Sooner or later, you’re going to end up in Aachen. It’s just that kind of town.
This westernmost German city is on the border with the Netherlands and Belgium, so you kind of have to go through Aachen to get to wherever in Western Europe. It’s a literally a center of pro-European Union sentiment, with Aachen awarding the Charlemagne Prize yearly to people who’ve contributed to European reunification.
Oh, and I almost forgot … it’s also an equine center, hosting several major equestrian events including CHIO Aachen coming up in July.
Bottom line: Like Düsseldorf and our other Quick Trip destinations, it’s just a great place to chill for the weekend without feeling pressure to rush around checking off bucket-list destinations. Though there are some here.
Mostly, Aachen is just a super-cosmopolitan little boutique city with a walkable city center full of ancient streets and huge squares where stuff is going on all the time. We’ve never visited that there wasn’t a band playing at a festival, a Christmas market going on or some sort of EU gathering in a square. A lot of excitement.
Pontstrasse, which we call “Sushi Strasse,” has lots of great, affordable ethnic restaurants that include sushi and Thai food if you’re burning out on bland frits and frickadellen.
All that said, there is one must-see-while-you’re-there destination … the Aachen Cathedral. We’re more cafés-and-cocktails types. We love art and culture, but honestly, I don’t have the attention span to listen to history lessons about what some prince or king did in the 16th century.
We live in the 21st century and we kind of like it here.
We also rarely visit churches because as Sonny Kent once told our 6th-grade teacher, “Who gives a f*ck.”
But Aachen’s cathedral is a UNESCO World Heritage center and what’s now a small city has had an outsized role in history starting in the 8th century with homefry Charlemagne, the first king to – wait for it – unite Europe. At least 30 kings and 12 queens have been coronated in Aachen during various historic epochs including the Holy Roman Empire. (Okay, I took notes. Do I get a “A”?)
More on that below.
But first, the boilerplate:
There are cities that must be explored (Paris, Berlin and Rome) and cities where you can have a terrific adventure in a few hours. Expats tend to zip in and out on business, or over a weekend. So we created the Quick Trip travel series that better reflects our expat lifestyle than the “we went there and it was beautiful” conventional story.
Now, I told you that because one of the great things is, Aachen is an easy and beautiful drive from several major expat centers including Frankfurt, Luxembourg, Brussels and Eindhoven.
So, after 60-plus hour weeks, we look forward to driving across the border and up into the hills of North Rhine–Westphalia. And here’s what we come for.
We go to cities for five experiences:
Museums and/or zoos
Drinking and dining
Ambiance and Architecture
General hanging out.
Let’s see how Aachen rates …
Museums 7 out of 10
The Centre Charlemagne is small but innovative, the first CG museum I’ve experienced. There are 20 interactive media stations (a couple didn’t work in English) that show everything from CG interviews with “locals” from the 8th century including aristocrats, soldiers and merchants to deep dives into life when Aachen was part of Rome, the Dark Ages and Middle Ages.
Check out the Centre Charlemagne’s website, which is also interactive.
The museum has a fair number of interesting pieces of art, including a huge Medieval painting featuring a Jewish merchant at the center (though nothing tells you this).
Judging by his clothes and appearance, I’m guessing he was one of the merchants who played an important role in early Aachen. Jews were even connected to Charlemagne’s court. That’s a part of German history we find confounding considering what was to come.
There’s just soooo much history here even we were fascinated.
Drinking and dining 8 out of 10
This is Germany and we like beer. So, how bad could it be, right? Aachen scores a solid “8” because it has a lot of restaurant choices. The first place we went, Karl’s Wirtshaus, was exactly what we were looking for … incredibly heavy, unhealthy and scrumptious schnitzels and curry wursts. And beer.
On our most recent visit, we hit Sushi Strasse and chose Oishii, an Asian-fusion restaurant. My note pad still has soy sauce on it and it was fab. One roll was 3 euros. We went crazy and got Beck’s beer, sushi, soup and pad Thai that my wife Cheryl rates the best she’d ever had. All great. All for the grand total of about 25 euros.
We’ve had cocktails and wine a couple of times at Rose am Dom. They stock a terrific selection of German and French wines, and prices are reasonable. I got a snifter of Hennessy to accompany my cigar and it was 4 euros. Every time we go, there are always people chowing down on haute cuisine, so we’re thinking the food is fine. It’s an ancient and elegant place, just our style, with a friendly crew. Next time …
Shopping – 8 out of 10
The shopping in Aachen is pretty much like every other small city, with a nice selection of high street stores and upscale boutiques. But, Aachen has one of the best bookstores ever.
Mayersche Aachen is in our favorite Bauhaus building, with four floors of books and other media, gifts and cafés. Even if you could care less about Charlemagne and Aachen’s singular architecture, this bookstore alone is worth the trip.
As a matter of fact, we drove to Aachen on a recent Sunday just because Mayersche advertises Sunday hours. Which they don’t actually have. But it was still a lovely day out of the office.
Ambience and architecture 9 out of 10
This is a small but ancient and memorable city with some standout architecture that survived World War II including the cathedral and the Gothic rathaus, which dates back to the 1200s.
Aachen Cathedral is worth at least an hour, one of the most elaborate in Europe. We could describe the imposing architecture and remarkable art work, but this would become one of those travel-guide posts, and no one wants that.
We rarely say this, but it wouldn’t be a terrible idea to join one of those guided tours because even after multiple visits, we don’t feel like we’ve seen everything worth seeing.
General hanging out 8 out of 10
We lived in Germany for years and we have to say, other than Bavaria, this is the most welcoming region. Lots of cheerful people and smiling faces. In Germany ….
Like most German cities, there are endless choices when it comes to lovely outdoor cafés, ice cafés and restaurants.
The truth is, most of our QT cities such as Düsseldorf and Maastricht are worth multi-day stays. Aachen is no exception, especially if you’re coming for work or a special event. Get ready to be impressed ….
MORE QUICK TRIPS:
• Quick Trips: Düsseldorf has it all, from fashion-forward Königsallee to supercars (updated)
• Quick Trips: Antwerp is a must-visit destination … but just not right now (updated)
• Quick Trips: Maastricht is an ancient city with a youthful vibe and cosmopolitan complexity
Co-CEO of Dispatches Europe. A former military reporter, I'm a serial expat who has lived in France, Turkey, Germany and the Netherlands.