Assuming you catch the train from Cologne to Aachen, follow the signs towards the cathedral and grab breakfast on the way. You’ll pass many cafés which serve a typically German breakfast of sliced bread and buns, cheese, meats, eggs and lots of coffee. If you’d rather start exploring right away, you can always get a pastry and coffee to go at a bakery or the snack aisle of a local supermarket.
The Route Charlemagne
You’ll quickly notice that one man has shaped Aachen as we know it today like no other: Charles the Great, also known as Charlemagne, was the first Emperor of the Roman Empire and ruled from Aachen from 800 AD onwards. The route follows the traces of Charles the Great and visits eight stations which all address different aspects – history, power, religion, science and more. So let’s start right here.
The Centre Charlemagne (€ 6) at the heart of the Old Town commemorates his life and impact on Aachen and Europe as a whole. Interactive displays and media stations dive into Aachen’s history and shed light on the times between the early settlements and today. Make sure you plan at least an hour to explore the museum – the audio guides are among the most high-tech we’ve seen. A phone app guides you through the museum and automatically plays the relevant content depending on where in the exhibition you currently are.
After you’ve gained an overview of the history, continue your exploration and make your way to the Town Hall (€ 6) – an imposing Gothic building that has seen numerous coronations of emperors and kings over the course of history. In 2009, an interactive exhibition opened up most of the lavishly decorated rooms to the public and explores the themes of war, peace and power. From here, it’s just a short walk to Aachen Cathedral. In his time, Charlemagne constructed the sacral centre of the Carolingian Empire in the form of St Mary’s Church, which has survived to this day and forms the core of today’s cathedral. Take your time to explore both the Cathedral, including Charles’s throne (€ 4) and the adjoining treasury (€ 5) to learn everything about the impact of religion on Aachen’s history. Guided Cathedral tours in English run every day at 2 pm and are best booked in advance.
Station number three is the 1267 Grashaus, Aachen’s first Town Hall, which represents the theme of ‘Europe’ along the Route Charlemagne. Besides the architectural and historical significance of the building, the indoor exhibition (€ 6) teaches youngsters and adults about the past and future of Europe and the EU. The building is only accessible as part of a guided tour, which should be booked ahead if you’re interested.
Now, it’s time for lunch. Given that you’re in the city centre, the Elisenbrunnen Restaurant is a great spot to refuel on some German culinary goodies. The eatery is a crossover between a traditional tavern and a modern restaurant and serves a few German must-try dishes, such as Sauerbraten, Käsespätzle and Himmel un Ääd.
You’re almost at the next stop already. Aachen rests on a basin of thermal springs, and archaeological excavations at the Elisenbrunnen site (free admission) have shown that the mineral-rich water was used as far back as the Neolithic Age. Charlemagne himself has commissioned a palatinate spa, and today, the Elisenbrunnen is a great quick stop to make en route and learn about this aspect of Aachen’s history.
While the four stops you’ve so far visited are among the highlights, the Route Charlemagne continues to the 18th-century townhouse Couven Museum (living culture), the International Newspaper Museum (media) and the SuperC centre (science). You can either spend the rest of the afternoon completing the route or opt to explore a different aspect of Aachen.
We’ve touched on this before: Aachen is famous for its signature gingerbread-like biscuits called Aachener Printen. At the city-centre bakery and museum, you’re in for a treat. Not only do you learn how the biscuits came about and how they’re made, but you also get a chance to sample them and stuff your bags at the shop for a later day. They are among Germany’s favourite Christmas snacks and come in many varieties – crunchy, spongy, plain or chocolate-coated, and they all taste delicious. Tours are usually offered to groups of a minimum of 20 people, but it is well worth enquiring if you can join in on a scheduled group tour (prices vary depending on the number of participants).
If it’s still early when you leave either the bakery or museums, the rest of the afternoon is best spent browsing the Old Town and many boutiques, speciality shops and cafés until your appetite for local food and beer calls again.
Aachener Brauhaus, a dimly lit and rustic brewhouse in the Old Town can help you with both – beer on tap and hearty German food that does not only cater to meat-lovers but vegetarians as well. The menu is composed of salads, soups and stews as well as schnitzel and sausage dishes. Am Knipp makes it a tad more difficult for non-meat eaters, but the menu lists some treats such as Flammkuchen – the German response to pizza. If you’ve had enough of German food by now, you’ll also find a plethora of Italian and French restaurants in the city.
For after dinner-drinks, head to the Domkeller pub. The locale has Dutch, Belgian and German beers on draft and is a popular hangout spot for both locals and tourists. There’s a good chance that there will be live music in the evening as well – a calendar on their website lets you know what’s on.