I’ll be the first to admit that my visit to Aachen was mostly planned with the sole intention of seeing the city’s iconic cathedral, a place steeped in history and surrounded by legend. The city of Charlemagne is a place known by many names; Bad Aachen, Aix-la-Chapelle in French, Aken in Dutch, and Oochen in Luxembourgish. Perfect to explore over the course of one day, or a long weekend if you have a little more time, here’s a guide to the best things to do in Aachen!
Why you should visit Aachen on your next German trip
The historic city of Aachen can be found close to the Belgian and Dutch borders, making it a meeting place of sorts. Just an hour away from Maastricht by bus, half an hour from Cologne via train, and around an hour away from the Belgian city of Liege, you need no longer than around a day to explore this small German city.
Humans have inhabited the site where Aachen now stands since prehistoric times and recent finds have been dated all the way back to around 3000 BCE. During Roman times, the popular city of Aquae Granni was founded as a result of the natural hot springs that are the hottest in Northern Europe. At this time, there would have been bathhouses and a temple complex.
By the 5th-century, the city had lost much of its importance and its administration had fallen to nearby Cologne. Of course, all this changed with the arrival of Charlemagne when he selected Aachen to be the centre of his Holy Roman Empire. It’s likely that Charlemagne’s first visit at Christmastime was in 768, the same year in which he was crowned King of the Franks. Today, Charlemagne is buried in a golden tomb in the heart of his cathedral.
Nowadays, the main attractions of this German city are all conveniently tightly packed together in the city centre, while there is little of touristic interest to be seen outside of Aachen’s historic heart. As such, you can easily see the best of Aachen in one day, or perhaps give yourself a long weekend to enjoy the city if you’re planning to visit during December for the famous Christmas markets.
Best things to do in Aachen, Germany
#1 Couven Museum
Hands-down the best museum in the city is that of the Couven Museum. Located steps away from the city’s historic cathedral, this cultural hub features how people would have lived in Aachen during the 18th and 19th-centuries. Housed within House Fey, an 18th-century former family mansion, details on how to visit can be found here.
#2 Aachen Rathaus (Town Hall)
With the exception of Aachen Cathedral (or Aachen Dom as it is known locally), one of the best things to do in Aachen is to enjoy the architecture of the city’s Gothic Rathaus (town hall). Intricately carved in the Gothic style, the building itself dates back to the 14th-century.
#3 Centre Charlemagne
Located in the very centre of the city, the town’s main museum is the Centre Charlemagne, a modern cultural hub opened in 2014. Set up in a former municipal building, today the museum features historical themed displays depicting the history, art, culture and architecture of Aachen. Open from Tuesday through to Sunday (10 AM – 5 PM), tickets cost €6 (€3 for concessions).
If you want to see the spring water for yourself, you need only head to the Neo-Classical building on Elisenbrunnen in the historic part of the city. All Corinthian columns and open space, there are two fountains here which spew out 53-degree Celsius water, the hottest spring water in Northern Europe.
#5 Aachen Markt
The main square in Aachen is the Markt, a place characterised by its many cafés, brasseries, and bars. Set against the backdrop of the Town Hall and covered in cobblestones, enjoy freshly brewed coffee or some traditional German fare. Alternatively, simply head to the Square on a Tuesday or Thursday morning for the local market.
#6 Ponttor (medieval city gate)
One of only two city gates from the original city wall still standing (the other being Marschietor), Ponttor is in the Westernmost part of the former city wall’s Northern extremities. Today, the crumbling stone ruins are a historical reminder of the 14th-century when the gate would have been manned by soldiers at all times.
#7 Aachen Cathedral
First founded in 800, where Charlemagne chose to centre his Frankish Empire, the baroque Cathedral of Aachen is easily one of the most beautiful ecclesiastical buildings in Europe. Now the final resting place of Charlemagne himself, step insider (it’s free to enter) and you can expect to enjoy sumptuous mosaics, intricate carvings, and plenty of stunning stained glass windows.
So important during its time, that it was here where thirty-one German kings and twelve queens were coronated. You should know that if you want to take photos within the ecclesiastical building’s interior, you’ll need to purchase a photography permit for €1. Otherwise, highlights of the Dom include the Barbarossa Chandelier, as well as plenty of incredible mosaics (in total, over 32 million stones were made to create the intricate mosaics!).
#8 Ludwig Forum for International Art
The other main museum that Aachen has to offer is the Museum of Modern Art which was opened in 1991 and is based on the Ludwig Collection, a selection of over 3000 artworks. Open from Tuesday through to Sunday (10 AM to 5 PM), the museum costs €6 and €3 for concessions.
#9 Aachener Domschatzkammer (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. Technically classed as a museum and housed in the very heart of the historic city centre, the Aachen Cathedral treasury, together with Aachen’s Cathedral, was the first monument on German soil to have been classed as a UNESCO world heritage site.
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.
#10 Eat Aachen Printen
The most famous food export from Aachen is its ‘Printen’ biscuits. As such, these spicy biscuits, which traditionally are made in flat rectangles, but Now listed as a heritage product, much in the same way that the Cornish Pasty is, bakers in and around Aachen are the only people allowed to produce and sell this must-sample cookie.
#11 Aachen Spa
Since Roman times, Aachen has been a spa city. In fact, this is one of the predominant reasons that the Romans, and then Charlemagne, chose to make Aachen a major hub for not only trade and administration but also for relaxation.
Today, the German city is home to a whole host of spa and wellness centres. Most notable include Carolus Thermen Bad Aachen (home to no less than 15 sauna and spa rooms!) and the picturesque Quellenhof Hotel and Spa. Though you can book to stay there, visitors can also purchase a day pass which grants access to the spa!
#12 Visit the Aachen Christmas Market
Widely regarded to be one of the best Christmas markets in Germany, if not all of Europe, Aachen Christmas Market is a delightful array of Bavarian-style chalets surrounding the city’s main ecclesiastical building, i.e. the cathedral. All in all, there’s a full Christmas village selling everything from handmade artisanal goods to unique gifts, and plenty of foodie options (as well as many stalls selling Glühwein)!
Where to stay in Aachen and travel tips to know before you go
Like many a European city, the main attractions of Aachen are concentrated close together and so the city is best explored on foot. With many cobbled lanes, you’ll want to wear comfortable walking shoes. Furthermore, though most people speak English, you’ll want to learn a few words of the local language, in this case, German. Bring along a simple phrasebook like this one to help you get by.
Next, Germany, like much of mainland Europe, uses type C and E. This means that if you’re travelling from the US, Canada, the UK, and many other countries, then you’ll need to purchase a travel adaptor. This all in one adaptor contains USB ports and works with several different plugs.
During our stay in the city, we booked a room in the ibis Styles Hotel Aachen City. Clean and comfortable, we particularly enjoyed the complimentary breakfast (the continental breakfast included delights such as a large variety of juices, cold cuts, cereals, and my personal favourite, a pancake maker!).
Otherwise, there are plenty of other accommodation options in the city to suit every budget. For example, for affordable luxury, the Art Hotel Aachen Superior is well-reviewed, and many of its rooms include amenities such as balconies, a bar, and even a sauna that you can use for an extra fee. During peak season (i.e. the summer and at Christmas), the best places to stay fill up fast and so you’ll want to book your Aachen visit well in advance. Check the best accommodation prices for Aachen here.