Last Updated on 3rd January 2021 by Sophie Nadeau
The grandeur of Cologne’s romantic Romanesque meets grand Gothic Kölner Dom draws crowds from far and wide on a daily basis. After all, the dual towers of the Dom stand tall and proud above the populous North Rhine Westphalia city and can be spotted on pretty much every touristic trinket from the city. Here’s your ultimate guide to everything you should know before visiting Cologne Cathedral.
Indeed, situated just beside Köln’s main train station, Cologne Cathedral is the first landmark you’re able to spy from the airport train which whisks hundreds of passengers an hour between the German city and the rest of the country and beyond.
As my friend put it, it’s akin to stepping off the train in Paris and quite literally having the Eiffel Tower in front of you (this is sadly not a possibility from any main Parisian train station)! Today, Kölner Dom is the symbol of the city and can be spied from pretty much every vantage point across Cologne.
Purchase any souvenir from the city (even waffles at the Cologne Christmas Market) and the outline of the cathedral will likely feature. Worth noting is that the ‘Instagram famous’ shot of the candy coloured houses of the fish market does not feature the Cathedral but one of the smaller Romanesque churches dotted across the city.
A brief history of Cologne Cathedral
As is the case with so many cathedrals, basilicas, and large churches throughout Europe, Cologne Cathedral was constructed over many centuries. In fact, though construction of the ecclesiastical building began all the way back in 1248, the two towers were not completed until 1880.
There has been a Christian church on site since around the 4th-century. Prior to the current cathedral, the church before had been constructed during the 9th-century. However, it was soon decided that the building was not grand enough to house the relics of the biblical Magi and so (perhaps rather conveniently), the church burned down during demolition work in 1248.
Soon enough, the decision was taken to build a new cathedral on the site, i.e. the church you now see today. The first stone was laid on the Feast of the Assumption of Mary on the 15th August 1248. What started as a Gothic project was modified and changed over the seven centuries of its construction.
You see, in 1473, work on the cathedral was halted for a variety of reasons, but largely due to a lack of funding. For several centuries, the cathedral remained unfinished and was used as was. The North tower was pretty much nonexistent and the South tower was overshadowed by a building crane.
All this changed during the 19th-century, with the resurgence of romantic enthusiasm for the Middle Ages. And with more modern technologies, the cathedral was completed in the period from 1842 to 1880. During the 1950s, the cathedral was renovated following heavy bombing during WWII (the cathedral was bombed no fewer than 14 times). Maintenance work on the building is ongoing to this day, with some 80 people employed to oversee its survival for future generations.
Highlights of Kölner Dom
Cologne Cathedral boasts many records, ‘firsts,’ and is typically near the top of many European visitors’ bucket lists. After all, the Cathedral is the largest Gothic Church in Northern Europe, is the highest twin-spired church in the world, and is the second tallest church in Europe.
Standing at a height of 157 metres tall (rather unusually, the Northern tower is 7 cm taller than the Southern one), Cologne Cathedral has no shortage of hidden gems worth discovering, as well as some of the most important pieces of Biblical artwork in Europe.
The shrine of the Three Wise Men
The true highlight of the cathedral was what led Cologne to such prominence during the Middle Ages and indeed many a Christian pilgrim has made the journey to Köln purely for the chance to see the Shrine of the Three Wise Men (which is believed to be the largest reliquary in the Western world).
The relics (or ‘mortal remains’ as they are sometime referred to as) were brought back from the conquered City of Milan by Frederick Barbarossa and given to then Archbishop of Cologne, Rainald von Dassel, in 1164. Now encased in a gold gilt case which was conceived by Nicholas of Verdun and was completed in the 1220s, the shrine is to be found behind the High Altar of the cathedral.
Cologne Cathedral Medieval Windows
Perhaps rather miraculously, the medieval windows of Cologne Cathedral were actually removed prior to the Allied air raids of 1944 and so the stunning stained glass survives to this day. Some of the glass dates all the way back to the 14th-century and can be dated thanks to the appearance of various coats of arms. Elsewhere in the cathedral, one of the Biblical-themed stained glass windows is one of the oldest in Europe.
As is commonly the case with Cathedrals in Europe, Cologne Cathedral also has a small treasury which houses some of the best-kept gems of the ecclesiastical building and can be visited for a small fee (as of 2020, €4 full-price and €2 for concessions). Head inside and you can expect to discover holy relics, as well as artworks created from bronze, silver, and gold.
Largest swinging bell in the world
As well as being one of the most impressive cathedrals in Europe, the South Tower of the Dom boasts the largest swinging bell in the world. The Saint Peter bell can be seen if you walk the 533 steps up to the top of the Southern Tower (for a small fee) and weighs a staggering 24 tonnes. The bell only tolls on special occasions such as New Year’s Day and Christmas Day.
How to visit Cologne Cathedral
Like most cathedrals in Europe, the Cathedral itself is free to visit and is open every day of the week. However, if you wish to climb to the top of the tower via the steep staircases and be rewarded with one of the best views of Köln, then you’ll need to pay a small fee.
The Cathedral is Germany’s most visited landmark and boasts around 20,000 visitors a day! As such, if you want to see the cathedral without as many crowds, then you’ll want to plan your visit to be in the morning and mid-week if possible. With this being said, even though I visited Cologne Cathedral with a friend on a weekend during the Christmas Market season, we didn’t need to queue to enter!
FAQs (Frequently Asked Questions) about Cologne Cathedral
Why is Cologne Cathedral famous?
Situated right next to the Cologne main train station, Cologne Cathedral was once considered to be the tallest building in the world. Today, the ecclesiastical building remains one of the tallest churches in Europe and is home to the Shrine of the Three Wise Men, a golden reliquary alleged to hold relics from the biblical Magi (i.e. the three wise men). Since 1996, the cathedral has been listed on the UNESCO list of culturally important sites.
Why is Cologne Cathedral dark grey?
Despite what you might think, the façade of the Dom isn’t dirty and it doesn’t need a clean! Instead, the sandstone material from which the church is constructed reacts with the sulphuric rain, which in turn causes the dark grey tone of the Cathedral’s exterior.