Once a Roman spa town, historic Aachen still draws visitors today who come to visit its centuries-old cathedral and drink the healing waters of Elisenbrunnen. Discover the top things to do in Germany’s most westerly city.
Aachen, close to the border with Belgium and the Netherlands, may not be the first city that springs to mind when you think of visiting Germany. However, it’s a hidden gem that shouldn’t be overlooked. It is home to one of the oldest cathedrals in Europe, and was the centre of Charlemagne’s empire – and it is known for its geothermal hot springs that you can still soak in today. Read on for the best things to do while you’re here.
Visit Aachen Cathedral
Constructed by Emperor Charlemagne around 796CE, Aachen is one of the oldest cathedrals in Europe. Although it was heavily bombed during World War II, it underwent a 30-year, €40m renovation, completed in 2011, and is back to its former glory. Check out the spectacular Barbarossa chandelier in the centre of the octagonal inner room, as well as Charlemagne’s imperial throne and gilded shrine. The 45-minute guided tour is well worth your time.
Soak in the Carolus Thermen
The Romans had a saying, “Salus per aquam”, which means health by water, and you’ll certainly feel rejuvenated after a day in this indulgent thermal spa. Chill out in one of eight indoor or outdoor pools, enjoy a brine steam bath or relax on a sunbed in the Carolus beach area. You can also see the mineral thermal waters, first enjoyed by the Romans, cascade down the garden steps into the outdoor pool below.
Step back in time at the Couven Museum
The 1786 Couven Museum has been preserved as a typical Aachen townhouse of the period, leaving you feeling as though you’ve entered another era. The rooms are stuffed with the historical furniture that would have been used by the upper middle classes, with styles ranging from rococo to Napoleonic-empire; prepare to be impressed by the collection of 18th-century silver utensils. The museum also hosts regular temporary exhibitions.
Ponder modern masterpieces at Ludwig Forum
This former umbrella factory is now a vibrant museum of modern art, including European works from the 1960s to modern day. It contains major works of American Pop Art and photorealism, including pieces by popular artists such as Roy Lichtenstein and Nam June Paik. There’s also a large collection of Cuban works, and the museum is always embracing new movements and regularly hosts exhibitions by exciting local artists.
Marvel at the Aachen Cathedral Treasury
History buffs will relish the chance to survey the world’s most valuable collections of medieval church artefacts at the Aachen Cathedral Treasury, next to the cathedral. It holds more than 100 works of art, including a silver-gilt bust of the Emperor Charlemagne, the procession cross of Lothair and book covers crafted from gold, silver and ivory. The cathedral has seen the coronation of at least 31 German kings, so it’s little wonder it boasts so many historical treasures.
Treat yourself to an Aachener Printen
No trip to Aachen would be complete without sampling the city’s signature delicacy, Printen. The recipe for these sweet cakes is a closely guarded secret, passed down through the generations, but they taste like spiced gingerbread. Legend has it that a baker’s apprentice outwitted the devil and saved Aachen’s people from starvation by resurrecting the famous recipe – so it must be worth a try!
Explore the Elisenbrunnen
Aachen was a well-known bathing town in Roman times, and the Elisenbrunnen, or Elisa fountain, was created in 1827 as a nod to its historical past. Now it’s a popular tourist attraction and the sulphurous water is said to have healing properties – although the eggy smell may well put you off drinking it. You can also visit the pump room, which was reconstructed after it was bombed in World War II, and see how it pumps water from the Kaiserquelle imperial spring.
Hike part of the Eifelsteig
The slogan of the Eifelsteig is “Just you, the water and the rocks”, and it does feel as if you’ve immersed yourself in the wilderness when you join the 313km (194mi) trail. The whole route takes you from Aachen through highland moors and volcanic relics to the unmistakable red sandstone rocks overlooking the city of Trier. But don’t worry, you don’t have to walk the entire trail to embrace the natural surroundings.
Stroll around the Aachen Christmas Market
Four weeks before Christmas, Aachen becomes a winter wonderland. The lanes and squares around the city centre are transformed into a festive market, with beautiful fairy lights and the deliciously spiced smell of Printen in the air. It’s a hub of activity for locals and visitors alike, so it’s little wonder it regularly makes it into lists of the top 10 Christmas markets in Europe.
Drink beer at Hopfen and Malz
Beer connoisseurs will be in heaven when they see the well-stocked shelves at the Hopfen and Malz microbrewery. Take a seat at the wooden tables in the taproom and work your way through the finest on the menu. Be warned, they have more than 300 beers available, and six on tap. You can try a tasting session, have a home-brewing lesson and even try out a game of beer yoga.
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