Travel Guide to Trier

Summary: The only German city with tangible continuity from the present all the way back to the Roman Empire.


Justin Bunch | CityscapeTravel

The ancient city of Trier is one of the top tourist destinations in Germany. Full of Roman ruins, rich museum collections, resplendent churches and an atmospheric cityscape. It would be easy just list off the top destinations in alphabetical order, as you might find in a standard guide. Instead let’s dig into the city’s past and see if we can uncover a narrative that provides some context for what we are looking at in Trier.

The story of Trier is one of contrasts: of decline and splendor of stagnation and innovation. This is a city with highly concentrated “cultural corners”, and it helps to know where they are. The city itself was targeted both by allied bombing raids and ground combat in WWII. Though the city was not devastated to extent that Cologne or Dresden faced, the losses are substantial and reduce the interesting parts of the town. It also resulted in disjointed parts of old-town, separated by nothing or by modern office blocks. I hope that this guide will keep you on the right track and show you some corners of Trier that you might have otherwise missed.

Justin Bunch | CityscapeTravel

If you want a shorter overview of Trier as a general tourist destination, see this article here:

Justin Bunch | CityscapeTravel

Should You Visit Trier?

The ancient city of Trier deserves its high marks as one of the premier tourist destinations in Germany. Full of things to see and do, the city offer a complete package for visitors. Don’t forget the beautiful region outside the city to explore.


How to See Trier

Trier is a very small town, even by European standards you might even consider it a village. The flavor of life in Trier is colored by its status as a suburb of Luxembourg City. Many of its residents actually spend most of their daily lives in Luxembourg and return to Trier only for its lower cost of living. The area immediately around Trier is highly industrial, with logistics yards and component assembly plants, mostly serving the flow of goods in and out of Germany.

Justin Bunch | CityscapeTravel The view over Trier from the Porta Nigra is one of the best, but you have to get there early or late, or on a cloudy day or you will be looking into the sun.

The tourist part of Trier is even smaller, focused on a right rectangle near the main train station. In addition, there are three other disjoint areas of old-town. The “Zurlaubener Ufer” is the only river-side part of Trier worth mentioning. The nice part is the small bit on the north-side of the bridge, remnants of a planned 18th century dockyard village outside the walls. You will find some of the best restaurants here. To the North-East is the district around St. Paulinus. Notable for its well-preserved historicist avenues. To the south is Saarstraße street, ending at the monumental Monastery complex of St. Matthias.

Justin Bunch | CityscapeTravel

Its worth mentioning that there are several major tourist attractions located in otherwise uninteresting neighborhoods. The Roman Bridge and the Amphitheater in particular, are located in areas that were hit badly in WWII or by post-war urban planning. I would recommend driving to these locations, there is nothing interesting around them. The same is also true of the Barbara Baths, Forum Baths and the view points over the city. Additionally, while Saarstraße has some nice 19th century buildings, its not worth walking the entire distance. To reach St. Matthias, I would recommend travelling by bus or to the Trier-South station.


For more detailed travel information and opening hours check out this post here:

Justin Bunch | CityscapeTravel

Trier Opening Hours

Trier is a highly interactive city with many things to do and see. Below is an outline of when things are open and where they are located. This should help plan your visit and make sure that you get to see everything you want to.

The Story of Trier

Justin Bunch | CityscapeTravel An unintentional but appropriate juxtaposition of absolute power: The basilica of the Roman Emperor and the Palace of the Electors.

The story of Trier is one of decay interspersed with bursts innovation that ultimately fail to arrest its decline. After reaching its apogee in the 4th Century under Constantine, it would fall into a period of increasing irrelevance that has continued with only minor interruption until the present day. Its status as a major Roman city meant that it would never be abandoned, but the city’s location in shallow valley made it all but indefensible. It would be a largely symbolic city. As one of the oldest in the Holy Roman Empire, and as a pilgrimage site, it was adorned with a crown of monasteries and cathedrals. However, Trier would never again be at the center of the world’s stage.

Justin Bunch | CityscapeTravel Trier as it is today, with the important destinations highlighted. As an ancient city most of these places have Roman foundations.

Capital of an Empire

Wikipedia The Porta Nigra or Black Gate, one of the best preserved structures from late antiquity in Northern Europe. The round extension to the gate on the left side is actually a choir of a late Romanesque church.

What to see in this section (in order of preference):

We start at the height of Trier’s power and splendor in 4th century. The city has origins in older Celtic settlements but was likely nothing more than a provincial town until the 3rd century ce. In 293 Trier was declared to be the regional capital of Belgica prima. The location offered strategic depth, located further from the border than large cities of Mainz or Cologne. Control of the Mosel was also critical for supplying the Rhineland garrisons. With this new administrative role, Trier would quickly fill its city walls.

It was during the period that followed that most of Trier’s great Roman monuments were constructed. An important year was 314ce, the year Trier became the seat of a Bishop. Even as the rest of the Empire crumbled, the institutions of the Catholic church would survive. The Bishops of Trier would remain the only connection to antiquity. Over the centuries, they slowly accrued power before taking over complete authority. By the beginning of the Middle Ages, Trier would be a de facto independent state under the sovereignty of the church. The city itself would survive the Barbarian onslaught to some extent, but over time the great Roman monuments would be abandoned and broken up.

The history of Roman Trier is already documented extensively elsewhere so I will will highlight the most interesting artifacts of this period.

You can sort of draw parallels between the city of antiquity and today

City of Ruins

The icon of the city is the “Black Gate” or Porta Nigra. Originally part of the Roman city wall, it was turned into a church in the early Medieval period, thus preserving it. Of the Roman landmarks this is the only one to maintain an extremely high level of preservation. Still evident however, are the additions from later centuries. During the 13th century, the church was remodeled, and a new choir constructed on the east side of the gate. Based on models in the Rhineland, it offers some of the best preserved Staufen-Romanesque stone work in Trier. In the interior, you can see the remnants of the Rococo decoration that had adorned the building until Napoleon freed the building from its ecclesiastical covering.

Justin Bunch | CityscapeTravel The structure of the ancient roman building is still evident, but other inhabitants have also left their mark over the centuries.

Now in my opinion the best thing to see after the Black Gate are the museum collections in the Cathedral Museum and state Landesmuseum. The Cathedral museum has the only surviving fresco cycle from the Roman period anywhere in Europe, painstakingly reconstructed from excavated fragments. The Landesmuseum has one of the largest collection of Roman artifacts in Northern Europe. Both are worth visiting, and in my option are more interesting than the remaining ruins.

Two surviving ruins worth prioritizing are the Kaiserthermen, or the Imperial Baths and the Amphitheater. The Imperial bath complex is in a fairly good state of preservation, at least relative to what you normally see. The tunnels underneath the ruins are perhaps the most exciting to explore. The Amphitheater is basically just an excavated foundation, but the shape of the hillside allows for your imagination to fill in the details. The remaining ruins are just excavated foundations, and these are hyped up more than I think they ought to be.

Justin Bunch | CityscapeTravel Trier offers the only preserved ceiling fresco from Antiquity, painstakingly pieced back together in an incredible feat of engineering and archaeology.

As Trier went into decline following the collapse of the Western Roman Empire, the city retreated into a shrinking set of ad hoc walls, while the city filled with refugees. The Imperial palace was converted into public housing and the great baths filled in to make space for people to live, or simply abandoned. By the 9th century, the Norsemen sacked the city, likely burning any surviving Roman infrastructure. The story of Trier now turns to the bishops who had the wealth to rebuild the city.

A Medieval Renaissance

Justin Bunch | CityscapeTravel The Cathedral of Trier is one of the most stylistically diverse buildings in Europe. It draws on architectural traditions from nearly every major period in history. In the facade you can see the influence of the Ottonian Emperors (the arcades and round towers) and Salian Emperors (the square towers and apse) and their reverence for Roman and Carolingian symbolism.

What to see in this section (in order of preference):

Justin Bunch | CityscapeTravel There are a lot of churches, I know. The problem is actually quite serious since our interpretations of the past are inherently biased by what has survived. In this case, it was usually only the churches that were rebuilt when the city was destroyed. Indeed, often not even all of the churches were rebuilt.

Early Middle Ages

Though it would never reach the same apogee, Trier would undergo a new golden age in the High Middle Ages. With the death of the last Carolingian Monarch in 911ce, the king of East Francia would be elected by the strongest princes and the great archbishops including Trier. East Francia would evolve into the Holy Roman Empire, but Trier would retain its voting rights, giving the city substantial prestige and power.

Justin Bunch | CityscapeTravel The Frankenturm shows the enduring legacy of Rome to those who lived among its ruins.

The medieval resurgence would begin with earnest 300 years later in the 12th and 13th centuries. A growing population, renewed trade networks and increased political authority had begun to result in renewed wealth. For the first time in a thousand years, great works of stone began to rise above the city walls. The oldest surviving of which is the “Frankenturm” or the Frank Tower. Built in the 12th century largely from materials scavenged from Roman ruins, it looks distinctly roman. The Romanesque windows and up-side-down Latin inscriptions betray its medieval heritage.

Justin Bunch | CityscapeTravel From the balconies, relics would be shown to crowds of pilgrims.

The most obvious sign of the renewal is the cathedral. The Roman church had been a much larger rectangular building, but had been demolished in stages as the building could not be repaired. However, as the only surviving Roman church in the German kingdom, it held great significance. Already by the 10th century work had been undertaken to keep it from total ruin. By this point only the central aisle and parts of the choir had been preserved, and the Ottonian and later Salian monarchs restored the the traditional basilica layout. Of their efforts, the most visible is the facade facing the square. The flat facade is adorned with flanking towers and tiered arcades evoking the symbols of the Imperial Romanesque style seen in Aachen, Speyer and Cologne. It was to be understood that the Empire had returned.

The greatest single surviving monument of the Romanesque in Trier is the spectacular abbey church of St. Matthias . With its origins in late Antiquity, the Monastery, along with the Cathedral, represent the oldest institutions in Trier. It’s original purpose was to house the remains of the first two Bishops of Trier in the 5th century. The church sat quietly for 600 years, when in 1127, during construction, bones were discovered. These appear to have corroborated a legend telling how the remains of the Apostle Mathew were smuggled here. Pilgrims would begin to flood the city to see the remains of the Apostle. A significantly larger church was completed around 1150, representing the high point of Salian-Romanesque architecture.

Justin Bunch | CityscapeTravel Though far from the city center, the church of St. Matthias is an incredible sight.

High Middle Ages

The year 1150 would see the rise of the most powerful Holy Roman Dynasty, the Hohenstaufen. The most famous Emperor was Frederick Barbarossa, and he took a special interest in the symbols of the Roman Empire. All across the Empire, massive state-funded works of monumental architecture began to rise. From churches, to castles, it was the closest the Holy Roman Empire would get to a unified style. In Trier, the Cathedral (and many other churches) would undergo substantial renovation. Already, we see the pointed arch emerging, an innovation that allowed for thinner walls, higher ceilings and new forms of creativity. A new choir was added and parts of the ceiling vaulted, but the technology was not quite advanced enough to vault the wide center aisle.

Trier sat at the very western edge of the Holy Roman Empire, bound to the Emperor by the Mosel and the Rhine. But to the West, by the end of the 13th century France was beginning its rise as a great power. With the Empire in retreat, the Mosel also offered connections to the west, an avenue for new ideas, new technology. This in turn would bring increased political autonomy, and the freedom to pursue new symbols of power. The main building of this transitional period, and a hint of the glories to come, is the “Dreikönigenhaus” or House of the Three Kings. A late 13th century construction of the Staufen-Romanesque. Already we can see the beginnings of the Gothic style, the revolution had reached Germany.

The Gothic Revolution

Justin Bunch | CityscapeTravel The pointed arches of the Church of our Lady show unmistakable French influence from Champagne.

What to see in this section (in order of preference):

Construction on the Liebfrauenkirche started in 1230, about 20 years before the end of the Hohenstaufen dynasty, and the end of what is typically considered the High Middle Ages. While the Liebfrauenkirche is the first monumental construction of the Gothic style in the German Holy Roman Empire, few of the technical concepts were new. External buttresses and pointed arches had been in use throughout the empire for almost half a century.

These other churches though, were fundamentally Romanesque churches utilizing Gothic design features. The Gothic style heralded not just a new style, but a new design paradigm, driven by new theological thought, new political relationships and a new symbology of power.

For one thing, the Gothic style was French. From the very first French Gothic cathedral in St. Denis, it was a symbol of the French monarchy and of Roman Catholicism. Its notable that Notre Dam had been under construction for 60 years when the Liebfrauenkirche was started. This difference in time cannot be simply explained by distance, as the technical precepts of the Gothic were already known. There are a variety of hypothesis, the two most important being 1) the relationship between the Emperor, the Pope and Trier and 2) the personal stylistic tastes of the Archbishop.

Justin Bunch | CityscapeTravel The soaring central plan of the church is completely unique in Germany and rare even in Europe.

To build a cathedral in a French style in a city of immense symbolic importance for the Emperor would have been an affront, an assertion of independence from the Emperor. However, when compared to the Cologne Cathedral, started 20 years later in 1247, the Liebfrauenkirche seems suddenly distinctly un-french. Unlike Cologne, which was based definitively on the late Gothic designs from Champagne, Trier does simply copy a French paradigm. Though heavily influenced by the Cathedral in Reims, it departs dramatically from the traditional French Gothic, it has a central plan, no nave and a single tower.

It is interesting then to consider that perhaps the Archbishop was simply a man with an innovate taste for style. Unwilling to risk the ire of the Emperor, he built a Gothic church in a German style. A style that would spread rapidly across the Empire, especially as the authority of the Emperor weakened after 1250. The best example of this is St Elizabeth in Marburg, build with the same artisans, it shares remarkable similarities.

The connection between Trier and the German Gothic is made more evident with the comparison to the St. Elizabeth Church in Marburg.

The Gothic style would continue to develop and the churches of the Jesuits, St. Gangolf and St. Antonius are representative of later developments in the Gothic style. In particular, the Jesuit church is worth visiting for its vibrant color scheme and subdued, but intricate masonry. In St. Antonius and in St. Matthias we see the final innovation of the German Gothic, the network vaults.

Vaulting technology advanced in different places at different times, but the most sophisticated vaulting systems emerged out of Prague at the end of the 14th century. They found widespread popularity in Germany due to the popularity of the Hall-Church, which required more technically sophisticated vaulting systems than the traditional basilica. The would find their way to Trier and the Mosel Valley in the 15th century, and can be seen on numerous churches in their domain, e.g. St. Antonius and St. Matthias in Trier and St. Wendel in the Saarland.

Provincial Capital

Justin Bunch | CityscapeTravel Perhaps the single greatest work of the Baroque on the Mosel, the Church of St. Paulin is easy to miss since its outside the city center.

What to see in this section (in order of preference):

Justin Bunch | CityscapeTravel

Stagnation

The Reformation would definitively end the brief Golden Age for Trier. Culminating in the Thirty Years War, and ending in 1648, Trier along with most of Germany was in ruin. For the Archbishops, the main lesson of the war was the completely indefensible location of Trier. They would trade the shallow valley of the Mosel for the steep cliffs of the Rhine, and moved the capital to Koblenz in 1641. The capital would remain there, with some interruption, until the end of the Empire in 1804.

Koblenz was the objectively superior location for a capital city, both strategically and economically. The Rhine tolls and its central location granted the Electorate commensurate income. Trier would remain the symbolic and spiritual capital, with the Archbishop travelling periodically to Trier to hold mass in the ancient Cathedral. Thus with the elector uninterested in the city, the reconstruction would proceed slowly. Trier would not be filled with sweeping avenues of palaces, plazas and stately homes like Heidelberg, Würzburg or Mainz. More like the old medieval cities of Speyer and Worms, Trier would struggle to even fill its old medieval walls.

The greatest treasure of the Cathedral are the Seamless Robes of Jesus supposedly worn before he was crucified. According to legend they were given to the city during the time of Emperor Constantine, though evidence suggests they first appeared in the 13th century. In 1515 the Holy Roman Emperor demanded to see the robes on pilgrimage, and afterwards they would become a major pilgrimage destination. Accordingly a new high altar was built in the Baroque style that would allow the crowds of Pilgrims to view the relics. This setup has remained largely unchanged to this day, the pilgrims ascend up to a small viewing platform and descent back down through the golden gate.

After a fire in the roof in 1717, a major renovation was undertaken, and the Cathedral almost completely “baroque-ified”. Though most of the barqoue ornamentation was dismantled in the 19th and 20th centuries, the western choir still retains its opulent stuccowork.

Justin Bunch | CityscapeTravel From this angle, you can see almost every period of architectural history in one building. The brickwork is Roman, the the round towers at the very right are Ottonian-Romanesque, the choir is Staufen- and Salian-Romanesque, the towers are Gothic, the left-most chapel is Baroque.

It was not just the cathedral that underwent renovation in the 17th and 18th centuries. All the churches in Trier were remodeled. Of them though, only St. Gangolf and St. Matthias still retain hints of their Baroque splendor.

False Dawn

The strategic situation of Trier shifted again in the second half of the 18th century. By this point, Trier was a largely irrelevant state in the Holy Roman Empire. The Archbishop’s title was typically one of prestige, held perpetually by a prominent family (c.f. Mainz, where the title rotated among families). With the rise of archaeology and the discovery of Pompeii in 1748, interest began to build up for the classical world of the Romans. It became fashionable among the European elite to imitate the style of the Romans with increasing dedication (eventually developing into Classicism at the turn of the century). With that, came a renewed interest in the city of Trier.

The Aula Palatina, the old Basilica of Constantine, had to this point in 1756 survived to a large extent, though it looked quite different. Awarded to the Archbishops of Trier by Charlemagne, it had served the court as a castle during the Middle Ages. It was fortified with additional wall material, buttresses and the interior filled out into usable divisions. Now it was deconstructed and the structure incorporated into the new Baroque palace. This served part of the late Baroque image program of associating the Prince Elector with the symbolism of antiquity.

Justin Bunch | CityscapeTravel Most of the brickwork on this side of the basilica is a reconstruction from the 19th century. Only the parts up to the top of the first windows are largely ‘original’. The other-side of the church, which once faced the courtyard of the palace, is almost entirely preserved.

The new palace was filled with some of the most spectacular interiors of the late German Baroque and Rococo. The court architect, Johannes Seiz was a student of Balthazar Neumann, who famously built his palaces around the staircase. The sculptures of the stair case and garden are done by Ferdinand Tietz, who worked on numerous projects in the Mosel Valley (Notably at Malberg).

The Baroque palace was effectively reduced to ash in WWII and painstaking efforts have been made to rebuild what you currently see. Incredibly though, the only interiors to have survived the 19th century rennovations, the staircase and vestibule, also miraculously survived the allied bombing campaign. Alas, they are not open to the public.

Justin Bunch | CityscapeTravel The Archbishops would have had little time to enjoy the late Rococo Splendor of their palace before Napoleon overran the city.

The undisputed high point of the Baroqe in Trier is the church of St. Paulinus. Constructed at the same time as the Electoral Palace, it is an incredible work of the Late German Baroque, and one of the masterpieces of Balthazar Neumann. Though it contrasts with his Franconian designs, instead favoring the vertical aspect, much its intricate rococo figures and carvings bring the church to life like no other building in Northern Germany. The ceiling fresco was done by his longtime associate, Christoph Scheffler, and depicts the life of St. Paulin and the martyrdom of the Thebian Legion. St. Paulin is one of the great works of the German Baroque.

After 1780, a revival in economic fortunes led to the reestablishment of the Fishing village on the “Zurlaubener Ufer”. The houses are hidden away from the main old town, but represent a brief moment in time, at the very end of the Holy Roman Empire, and before a return to Classicism in architectural design.

Justin Bunch | CityscapeTravel The Zurlaubener Ufer is easily the most overlooked part of the city, with its idyllic houses and restaurants on the river.

Industrial Resurgence

What to see in this section (in order of preference):

Justin Bunch | CityscapeTravel Trier still has a number of streets with high quality, and well preserved historicist architecture, the language of the industrial revolution.

Napoleon would bring the Holy Roman Empire to an end in 1804 and with it the Electorate of Trier. Already an economic backwater, Trier would suffer disproportionately in the 19th century that followed. Without the pull provided by a capital city or a natural industrial center, it would not see the same population growth as in the Rhineland. Indeed, Trier and the Mosel would loose people to both the cities of the Ruhr and the New World.

That’s not to say Trier stagnated completely. With the unification of Germany came new sources of capital. Factories began to appear on the cityscape. New districts to the North and South of the old-town were planned and laid out. The Prussian authorities arrived and took great interest in the ancient landmarks of the city. In particular the Prussians restored the Porta Nigra and the Aula Palatina to a more “Roman” condition. Most of the Baroque palace was repurposed or demolished.

To the south of the old-town, the Saarstraße, Eberhardstraße and and a few side streets best demonstrate the 19th century expansion of the city. Full of Gründerzeit buildings of high quality, the atmosphere is surprisingly immersive in a city so badly hit in WWII.

Justin Bunch | CityscapeTravel Eberhardstraße in the south new town, with most of the buildings from the 19th century.

The main attraction though of this period is the Karl Marx House. He was born in Trier and spent his childhood here before leaving to study in Bonn. His house is both a museum to the industrial revolution’s prophet of doom and the only fully restored home from the period in Trier. Its worth a visit to get an understanding of how homes of the period were constructed.


Conclusion

Trier is one of the best destinations in Germany. Full of mysterious ruins, resplendent churches and rich museum collections. It has the atmosphere to match destinations of much greater size.

What to Eat in Trier

Return to the Mosel-Valley

Mosel Valley

The Mosel Valley was dominated by the Prince-Archbishops of Trier, but was beset by enemies. This remote region is full of castles and mysterious ruins.

Selected Bibliography

  • Luzie Bratner, and Rheinland-Pfalz. Generaldirektion Kulturelles Erbe Rheinland-Pfalz. 2014. Mit Allen Sinnen : Reisewege Zum Barock in Rheinland-Pfalz. Regensburg:Schnell & Steiner.
  • Jens Baumeister. 2010. Basilika St. Paulin in Trier Ein Barockes Gesamtkunstwerk. Trier Baumeister & Baumeister Medien-Verlag.
  • Franz Ronig, and Rita Heyen. 2009. Trier Cathedral. Trier Paulinus-Verlag.
  • Franz Ronig, and Liebfrauen Kath Pfarramt. 2011. Die Liebfrauenkirche Zu Trier. Trier Paulinus-Verlag.
  • Wirtler, Ulrike. 2015. Schloss Bürresheim Bei Mayen/Eifel. Regensburg: Schnell & Steiner.
  • Kern, Susanne. 2015. Wandmalerei Des 13. Bis 16. Jahrhunderts Am Mittelrhein. Regensburg: Schnell & Steiner.
  • Wirtler, Ulrike. 2015. Schloss Bürresheim Bei Mayen/Eifel. Regensburg: Schnell & Steiner.
  • Dieter Ritzenhofen. 2013. Burg Eltz. Berlin ; München: Dt. Kunstverl.
  • Gunter Seifert. 1999. Die Moselburgen : Zwischen Koblenz Und Trier ; Lage, Geschichte, Baubeschaffenheit, Kurzinformation. Overath: Seifert.
  • Franz Ronig, and Rita Heyen. 2009. Trier Cathedral. Trier Paulinus-Verlag.
  • Franz Ronig, and Liebfrauen Kath Pfarramt. 2011. Die Liebfrauenkirche Zu Trier. Trier Paulinus-Verlag.
  • Theodor Bogler, and Drutmar Cremer. 2015. Abteikirche Maria Laach. Regensburg Schnell & Steiner.

Image Credits

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