Lonely Planet review
Cologne’s geographical and spiritual heart – and its single-biggest tourist draw – is the magnificent Kölner Dom. With its soaring twin spires, this is the Mt Everest of cathedrals, jam-packed with art and treasures. Its loftiness and dignified ambience leave only the most jaded of visitors untouched.
Construction began in 1248 in the French Gothic style but proceeded slowly and was eventually halted in 1560 when funds ran out. The half-built church lingered for nearly 300 years and even suffered a stint as a horse stable and prison when Napoleon occupied the town. A few decades later, a generous cash infusion from Prussian King Friedrich Wilhelm IV finally led to its completion in 1880. Luckily, it escaped WWII bombing raids with nary a shrapnel wound and has been a Unesco World Heritage Site since 1996.
The Dom is Germany’s largest cathedral and must be circled to truly appreciate its dimensions. Note how its lacy spires and flying buttresses create a sensation of lightness and fragility despite its mass and height. This sensation continues inside, where a phalanx of pillars and arches supports the lofty nave. Soft light filters through the dazzling stained-glass windows , including the spectacular new one by Gerhard Richter in the transept – a kaleidoscope of 11,500 squares in 72 colours, Richter’s abstract design has been called a ‘symphony of light’ and, in the afternoon especially, when the sun hits it just so, it’s easy to understand why.
Among the cathedral’s numerous treasures, the pièce de résistance is the Shrine of the Three Kings behind the main altar, a richly bejewelled and gilded sarcophagus said to hold the remains of the kings who followed the star to the stable in Bethlehem where Jesus was born. The bones were spirited out of Milan in 1164 as spoils of war by Emperor Barbarossa’s chancellor and instantly turned Cologne into a major pilgrimage site.
Other highlights include the Gero Crucifix (970), notable for its monumental size and an emotional intensity rarely achieved in those early medieval days; the choir stalls from 1310, richly carved from oak; and the altar painting by local artist Stephan Lochner from around 1450.
To get more out of your visit, invest €1 in the information pamphlet or join a guided tour .
For an exercise fix, climb the 509 steps up the Dom’s south tower to the base of the steeple that dwarfed all buildings in Europe until Gustave Eiffel built a certain tower in Paris. A good excuse to take a breather on your way up is the 24-tonne Peter Bell (1923), the largest free-swinging working bell in the world. Views from the 95m platform are so wonderful, you’ll forget your vertigo.
Cologne is justifiably proud of its Domschatz-kammer , whose reliquaries, robes, sculptures and liturgical objects are handsomely presented in medieval vaulted rooms. Standouts include a Gothic bishop’s staff from 1322 and a 15th-century sword.