Cologne is a city with a rich history that spans over 2,000 years, and its churches and cathedrals stand as testaments to this fascinating past.
When you visit Cologne, be prepared to immerse yourself in a blend of spiritual tradition and artistic expression through these outstanding structures.
For most tourists, the Cologne Cathedral and its Gothic architecture is what comes to mind when you think of beautiful churches in Cologne City. And you would be right.
But the cultural history of Cologne’s cathedrals and churches have more to offer up than just this well known Gothic mainstay.
You can soak up beautiful stained glass windows, magnificent structures, and living history at several other locations throughout the city.
Cologne Cathedral: The Famous Gothic Style Structure
The Cologne Cathedral, or Kölner Dom, is THE must-see church when you’re in Cologne, which is a good thing, because it’s pretty hard to miss. This Gothic architecture masterpiece has been standing for centuries.
History of Cologne Cathedral
The journey to build Cologne’s architectural marvel started back in the medieval period in 1164 when the Archbishop of Cologne, Rainald of Dassel, acquired the relics of the Three Kings. This event marked the beginning of the Cologne Cathedral we see today.
The acquisition of these holy relics, believed to be the remains of the Three Wise Men from the Nativity story, significantly elevated the religious status of Cologne. To appropriately house these relics and underscore their importance, it was decided a new, grand cathedral would be built, fitting for what were considered some of the most significant relics in Christendom.
Building work began on the cathedral in 1248, inspired by the Gothic cathedrals of Northern France. The foundation stone was laid under the auspices of Archbishop Konrad von Hochstaden. The eastern arm was completed by 1322 and consecrated in the same year, but construction subsequently slowed due to a myriad of factors including political unrest, economic hardships, and shifts in architectural tastes.
By the mid-16th century, construction on the cathedral had come to a halt, and the unfinished cathedral stood as a colossal testament to both ambition and the challenges of its realization. For centuries, its southern side was dominated by a huge crane – a symbol of both the halt in construction and the city’s aspiration to one day complete the structure.
The renewed interest in Gothic architecture and the 19th-century Romantic movement reignited passion for the completion of the cathedral. Boosted by the emerging sense of German nationalism and the desire to complete what had been started, work resumed in 1842, following the original medieval plans and using updated building techniques.
The cathedral was finally completed in 1880, more than 600 years after construction first began. The occasion was celebrated with great fanfare, with Emperor Wilhelm I attending the celebrations.
Despite its completion, the cathedral would face further challenges in the centuries that followed. During World War II, the city of Cologne suffered extensive bombing, but the cathedral, despite being hit multiple times, stood defiantly amidst the ruins. Post-war restoration ensured its survival for future generations.
Today, the Cologne Cathedral stands not just as a testament to Gothic architecture and the city’s Christian heritage but also as a symbol of resilience, determination, and the human spirit. As a UNESCO World Heritage Site, it draws millions of visitors each year, all coming to witness the grandeur and history enshrined in its stone and stained glass.
As a Gothic cathedral, you’ll notice the distinctive features that make the Cologne Cathedral a UNESCO World Heritage Site right away. The intricate details on the beautiful facade and the towering presence of its twin spires are part of what make this cathedral so eye-catching. And that’s just the outside.
Is it as tall as it looks?
It’s pretty tall. In fact, it’s the 4th tallest cathedral in the world.
Treasures and Relics
Inside the Cologne Cathedral, you’ll find its real treasure – the Shrine of the Three Kings, which holds the relics of the Three Wise Men. These treasures made Cologne Cathedral a significant pilgrimage destination of historical significance back in the day. The relics’ journey to Cologne involved the Holy Roman Emperor, Frederick Barbarossa, who took them from the Basilica of Sant’Eustorgio in Milan, Italy (some of the relics have since been returned to Milan).
Visiting the Cologne Cathedral is free, so step inside and marvel at the stunning interior and cathedral windows. A climb to the viewing platform of the south tower rewards you with a breathtaking view of the city. Just be prepared for a bit of a workout, as it’s 509 steps up. Despite damages from World War II air raids, the Cologne Cathedral remains a remarkable and awe-inspiring sight. So, while you’re walking around Cologne, make sure to stop by this iconic symbol of the city’s history and architecture.
3 Must-Visit Romanesque Churches in Cologne
After you’ve taken in the beauty of Cologne Cathedral, you can’t miss the incredible Romanesque churches in Cologne that have stood the test of time. These architectural masterpieces are also worth your visit, with their distinctive features and authentic medieval feel.
St. Gereon Church
A good place to start is at St. Gereon Church, one of the oldest churches in Cologne. This Romanesque beauty is known for its unique decagonal nave that makes it stand out. Take a look at the spiral staircase leading to the gallery and don’t miss the medieval murals in the crypt. As you wander around, you’ll find Gereonskloster, a monastery complex that houses the impressive treasury.
Basilica of the Holy Apostles
Next stop on your tour of Romanesque churches is Basilica of the Holy Apostles.This Romanesque church has a striking triforium and its spires are hard to miss. With its Roman roots, it’s a perfect example of the fusion of Romanesque architecture with later Gothic elements. The interior features captivating frescoes and intricately carved details that’ll surely leave you in awe.
St. Pantaleon Church
You’ll also want to visit St. Pantaleon Church, another Romanesque gem with a blend of architectural styles. The church’s distinct features include the richly decorated western entrance and the ancient murals depicting various saints. The crypt is a must-see, with its medieval relics and ornate tombs, making this church a fascinating insight into Cologne’s religious history.
Other Notable Churches in Cologne
Great St. Martin Church
Great St. Martin Church is truly a gem in the heart of Cologne. The impressive Romanesque architecture and style of this Catholic church is definitely worth a visit for its stunning architecture and rich history. As you walk inside, you’ll be amazed by its nave and aisles that boast an intricate design, truly reflecting the spirit of German Catholicism. This Catholic church has a fascinating blend of spiritual tradition and artistic expression spanning over many centuries. It’s built atop Roman ruins.
Enjoy the serenity of the surroundings and soak up the atmosphere of this beautiful religious site.
St. Maria Church (St. Maria im Kapitol)
Another architectural marvel to add to your Cologne itinerary is St. Maria Church. This historic church is one of the largest of the Romanesque churches in the city, with three majestic towers to the west. The stunning design of St. Maria will leave you in awe, and it’s considered the most important work of German church architecture of the Salian dynasty.
As you explore the church, you’ll find yourself immersed in the captivating beauty and tranquility of this religious site.
Cologne’s Spiritual Architectural Heritage
Cologne’s enduring legacy is deeply intertwined with its historic churches and cathedrals, notably the towering Cologne Cathedral, which stands as a Gothic masterpiece. But while the cathedral may dominate the skyline and the memory of many a visitor, the city also boasts remarkable Romanesque structures that offer unique glimpses into Cologne’s rich spiritual and architectural tapestry. Together, these splendid edifices stand as silent witnesses to centuries of faith, artistry, and resilience, making Cologne a must-visit for those seeking a blend of history and spiritual tradition.