Upon a recent visit to the German Rhineland cities of Aachen and Cologne and the surrounding area, we realized there’s a lot to experience and unpack — that is, to comprehend the full picture of what we’d seen and how astonishingly complex history can be.
From Roman beginnings, to medieval ascendency to industrial superiority, Germany’s Rhineland seems to have known it all. It has been influenced by French culture, impacted by the Prussians, and even spiced by a dash of Eastern European industrial migrants. It knows a blend of influences, cultural imprints and scores continually settled and resettled through events like World War I and II. Pull out a map and note that by cause and effect, the region borders Belgium, The Netherlands and Luxembourg — in addition to France — and you begin to get a sense of the near randomness of the borders we draw.
How to come to this understanding? Visit the towns of Aachen and Cologne on a city break or weekend getaway. Take a couple of day trips and immerse yourself in the history, eat heartily and take more than a few photos along the along the way.
Here are a few quick ideas regarding what you’ll see, what to seek out and how to break it all down.
24 Hours in Aachen
The fame and development of the German city of Aachen is due in large part to Charlemagne, crowned Holy Roman Emperor in 800, and his choice to make the city his imperial capital. Just as the Romans had been centuries before, Charlemagne was drawn to the location because of the presence of hot springs. After logging over 50,000km on horseback, Charlemagne chose to give up his nomadic ways, settle down, rule from Aachen — and take a long, hot bath.
Like any good emperor, Charlemagne built a grand palace — one with an octagonal domed chapel that is today part of Aachen Cathedral, the city's most famous site.
Our host, Christina, joked: “Aachen is so small that everything is within 15-minutes walking distance. Don't worry if you get lost.”
Good news for us, as getting lost is permanently on our itinerary. Here's are some of the highlights of Aachen we found while wandering — er, getting lost — in the back streets of Charlemagne's chosen city.
Visiting Aachen: Travel Planning
Some cathedrals — with their fanciful gargoyles, detailed carvings and elaborate flourishes — are best admired for their exterior. For others, it's all about appreciating what's inside.
What makes Aachen Cathedral so special for me, despite the beauty of its imposing Gothic exterior, are the mystical elements within.
Even with all that I'd heard of Aachen Cathedral prior to our visit, I still found myself surprised by the ornate mosaics that sprawled under its dome and a Byzantine design that hinted of the Near East. As we walked the chapel's inner octagonal ring, I was struck by arches that reminded me of sites like the Moorish Great Mosque and Cathedral of Cordoba and Istanbul's Hagia Sophia.
The core of the Aachen Cathedral — the Palatine Chapel — from which the panorama was taken dates back to the end of the 8th century. Although there have been a few renovations over the centuries, the essence of this design has its origins in the era of Emperor Charlemagne, as he commissioned the building of the chapel as an extension of his palace. More than 30 German kings were crowned in this cathedral between the 10th and 16th centuries. The cathedral also served as an important stop along the “Jacob's Way” pilgrimage route that devotees walked from Germany to Santiago de Compostela, Spain in the Middle Ages.
The scale of history through the lens of this cathedral's past: mind-boggling.
So when you visit the Aachen Cathedral, put your camera down for a moment and simply gaze up for a long, long time. Details in the mosaics and arches will emerge the longer you look. Maybe if you close your eyes you'll imagine the stream of people — from kings to pilgrims — who shared that same space in the last 1,200 years. Although the world outside its walls has known great tumult and change, the space itself has remained a constant.
How to visit Aachen Cathedral: It’s free to enter the Dom (Cathedral), but officials request visitors to donate a more than reasonable €1 if they wish to take photos inside. If you'd like to take a tour, you should consider booking in advance with the Cathedral Information Office (Johannes-Paul-II-Str.). On the day of our arrival, Aachen Cathedral tours had already sold out. The ticket for the Cathedral Treasury (Schatzkammer) is €5.
Aachen's Rathaus (City Hall)
The Rathaus is used today for exhibitions instead of the coronation banquets of kings, meaning that it's open to ordinary members of the public like us (with €5 admission). When we visited, it had been hosting Places of Power, one of the three Charlemagne exhibits running in Aachen to mark the 1,200-year anniversary of Charlemagne's death.
Eating and Drinking in Aachen
Himmel un Ääd (Heaven and Earth): A hearty meal of black pudding, fried onions, mashed potatoes (earth), and apples (heaven). Trust us: the taste is better than it sounds. This dish can be found throughout Germany's Rhineland region, but we're told that each area executes it a bit differently. We recommend trying it at Restaurant Elisbrunnen on Friedrich-Wilheim-Platz.
Recommended areas for Aachen bars and restaurants:
- The Hof: A cute, quintessentially European courtyard area located just near the Rathaus and dotted with several restaurants and pubs. After a heavy lunch of himmel un ääd, we enjoyed an early evening salad at Kaiser Wetter. Grab a beer before or after at Domkeller Pub and enjoy a vast collection of German, Belgian and Irish brews. When the weather cooperates, you'll find everyone outside enjoying the atmosphere in the courtyard.
- Pontstrasse: Follow this street from Aachen's Marktplatz (main square at the Aachen Rathaus) and you'll end up in Aachen's university area where you'll find endless options for drinks, cheap food and live music. If you take it all the way to the end you'll find Ponttor, the city's northern medieval tower.
Aachen Printen: Cookies with a pilgrim's purpose
Printen are the Aachen version of spice or gingerbread cookies (in German, lebkuchen). There are many different ways to eat printen — amorphous or in the shape of Charlemagne’s bust or the Aachen Cathedral; covered in chocolate or plain; fresh and soft or aged and a bit firm. Printen were favorites of pilgrims who made their way through Aachen in the Middle Ages en route to Santiago de Compostela, Spain. Yes, that’s a long walk. Printen served as a long-lasting food that could be carried for days and weeks without spoiling.
Having sampled several varieties, we suggest Klein Printen directly from where they bake it on the corner of Franzsstrasse and Aureliusstrasse outside the center. Just follow the scent of spiced cookies to the bakery's front door.
24 Hours in Cologne (Köln)
“It’s laissez-faire around here. That is, as long as you know the rules,” our guide, Claudia, explained to us the inimitable blend of French and Prussian cultural influence found in Cologne and its surroundings. Although our visit here was short, we began to understand and feel these contrasts.
Exit the Cologne train station and you'll find it difficult not to run into Cologne Cathedral, as the structures are literally adjacent to one another. An urban planning oddity perhaps, until you understand that when the railway was built in the 19th century, the idea was for visitors to exit the Cologne main train station and be awed by the first thing they saw, the Cologne Cathedral. First impressions such as these were meant to be long lasting and to firmly stamp the idea of Cologne's prominence in the mind and memory of the visitor.
Cologne, once a city loaded with medieval architecture, was badly damaged in World War II. Much of the city was rebuilt with an eye to the modern. However, there remains a small old town area between the Cologne Cathedral and the Rhine River where a few original medieval buildings survived and others rebuilt in a style to match the traditional cobbled roads and narrow streets.
Here's a visual stroll through Cologne's old town with some of our favorite sites and architecture.
Visiting Cologne: Travel Planning
Cologne Cathedral: It's free to enter the Cathedral (Dom), but if you would like to book a tour, be sure to do that in advance with the Cathedral Information Center. You can also walk up to the top of the cathedral (€3.00).
Hohenzollern Bridge (Love Locks Bridge): Even if you have limited time while visiting Cologne, consider taking a walk across Hohenzollern Bridge. It's known as the “love bridge” or “love locks bridge” for all of the padlocks affixed to it by couples from around the world. Beyond that, the bridge also provides a terrific visual perspective on the Cologne Cathedral and the old town via the train tracks coming out of the city.
Recommended guide: Especially if you only have a short time in Cologne (as we did) and would like an excellent overview of the city's history, we recommend Claudia Lupri as a guide. She can be booked in advance through the Cologne Tourist Office.
Kölsch: Cologne-speak for beer
On the surface, Kölsch is just a type of beer that happens to hail from its hometown of Köln (Cologne). However, Kölsch feels more like a culture unto itself. There are specific rules on how to make it, serve it, drink it, and enjoy it. In order for a beer to officially be called Kölsch, it must be brewed in a specific area in and around Cologne.
This top-fermented beer is only served in small, thin glasses, usually at 0.2 liters, meaning that the beer is always fresh and slightly chilled. It also means that it’s not difficult to fool oneself and drink a lot.
And then there is the person who actually serves the Kölsch: the Köbe.
Köbe is the local dialect for the name Jacob. This is a reference to the pilgrims in the Middle Ages who came through Cologne on the “Jacob’s Path” en route to Santiago de Compostela, Spain. These pilgrims were thirsty for beer by the time they arrived in Cologne, and those that served them — dressed in a blue apron and white shirt and just a tad rude — were referred to as Köbe. The name — and behavioral role — sticks to this day.
Recommended Kölsch: Of course, we didn’t have an opportunity to sample every variety of Kölsch, but we tried a few. Our favorites were Pfaffen and Früh. Each has its own brauhaus in the Cologne old town area.
Traditional Cologne Fare: The Brauhaus Früh just near the Cologne Cathedral serves up good traditional meals like sauerbraten (beef roasted in a sweet-sour marinade) and Halve Hahn (bread with Gouda cheese). Not to mention, the Kölsch is quite tasty there.
Recommended Day Trips in the Rhineland Area
Zollverein Coal Mine Complex — Essen, Germany
In full disclosure, we probably would not have gone to the Zollverein Coal Mine Complex had it not been suggested to us by the folks at the German tourism board. After all, a former coal mine and “industrial center” does not sound — on its surface — particularly enticing or appealing.
But Zollverein defies its seemingly mundane origins.
The recent history of Zollverein is a story of transformation — from a harsh, angular industrial complex to one of culture, design and creativity. There is an odd beauty and surface aesthetic at work — one composed of industrial rusting metal and abandoned chimneys and brick buildings all seated in the surrounding green space. Inside, the museum complex does a remarkable job telling the story not only the coal mine, but also the area's history.
This telling includes the area's prehistoric origins to its early development and right on up through the 20th century, and includes a found object storytelling exhibit and regional push button scents-and-smells exhibit like nothing you've ever experienced.
We realize this may still sound like an odd travel recommendation, but Zollverein is definitely worth a visit. It really did pique our interest to return so we can better understand the history and mindset of the local Ruhr area.
Recommended guide: We enjoyed an terrific afternoon with Sven Hilling from Visit Ruhr. He not only shared information about Zollverein and the Ruhr region, but also personal stories of growing up in the area and witnessing firsthand its transformation.
Augustusburg and Falkenlust Palaces in Brühl
We’re not usually ones for ornate palaces filled with period furniture, but Augustusburg Palace featured a depth to it well beyond its glossy facade. The palace tells the story of mid-18th century, pre-enlightenment Germany through the story of its patron, Clemens August.
In an era where families of nobility valued upward movement in status more than anything. August exhibited a public face of nobility full of pomp and ceremony while hiding another, that of a depressed intellectual who retreated to a nearby hunting lodge to get away from it all. Although the centuries are different, the desire to acquire what’s considered valuable at the time – wealth, power, and titles — is timeless and universal.
In order to visit Augustusburg and Falkenlust Palaces you must book a tour at the Augustusburg Information office (€6/person).
Schloss Augustusburg, Brühl. The epitome of early to mid-18th century pre-Enlightenment European life and art, particularly among nobility and the great families. Baroque to Rococo style, rationalism in mindset, French in its display of nobility, Spanish in its ceremony and a German blend of it all.
Coming next: A road trip along the Upper Middle Rhine River. This doesn't quite fit into the category of a day trip from Aachen or Cologne, but we recommend combining them together into a week-long (or longer) trip like we did.