I first saw Cologne’s Cathedral on a train journey from Amsterdam to Heidelberg in the late 1990s. It’s an imposing and immense Gothic structure situated adjoining the Cologne train station near the Rhine River. I recall the cathedral’s massive spires (157 m or 515′ tall) inspiring me to think, “some day I’m going to visit that church”! It took almost 15 years from that train trip to finally visit the Cathedral, but thanks to friends Bernd and Monika, my wife and I visited Cologne and its great cathedral recently.
Cologne Cathedral stands on the site of a 4th Century Roman ruin, and if you’ve time, there’s a fabulous Roman history museum immediately adjoining it that’s worth visiting. A previous church on the site had been completed in 818 AD, but burned to the ground in 1248 AD.
The Cathedral was once the tallest building in the world (before the Washington Monument assumed that honor) and its spires still dominate the city’s skyline. It’s said to have the largest church facade on the planet, and is the finest church in Germany. The Cathedral is the country’s most visited landmark, averaging more than 20,000 visitors a day (ironically, the massive building also has capacity of 20,000). Its construction began in 1248 AD and proceeded in stages until it was finally finished more than 600 years later in 1880.
The highlight of the church is the golden Reliquary for the Three Kings (said to contain the remains of the 3 Wise Men who, bearing expensive gifts, visited the baby Jesus in Bethlehem). This relic was originally in Milan but wwas “relocated”, as was often the case at that time, by a zealous emperor. It’s over 2 meters long, and made of guilded silver and gems and decorated with scenes from the Bible and the apostles. As the church has been a site of pilgrimage for centuries, Cologne Cathedral was recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1996.
Cologne is an industrial city that was heavily bombed during the second World War. Much of the city was completely flattened, but the Cathedral was only minimally damaged, despite 14 direct bomb hits — even most of its stained glass windows survived. It was one of the few buildings in the city not destroyed by the bombing, a miracle really. What damage there was was soon repaired.
It’s well worth at least a few hours to explore the inside of this wonderful, historic church. There’s a separate treasury display associated with it that charges a modest admission which our schedule didn’t allow a visit to but which I’d certainly consider seeing if I ever get back to Cologne. What you can see and enjoy in the main Cathedral satisfied us.