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Aachen: cathedral city of Europe.

Aachen: cathedral city of Europe.

Aachen is a city that lives and breathes Europe. It is practically Europe in miniature. Aachen, on the border with Belgium and the Netherlands, has encapsulated the spirit, values and ideals of Europe since the days of Charlemagne. Indeed the Charlemagne Prize for services to European unity has been awarded at Aachen's town hall since 1950.

Aachen Cathedral is both a local landmark and a monument to Europe's illustrious past. After starting out life as the imperial palace's chapel in 800 AD (the year of Charlemagne's coronation), the completed building became the first cathedral in northern Europe and for many centuries served as the church of coronation for nearly every German king. The term 'completed' is open to interpretation, however, since the cathedral has been extended numerous times, including the addition of the great chancel in 1414 – a Gothic masterpiece whose windows reach an impressive 27 metres in height, making them the tallest ever at that time. The cathedral's treasury is the most important north of the Alps and features precious artefacts such as the Cross of Lothair, a silver and gold bust of Charlemagne and the shrine in which Charlemagne was supposedly interred in 814 AD. Both the cathedral and its treasury are among the highlights on the Charlemagne Route, the historical path that winds through Aachen. The route takes in a series of eye-catching buildings, including Haus Löwenstein (a former residence and inn) and the Büchelpalais, which until 1752 served as the local corn exchange. Every checkpoint on the route focuses on a different topic: history, science, Europe, religion, power, business and media. It's a wonder there's not an equestrian-themed checkpoint, given how passionate the locals are for this noble sport. The annual Concours Hippique International Officiel is among the leading equestrian tournaments worldwide. It's just one of numerous major events in the city, many of which are held in the equestrian arena before a crowd of 50,000 enthusiastic spectators.

Aachen is also renowned for its relaxed atmosphere, best experienced on a stroll through the historical streets. There's a charming contrast between the grand old buildings dotted along the Charlemagne Route and the lively buzz supplied by 45,000 students from all corners of the globe. They give the city a vibrant yet laid-back character that everyone seems to be enjoying wherever you look – evidence of Aachen's cosmopolitan flair and yet another reason to wander around the city centre, walking back through the centuries. Aachen Town Hall, built on the site of the old imperial palace in the 14th century, is another firm favourite for sightseers. It was later converted into a grand baroque palace during the city's prosperous heyday. Just next door is the Postwagen, a refined restaurant that has been welcoming visitors through its doors for centuries. Over on Pontstrasse, inside the Grosses Haus – believed to be the oldest residential block in Aachen – you'll find the International Newspaper Museum featuring many fascinating exhibits. The museum now explores the wider media and its collection includes more than 200,000 newspapers and other printed matter from all over the world and in (almost) every language, demonstrating the transience of history and how today's headlines become tomorrow's chip papers. Whereas at the Ludwig Forum for International Art, the works on display are always contemporary, with genres ranging from pop art to photorealism. Throughout the ages, however, one thing has remained constant in Aachen: its European ethos. You can't fail to notice that when you arrive in Aachen, you arrive in Europe.

City Highlights

Aachen Cathedral is the oldest cathedral in northern Europe, the final resting place of Charlemagne and the first German building to be designated a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1978. It houses a number of remarkable treasures, including the Cross of Lothair, a silver and gold bust of Charlemagne and many other works of art, some of which are up to 1,200 years old. Its present form with the Carolingian octagon in the middle, Gothic choir hall and west section developed over the course of centuries, with many kings and emperors contributing to this magnificent masterpiece. Read more

In the evenings, students flock to the many restaurants and bars, and Aachen's history is still evident in many places here away from the beaten track. Pontstrasse leads from the market past the main building of the prestigious technical university and right into the heart of this trendy hangout, where it's party time nearly all the time. With its casual charm and so much on offer, the Pontviertel is the ideal place to hang out with friends, enjoy a few beers and simply take things easy.

Aachen is known as a spa city. More than 30 medicinal springs have welled up from the ground here since time immemorial, heated by the volcanoes in the Eifel region to temperatures of up to 74°C. Sanus per aquam is the Latin for 'health through water'. Today the city's 2,000 year spa tradition is brought to life at the Carolus thermal baths, a top-notch spa. Its Thermal World is a great place to relax and while away the hours, while Sauna World takes you on a sweat-inducing tour of various sauna cultures. Indulgence World with its solariums, shiatsu massage beds, Caravane Oasis and various other massages is a real treat for body and soul.

An ancient fossil dating back around 30,000 years that was found in Aachen seems to indicate that the first resident of Aachen was probably a horse. Or was it just the very first sign of the passion that the local people have developed for all things equestrian. The city now has 40km of bridle paths, 22 indoor riding centres, 134 riding schools and a 50,000-seater equestrian stadium. In addition, the annual CHIO is the world's largest equestrian festival – even attracting people who usually prefer cycling or walking.

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