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Cologne Cathedral

Both the central point and largest building of the city, the Cologne Cathedral (“Kölner Dom” in German) is the defining element for Cologne’s cityscape as well as for the city’s history. The church is Germany’s most visited landmark, an UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1996 and one of the ten largest churches in the world by height, reaching 157 metres including the antenna. From 1880, when the construction of the towers was finished, until it was surpassed by the Washington Monument in 1884, it was the tallest building in the world. It also contains one of the world’s largest free swinging bells, which in itself has a diameter of 3.2 meters and weighs 24 tons. The Cologne Cathedral is visible from every place in the city as it is located on a small hill about 250 meters from the bank of the Rhine river. In direct neighborhood to the Cathedral, the central railway station, the Ludwig art museum and the Romano-Germanic museum are located.

CGN Cathedral 2

Photo: Andreas Möltgen / KölnTourismus GmbH

For casual visitors, it seems most amazing that people back in the 13th century, when construction of the Cathedral began, were capable of building such a tall structure. The tall towers though were only added to the building in the 19th century. The history of the structure itself goes back much longer, beginning at least in the second half of the 6th century. Back then, possibly even earlier than that, buildings had been constructed in that location that had churchly uses. From 818 until 1248, when works for the current church commenced, the site hosted what is today called the “Old Cathedral”. 

In the year 1164, the Cologne archbishop received the relics of the Three Kings and brought them to his hometown. As this attracted many pilgrims, it was decided that a more befitting environment for the relics was needed, thus a new church building, styled after the impressive Gothic Cathedral in Amiens, France, was drawn up. However, it took until 1248 before the first stone was put in place and from then on until 1322, before the first part of the building was ready to be used as a church, while work still continued on other parts of the building. This continued until 1473, when work on a grander scale was stopped for almost four centuries after the southern tower was completed. Upon rediscovery of the original blueprint and based on financing both from private initiatives and the Prussian government, construction was started again, finishing the project in 1880, more than 600 years after it had been begun.

While the city of Cologne was mostly destroyed by air raids in World War II, the Cathedral was left standing - although it suffered some external damage -, probably due to the fact that the allied pilots used it as an orientation mark. While the most severe war damages had been quickly repaired, maintenance works are conducted continuously on the building, consuming roughly 10 million Euros per year. In 2007, for example, a new, elaborately designed stained glass window made from thousands of single pieces was installed. Other attractions on the inside include a viewing platform in the southern tower in a height of 98 meters which has great views of the city and the Rhine river. To get there, visitors need to climb 386 steps in a spiraling and partly very narrow staircase. Those who have had enough after 291 steps at least get the opportunity to see the impressive bell housing containing eight different, giant bells, two of which were made in the 15th century. 

Also worth seeing are the stained glass windows, mostly made in the 19th century. Five of these windows were gifted to the Cathedral by King Ludwig I of Bavaria and are adequately called Bavaria windows. Most attention, however, is usually drawn to the Shrine of the Three Kings, located behind the high altar. The elaborately designed sarcophagus, designed and built from 1181 to 1225, presumably contains the silk-wrapped bones of the biblical three wise men, along with a few gifts. Another sight is the Crucifix of Bishop Gero, a statue standing almost two meters tall and made from oakwood. The sculpture, housed in its own small chapel within the Cathedral near the sacristy, has been commissioned by the archbishop in the second half of the 10th century.

Approximately 20,000 visitors come to see the Cologne Cathedral per day, many of them in the framework of a pilgrimage. The building is open for self-guided tours Monday-Saturday from 6 am to 9 pm (6-7:30 November-April) and from 1 pm to 4:30 pm on Sundays and bank holidays. Visitors are welcome to join in on church services or organ concerts sometimes held there. There are also guided tours available, each focusing on different aspects of the Cathedral. Climbing the stairs in the tower up to the viewing platform is possible daily from 9 am.       

Back to: North Rhine-Westphalia