Exploring great architecture in Germany

Germany is home to an extraordinary collection of great architecture. Here are some of the best examples.
Overlooking the cathedral in Trier. Photo: GNTB/Christof Herdt
Overlooking the cathedral in Trier. Photo: GNTB/Christof Herdt

Travelers interested in traditional German architecture have ample choice between the castles, half-timbered town centers, monasteries, and churches on the World Heritage List. Here are seven venerable religious structures that are well worth a visit.

1. Aachen Cathedral

The pleasant spa town of Aachen, within walking distance of the Dutch and Belgian borders, hides an architectural gem of great importance. The magnificent Aachen Cathedral (Aachener Dom) is – simply put – one of the best cathedrals in Germany. More than one thousand years old, it was originally the chapel of Charlemagne’s imperial palace, its octagonal core directly inspired by the architecture in the eastern part of the Holy Roman Empire. Emperor Charlemagne started construction around 796, but as the exterior was renovated and expanded many times, this is also a great example of German Gothic architecture. The striking interior is filled with dazzling gold shrines, ancient altars and antique columns taken from Rome. It’s worth visiting the Cathedral Treasury as well – with fantastic objects such as the thousand-year-old golden cross of Lothar and Charlemagne’s original marble sarcophagus, it’s one of the best in Europe.

How to get there

Aachen is 80km west of Cologne, around 30 minutes by train or an hour by car.

Aachen Cathedral. Photo: Lookphotos/Guenther Bayerl

2. Cologne Cathedral

Cologne Cathedral is one of the most famous buildings in Germany, and rightly so. Construction of the mighty building began as early as 1248, kickstarted by the arrival of the Three Magi relics from Milan in 1164, which needed a home. Work was paused in the 16th century, and it may come as a surprise to learn that the cathedral wasn’t actually finished until the mid-19th century. Today, its soaring towers (157 meters) are an iconic part of the Cologne skyline; you can climb up the south tower for superlative views, but – with 533 steps to manage – it’s not a feat for the faint of heart. 

How to get there

Getting to Cologne Cathedral couldn’t be easier, as it sits just outside the Central Train Station. 

View towards Cologne city centre with the cathedral and Hohenzollern Bridge. Photo: GNTB/Francesco Carovillano

3. Naumburg Cathedral

The attractive old town of Naumburg in central Germany is crowned by its imposing cathedral, the Naumburger Dom St Peter und St Paul, with its four towers – two Romanesque, two Gothic. The 13th-century interior is filled with impressive details like the carved medieval choir stalls, the unique double choir screens and 12 extraordinary painted statues of the cathedral’s donors. Have a closer look – the striking statue of noblewoman Uta is said to have inspired Disney’s Evil Queen in Snow White.

How to get there

Naumburg is 70km west of Leipzig, an hour by train or car.

Ekkehard II. and Uta, the benefactors of Naumburg Cathedral. Photo: Lookphotos/Guenther Bayerl

4. Roman monuments, the Cathedral and Church of Our Lady in Trier

Back in the 3rd century, Trier was an important outpost of the Roman Empire, earning the moniker, “the Second Rome”. It’s no surprise that this makes Trier Germany’s oldest town, with an historical legacy unrivalled by anywhere else in the country. Today, you can visit a number of captivating Roman remains in the vicinity, including an amphitheatre, the imperial baths, a Roman bridge and the Porta Nigra gate. The cathedral and Church of Our Lady are further highlights of any trip to Trier.

How to get there

The nearest airport to Trier is actually in Luxembourg, but you can reach the town from Cologne (in around 2.5 hours) or Frankfurt (2.5 hours by car or 3.5 by train).  

Church of Our Lady and cathedral. Photo: GNTB/Francesco Carovillano

5. Speyer Cathedral

If you like your churches oversized, try this one: the red sandstone Speyer Cathedral (Dom zu Speyer) dating from 1103 is by far the largest Romanesque church in the world. It has a story to tell too, being nearly destroyed in a fire ignited by the French army in 1689. As a result of an ambitious and careful 18th-century restoration program, it has essentially been preserved in its original form and has influenced church design across Europe. Inside and underground, the crypt dates back to 1041 and is the largest hall from the Romanesque era. The Emperor’s Hall has restored wall paintings from the 1950s, and leads up to the 60-meter-high viewing platform in one of the towers.

How to get there

Speyer is around 1.5 hours’ drive or train ride south of Frankfurt.

Speyer Cathedral interior. Photo: Lookphotos/Guenther Bayerl

6. St Mary’s Cathedral and St. Michael’s Church in Hildesheim

Hildesheim was heavily bombed in World War II, but careful restoration of two magnificent churches – and the rebuilding of the city's main square in the 1980s – makes it a great destination for architecture lovers. The hilltop Benedictine abbey church of St Michael from 1022 is famed for its fantastic painted wooden ceiling. On another hill nearby, the stark Romanesque interiors of St Mary’s Cathedral from 1046 are complemented by the intricate biblical scenes twisting up a bronze column and on Germany’s oldest original bronze doors. Green-thumbed travelers can admire a huge, millennium-old rosebush in the courtyard that burnt to the ground in the war yet sprouted new branches the next year.

How to get there

Hildesheim is a 30-minute drive or train ride south of Hanover.

Hildesheim: overlooking the Cathedral of the Assumption of Mary. Photo: GNTB/Florian Trykowski

Religious structures are key sights for viewing typical German architecture styles, whether it’s Carolingian church towers or Gothic spires you're after.

This content was created in partnership with the German National Tourist Board.