Trier: The Oldest City in Germany is an Underrated Gem

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Electoral Palace in Trier

It’s not a place that’s on the itineraries of many  visitors to Germany. Google top tourist attractions in Germany, and Trier is often absent or way down the list. Berlin has the cool factor, Munich has Oktoberfest, and Heidelberg oozes romantic charm. Perhaps it’s a branding issue. Trier’s unique features should place it much higher on Germany’s must-see lists, especially for history buffs. During our cycle trip, we spent a “rest day” in Trier and discovered a city with remarkable history, incredible monuments and laid-back joie de vivre. Here are some of the amazing things we learned about Trier.

Trier is Germany’s oldest city

The city was founded by the Celtic tribe of the Treveri in the 4th century BC. It was conquered by the Romans, under Julius Caesar in 58 to 50 BC. The beginnings of Trier as a permanent Roman settlement are linked to the creation of infrastructure around 16 BC under Emperor Augustus. The town became known as Augusta Treverorum, the City of Emperor Augustus in the land of the Treveri.

Trier was the Rome of the North

By the 4th century, Trier was the most important Roman city north of the Alps, and one of the capital cities of the Western Roman Empire.  Its population at that time, estimated to be between 75,000 and 100,000 was almost as large as today’s.

Trier has more Roman structures than any European city outside Rome

The Roman legacy leaves Trier with an incredible assortment of ancient structures. When we cycled into Trier, we crossed The Roman Bridge that spans the Mosel River. Its decking and arches were renewed in the 18th century but its nine pillars are almost 2000 years old and support modern day traffic. Think about that! It’s the oldest standing bridge in Germany. Trier’s most famous Roman structure is the Porta Nigra (Black Gate), part of the town’s ancient fortification built 161-180 AD.  It’s impossible to miss, just north of the market square.

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Porta Nigra in Trier

Trier has Nine UNESCO World Heritage Sites

The Porta Nigra and Roman Bridge are two of them. Another, the imposing Trier Cathedral is Germany’s oldest bishop’s church and stands on the former palace of Roman Emperor Constantine the Great. The Cathedral still contains sections of original Roman walls and houses a holy relic: the Holy Robe, a garment said to be worn by Jesus when he was crucified.  Next door, the Basilica of Constantine, the emperor’s throne room, is the largest surviving single-room structure from Roman times—60 m (200 ft) long and 30 m (100 ft) high. It used to be covered in mosaics and gold leaf, but now it’s an austerely grand Protestant church. As I sit in a pew, I imagine the awe and intimidation of those who walked its enormous length for an audience with the emperor. Not far away lie more  UNESCO sites—the ruins of the Imperial Roman Baths and the Roman Amphitheatre.

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Trier Cathedral

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Trier Basilica (Emperor Constantine’s throne room)

Trier has the largest collection of ancient Roman coins

Had it not been for the blustery weather we may not have entered the excellent Archaeological Museum (Landesmuseum). My favourite exhibit is the Trier Gold Hoard, the largest collection of gold coins ever found from the Roman imperial era. The hoard contains over 2650 coins and weighs over 18.5 kg (40 lb). They were discovered at a Trier construction site in 1993.

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The Trier Gold Hoard

Trier has great architecture from many eras

I’ve focused on Trier’s Roman roots but architectural treasures from many periods are found throughout the city. The 13th century Liebfrauenkirche (Church of Our Lady), also a UNESCO site, is Germany’s oldest Gothic church, and the 18th century Kurfürstliches Palais (Electoral Palace) is considered one of the finest  examples of Rococo style.

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Electoral Palace

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Gardens of the Electoral Palace

Trier has a lovely pedestrian zone and market square

My brain can only absorb so much mind-boggling history. Time for a stroll through Trier’s pedestrian zone. It’s lined with boutiques, cafes, restaurants and international retail establishments all tastefully housed in beautifully restored old buildings. In medieval times, Trier’s main market square was used as the trade centre and it’s still the focal point of the old city today. We stop for a drink at a stand-up wine bar in the square, the canopy barely shelters the sizeable crowd from the rain; no one seems to care.

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Trier market square and busy wine bar

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Trier’s market square is much prettier in the sun the next day

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Peek-a-boo view of the cathedral from one of Trier’s charming side streets

Trier has really great Kaffee und Kuchen

Wonderful kaffee und kuchen (coffee and cake) is a common theme on our Germany trip, but Trier seems to have even more charming spots to indulge in tasty treats than what we’d experienced so far. The crummy weather has us sampling a few too many.

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No shortage of decadent kaffee und kuchen spots in Trier

Trier is the birthplace of Karl Marx

I mentioned earlier that Trier is not that well-known by international tourists. A notable exception is the Chinese who are coming to Trier in large numbers for the 200th anniversary of the birth of native son Karl Marx. Marx is a controversial figure among Trier residents and Germans in general, but the municipality has acknowledged his profound influence on human history with the Karl Marx House Museum and special exhibits. Emotions ran high this year when Trier, after much deliberation, accepted a gift from the Chinese government in honour of the bicentenary—a 5.5 m (18 ft) statue of Karl Marx.

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Karl Marx statue—gift from China for the 200th anniversary of Marx’s birth in Trier

All this stuff is walkable

Trier is an easy city to visit. It’s compact and not crowded. All the sites I’ve mentioned above are walkable. The Tourism Information Centre, right next to the Porta Nigra, is a good place to start and they have daily walking tours in English.

Trier also makes a great start or end to a Mosel Cycling trip.

Next: We’re back on the bikes along the Saar River from Trier to Saarbrücken

Categories: Biking, Germany | Tags: , , , , | 23 Comments

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23 thoughts on “Trier: The Oldest City in Germany is an Underrated Gem

  1. This post was so interesting to read for me. I did my undergrad dissertation on Karl Marx and Kafka’s The Metamorphosis and yet this city seems to have slipped off my radar. I’d love to visit… You’ve reminded me that I really ought to get outside of Berlin when I next find myself planning a trip to Germany!

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    • Thanks for stopping by; I’m so glad you found my post interesting. You should definitely get to Trier. I’m sure most visitors enjoy the city but with your education you’d find it especially fascinating.

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  2. This is fabulous, Caroline. I have long wanted to visit Trier ever since I read about its Roman origins and saw pictures of the Porta Nigra in the library at middle school. The old city still looks so beautiful in spite of the crummy weather – and the fact that it has nine UNESCO sites underlines its charm and historical importance.

    But I have to admit that I was a bit alarmed at reading how Chinese tourists are already going there in large numbers. Unfortunately the ongoing surge in Chinese travelers has totally changed the character of places around the world… Bangkok’s Royal Palace comes to mind, as does Interlaken in Switzerland – local guides there complained to me about cases of bad behavior and how huge tour groups are simply bussed in from Milan to go shopping for Swiss watches on the main drag. I would hope the ones going to Trier are genuinely interested in history and culture, and are a bit more respectful of the places they visit.

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    • I think you’d really enjoy Trier James. While I knew beforehand that it was Germany’s oldest city I had no idea about the extent of its historical monuments and importance during the Roman Empire. You definitely took more interest in history in middle school than I did!
      As far as the Chinese tourists go, we did not see many during our short stay at the end of September. Our guide told us that it was a particularly busy spring/summer with Chinese tourists this year due to the 200th anniversary of Karl Marx’s birthday (May 5, 2018). Other than the Karl Marx draw there is apparently not much else that attracts them to Trier. The city has very little designer shopping and no outlets, which is a good thing.
      I saw what you were referring to in Bankok’s Royal Palace and even more at Angkor Wat. The statistics on the growing number of Chinese tourists in the coming years are staggering.

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  3. All that Roman history and architecture would have had me giddy. It’s incredible to think that structures built 2,000 years ago still maintain their functionality. Also, the kuchen looks amazing. 😉

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  4. Well it certainly seems strange that Trier is not more popular with tourists as it seems to have so much to offer. Perhaps as you say it’s just a branding/PR thing… Sometimes that does happen, where tourists tend to go to the most popular places and the most popular places tend to fit into a “narrow band” of cities.

    Love the architecture, the ruins, that everywhere is all walkable and that there are so many heritage sites. Thanks for the tour!!

    Peta

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    • I’m glad our travels have taken us to both the popular places and those not so much on the beaten path. I’m sure Trier would have been busier on a sunny day in mid-summer, but we quite enjoyed our rainy day October visit. Glad you liked the tour.

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  5. Nine UNESCO World Heritage Sites! That’s like half of the sites in the Japanese ancient capital Kyoto. Very impressive considering how small Trier is, but also very bewildering knowing that not that many people (including me) are aware of the city’s importance in the past. Those sites and the kuchen are enough reason for me to put it in the list of places I should visit when I go back to Germany one day.

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    • I know, it’s amazing to me how Trier flies under the radar. Europe has become very busy so it’s nice to find places that aren’t swamped with tourists. It probably helped too that the weather was crummy so not as many people wandering around the sites…come to think of it, the cafes were bustling (everyone eating kuchen).

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  6. This flying-under-the-radar city is just what I love to find, especially in often-crowded Europe. We have found charming small cities like this in Slovakia and other Eastern Europe/Balkan/Baltic countries. There is so much to see and do in Europe that one can keep going back year after year and continue to find something new each time. And as a few others have mentioned, they take their relaxation time seriously, which gets them huge thumbs up from me!

    (As a weird aside, one of our main high school rivals outside of Chicago was New Trier HS, which was named after this town. Their teams are called the Trevians, and their original logo was the Porta Nigra!)

    Liked by 1 person

    • Mike and I were just talking about wanting to go back to Europe year after year. There are just so many places we still want to visit. The ones you mentioned are high on the list. Have you been to Slovenia, Albania? (I’ll have to check your site). Plus there’s so much more to see in countries we’ve been to (Peta got me all excited about the Netherlands in her last post).
      That is a wonderful and weird side note. I wonder how the name came to be.

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      • Slovenia is one of my all-time favorite countries! I’ve been twice, and both times it has enchanted me. I’ve been to a number of Balkan nations (Bosnia & Herzegovina, Montenegro, Croatia), but never made it to Albania. New Trier (the school and the township) got their name from the German immigrants from Trier, many of whom who settled in that area!

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  7. Mike Hohmann

    Beautiful, Caroline. I loved the tremendous pictorial history, the UNESCO sites, the decadent kaffee und kuchen, the gold hoard -even the monument celebrating Karl Marx’s 200th birthday. But my favorite, the Trier market square with the sheltered wine bar in the plaza -it brought to mind B. Dylan’s ‘Shelter from the Storm,’ -direct from the recesses of my old mind. Where’s the wine bar when you need one? Gotta love history!

    Liked by 1 person

    • It seems that wine bar is everyone’s favourite. Mike and I went by it morning, noon, and night and it was always crowded, rain or shine. Great how it revived that Dylan classic for you! We loved that this old city has such a young, vibrant vibe.

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  8. Brian Foster

    Really interesting hist. Will put it on the list for when we go there.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Is that an outdoor wine bar with people crowded around in the rain? I love Europe. They are so dedicated! Europe is such an amazing continent – there are so many incredible towns full of history. But in a way, isn’t it nice that Trier has a branding issue and you get it without the hordes of tourists?

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    • Truth be told Jeff, that outdoor wine bar and the “dedicated” locals in the rain impressed me almost as much as the Roman ruins. Our whole trip (the pretty towns, castles, history, wine culture…) confirmed how much I love Europe. Yes, the branding issue was good for us. So many places have fallen victim to their own popularity.

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      • Small towns in particular fall victim to their own popularity. Cities can absorb lots of visitors, but those special, quaint places quickly get overrun with souvenir shops and tourist restaurants. It is sad to see, but glad some places like this one are still out there.

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  10. Oh that kuchen!!! We spent some time climbing up the Porta Nigra and hanging out. A chill structure dated 200 AD to admire the view!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Sadly the weather was so poor (our only bad day of the trip) that we didn’t hang out anywhere outside too long. That warm cafe and over-the-top kuchen were just what we needed! Looking forward to seeing you on Saturday!

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