Located in the heart of Europe, Aachen is a city of understated beauty and character. Once the center of Charlemagne’s empire, Aachen is now a small, relatively lesser known German city, but totally worth a daylong visit. All of the sites in the city center are easily within walking distance, and there’s plenty of history to be uncovered. It’s a city with a young student population and rich traditions, from Carnival to drinking beer at the border of Germany, the Netherlands and Belgium. There aren’t too many tourists, so if you want a relaxing and authentic weekend in Germany, this is the perfect place for you.
Walking through the heart of the city will transport you back to medieval times, with the old stone cathedrals and cobblestone paths. First, check out Elisenbrunnen, a neoclassical building that smells suspiciously of eggs. Have no fear, the smell is actually the sulfurous water! If you run your hands under the spouts inside, you’ll be surprised by the hot temperature of the water. This thermal water is what makes Aachen truly unique, as it used to be home to Roman baths. Despite the smell, these waters actually have some healing powers, and apparently make your nails and hair stronger.
I’ve seen my fair share of European cathedrals, duomos, churches and the like, but Aachen Cathedral is the first one that surprised me. I didn’t expect the gorgeous design inside. The outside is fantastic, but the inside is a glittering trove of mosaics, echoing ceilings and stunning stained glass. My words could never do it justice, so this UNESCO World Heritage site is seriously something you need to see for yourself. The myth is, the people of Aachen made a deal with the devil to get the cathedral built, and later, as the devil fled the building, he got his thumb stuck in the door. So, if you go to the big doors of the cathedral, put your fingers into both doorknobs. You might just find that the devil’s thumb is still stuck in one! I promise that it’s not gory, so go ahead and try it.
Free walking tour
If you want an expert to tell you the different stories of Aachen way better than I can, take one of the free walking tours! Some highlights are the impressive old Aachen City Hall and the history behind the many statues erected around the city. When I went, it was a bit rainy, so make sure to bring an umbrella and a good coat, because you’ll be walking around outside. You’ll get an upbeat and thorough rundown of the history of the city that will make it seem even more vibrant than before. On the tour, you may even get to try a free sample of Aachen’s famous cookies, the Aachener Printen. I liked the gingerbread-like cookies covered in chocolate, but definitely try it both with and without.
If you’re feeling a bit thirsty after walking around all day, go to the Domkeller, located near the cathedral. The age range of this pub spans from college students to old locals, and it has a great selection of drinks. It was built in 1658 after a fire that burned down the city, so this place has a cozy, old-fashioned ambiance. There’s also live music on some nights, so check out the schedule before you go!
For all of you geography nerds out there, make your way out of the city center by bus for a chance to literally be in three European countries at once. It’s so easy to walk through three countries (Germany, the Netherlands and Belgium) in a matter of seconds, you’ll be shocked. Unfortunately, you won’t get any stamps in your passport, but as consolation, at the top of the hill you can go to a cafe, get a better view from a looking tower or find your way through a labyrinth. To get up there, I would recommend hiking through Aachen Forest for some lovely views of the scenery below and a chance to soak in the oxygen from the misty trees.
Remember when I mentioned Roman baths and sulfuric water? Well, bathing in thermal bath houses aren’t just for the ancient. Aachen is home to the Carolus Thermen, a wonderful thermal bathhouse and spa. Taking a dip in the ancient waters will have you feeling rejuvenated and incredibly relaxed afterwards. At the spa, there are many different pools to choose from, such as a Lazy Susan outside, jacuzzis, water grottos and even a whirlpool. Not only will it leave you feeling healthier inside, but the mineral water will also make your skin super soft.
With its rich history, thermal water and low-key feel, Aachen will surprise you in its own subtle way. If you want nature, tradition, relaxation and old medieval buildings all tied up with a bow of tasty cookies, this is the place for you. While you could consider it to be a has-been city, I believe that it still holds its old charm that made the most powerful man in Europe, Charlemagne, fall in love with it.