So iconic, so perfectly realized does the profile of Cologne’s awe-inspiring Dom appear that it’s a surprise to learn that the familiar silhouette lacked those soaring, 157-metre spires for most of its history. Construction of the Dom – whose design was inspired by the colossal French cathedrals of Beauvais and Amiens – was prompted by the transfer of the relics of the Three Magi from Milan in 1164. Work began in 1248, with the fifty-metre-high choir consecrated by 1322, but stopped in 1560 and the church remained incomplete until the mid-nineteenth century, when neo-Gothic architect Ernst Friedrich Zwirner finished the job. It’s only when you get up close you appreciate its sheer size, at which point the sooty towers resemble vast waterfalls of Gothic sculpture. You can climb the south tower though be warned – there are 509 steps, and no lift. In the run-up to Christmas, a traditional market fills Roncalliplatz on the south side of the Dom, with others on Alter Markt, Heumarkt, Neumarkt and Rudolfplatz.

The interior

Once inside, the downside of the Dom being Germany’s most famous church is apparent, as grumpy, red-robed officials struggle to maintain some sort of ecclesiastical decorum amid the seething mass of visitors. But look up and you’ll forget the crowds, for the genius of the design lies in the way sheer height lends such delicacy and elegance to the structure of what is, by any measure, an enormous building. Five windows on the north side of the nave date from 1507 to 1509, though the Dom’s oldest window, the Bible Window, dates from around 1265 and is in the Chapel of the Three Magi in the ambulatory. The cathedral’s treasures include the very Shrine of the Three Magi that first inspired its construction; gorgeously gilded and bejewelled, the reliquary dates from around 1190 to 1225 and is behind the high altar.

Close by, the so-called Plan F is one of seven surviving medieval drawings of the cathedral. It depicts the design of the towers, and was of great help to their nineteenth-century builders. On the north side of the ambulatory, the Gero Crucifix is the oldest remaining monumental crucifix in the western world; it dates from 970, and originally stood in an early predecessor to the Dom. The most recent addition to the Dom’s artworks is the striking 19-metre-high abstract window by Cologne-based artist Gerhard Richter, installed in the south transept in 2007. Archbishop Meisner is not a fan, and ruffled feathers when he suggested it might be more at home in a mosque.

The Domschatzkammer

The partly subterranean Domschatzkammer is accessed from the exterior of the cathedral on the north side, and has something of the air of a bank vault, which is hardly surprising given the priceless works of religious art it contains, or the fact that one of them – the jewelled, seventeenth-century Sumptuous Monstrance – was badly damaged by thieves in 1975. The treasury occupies a series of thirteenth-century vaults, and its artefacts are beautifully lit and presented: particularly eye-catching are the gilded silver bishop’s crosier dating from 1322 and the so-called St Peter’s crosier, which is Roman and dates from the fourth century AD. Also on display is the original wooden structure of the Shrine of the Three Magi, while on the museum’s lower level it’s possible to see a fragment of the Roman city wall and the finds from two sixth-century Frankish tombs.

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