Summary: Today, Aachen is known chiefly 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 interested in history or dedicated to exploring Aachen’s cultural scene. The typical visit to Aachen is 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.
The story of Aachen is one of renewal, destroyed twice, and both times born anew. If you are interested in exploring Aachen in-depth, this article will take you through the visual history of the city and provide context for what you are looking at.
If you are still unsure if Aachen is worth visiting, you can see my opinion in the article:
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 be challenging as there will be little to see between destinations. To help you plan your trip, let’s look at what there is to see in Aachen.
Areas of Old-Town
The core of any trip to Aachen is concentrated in the city center. For any extended trip to see old buildings, several areas have varying levels of preservation. I 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.
The other main Historicist street is Wilhelmstraße, where you find the extravagant Suermondt-Ludwig Museum, a fully preserved palace from the Belle Epoch. The road 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)
Leave the optional items out and have a leisurely afternoon day trip of about two hours. I recommend skipping Aachen entirely if you only intend to spend two hours here. 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 with a short time budget, I 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 return later with a better plan for what to see and experience. So you won’t make the same mistake, the rest of this guide will help guide you to a more exciting stay in Aachen.
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. Its 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 easier. We start at the heart of the city, at the Cathedral, once the heart of an Empire. From there, we can discover what remains of Medieval Aachen and later centuries leading up to the industrial revolution. Finally, we look at the age of German unity and Aachen’s role 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 Romans began the 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.
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 that survives. In Hof Street, there are a series of reconstructed arcades hinting at the location of a cult site from late antiquity. Several bronze statues in the Cathedral are likely from the period, though not necessarily from Aachen.
The first mention of Aachen in the following centuries occurs in the 8th century. Around 789, Charlemagne ordered the construction of the 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 different purposes, as a series of long-defunct underground passages converged 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 chapel refers specifically to the entrance hallway and the vaulted octagon—the side chapels and choir date to later periods.
As you enter, the splendor of the buildings should be something approximating the same view 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 preserves the same general aesthetic. Remarkable is how well-preserved the interior of the octagon is. Most columns are from antiquity, salvaged from across the Carolingian 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 genuinely one of the most immersive experiences of the Carolingian period.
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 at where the stone changes in color. Around 1200, the rounded dome was replaced with eight triangular gables accentuating the octagon’s shape during the middle-Romanesque period. The frieze of round arches, typical on early Romanesque buildings, was also replaced with late Romanesque patterns of pointed arches—the remainder of the roof dates to the Baroque period.
Very little else of the Carolingian period survives to the present day. This is largely attributable to the most significant 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 the city became a major political center again. 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. As a result, a vast treasure accumulated in the Cathedral, which can be visited today in the museum. One of the most spectacular examples is Charlemagne’s giant golden bust, 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 heritage from this period is the connection to the Maas Valley. The cities of Liege, Maastricht, and Huy would benefit the most from their proximity to the Imperial Capital. Along this river arose one of Europe’s most important centers of Romanesque craftsmanship. 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, Emperor Frederick I Barbarossa was crowned. As part of his image program for the Empire, in 1165, he had Charlemagne beatified, and Aachen declared a 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). Notable here are the statues of the electors, the earliest known examples (well, these are reproductions, the originals were stolen during the war and lost).
Around 1270, Richard of Cornwall began 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 Carolingian 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 accumulating 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. The “Heiligtumsfahrt” 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, especially the Choir, to address the new influx of pilgrims. Most of the Gothic exterior of the Church dates to this period.
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 Frankfurt. In 1556, Emperor Charles 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 the Netherlands, Aachen would become an irrelevant border post.
The religious conflict would see Aachen expel its protestant minority by 1611 and enforce Catholic supremacy. The Wars of Religion severely limited the city’s economic potential and worsened the financial situation. The Thirty Years War would see the town serve as barracks for Imperial troops on campaign. Forced to pay for the troop’s upkeep, the city was bankrupt by 1656, when disaster struck. 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 were 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 who developed a health theory that incorporated 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 they drew financed the city’s reconstruction. 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 saying:
„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) began 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 legacy in Liege, Maastricht, and elsewhere are important, let’s focus on his surviving accomplishments in Aachen.
- 1731/1732 Renovation of the Rathaus Interior: Surviving today are the splendid interiors of the Aachen city hall. Several rooms are works of 19th-century historicism, but the Baroque chambers give off definite vibes of his style. Compare these rooms to the ones in the Luxembourg 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 city’s most iconic symbols.
- 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 the Coven were subsequently abandoned. In 1755, construction 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 be 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 by 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 this district can still be seen, with its high-quality, late historicist architecture.
On a sadder note, the proximity to Belgium ensured that Art Nouveau would find prominence in the cityscape of Aachen. Unfortunately, virtually none of these buildings survived the war.
Aachen is a city with an ancient history but a mostly modern cityscape. To dig deep into Aachen’s past, you have to look at the few surviving buildings. As a result, Aachen may not be the ideal destination for someone looking for a more relaxing, ambiance-infused trip in Europe. I would recommend a nearby city like Maastricht, Namur, or even Liege. For those interested in the city’s unique architecture, you can spend quite a bit of time here.
Von Aliesin –  et , CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1697682