I love big cities, and always enjoy returning to Hong Kong, New York, and Sydney—among many others. But what about those unknown gems that are off the beaten tourist path… those obscure places that are just waiting to be explored by real travelers?
Our new “Mini City Guides” are here to uncover those gems, and we’re looking to our favorite explorers—AONC readers—to give us the inside scoop.
Which accessibly obscure city would you like to share?
What makes Aachen unique?
Aachen has a small-feel city with a big history. It was the center of the Carolingian Empire, the Holy Roman Empire—a decision made by Charlemagne, the father of Europe. If you try to find it on most “must see” lists, it’s not there. Not even on something obvious like “must see historical cities in Germany.”
However, Aachen did make it on to one of the ultimate lists of important places. The Aachen Cathedral was one of the first three sites UNESCO inscribed in Europe, in the very first list with a total of only 13 sites.
The city’s iconic symbol is the Aachen Cathedral. It didn’t exist in Charlemagne’s time, but the site was where he had his palace. His remains are in the Palatine Chapel, which is part of the Aachen Cathdral today. The throne used for Charlemagne’s coronation is still there. It was also used to coronate Ottonian/German Kings for around 600 years, and even Napoleon considered it for his inauguration.
This year, 2014, is the 1200th anniversary of Charlemagne’s death. Aachen holds on to its history, but still makes it relevant to today. That’s remarkable. The city created a route of important historical sites and named after their number one person: Route Charlemagne. What I like about this route is that it does more than show life from 1,200 years ago. Each of the stops along the way has a theme, and each of those themes connects the historical significance of the building with the theme and life of today.
That’s part of what makes Aachen so unique. It has a very important spot in history, yet it’s off the tourist trail. Life continued—and the buildings and sites weren’t conserved like a museum. They transitioned and continued being part of Aachen’s changing story.
Like most European city centers, grassy patches in the summer are filled with people enjoying the sun. Aachen’s central grassy patch is the Elisengarten. In the middle of Elisengarten, a free exhibit awaits in the form of an open steel frame and glass enclosure. Inside is a look into the earth, the settlement history of the city.
The ancient foundations and artifacts are on display, left as found in an archaeological dig. Etched around the glass is the story of the people and things who have called Aachen home since the Neolithic age. It exemplifies how Aachen makes its history relevant and part of their landscape.
What makes it special to you?
Aachen’s in the German state of NordRhein Westfalen (NRW), where I’ve lived for four years. Most expats I know here take advantage of the ease of travel by visiting places outside of our state or outside of Germany—those places more frequently appearing on “must-see” lists.
I love the idea of traveling like a local, but there’s an idea that I relate to more: treating the local like a traveler. As an expat, it’s almost even more important since I know my time is limited.
I’m in the process of creating a resource for expats living in the NRW. It focuses on big and small sites and attractions right here. Researching the information, I rediscovered Aachen. I love history, and am ashamed that it took me so long to take that trip an hour away from my home. When I went there, I was impressed. The city isn’t large, and it’s not filled with tourists or touristy things. It’s simply a nice destination with historical significance and authenticity.
As a whole, the NRW is not a popular destination for tourists to Europe, except for the Cologne Cathedral. I have found so many intriguing places and stories working on my site. Most of the time I ask myself if the places I’m looking for would be worth it for someone living in this state to visit. Aachen, however, is a place I would recommend to anyone visiting Europe to make a detour to.
What’s the best place to grab a cup of coffee?
There are three things that are consistently good in Germany no matter where you go: the bread, the public transportation, and the coffee. Get coffee anywhere.
Grab a good breakfast at the Living Room Aachen. They have cathedral views, too. For a coffee and cake break, which is a very German midday tradition, head to the Middleberg bakery.
Are there any festivities that can’t be missed?
Since 2014 is the 1200th anniversary of Charlemagne’s death, there are commemorative events going on throughout the year.
Other annual events include Carnival in February or March, the World Equestrian Festival in late May, and the German Christmas Market in late November and December.
What’s the best way to get around town?
Aachen’s old town and historical center is small enough to see by foot. Public transportation is also clean and reliable. There are also bike paths available.
Any other areas around that can’t be missed?
Aachen borders the Netherlands and Belgium. Just outside the city is the Drielandenpunt, or three-country-point, the spot where these three borders meet. It also marks the highest point in the Netherlands.
For those who don’t travel to learn about history, or have no interest in visiting multiple countries at the same time, Aachen still has something for you.
The word Aachen is a roman derivative of the word water. The thermal springs were popular throughout history. Today that water is used at the famous Carolus Thermen spa and at the fountains throughout the city.
Thanks to Ann Belle for sharing her experiences of Aachen. Sounds like another great city to visit! More Mini City Guides are on the way.