monastery complex. The monastery itself was destroyed in the war and not rebuilt. There are several exciting facades of nearby buildings. Still, the most interesting things to see are the churches of St. Michael and St. John the Baptist, which have been restored to a condition approximating their original state.
The Core Day Trip
The standard day trip to Aachen consists of the following items:
- Visiting the Cathedral
- Visiting the Cathedral Museum
- Walking around the Cathedral, maybe Annastraße and Pontstraße as well.
- (Optional: City Hall Museum)
- (Optional: Couven Museum)
Overall, leaving the optional items out is an easy afternoon day trip of about two hours. Though, if you only intend to spend two hours here, I would probably recommend skipping Aachen entirely. If you want beautiful cityscapes, then Belgium offers that and more. If you’re going to see shiny gold artifacts, then any major Capital-City history museum will offer more. To appreciate Aachen on a short time budget, I would recommend having an interest in history, otherwise the trip won’t seem worth it.
That being said, even I was bored after my first three hours in the city. I had to come back later with a better plan on what to see and experience. Read my more in-depth guide to Aachen here: