A whole host of Germany’s World Heritage sites come in the form of religious buildings: cathedrals, churches, monasteries and abbeys. Religious architecture through the ages has resulted in some of the most iconic, splendid and richly decorated buildings on the planet, and several of them can be found in Germany. From Charlemagne’s cathedral in Aachen to Lorsch Abbey and the Monastic Island of Reichenau – rising from the depths of Lake Constance – you don’t have to be a believer to get inspired.
Aachen Cathedral was the first site to be awarded World Heritage status in Germany. Constructed in around 790 to 800, it is one of the most recognized symbols of Occidental architecture in the world. The powerful emperor and king of the Franks, Charlemagne, ordered its construction and is also buried here, making the cathedral an important pilgrimage site. For six hundred years, Aachen Cathedral was a place of coronation, crowning more than thirty German kings and over ten queens.
The cathedral stands at 32 metres high and features an octagonal dome, as Charlemagne placed importance on the number eight, which often appears in the Holy Bible. He also saw the number as symbolizing the power of the Franks and the Roman Empire, standing as the ruler of both the religious and secular worlds. An octagon can be drawn with two squares intersecting within a circle: the circle represents the eternity of God and the square symbolizes the secular world.
Inside the cathedral you’ll see Charlemagne’s marble sarcophagus in the chancel. His imperial throne, which was built in the 10th century, is still intact; it overlooks the fine altar. Make sure to view the treasury in the cloister, too. You can find grand masterpieces covering various periods, from Classical, Ottonian, Staufian and Carolingian times – look out for the Cross of Lothair, which dates from roughly 1000 and stands proudly as a fine example of goldsmith’s work from the medieval period, while you can also marvel at the silver and gold bust of Charlemagne. It’s no wonder that the Cathedral Treasury is recognized as one of the most significant in Europe and the Christian world.
There are other bursts of gold that glint through the cathedral’s mosaics. Simply wander through the heavenly building and enjoy the bouncing light display from the stained-glass windows scattered over the fine marble floor. Grey and creams coat the striped arches and the ambulatory – it’s a fantastic display of colour.
The Carolingian Westwork and Civitas Corvey can be found on the sparkling Weser River on the edge of Höxter. Built between AD 822 and 885, the complex was once a Benedictine abbey; the former abbey church was listed as a World Heritage Site in 2014. It stands as one of the most important monastic areas in medieval Germany, but it’s the marvellous blend of culture, spirituality, architecture, art and history that make this structure so unique. Back in its heyday, the monastery was known for its extensive library and esteemed school.
The monastery complex was almost totally destroyed in the Thirty Years War, and was restructured in 1671 as a Baroque residence. It features the Westwork, the sole standing structure from the Carolingian era. The Westwork consists of a huge, tore-like front, which is a traditional addition to Carolingian churches. It hosts some fabulously intricate artwork and decoration; try to spot the collection of sea creatures and a scene from Odyssey.
Corvey still attracts many travellers and believers, being an important pilgrimage site and one of the most significant monasteries from the Frankish Empire period. It was not only spiritually influential, but was also significant in economic and political terms as an outpost of the Frankish Empire. This role is clear in the architecture of the complex too.
The main room on the top floor is surrounded by galleries, designed in an ancient style. The arch to the entrance hall follows suit, with the same style and construction methods. Take your time on the ground and upper floors too, where you can find wall paintings that depict ancient mythology in Carolingian times.
Look further around the grounds to locate the palace, with its grand ceilings and ornate paintings adorning the walls. Another must-see is the library, which contains more than 74,000 books in English, French and German. There are a huge number of English romantic novels in the collection; if you’re an avid reader, the library will most certainly keep you occupied.
The pretty 2000-year-old city of Cologne straddles the twinkling Rhine River. In the heart of this popular western German city is the masterpiece of Cologne Cathedral. Completed in 1880, Cologne Cathedral is Gothic grandeur on a huge scale and stands as one of the largest masterpieces ever created. Dedicated to St Peter and St Mary, its archbishop was one of the seven Electors of the Holy Roman Empire.
Cologne Cathedral is undoubtedly the city’s main attraction and one of the most popular spots in Germany, with over six million travellers coming to pay their respects every year. Cast your eye over its two grand towers, the world’s tallest dual spires. Trundle down the nave in the church, which at 144 metres, is the longest in Germany. Climb 533 steps to reach the top of the cathedral to find sprawling panoramic views of Cologne, the picturesque neighbouring region below and the Rhine River as it twists and turns.
The cathedral inside contains plenty of treasures. Look up to the stained-glass windows, which project a dancing light of colour, marvel at intricate choir stalls and look at the fine detail of paintings from the 14th century. The Three Kings are enclosed in a golden shrine inside and make the cathedral an important pilgrimage site. Look around the Domschatzkammer in the vaults on the north side of the building to see a stunning array of treasury items made from gold and ivory.
Cologne Cathedral is home to a fantastic array of cultural events throughout the year. Summer brings an organ recital every Tuesday, while from September to June you can hear a monthly choir performance. Cologne has its very own carnival in February. Parades take to the streets of the city, while parties are aplenty, with fancy dress and the sing-song of local tunes. Cologne’s Pride festival in July can attract up to a million visitors, and is rife with celebrations and parties.
Hessen, a federal state in the west of Germany, is where you’ll find the tranquil town of Lorsch, nestled in the Rhine rift valley. Lorsch’s most well-known feature is of course Benedictine Lorsch Abbey, which has held World Heritage status since 1991. Founded in 764, the abbey was once the central point of power, culture and spirituality during the time of the Holy Roman Empire – right up until the High Middle Ages. The picturesque abbey was one of the most revered monasteries of the Carolingian Empire.
The famed King’s Hall stands out as one of Germany’s most significant pre-Romanesque artefacts and holds its original appearance. With its grand pilasters, covered arcades and towering half-columns, it’s a true treasure. The 9th-century Torhalle gate and the old church are some of the only true remainders of the original monastery; the church displays 8th–18th-century construction techniques and is one of the most important buildings dating back to the Carolingian Era.
The abbey was home to one of the biggest libraries of the Middle Ages, while theLorsch Pharmacopoeia is among the famous manuscripts linked to the town. It holds great importance as one of the oldest forms of pharmacopoeia in existence, containing a fascinating collection of ancient recipes, and was entered into the Memory of the World Register in 2013. Medicine was based on herb and folk remedies at the time in the early Middle Ages, and looking out to the huge, lush herb garden today, it’s no wonder this place was a central point of healing.
The area is also home to a fantastic roster of events throughout the year. Close to Losch lies Lindenfels, famous for its relaxing spas, but also an annual medieval festival. Walk through the streets of the town to find locals in traditional costume. Nearby Heppenheim, meanwhile, hosts an exciting street-theatre and international wine festival every year, too.
Maulbronn in Baden-Württemberg is home to an outstanding monastery – one of the best-preserved monastery complexes in the whole of Europe. It took around four hundred years for the monks to build, and since 1993 it has been inscribed with World Heritage Site status. A former Cistercian abbey, Maulbronn blends a mixture of architectural styles together perfectly, from Romanesque to Gothic, creating a unique feel. In fact, it was here that the Gothic architectural style was introduced to the German-speaking world.
The Maulbronn Monastery is characterized by fortified walls and terracotta roofs. Most of the buildings on site were constructed between the 12th and 16th centuries. While outside the complex, take a look at the water-management system in the grounds; it consists of an impressive network of reservoirs, irrigation canals and drains which have sparked much interest. Pay attention to the agricultural fields, too – the Cistercian’s farms or “granges” once peppered the lush countryside of the surrounding area.
Explore the many buildings of the complex and you’ll be rewarded with numerous towers and several constructions boasting medieval walls. Walk through the entrance hall to the monastery’s church to find the Paradise, a portico. A beautiful piece of work from 1220, it is the oldest example of Gothic architecture in the country. This, along with the refectory and cloister, have been mostly kept in their original form.
The fountain is another highlight of the monastery complex. A three-bowl fountain, the fresh water comes from the mountain springs close by. The Fountain House was used for cleaning and washing and stands as a visual icon of the monastery.
Today, the monastery is used as a concert venue – perfect for harnessing the unique acoustics of the complex. It was also transformed into a Protestant boarding school in the 16th century; though the school has undergone much transformation over the years, it still welcomes students to this day. Notable alumni include influential writers and scientists such as Johannes Kepler, Herman Hess and Friedrich Hölderlin. Today, the complex is also home to a classical language school.
Reichenau Island rises from the waters of picture-perfect Lake Constance in south Germany. It was granted World Heritage Site status in 2000. At 4.5km long and 1.5km wide, Reichenau is the biggest, and most popular, island in Lake Constance. There are three village districts on the island – Mittelzell, Niederzell and Oberzell.
Founded in 724, the Monastic Island of Reichenau is home to three Romanesque churches dating back to the 9th–11th centuries. The three churches are excellent examples of Ottonian, Carolingian and Salian architecture; they attest to the importance of the former Benedictine abbey that was found on the island. The Benedictine monastery was an incredible hub of artistry, with grand wall paintings and dazzling illuminations.
The abbey’s minister church was built in honour of the Virgin and St Mark in 1048 in Mittelzell. The apse and transepts are prominent and were highly influential, changing the history of European architecture. The church dedicated to St Peter and Paul in the village of Niederzell holds well-known wall paintings and a glorious organ, while several further artworks can be found in the church of St George in Oberzell. The highlights here are the Ottonian painted murals dating back as far as the 10th century – the only space of its kind in this area of Germany.
Reichenau Island is also home to other important artefacts. Precious manuscripts can be found that display illustrations of the New Testament, as well as pictures of the Gospels and Jesus Christ. The manuscript was subsequently entered into the Memory of the World Register in 2003. It can be found in the Reichenau Museum, which explores the construction of the monastery.
Today, Reichenau Island keeps its monastic traditions alive. Religious festivals and processions take place over the island throughout the year. The Feast of St Mark is celebrated in April, while the Feast of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary takes place in August. For other types of activities on Reichenau Island, why not take advantage of its endless sporting opportunities? Think hiking, cycling and water sports aplenty while you look out to the twinkling lake.
Naumburg can be spotted far in the distance, its majestic cathedral spires scraping the sky. The four towers of the building are the first thing you see. Built in 1028 AD, the cathedral is a relatively recent addition to the World Heritage list, inscribed in 2018. Today, the building has kept to its original purposes, and religious services are often held here.
The cathedral is a splendid mixture of Gothic and Romanesque architecture. Walk inside the cathedral to find two Gothic choirs complementing its Romanesque structure. Begin by heading to the west choir, which dates back to the 13th century. The cathedral’s star features are its sculptures – the excellent sculptor, known as the “Naumburg Master”, and his workshop were behind these exceptional pieces of art. There are a total of twelve statues found in this part of the building. Ten of the statues are found within the walls, while the others stand free. These statues were originally painted in colour, but today the remains that exist are from later restoration works. Take note of the intricate detailing of the sculptures – in particular, the couple known as Ekkehard and Uta, a piece that embodies ideas of medieval chivalry.
The “Naumburg Master” also constructed the Gothic screen in the cathedral in around 1240–1250. With exquisite figures and intricate details of fruit, flowers and leaves on show, the pieces of art have huge visual impact. Note that the relief of the Passion of Christ is carved at over 30 metres deep, giving the depiction a unique look.
The blend of architectural styles, along with the cathedral’s pretty stained-glass windows, demonstrate the grand art of the High Middle Ages and the work of artists like Neo Rauch and Thomas Kuzio in the crypt and the baptistery. The east choir is another spot to marvel at some dazzling window work, too.
After you’ve explored inside, make sure to wander around the pristine gardens of the cathedral where you can find around two hundred plant species – some of which also feature in the artwork of the cathedral.
Western Germany is home to the pretty town of Speyer, located in the Rhineland-Palatinate region. The handsome imperial cathedral here is its key attraction. Dedicated to St Stephen and St Mary, it is one of the most important structures dating from the time of the Holy Roman Empire. It stands proudly as one of Germany’s largest Romanesque buildings, and is the biggest surviving Romanesque church on the planet. Founded in 1030 by Conrad II and reworked again in the 11th century, it was here that Habsburg, Salian and Staufer emperors were buried for nearly three hundred years. As such, the cathedral is an impressive symbol of imperial power.
The structure of the cathedral sprawls out like a Latin cross, with the grand vaulted basilica featuring three naves standing as its central masterpiece. The preserved crypt is the biggest columned hall of its kind in Europe, and as a result, Speyer Cathedral has been a great influencer on subsequent Romanesque design.
Climb roughly three hundred steps to reach the top of the cathedral and you’ll be rewarded with panoramic views over Speyer from an observation platform, where the picturesque Rhine plain sprawls out before you. Take the opportunity to see this stunning part of Germany from a unique perspective.
Continue exploring the grounds to find the “bowl”. A deeply curved feature, it can hold up to 1560 litres at capacity. Every new bishop once filled the container with flowing wine – the people of Speyer seemed to enjoy this ritual! Legend has it that this is the origin of the Cathedral Wine Fair, which takes place here in spring. The International Music Festival is held on-site too, and features concerts and organ recitals, bringing fantastic and lively music into town.
Furthermore, the huge Domgarten stretches all the way to the Rhine and is the biggest park in the city. It’s a wonderful place for an afternoon stroll. Here you can find the Mount of Olives, once the focal point of the cloister.
If you are looking to explore more of the region, Speyer is conveniently close to Heidelberg. A gloriously beautiful town, Heidelberg is home to a famous university and a stunning 16th-century palace.
St Mary’s Cathedral and St Michael’s Church in Hildesheim are quintessential examples of early Romanesque architecture in Germany. They have both enjoyed World Cultural Heritage status since 1985.
St Michael’s Church was constructed between 1010 and 1020, and showcases medieval architecture and craftsmanship perfectly. Built to a symmetrical plan – typical of Ottoman Romanesque art – its two plunging apses pierce into the sky. Its exterior looks like a castle straight out of a fairytale.
Inside is a veritable treasure trove. Look up to its solid wooden ceiling, which reaches up to around 20 metres and dates from the 13th century. There are choirs inside, fine circular turrets and soaring lantern towers. You’ll find a unique piece of artwork here – the Tree of Jesse is painted on 1300 oak boards in the central nave.
St Mary’s Cathedral, meanwhile, was reconstructed after a fire broke out in 1046. Walk through the exquisite bronze doors, which date back to 1015. They depict some of the events that took place during Christ’s life and happenings from the Book of Genesis. The space is still home to its original crypt. The layout of St Mary’s is comparable to that of St Michael’s – it features a similar nave arrangement, with two columns for every pillar – however at St Mary’s the measurements of the whole place are finer. There are bronze works from Bishop Bernward and the Hezilo chandelier hangs in the middle of the space. It stands as the biggest extant wheel chandelier of the 11th century.
There is more to be found outside the cathedral. Discover the grounds and look out for its incredible rose bush. Legend has it that the bush is around one thousand years old and is the oldest rose in the entire world. It climbs up – reaching around 10 metres – onto the apse of the cathedral and stands as the symbol of Hildesheim.
The Pilgrimage Church of the Scourged Saviour (or Church of Wies) lies in the tiny hamlet of Wies, 5km southeast of Steingaden, a short detour off Bavaria’s famous Romantic Road. More than one million visitors make this detour every year to marvel at this masterpiece of rococo art, embodying perfect harmony between architecture and decoration. Nowhere better pairs the élan and excess of Bavaria’s heavenly church interiors than Wieskirche Pilgrimage Church, which was added to World Heritage list in 1983.
The church’s fascinating story started on June 14th 1738, when farmer’s wife Maria Lory spotted tears coming from the eyes of an abandoned figure of a scourged Christ, the Flagellation of Christ. The site instantly became a site of pilgrimage, and two years later a tiny chapel was built to accommodate the flow of pilgrims. Sheer visitor numbers soon overwhelmed it, however, and so the present church was begun in 1746 to the designs of local artist and architect Dominikus Zimmermann. It was consecrated in 1754.
Though the exterior is handsome enough, nothing prepares you for the overwhelming grace and beauty of the interior – a vision of rococo heaven in pastel shades. The ceiling frescoes come courtesy of Dominikus’s elder brother Johann Baptist, and depict Christ dispensing divine mercy and create the illusion of vaulting on a flat surface. Johann was the court painter of the Bavarian Prince Elector and as such was a prolific artist in the region and all over Europe. His work also graces the monastery of Kloster Andechs and the Wittelsbachs’ summer palace at Nymphenburg.
The church is a magical sight at any time of year, but come in midwinter and you might just have the place to yourself – perfect for quiet reflection and contemplation. If you are here during the busier summer months, make sure to attend one of the evening concerts held here. The highlight of the church’s calendar however is the Feast of Christ's Tears, held on the first Sunday after June 14, the principal pilgrimage festival. You can learn all about it in the Wiesmuseum, situated on the second floor of the prelate’s house, and part of the guided tour.
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This content was created in partnership with the German National Tourist Board.