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A Guide to Aachen Cathedral (Charlemagne’s Cathedral)

Last Updated on 2nd March 2023 by Sophie Nadeau

One of the most important cathedral’s historically and architecturally in not only Germany but the entirety of Europe is that of Aachen Cathedral. Known in German as the Aachener Dom, this ancient place of worship is visited by over a million people a year. Here’s your complete guide to the best of Aachen Cathedral, as well as how to visit, highlights, a history, and things to know before you go!

Please note that the town name ‘Aachen’ changes depending on which language you’re using. Aachen is known as Aachen in German, Aix-la-Chapelle in French, and as Aken in Dutch. Aachen Cathedral is known as Aachener Dom in German, the local language.

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A history of Aachen Cathedral

Constructed at the behest of Emperor Charmemagne (who was King of the Franks, known as Charles the Great in English, and was an important emperor in Western Europe during the Middle Ages), Aachen Cathedral is one of the most important ecclesiastical buildings in Europe, and as such, boasts the most interesting of histories.

Aachen is home to one of the oldest Cathedrals in Europe and its greatest place of worship is of such great importance that it has overseen the coronation of 31 German Kings and 12 German Queens.

The foundation stone for Aachen Cathedral was laid in 796 CE. Constructed in two distinctive architectural styles (9th-century Byzantine and a later Gothic extension).

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Of such importance is the cathedral, that in 1978 it became the first German monument to be classed as a UNESCO world heritage site (Aachen Cathedral appeared in the list of the first ever 12 UNESCO world heritage sites). Today, other German sites of worship are classed as UNESCO, including Cologne Cathedral.

Today, the legacy of Charlemagne (the Holy Roman Emperor) can be found all over the city of Aachen. From the town hall where Charlemagne once feasted to statues across the city (and even little Charlemagne figures made out of gingerbread), you can follow in the footsteps of Charlemagne all across the Western German city.

Aachen Cathedral

Highlights of Aachener Dom

Stained Glass windows

With the addition of a Gothic section to the choir came the addition of stained glass windows, ornate ones which are some of the most impressive in Germany. The windows cover an impressive 1000 square metres and are based on Sainte-Chapelle in Paris.

Octagonal Chapel

Upon entering Aachen’s main church, visitors will soon notice the central Octagonal Chapel thanks to its mosaic-laden façade and lofty height. This is the oldest part of the cathedral and is known as the Paletine Chapel.

This Byzantine church was particularly influenced by churches such as those in Constantinople (modern day Istanbul) and Ravenna in Italy. As one would expect from an octagonal structure, the Paletine Chapel of Aachen Cathedral is kept up by eight columns.

When it was first constructed, the chapel was the highest and widest ever built to the North of the Alps (remember that Aachen Cathedral was constructed before the great stone Cathedrals in modern day France such as Notre Dame and Reims Cathedral).

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Final resting place of Charlemagne

Lying within a golden casket, in one of the highest place of honour that the church affords (below the mesmerising glass of the choir and close to the altar), are the remains of Charlemagne himself.

The first Holy Roman Emperor spent the last few years of his life in Aachen (Aix-la-Chapelle in French) and it is from here that he ruled his Kingdom. Today his final resting place is encased within glass though its intricate details continue to dazzle from behind the protective case.

tomb of Charlemagne

Aachen Cathedral Treasury

For those who want to get a greater glimpse into the treasures of Aachen, a visit to the Cathedral’s Treasury is an absolute must. The treasury is technically classed as a museum and housed in the very heart of the historic city centre. Visitors will have to pay a small fee to enter.

Enter the treasury today and you can expect to find gems such as Carolingian, Gothic, Late Antique, and Staufen artefacts.

Open every day of the week, this is one of Aachen’s must-see attractions and highlights include a Gothic gold bust of Charlemagne, the hunting knife of Charlemagne, and the Ottonian Cross of Lothair.

Aachener Domschatzkammer (Cathedral Treasury)

How to visit Aachen Cathedral

Aachen is Germany’s western most city and is on the tri-border with Belgium and the Netherlands. You should know before visiting that the Cathedral at Aachen is free to visit. Open on a daily basis, visitors can marvel at the mosaics, see intricate artwork, and even spy on Charlemagne’s final resting place.

If you want to take photos inside, you’ll have to purchase a special photography permit for the nominal sum of €1. This can be purchased from a clerk at the entrance of the cathedral. They’ll give you a small band and then you can take photos of the interior to your heart’s content.

The rest of the city of Aachen is centred around a pedestrian old town that can easily be explored over the course of a few hours. If you’re lucky enough to be visiting during the winter (specifically between the end of November and the end of December), then you’ll also be able to visit the Aachen Christmas Market, which takes place around the Cathedral on an annual basis.

aachen christmas market at night

Sophie Nadeau loves dogs, books, travel, pizza, and history. A Francophile at heart, she runs when she’s not chasing after the next sunset shot or consuming something sweet. She splits her time between Paris and London and travels as much as she can! Subscribe to Sophie’s YouTube Channel.

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