Travel Guide to Aachen

Summary: Today Aachen is known mostly for the Cathedral of Charlemagne, but it was once better known for its resplendent baths and Baroque cityscape.


Aachen is a premier special interest destination in Germany. I say special interest because the city has much to offer, but only to those really interested in history or dedicated in 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, visit the old-street (old-town is a bit too generous) have lunch and then leave. A dedicated trip to see everything might also include the cathedral museum, a walk through the Burtscheid district or a hunt for traces of its prewar splendor. The story of Aachen is one of renewal, destroyed twice, and both times born anew.
Justin Bunch | CityscapeTravel

If you are still unsure if Aachen is worth visiting, you can see my opinion in the article:

Travelling Around Aachen

Aachen is an easy city to walk around, so there will be little need to drive or take public transport. However, walking may not be a very interesting 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.

Areas of Old-Town

The core of any trip to Aachen is very concentrated in the city center. For any extended trip to see old buildings, there are a number of areas with varying levels of preservation. I try to keep the focus on streets where at least half of the buildings have been preserved, but you will find pretty corners spread out all over 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.

Justin Bunch | CityscapeTravel The quality of the preserved historicist districts is actually pretty good, but they are very small.

The other main Historicist street is Wilhelmstraße, here you find the extravagant Suermondt-Ludwig Museum dedicated, a fully preserved palace from the Belle Epoch. The street itself is fairly mixed, at best 40% of the facades are somewhat intact, but its better than the rest of the City.

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Perhaps of more interest to those not taken by the late 19th Century, 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 interesting facades of nearby buildings, but 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)
  • Lunch
  • Departure

Overall, leaving the optional items out, this 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 want to see shiny gold artifacts, then any major Capital-City history museum will offer more. To really 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. Hopefully the rest of this guide will help guide you to a more interesting stay in Aachen.

Justin Bunch | CityscapeTravel

Aachen in Depth

The story of Aachen is one of transformation. Once the center of a global empire, it was among the most symbolic cities for over 400 years. Then in an instant it fell into obscurity and irrelevance. It’s rebirth as one of Europe’s leading resort destinations and later a leading center for research, is a compelling story of reinvention and revival. Of course, this is also a story told in stone, as we shall see.

This section is ordered chronologically rather than by location on a map. This makes drawing connections between the locations a bit easier. We start at the heart of the city, at the Cathedral, once the heart of an Empire. From there we see what we can discover what remains of Medieval Aachen and later centuries leading up the industrial revolution. Finally, we take a look at the age of German unity and the role that Aachen played in a new German Empire.

At The Heart of a New Empire

While there is evidence of a permanent settlement in Aachen since at least the stone age, recorded history starts with the Romans. The Roman’s began construction of a planned settlement at the beginning of the 1st Century ce. It may have been called Aquae Granni, in devotion to the Gallo-Roman God Grannus, but this name would continue in use throughout the Middle Ages.

Justin Bunch | CityscapeTravel The Roman arcades are a reconstruction, but mark the location of an early Christian cult site from the 4th century

The Romans left sometime in the 5th century, but the settlement continued to be inhabited. Of the Roman period in Aachen there is nothing substantial which survives. In the Hof street there are a series of reconstructed arcades hinting at the location of a cult-site from late antiquity. In the Cathedral there are several bronze statues also likely from the period, though not necessarily from Aachen.

Justin Bunch | CityscapeTravel The Granus tower is part of the town hall today

The first mention of Aachen in the following centuries occurs in the 8th century. Around 789, Charlemagne ordered the construction of royal palace in Aachen following late Roman and Byzantine examples. Of this building, the oldest surviving component is the Granus Tower, which likely served as a central staircase, connecting the ancient Roman wall with the palace complex. It may have served further purposes, as a series of long-defunct underground passages also converge at its location. Today the tower has been integrated into the town hall.

The other major construction from the Carolingian period is the Palatine Chapel, which was started around 804 ce. This specifically refers to the entrance hallway and the vaulted octagon. The side chapels and choir date to later periods.

Wikipedia A reconstruction of the Carolingian Palace, at the top is the Palatine Chapel, at the bottom is the palace itself, with the tower that is still visible in parts today.

As you enter, the splendor of the buildings should be something approximating the same view that you would have experienced over 1000 years ago. The mosaic was renewed in the 19th century, and in the case of the dome, it was entirely reinvented. The renovation nevertheless preservers the same general aesthetic. Remarkable is how well preserved the interior of the octagon is. Most of the columns are from antiquity, salvaged from across the empire for use here. The iron balustrade is almost entirely original, as is the Romanesque chandelier. In the upper gallery, you can see the throne of Charlemagne, roughly where we think it was. If you can get past the tourists, the cathedral is truly one of the most immersive experiences of the Carolingian period.

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From the exterior, it is much harder to make out the original Carolingian portions of the church. From the South and North sides we can determine the height of the original facade by looking to where the stone changes in color. During the middle-Romanesque period around 1200, the rounded dome was replaced with eight triangular gables accentuating the octagon’s shape. The frieze of round arches, common on early Romanesque buildings was also replaced with late Romanesque patterns of pointed arches. The remainder of the roof dates to the Baroque period.

Justin Bunch | CityscapeTravel The original Carolingian structure is visible below the Staufen-Romanesque arcades

Very little else of the Carolingian period survives to the present day. This is largely attributable to largest Viking incursion to reach the city in 881, which saw the city and the palace reduced to ash. It would not be until 50 years later that would see the city again become a major political center. In 939, Otto the Great revived the tradition of crowing the Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire in Aachen. This tradition would survive for the next 800 years.

A result of this status would be the accumulation of treasures associated with the coronation ceremonies. A vast treasure was accumulated by the cathedral, which can be visited today in the museum. One of the most spectacular examples of which is the giant golden bust of Charlemagne, which was carried on processions through the city. It is perhaps the single most famous work of Gothic gold craftsmanship, and one of the greatest treasures from that period.

In terms of the overall cityscape of Aachen, the most visible trace from this period is the connection to the Maas Valley. It would be the cities of Liege, Maastricht and Huy that would benefit the most from their proximity to the Imperial Capital. Along this river arose one of the most important centers of Romanesque craftsmanship in Europe. Capitals bearing the influence of the Maas Valley can be seen as far away as Eisenach and along the Rhine. While the region would fade in relevance during later centuries, Aachen would remain more strongly connected to the lowlands than the Rhineland.

The Free and Imperial City of Aachen

In 1152 ce, a new age would begin for the Holy Roman Empire. In Aachen the Emperor Frederick I Barbarossa would be crowned. As part of his image program for the Empire, in 1165 he had Charlemagne beatified and Aachen declared Free and Imperial City. From this point onward the character of Aachen would be set by its proud citizens, members of an emerging middle class.

In 1250 came the end of the Staufen Dynasty and the Empire entered a period of increasing fragmentation that would last until the wars of Religion. One of the more bizarre events was the brief election of the King of England, Richard I of Cornwall to the imperial throne. To celebrate his coronation in Aachen, he had the Grashaus constructed. Today it is one of several ancient late-Romanesque houses in west Germany to have survived (c.f. Dreikönigenhaus in Trier and Overstolzenhaus in Cologne). Special here are the statues of the electors, the earliest known examples (well, these are reproductions, the originals were stolen during the war and lost).

Justin Bunch | CityscapeTravel The Grashaus on the right is one of the best preserved civic buildings from the High Middle Ages in Germany.
Justin Bunch | CityscapeTravel The Marschier Gate is one of two preserved gatehouses of the High Medieval City Wall.

Around 1270, Richard of Cornwall would begin a massive expansion of the city, building a new city wall, some of whose gates are still visible today. The wall circumference would see Aachen become one of the largest cities in the Empire. When the wall was completed in the mid-14th century, the city housed a population of over 20,000, a number not achieved again until the 19th century.

The early strength of urban civic culture in the lowland Netherlands would see increased cultural exports by the high and late middle ages. Especially by the late Middle Ages, the citizens of the Free City looked to the great cities of Flanders and Brabant as a guide for their own development and symbols. This is best seen in 1330 with the construction of the New Rathaus, or town hall. The Imperial Palace of Charlemagne had likely been a dilapidated ruin since the Viking invasion over 400 years previously, and its ruins were taken over for the new town hall. Though elements were preserved, to establish continuity with the Empire, the style of the building is distinctly Brabantine (e.g. the Town halls in Brussels and Leuven). The symbols of a new independent Aachen further separated itself from the Carolingian past.

Aachen continued to accumulated relics, as gifts from the Emperor and other sources related to the Coronations. By 1350, the city established a tradition of “unboxing” the sacred relics in a big festival once every seven years. Called the “Heiligtumsfahrt” it continues to this day, with the next one in 2023. Aachen quickly emerged as one of the most popular pilgrimage destinations in Europe. By 1355 the existing Palatine chapel was woefully inadequate to handle the explosion of pilgrim volumes. The decision was taken to expand the Cathedral, and especially the Choir to handle new influx of pilgrims. Most of the Gothic exterior of the Church dates to this period.

Justin Bunch | CityscapeTravel The Chapel of Charlemagne is almost entirely obscured by the Gothic chapels surrouding it.

Decline and Fall

With the Protestant Reformation began several centuries of turbulence in the Empire, that would see Aachen enter a period of extended decline. In 1531 Aachen would cease to be the city of imperial coronations, with the symbolic event moving to the city of Frankfurt. In 1556, Emperor Charles the V abdicated the throne triggering the split of Habsburg holdings that would see most of the lowlands leave the Empire. Without the states in modern-day Belgium and Netherlands, Aachen would become nothing more than an irrelevant border post.

Religious conflict would see Aachen expel its protestant minority by 1611 and enforce Catholic supremacy. This severely limited the economic potential of the city and only worsened the economic situation. The Thirty-Years War would see the city serve as barracks for Imperial troops on campaign. Forced to pay for the troop’s upkeep, the city was effectively bankrupt by 1656, when disaster struck. In this year the city largely burned to the ground, the result of an accident at a local bakery. While the church, and its great medieval treasures was largely spared, not much else was. The following centuries would be focused on the reconstruction in a new style, the Baroque.

From Imperial City to Spa Resort

This reconstruction would reinforce Aachen’s cultural connections to the Maas Valley and transform the city into a European resort town. Two great men would lead the transformation. François Blondel was a French-speaking doctor from Liege that developed a theory of health that incorporated both drinking and bathing in the waters of natural hot springs. For the first time since ancient Rome, Aachen would again become a popular destination for its hot springs.

The baths and the tourists that it drew, largely financed the reconstruction of the city. With Blondel working in Aachen after 1666, the city was transformed into Europe’s most fashionable and modern resort town. The radical turnaround led to the common sayin:

„Was das Feuer zerstört hat, baut das Wasser wieder auf.“ 

“What was destroyed by fire, is rebuilt by water”

Starting around 1730, the architect Johann Joseph Couven (visit the Couven museum for more) would start his work in transforming the city into a baroque gem. So influential was his work that we can speak of a distinct „Couven Style“ or „Aachen-Liege-Baroque“. This style is characterized by the almost exclusive reliance on the Regency or Louis-XV Style for inspiration. From the beginning to the end, both the influence of the classical French Baroque, popular in Wallonia, and the early Rococo, popular in France, can be seen. While his work and influence in Liege, Maastricht and elsewhere are important, let’s focus on his surviving accomplishments in Aachen.

  • 1731/1732 Rennovation of the Rathaus Interior: Surviving today are the splendid interiors of the Aachen city hall. Several rooms are certainly works of 19th century historicism, but the Baroque chambers give off definite vibes of his style. Compare these rooms to the ones in the Ansembourg Museum in Liege, the Couven Museum in Aachen and the Kornelimünster Monastery.
  • 1735 the Karl’s Fountain: Made from the blue granite that characterizes Maas Valley architecture, it is one of the most iconic symbols of the city.
  • 1739 St. Theresa Church: The interior was “spared” destruction in the war by throwing it into the moat, but was so damaged by exposure to the weather that it could not be salvaged. Instead the damaged inventory was used to create exact replicas which can now be seen inside the church.
  • 1747/1748 the churches of St. Johann and St. Michael in Burtscheid: Both buildings were annihilated in the war, and reconstructed only approximating their original appearance. Both are still worth visiting if you have the time. The high altar in St. Johann is an interesting new creation, but in the style of the Aachen-Liege Baroque.
  • 1747 St. Anna’s Church: Of the buildings on this list, the outward appearance comes across as the most obviously Rococo influenced. Nothing of the interior survived the war.
  • 1747 The Hungarian Chapel in the Cathedral: Construction started in 1747, but ended due to the lack of proper building materials. The plans of Couven were subsequently abandoned. In 1755, constructed started again, under different plans, though elements of the original Couven design, especially for the interior, were integrated into the new ones.
  • Couven Museum: The museum now dedicated primarily to Johann Couven was actually designed by his son, Jakob Couven, and built around 1786 in the high Rococo style. The museum highlights the interior design of the period and is one of the best museums of its type in Germany.

At The Edge of a New Empire

With the end of the old Empire in 1804, Aachen would find itself being traded among the great Empires of the day. In 1797 Aachen would become part of Revolutionary France. Under Napoleon, both he and his wife would visit, followed many other French officers and officials. Under French rule, the monasteries, guilds and other Imperial institutions were dissolved, their treasures stolen and taken to the Louvre and the city walls were dismantled. It was the definitive end to Aachen’s civic privileges.

In 1815, following the defeat of Napoleon, Prussia found itself in control of Aachen. Many of the treasures stolen by the French were returned, and the King sought to reinvigorate the lost imperial traditions of the city. In 1822, in the high classicism of Berlin, King Friedrich Wilhelm III of Prussia ordered the construction of the Theater and Elisenbrunnen. Aachen would remain one of Europe’s premier resort destinations.

With the industrial revolution came the railroad and urbanization. New districts were planned and laid out. Burtscheid, originally its own village outside the city walls, was integrated into Aachen proper. Likewise, the Frankenberg castle became the center of a new city park, surrounded by the houses of the city’s new middle class. Quite a bit of these districts can still be seen, with their high quality late historicist architecture.

On a sadder note, the proximity to Belgium ensured that the Art Nouveau would find prominence in the cityscape of Aachen. Unfortunately virtually none of these building survived the war.

Conclusion

Aachen is a city with an ancient history but a mostly modern cityscape. To dig deep into Aachen’s past, you have to look in-depth at the few buildings which survive. As a result, Aachen may not be the ideal destination for someone looking for a more relaxing, ambiance infused trip in Europe. For that I would recommend a nearby city like Maastrict or Namur, or even Liege. For those interested in the unique architecture that the city offers, you can spend quite a bit of time here.

Image Credits

Von Aliesin – [1] et [2], CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1697682

Return to the Mosan Valley

Mosan Valley

The Mosan Valley enjoyed centuries of peace under the powerful Archbishops of Liege and was later the industrial heartland of Belgium

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