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Aachen Cathedral

Charlemagne’s Palatine Chapel

One of the oldest churches north of the Alps, Aachen Cathedral was erected by order of Charlemagne (742–814). Its central core, the Carolingian octagonal Palatine Chapel, was built between 793 and 813, and consecrated in 805 by Pope Leo III, five years after he had crowned Charlemagne Emperor of the Romans. Between 1355 and 1414, a Gothic chancel was added, the ‘glasshouse’, which has 25½-m-high windows that hold a whopping 1,000 m² of stained glass. Situated around the octagon are five side chapels, which were added in the 14th & 15th centuries. One of them, the Chapel of Hungary, was, together with the porch, remodelled in baroque style during the 18th century. What I like about this church is that for a cathedral, it’s a relatively intimate building: the tall octagon with its ornate dome, encircled by its two-storey outer structure, is quite different from any other church’s nave, and its columns provide a Byzantine look & feel.

Aachen Cathedral
The Carolingian octagonal Palatine Chapel

Not to be missed are the ambo of Heinrich II, an elaborate pulpit from 1014, and the 11th-century Pala d’Oro, the gold-plated front of the high altar with repoussé motifs; both are among the most significant works of art from the Ottonian period. Also of interest are the chandelier of Barbarossa, a romanesque wheel chandelier made of gilt copper dating from the late 1160s, and the intricately decorated shrines of Charlemagne (1215) & St Mary (1239), each of them important goldsmith works of the Staufer period. The throne of Charlemagne, made in the 790s, is located on the octagon’s upper floor, where it was used in the coronations of thirty kings, from 936 to 1531. To see everything, you need to join a 45-minute guided tour that takes place daily, in English at 2 p.m., in Dutch at 3 p.m, and in German on the hour, from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. On weekends, tours start at 1 p.m., and on Sundays the last tour ends around 4¾ p.m. Tickets are € 5 for adults or € 11 for a family of six.

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Highlights at the Aachen Cathedral Treasury include the Bust of Charlemagne, the Lothair Cross & the Anastasius Reliquary, some of them recognizable from Jan Luyken’s etching De Lieve Vrouwe Kerck tot Aken en de Reliquien, die tot Aken alle Seven Jaren en alle Jaren eens Vertoont Werden (1682).


BBC Radio 4 recorded two podcasts at Aachen Cathedral: in How to Run Europe, Anne McElvoy explores how Charlemagne managed to run his vast empire, and in Germany: Memories of a Nation, Neil MacGregor examines the legacy of Charlemagne.


In 1978, Aachen Cathedral was among the first twelve sites to be included on the UNESCO World Heritage List, a list of things to see before you die, or before mass tourism leads to their destruction.