Once the imperial seat of Charlemagne’s empire, Aachen is now a popular spa city in western Germany. Find out what there is to do in Aachen, Germany in this post!
If you take the train to the westernmost point of Germany, you’ll come to the lovely little city of Aachen. Bordering Belgium and the Netherlands, Aachen is a multicultural city with roots dating back to the Neolithic Age. Historically, it’s one of the most important political and cultural cities in all of Germany. Aachen served as Charlemagne’s imperial city, and his legacy influences the region to this very day.
In addition to its ties with Charlemagne, Aachen is known for being a spa city. Multiple thermal springs in the area provide healing waters to the spas in the area. Aachen is also known for having one of the finest Christmas markets in Germany.
For such a small city, Aachen is a melting pot of history and cultures thanks to its unique location on the German border. If you’re wondering whether Aachen is worth visiting, it most certainly is! This post will share what to do in Aachen, Germany and will also answer some FAQs about visiting Germany’s westernmost city.
1. Follow the Route Charlemagne
Charlemagne’s lasting impact on the city of Aachen, Germany cannot be understated. He’s mentioned in practically every museum in the city, and if you know what to look for you can see his footprint on the architecture of the city as well.
In addition to being King of the Franks and Lombards, Charlemagne was also the Holy Roman Emperor. Despite having palaces throughout his empire, Charlemagne favored Aachen above all others. Aachen served as Charlemagne’s imperial city, and he built it up around 800 AD.
History lovers interested in learning more about the life and legacy of Charlemagne should follow the Route Charlemagne through Aachen. This route takes you through the city to visit the sites influenced by or dedicated to Charlemagne.
Some — but not all — of Aachen’s tourist attractions shared in this post fall along the route, so I wanted to highlight it especially in case you’re visiting the city specifically to learn more about the city’s most famous ruler.
2. Visit the Aachen Cathedral and Treasury
The Cathedral is one of the places to see in Aachen, Germany. Originally called the Royal Church of St. Mary, the Aachen Cathedral (Aachener Dom) was built by — you guessed it! — Charlemagne, and his final resting place can be found here.
Following Charlemagne’s death, the Cathedral served as the coronation site for Roman German kings and queens. 30 German kings and 12 queens were anointed here!
The Aachen Cathedral was also one of the most important pilgrimage sites in Europe during the Middle Ages. The Aachen Pilgrimage takes place every seven years to this very day, with the last pilgrimage supposed to have taken place in 2021. During the time of the Aachen Pilgrimage, the four relics contained in the Shrine of Saint Mary are put on display for pilgrims to see. When it’s not a pilgrimage year, the relics are hidden within the shrine.
In addition to the Shrine of Saint Mary, visitors to this stunning octagonal cathedral will see the Shrine of Charlemagne (where his remains rest) and the golden altar that dates back to 1020 AD.
After admiring the cathedral, be sure to visit the cathedral treasury, which is just around the corner. You’ll have to pay to enter, but it’s worth every Euro! The treasury displays over 100 pieces of religious art, all having something to do with the history of the Aachen Cathedral.
3. Tour the Town Hall
Charlemagne’s legacy doesn’t end with the Cathedral! Oh no, the Town Hall was also built on the former site of Charlemagne’s palace. Since the initial Gothic-style Town Hall was completed in 1350, the building has been subsequently damaged and rebuilt many times. Following fires in the 1650s and 1880s, the Town Hall was restructured and rebuilt. Then, after being damaged by bombing raids during WWII the Town Hall was once again rebuilt — that’s the structure you’ll see during your visit to Aachen today.
Although the building itself has evolved over the centuries, the purpose of the Town Hall has remained the same. It’s both the seat of the local government and also serves as a hall for state celebrations and banquets.
I enjoyed my self-guided tour of the Town Hall, and it’s one of my favorite tourist attractions in Aachen, Germany. I only needed about an hour to go through it, and I enjoyed the interactive touchscreen displays scattered throughout the building.
Highlights of the Town Hall include: The Council Hall, where the local government still adjourns, and The Red Hall, where the “Aachen Peace” was supposed to be negotiated in 1748 to end the Austrian War of Succession (weirdly enough, the room is still dedicated to the “Aachen Peace” despite the peace agreement actually having taken place elsewhere in the Town Hall).
Tip: Be sure to look out the windows while going up the stairs inside the Town Hall. The view of the Cathedral from the second floor is incredible!
4. Visit the Couven Museum
The Couven Museum is a small but interesting museum in the Old Town that illustrates how Aachen’s upper-middle class lived during the 17th through 19th centuries. Each room is decorated with furniture from various periods in Aachen’s history. The museum was quirky, but I enjoyed the unique combination of history and interior design lessons in each room.
The building itself is also quite impressive. The Couven Museum is located in an 18th century townhouse that was built in the Rococo style. I’m a sucker for a good house museum, so the Couven Museum was a highlight of my trip to Aachen!
Tip: You only need an hour to 90 minutes to visit this small museum.
5. Visit the Charlemagne Center
Located between the Cathedral and the Town Hall, the Charlemagne Center is one of the focal points of Aachen. Like most of the museums in Aachen, the Charlemagne Center is small but packed with information. It walks you through the city’s history from the Neolithic period to present day, but with a focus on Charlemagne and his lasting impact on Aachen.
The Charlemagne Center consists mostly of interactive exhibits, with some key artifacts on display here and there. If you’re wondering what to do in Aachen and you love history, definitely visit the Charlemagne Center!
Tip: Much of the text is in German so be sure to ask the front desk for an audio guide in your native language if needed.
6. Explore the Old Town
Aachen has one of the most beautiful Old Towns I’ve seen in Germany! Traces of its medieval roots can still be seen in the architecture, and looking at it today you’d never know that much of the city was damaged during WWII. Aachen’s Old Town is filled with shops, bakeries, and cafes. Seemingly every other storefront is a quaint bakery selling Printen cookies (more on that in a bit!), so definitely come hungry!
Many of the top things to do in Aachen are located within the Old Town, so you can expect to spend most of your visit here. It’s a small area, but you can easily spend a full day here running around to the different sights!
7. Admire the Old City Gates
Only two of Aachen’s 11 medieval city gates remain, the Marschiertor (pictured above) and the Ponttor. These gates are MASSIVE, and while they’re not necessarily a “must see” Aachen attraction (I mean, they’re stone gates) they’re still fun to track down if you have extra time to do a little exploring beyond the boundaries of the Old Town.
8. Eat Aachener Printen Cookies
Aachener Printen are a regional specialty that you won’t find anywhere else in Germany. (Or rather, you’ll find cookies that are sold as “Printen” in other parts of the country but they’re not made in Aachen and therefore aren’t the real deal. Think of them as being the Champagne of German cookies!).
Aachener Printen are teeth-cracking, hard, spiced cookies. They’re similar in flavor to Lebkuchen (gingerbread) but the texture is totally different. As I mentioned above, the Old Town has lots of specialty Printen bakeries to choose from. I got a bag of Printen from Nobis and thoroughly enjoyed them dunked in my morning cup of tea (I can’t eat them plain, they’re just too hard!).
Tip: Because Printen are already quite hard and are high in sugar, they make for wonderful gifts and travel well.
9. Feel the Thermal Waters at the Elisenbrunnen
Besides Charlemagne’s legacy, Aachen is best known for being a spa city. Archeological evidence suggests that people first came to Aachen’s thermal springs as far back as the Neolithic Age!
The structure surrounding the Elisenbrunnen was completed in 1827, but the thermal spring itself has been there much longer than that. It draws thermal water from the same source that once filled Charlemagne’s palatine spa, although the spa is no longer standing.
There’s not much to see or do at the Elisenbrunnen, but it’s a key historic site in Aachen and is worth mentioning!
Tip: Make this your first stop in Aachen, as the tourist information center is housed in the same building as the Elisenbrunnen.
10. Visit the Christmas Market
If you’re visiting Aachen during the holidays, consider yourself lucky! The Aachen Christmas market is one of my favorites in Germany. The market is quite large considering the city itself isn’t very big. It stretches around the Cathedral and past the Town Hall, with lots of food options and stalls selling goods from Belgium, France, and Germany (very unusual for a German Christmas market!).
If you’re planning to visit the Aachen Christmas market, be sure to read my full guide to get the most out of your visit!
Other Things to Do in Aachen
There are more things to do in Aachen, Germany that I didn’t have time to experience myself. I never recommend attractions I haven’t personally visited, but here are some of the other Aachen attractions I had on my bucket list but couldn’t squeeze into my visit:
- Visit a spa — Aachen is a spa city, and I imagine a half or full day at one of its renowned thermal springs would be heavenly.
- Three Country Corner (Dreiländereck) — Located just outside of Aachen. This is where the borders of Germany, Belgium, and the Netherlands meet.
- Go window shopping — I’ve heard that Adalbertstraße is the best street for window shopping in the city.
- Other museums to visit — Aachen has a great “6 for 6” museum ticket. You pay just $14 for admission to the city’s top five museums, and the ticket is valid for six months. I’ve already listed three in this post (Couven Museum, Charlemagne Center, and the Town Hall). The ones that I didn’t have time to visit were the Suermondt-Ludwig-Museum and the Ludwig Forum.
FAQs About Visiting Aachen, Germany
Where is Aachen, Germany?
Aachen is Germany’s westernmost city. It borders Belgium and the Netherlands.
How many days are needed to see Aachen?
I recommend spending 1 to 1.5 full days in Aachen if you’re just there to see the main attractions. However, if you plan on spending time relaxing at one of the city’s many spas, you’ll need more time to take in the sights.
Is a day trip to Aachen enough time?
If that’s all you’ve got, then yes! You won’t see all of the attractions in Aachen, but you’ll see a good chunk of it. Aachen would be a great day trip from Cologne in particular!
Where should I stay in Aachen?
I stayed at the ibis Aachen near the Marschiertor. It’s a budget-friendly hotel that looks to have been recently renovated and is within walking distance of the train station and Old Town.
Where should I eat in Aachen?
I visited during Christmas market season and as such ate most of my meals there. However, I highly recommend grabbing brunch or lunch at Leni Liebt Kaffee. It’s one of the best brunch spots I’ve tried!
What’s the best time of year to visit Aachen?
Really any time besides deep winter would be good. In the spring and fall, you can warm up at one of the city’s thermal springs if the weather is bad. Summer is always a good time to travel through Germany. And in December you’ll get to enjoy Aachen’s Christmas market.
How to get around Aachen?
On foot! The Old Town and main train station are within walking distance of each other, and the city center is compact and easy to navigate on foot.
Is Aachen Worth Visiting?
Heck yes! Whether you’re visiting Aachen, Germany as a day trip from Cologne, Bonn, or Maastricht or are staying in the city for a couple days, I have only good things to say about this historic city.
Drop me a comment below with any questions you have about Aachen, or let me know if you’ve been before!