Aachen (or Aix-la-Chapelle, as it is called in most other countries) is a small city situated in the very west of Germany, right at the borders of the Netherlands and Belgium, about 70 kilometres to the west of Düsseldorf or Cologne.
The city was founded by the Celtic Germans. It increased in importance during Roman times, and by the middle ages it was the capital of half of Europe. Today there is a big (and good) University in the city, containing about 30,000 students.
The name Aachen comes from Aquisgranum, the name given to the city during the middle ages.
Aachen has some points that makes it unique: the cathedral (Dom), the city hall (Rathaus), the marketplace in front of the city hall, and hundreds of pubs and restaurants.
Being home to about 250,000 inhabitants the town is just about the right size. It's exciting enough for a couple of years but it doesn't make you feel lost when you first visit. Social life in Aachen is mainly dominated by the 30,000 students who turn the market place into one of the biggest open air parties north of the Alps every sunny day in summer. Fortunately, though, the sun doesn't shine every day.
Getting to Aachen
If you want to visit Aachen there are several good ways: by bicycle, by train, and by foot. And there is one very bad way: by car. If you come by car, you will quickly get lost; you will not find any parking places; and there are some major areas where you are not allowed to drive. The only real possibility is to park your car in one of the 'Park and Ride' car parks all around the city and come in by bus.
Aachen has three stations - don't get out at the wrong one. The best choice for visiting Aachen is using the central station. From there are services from/to:
- Cologne (Köln) - about 1 hour;
- Düsseldorf - about 1 hour and 15 minutes;
- Herleen, Holland - about 45 minutes;
- Brussels, Belgium - about 2 hours; and
- Paris, France - about 5 hours.
If you want to arrive by plane, you can use the Maastricht-Aachen Airport (a small, regional airport) or use the airport at Düsseldorf or Brussels. From there you can go by train to Aachen. Do not use the Cologne-Bonn Airport, because there is no train station there.
It is also possible to come by bicycle. There are a couple of long-distance cycle tracks. The most important is the Kaiserroute, from Aachen from Düren, Cologne, Hagen and Paderborn. There is also one inter-regional track called Wasserburgenroute, but this is a very roundabout route.
Aachen is placed in the west of Nordrhein-Westphalia in Germany. It is placed very much like Rome; a sinkhole rounded with small hills. Sometimes a cloud gets lost in this sinkhole - then it rains in Aachen. But this is not normal rain, it rains very fine water drops like fog.
To the east there is the Rheinland with cities like Cologne and Düsseldorf. To the south there are the highlands called Eifel and Hohes Venn. In Aachen, the only 'river' is a 30cm wide stream, covered with concrete, running beneath a street in the centre like a drain.
Because of Aachen's history, the main roads run in two rough circles round the cathedral. The inner, called Grabenring, is about a kilometre in diameter. The outer, Alleenring, is about 1.5 kilometres in diameter. These two rings were once city walls. Even today, you can see remains of these old walls at some points near the rings - mostly old city gates.
You can get a free of charge city map at the tourist information (near Elisenbrunnen and the Cathedral) and at nearly every pub in the city.
Where to go and Places to See
The tourist attraction of Aachen is the town itself. Despite having suffered considerable damage during World War II (the rebuild was completed 1966), the town centre consists almost completely of beautiful medieval houses on both sides of narrow cobbled streets, most of them running down the hill between the town hall and the marvellous gothic cathedral.
The Cathedral (Dom)
The central building, the octagon, was build in about 800 AD by Karl dem Großen. It is a wonderful building with lots of mystic measures; it's 144 feet (middle age feet, they were somewhat smaller than the todays feet) in height and in diameter. There are some games about the magic numbers 8 and 16. And its outer measurements are roughly the same as the inner ring in Stonehenge, UK. The cathedral is in the centre of the line from the Externsteine (mystic place near Paderborn) and Stonehenge.
The main nave was build in the 14th Century. There are also a lot of small chapels round the central octagon from other centuries. The cathedral's foundation stone was laid around the end of the 8th Century and you can still see the remains of Karl the Great (Charlemagne) in an antique sarcophagus. Well, you can't actually see him as the sarcophagus is metallic (though you can see some of his bones in the treasury!).
If you visit the cathedral, have a look at the main candlestick in the octagon (from Barbarossa, 1150), at the golden altar panels, at Karl's coffin (it's also golden), at Marie's shrine (golden too). In this shrine there are three religious items of clothing from history: Jesus' diapers, Marie's dress and the behead-cloth from Johannes. These relics are shown every seven years for seven days in the seventh month (although maybe someone has miscounted: it's in the second week in June, not July!). They were shown in the year 2000. It is also worthwhile to visit the cathedral's second floor (it's only possible to go there with a guide) and have a look at Karl's throne.
Close to the cathedral, you can find the treasury with lots of old artefacts concerning the cathedral.
City Hall (Rathaus)
This building is not so old (14th Century), and was built at the site of Karl's palace. The Krönungssaal (Coronation Hall) is well worth a visit, and contains a model of Karl's Crown. In this historical place the annual bestowal of the Karlspreis - International Charlemagne Price of the City of Aachen - takes place. During summer Aachen hosts the Kultursommer, a series of festivals, concerts and other events that mostly take place on the Katschhof, the place between Cathedral and Town Hall. Other highlights are the CHIO (the famous international riding and jumping tournament) in July and the Christmas market in December.
Aachen was a spa town and was famous for its Roman baths. All that is remaining is two small fountains inside the Elisenbrunnen. The water is warm (sometimes hot) and stinks, because of the sulphur content.
Though not strictly Aachen's main public central street, it contains the most bars, cafés and restaurants..
Every year from the end of November to December 21 there is a famous Christmas market (Weihnachtsmarkt). In the central city there are stalls where you can find lots of small things like puppets, candles, stones, clay figures, jewellery, Reibekuchen (a German snack), mulled claret, etc.
Every year in May some 'important' person gets the Karlspreis for his or her merit for Europe. President Clinton gets this prize in 2000, but nobody really knows why; the officials say for the war in Yugoslavia.
Every year at the beginning of June there is an inter-regional horse jumping tournament which is called CHIO. This event also features many other equestrian events.
This is a big parish fair, two times in a year, sometime in spring and in autumn.
To the northeast of the centre, there is the Lousberg. It's a small hill with a nice park with lots of nice trees. There is a myth about its creation: it is said that the Devil brought some sand to mess up Aachen with, but a brave woman outwitted him and forced him to put the sand in an uninhabited area. There is a statue at the main entrance showing the Devil and the woman.
Pubs and Restaurants
Aachen has a lot of pubs. Here you can find a small list of pubs and restaurants where you can sometimes find Hitchhiker's Guide fans. Nearly everybody knows these pubs.
Aoxomoxoa - Expensive, good music, open until 4.00am, dark.
Hauptquartier - Bad beer, sometimes good music, excellent arrangement. Open until 3.00am.
The Guinness House - Big pub (two floors) near the market place. Open until 3.00am. They have about a hundred different whiskies.
KHG - Katakomben - The pub of the Catholics. They used to make really good pizzas - but unfortunately no longer.
Kittel - see Molkerei.
Malteserkeller - A small pub in a basement. A lot of live bands. A lot of bad music. Mostly people over 30 (Sometimes if a teenager comes in, the average age is halved). A small dance floor. Opens Friday and Saturday, 10.00pm - 1.30am.
Molkerei - A nice cafe. Opens everyday from 10.00am to 1.00am.
Pera - A good Turkish restaurant.
Pizzeria - You can find pizzerias all over the city.
Wild Rover - Irish pub, sometimes has live music.
What to Eat
Since Aachen does not have its own kind of beer, the people living there had to come up with another local speciality and they eventually invented Printen. This is a very special biscuit. They are normally eaten around Christmas, but you can generally buy them the whole year round. They are made with lots of different spices; and there are some with thick sugar pieces and chocolate. They are not unlike gingerbread, only much, much harder - they will break your teeth if you don't take care. You can buy printen everywhere in Aachen.
The second thing you might want to try is borne out in the following famous movie quote:
Do you know what they put on french fries1 in Aachen instead of ketchup? Mustard!
You should not have any difficulties finding a cosy place to have a cup of coffee or tea, a good beer2 or a full three-course dinner. Just keep your eyes open and search in and around the historic city centre. And make sure you don't miss out the Hof which is a wonderful place with nice cafes a few paces to the east of the cathedral3.
Other Skills for Survival
In Aachen there is a special greeting: Make a fist, hold it up and lift your little finger (not the middle finger). This greeting comes from the last centuries, when Aachen was a centre of the needle industry. To sort out the bad needles, the workers used their little fingers to throw them away from the assembly line.
Today there is a city magazine called Klenkes, and there is also at least one statue showing this greeting.
Waiting in Queues
In Aachen there are several different systems for waiting in a queue. There is the normal way, found mostly at all the supermarkets: Choose one queue, stand at the end and wait (inevitably you choose the one where you have to wait the longest).
But there are at least two exceptions from this, in the main post offices; there you must push a small button to get a small piece of paper with a number on it. Then there is a big display which displays which number is to be served at which counter. It's not faster than the normal system, but much more complex.
The most exciting place to wait is in the city office. This is one big room with tons of flowers, millions of pillars, kilometres of cubicle walls, hundreds of people waiting and about fifteen counters, placed in such a way that it is impossible to see two at the same time.
There is an easy way to determine the wind direction. If the air smells of chocolate, the wind is coming from the north (Lindt chocolate factory); if it smells of cooked fruit (strawberries, plums, etc), it is coming from the east (Zentis jam factory); if it stinks the wind is coming from the west or there is no wind. The wind never comes from the south - to the south there is the Eifel with lots of fresh air, and in Aachen there is never fresh air.
Driving in the Winter
In Aachen it hardly ever snows. But if it starts, run! Run for your life. Run into the nearest house, hotel or church you can reach. Stay there until the snow has melted. In Aachen they don't know how to drive in snow - they are urbanites.
In Aachen, nearly everybody speaks English. But there are some (mostly older people) who only speak Öcher Platt. This is a local Aachener slang (Öcher in Öcher Platt means Aachen, and Platt is a word for Slang).
If you want to speak German with these people, be careful, Öcher Platt is mostly not German. Example: If they want to say 'I know this region very well' (Ich kenne mich hier aus) they say 'I know me' (Hier kenn isch misch).