As I was planning the route from Amsterdam to Munich during my family’s vacation in Europe last summer, I noticed that Aachen, Germany, was right on the way—and pounced on the chance to check a major item off my bucket list. Built in the 8th century during Charlemagne’s reign and expanded in the Middle Ages, Aachen Cathedral was the seat of the Holy Roman Empire until 1531. More than 30 rulers were crowned here over the centuries, and Charlemagne was buried on the premises. It’s history-buff heaven.
Aachen Cathedral, or Aachener Dom, is a work of art inside and out. At its heart is the octagonal Palatine Chapel, a marvel of intricate golden mosaics, ancient bronze grilles and striped marble arches—all that remains of Charlemagne’s palace complex. The treasury is one of the finest in Europe, including the great emperor’s sarcophagus, a reliquary that displays two of his arm bones, a series of illuminated manuscripts and the priceless, jewel-encrusted Cross of Lothair. While the cathedral’s significance may be lost on younger kids, tweens and teens can appreciate the full impact of this storied site.
For me, the highlight was Charlemagne’s throne, a surprisingly humble relic made from four slabs of marble secured with bronze hinges and mounted atop a small flight of stone steps. Look closely and you’ll see faint lines scratched in by Roman soldiers who amused themselves with a makeshift game board (the marble is thought to have been secondhand, used previously for at least two other structures). The throne and select other areas are only accessible via guided tours; an English-speaking tour is offered once a day. Get tickets early, as it sells out.
TIP: Aachen is a 40- to 50-minute train ride from Cologne, home to the magnificent Cologne Cathedral. With planning, you can see both in a single day. Although Aachen makes a fine home base for a night, Cologne is larger and has a wider variety of accommodations as well as easier transport connections. The area pairs well with a few days in the Rhine and Mosel river valleys just to the south.
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Editor’s Note: Photo by Lisa Frederick.