One Day in Aachen: What to Do in Charlemagne’s City

Emperor Charlemagne was a big deal.

This medieval ruler was King of the Franks, King of the Lombards and Emperor of the Carolingian Empire. Many consider him the “Father of Europe” for his role in unifying the continent and laying the foundations for the Holy Roman Empire.

Aachen is Charlemagne’s city and is famous for its cathedral, his final resting place and an important pilgrimage site. In my three decades of poking around European churches, Aachen Cathedral is one of my favourites and unlike those you may have visited.  

Although it is the main reason for visiting Aachen, this spa city in Western Germany has enough attractions to fill 24 hours and is worth an overnight stop. Here’s what to do in one day in Aachen.

octagonal dome of aachen cathedral with a golden mosaic of christ in judgement surrounded by figures in classical dress

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My Top 10 Things to Do in Aachen in a Day

Aachen Cathedral (Aachener Dom) is a testament to the faith and artistry of medieval Europe and one of its most important cathedrals. It became Germany’s first UNESCO World Heritage site in 1978.

It was built for Charlemagne between 796 and 800 AD and is where he was laid to rest. The octagonal Palatine Chapel dates from this time and forms the nucleus of the cathedral.

large candelabra hanging from the dome of aachener dom
Barbarossa Candelabrum

Aachen Cathedral’s Gothic choir was added in 1414 and contains 1000 square meters of stained glass, inspired by those at Saint-Chapelle in Paris.

vibrant stained glass windows in a church apse with a central large golden medallion

Although entry to the cathedral is free, I recommend joining one of the daily English language tours at 2 pm. This is the only way to access the choir and imperial throne. Buy your ticket at Dominformation.

To learn more, check out my guide to visiting Aachen Cathedral.

Aachens’s Cathedral Treasury is considered one of Northern Europe’s most important collections of ecclesiastical bits and bobs. I spent an easy hour here but concentrate on the ground floor if you are short on time.

This has the Treasury’s most compelling pieces, including the Bust of Charlemagne housing a fragment of his skull.

gold and jewel encrusted reliquary bust of charlemagne
Reliquary bust of Charlemagne

Other highlights are the extraordinary bejewelled Cross of Lothair and a marble sarcophagus that once contained the body of Charlemagne which is decorated with a relief of the Abduction of Proserpine.

detailed carvings of figures on a marble sarcophagus
gothic city hall building in aachen behind a fountain

History buffs should not miss visiting Aachen Rathaus (Aachen City Hall).

Standing on the site of Charlemagne’s former palace, it was built between 1330 and 1349 and was designed to serve as both a symbol of civic pride and a functional space for municipal administration.

It is famous for its Coronation Hall, or Krönungssaal, used for the coronation banquets of German kings and emperors from the 14th to the 16th centuries. Five of the original eight Charlemagne Frescoes decorate walls, regarded as the most important series of romantic historical scenes painted in the 19th Century.

grand hall with a vaulted ribbed ceiling and large painting on wall
The Coronation Hall, Aachen Rathaus
large cobblestoned market square with fountain in centre

The Rathaus flanks the southern end of Aachen’s cobblestoned market square (Marktplatz). This is a good place to stop for a coffee in one of its many cafés and bars.

The local food market is held here twice a week. It is also the setting for Aachen’s Christmas Market.

3 storey old brick building housing the couven museum in aachen

Are you interested in what life was like for the bourgeoisie in the 18th and 19th centuries? Named after the famous Aachen architect Johann Joseph Couven, this museum recreates the living spaces of Aachen patricians of that era.

This time capsule is furnished with period pieces, including furniture, porcelain, silverware and decorative arts. As this museum is small, it won’t take up much of your day in Aachen.

The Ancient Romans were lured to Aachen by the promise of dips in its thermal waters, a tradition that continues to this day. I spent an hour in Aachen’s most famous spa, Carolus Thermen.

exterior of carolus thermen baths in aachen

The water temperature ranged from 33.5 degrees in its main pool to 37.5 degrees in the grotto area. There were multiple opportunities to be pummelled by cascades of water.

Whirlpool baths flank the main pool and there is also an outdoor pool. You can rent a towel or robe if needed.

But if you just want to see one of Aachen’s hot springs, head no further than Elisenbrunnen in the city’s historic centre. This has been spewing out mineral-rich drinking water since 1827.

I loved Aachen’s more whimsical water fountains scattered across the city centre

Puppenbrunnen (Fountain of Puppets) is a collection of bronze puppet-like figures, representing different facets of Aachen’s history and culture. This fountain is unique because the figures are mounted on swivels, allowing visitors to manipulate them.

two bronze figures with one holding a newspaper

Spatzenbrunnen (Sparrow Fountain) depicts a group of animated sparrows. Erected in the post-war period, the fountain symbolizes peace, renewal and the return to normalcy.

fountain with bronze figures of sparrows

The artist and sculptor Fritz Baldauf created Fischpüddelchen in 1911, depicting a small boy holding two squirming fish. He doesn’t look thrilled about it.

bronze sculpture of naked boy holding two fish

Grashaus (Grass House), Aachen’s first town hall, is opposite Fischpüddelchen and is an excellent example of medieval Gothic architecture in all its pointy perfection. Dating from 1260, it has also served as a prison and a venue for civic ceremonies.

sculpture of naked boy holding two fish in a square in aachen germany

Aachen was once a fortified city, its walls and gates protecting it from invasions and regulating trade and movement. Two of its medieval gates remain: Marschiertor and Ponttor.

Although both gates are within walking distance of major attractions such as the Aachen Cathedral and the Rathaus, they are at opposite ends of the historic centre. You may have to pick one or the other (I’d plump for Marschiertor).

bronze sculpture of soldier next to brick building with a red door
two people walking through the arch of a medieval gate

Pick up a packet of Aachen’s most famous culinary export at Nobis Printen. Aachen Printen are similar to gingerbread and typically spiced up with cinnamon, cloves, aniseed and coriander. They are yummy.

window display of aachen printen biscuits

Getting There

As Aachen is located close to Germany’s border with Belgium and the Netherlands there are good rail connections with cities in all three countries (I took the 80-minute train journey to Namur in Belgium after my stay).

Here are a few typical train journey times:

  • Cologne – 45 minutes
  • Maastricht – 50 minutes
  • Brussels – 70 minutes
  • Bonn – 90 minutes

The cathedral is an easy 15-minute walk from Aachen Hauptbahnhof (main train station).

Where to Stay

I enjoyed a two-night stay at Hampton by Hilton. My room was clean and comfortable and the breakfast was awesome with lots of variety. Although it is near the Carolus Spa, it may be further from the cathedral and historic centre than some would wish.

toom at hampton by hilton hotel in aachen with large bed with white linen, armchair table and chair and tv

Aachen has accommodation to suit all tastes and budgets. For example, other travellers like Motel One Aachen which gets my vote for its convenient location between the cathedral and the main train station. This boutique-style hotel has a stylish lobby and a highly-rated bar.

bridget coleman the flashpacker 2

About Bridget

Bridget Coleman has been a passionate traveller for more than 30 years. She has visited 70+ countries, most as a solo traveller.

Articles on this site reflect her first-hand experiences.

To get in touch, email her at or follow her on social media.

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