Germany’s oldest city is Trier – it dates all the way back before the Roman Empire! Trier was founded by the Celts (the Treveri tribe) in the late 4th century BC, although there is some evidence of a settlement as far back as the Neolithic period. Trier was then conquered by the Romans during the 1st century BC under the rule of the first emperor, Augustus. In 16 BC, the city was renamed Augusta Treverorum, “The City of Augustus among the Treveri.”
By the 4th century AD, Trier was one of the largest cities in the whole of the Roman Empire and was home to Emperor Constantine. Upon his departure, Trier lost some of its stature within the empire. In 459, it was seized by the Franks, a German tribe. In 870, it was made a part of Eastern Francia (now France) and eventually the Holy Roman Empire.
France invaded Trier during the Thirty Years’ War, the War of the Spanish Succession, and the War of the Polish Succession. They claimed Trier in 1794 during the French Revolution. After the Napoleonic Wars ended in 1815, Trier then became part of the Kingdom of Prussia. Karl Marx was born in Trier a few years later in 1818.
Trier joined the German revolution against Prussia in 1848 and failed. They were forced to concede and were finally annexed to the German Empire in 1871. After WWII, they became part of the new German state of Rhineland-Palatinate.
UNESCO Sites in Trier
In 1972, the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organisation was created for the sake of preservation of historically significant sites. These sites are legally protected by international treaties. Sites are classified as either physically or historically significant and show human accomplishments and intellectual history.
In 1986, nine sites in Trier were deemed UNESCO World Heritage sites. They are as follows:
The Igel Column, a Roman sandstone column that serves as the burial monument of the Secundinii cloth merchant family from 250 AD, is outside the city of Trier and is not included on this list.
Römerbrücke, or Roman Bridge, is the oldest standing bridge in Germany and the oldest still in use by cars in Europe. The original wooden bridge was built across the Mosel River in the year 17 BC. It was used for nearly 90 years until it was rebuilt with stone in 71 AD. In 144 AD, the bridge was redesigned to accommodate the growing traffic in the area. This is the design seen today. Nine bridge pillars still survive from this 2nd-century reconstruction. The bridge has since been renewed twice, once in the early 12th century and again in the early 18th century.
Amphitheaters were also an important part of Roman life. Amphitheaters (meaning “theatre all-around”) were usually circular or oval-shaped surrounded by concentric seats. They were used as a source of escapism entertainment and were often home to animal hunts, public executions, and, of course, the legendary gladiator fights (btw Gladiator is a fantastic movie if you have not seen it). Amphitheaters fell into disuse after 404 AD when gladiator contents were ended by the Empire.
The Trier Amphitheater was constructed in the first century AD and held over 20,000 spectators! Visitors today can actually descend below what were once trap doors to the tunnels below. These tunnels housed sets, props, animals, and prisoners until it was time for them to appear before the crowd.
Admission is from 9 am until 5 pm and costs €4,00.
Porta Nigra (the “Black Gate”) is the largest, best-preserved Roman city gate north of the Alps. It was built between 160-180 AD out of grey sandstone, which later darkened and earned its current name in the Middle Ages. The original Roman name remains unknown. Porta Nigra was the northern gate – one of four great gates into the city. The city wall was once four miles long and had 47 round towers.
Porta Nigra is the only surviving gate today. The other three were scavenged for building supplies (like iron and lead) in the Middle Ages. In 1028, a Greek monk named Simeon lived amongst the ruins until his death in 1035. The Simeonstift monastery was build right next to the gate in his honor. To further preserve the structure, it was converted into a church. The upper level was for the monks while the lower level was for the public.
In 1802, the church and monastery were dissolved by Napoleon. When he visited in 1804, he ordered it be converted back to its original Roman design. The church tower was deconstructed, resulting in the structure seen today.
Growing up, I always found Roman history fascinating and this was the site I was most excited to see. It was also the first thing we saw when we first drove into Trier – it’s rather imposing and definitely impressive. You can go up through the different levels of the gate. There are tour guides dressed up as Roman guards as well as exhibits on what the wall and the city would have looked like in Roman days. It’s also a great spot to overlook the entire city from above.
The gate is open from 9 am until about 5 pm. Admission is €4,00.
Roman Baths in Trier
Public baths were a mainstay of life in the Roman Empire. Beyond being used (obviously) for bathing, they were a main way of socializing. Here in the baths, citizens of all classes came to enjoy the public pools and saunas, and even in some cases, libraries, lecture halls, and gardens. Baths in larger cities were typically pretty impressive – built with colonnades and arches and adorned with mosaic floors and marble walls.
The Barbara baths were built in the 2nd century AD. These were once the second largest public baths in all of the Roman Empire. It was used well into the 5th century, until it was scavenged for building stones. The foundations and underground tunnels survived the plunder and shows more technical details than the other baths in the city. You walk across bridges built over the baths and can see what was once the inner workings of the sewer systems, furnaces, and pools. This bath even included several heated swimming pools!
Admission to the baths is free – they are open usually from about 9 am to 5 pm.
The Imperial Baths were built by Emperor Constantine in the 4th century AD. It was designed to be the largest and most intricate of Roman baths outside of Rome itself. The baths never seemed to be fully completed as Constantine left Trier in 316 AD after nearly 30 years of construction. He left nearly one mile of underground tunnels and foundation work which would have housed pipes and furnaces. Today, the Rheinisches Landesmuseum right beside the baths shows what the fully constructed baths might have looked like if they’d ever been finished. Restoration work has been done to ensure the integrity of the brick walls. You can also walk through many of these 1700-year-old tunnels – which is such a great testament to the Roman builders’ prowess.
Admission is €4,00 for adults – the baths are open usually from 9 am until 5 pm.
The Basilica was built in 310 AD as the throne room of Emperor Constantine. It remains the largest column-free room from the Roman era and the largest intact Roman structure outside of Rome. This room is HUGE – it is 200 feet long and 100 feet high. In the Middle Ages, the Basilica was converted into a fortress and in the 17th century, the walls were used to build the castle. This rendered the Basilica almost unrecognizable, and it has since been restored to the original Roman design. After sustaining some damage in WWII, it was again restored, this time to be consecrated as a Protestant church in 1956.
The Basilica is open to the public daily from about 10 am until 4 pm. Times do vary depending on the season, so make sure you check current opening times!
Trier Cathedral – Dom
Saint Peter’s Cathedral, a Roman Catholic church, is the oldest church in Germany. It is believed that the mother of Emperor Constantine, Helena, gave her house to a bishop to be used as a church building around 340 AD. This original church was the largest of its time – it had FOUR basilicas! It is said that Helena, returning from one of her pilgrimages, brought back the seamless robe of Christ. This relic is still housed in the cathedral, although it is rarely shown to the public. The last public viewing of the robe was in 2012! Other relics, such as a nail claimed to have been used in the Crucifixion of Christ, are housed in the Cathedral Treasury.
The cathedral saw many periods of expansion and renovation throughout the Middle Ages. The original church was left in ruins after Constantine left Trier and was rebuilt by the Franks. It was again destroyed by Vikings in 882. The church was once again rebuilt, with the apse finally finished in 1196. Each renovation brought a different style element to the church according to each period of reconstruction. Although the overall style of the church is Romanesque, you can see Gothic vaults, Renaissance sculptures and paintings, and Baroque style chapels. The last renovations were done in 1974.
Guided tours are available of the cathedral from Palm Sunday until Halloween daily at 2 pm. Group tours are available by prior arrangement. Visitors are permitted free of charge into the church from 6:30 am to 5:30 pm daily when services are not being held. Admittance into the Cathedral Treasury is available for a small fee.
The Church of Our Lady is one of the most important early Gothic churches in Germany. Construction started around 1230 and finished around 1260. No visible part of the church today is Roman. Beneath the church lies extensive excavations of Roman column foundations. French builders offered the Archibishop to design the church in the modern High Gothic style. The floorplan to this basilica is highly unusual. Rather than a long, rectangular room, Our Lady is designed with a round cruciform floorplan. It is designed to resemble the shape of a twelve-petaled rose, a symbol of the Virgin Mary, and as a tribute to the Twelve Apostles and twelve tribes of Isreal.
Guided tours are available by prior arrangement and sightseeing is available only when services are not held. Admission is free and is from 10 am until about 5 pm.
If you find yourself in Germany with a passion for ancient charm, look no further than Trier. It was, at one time, quite literally the center of the western world. Trier is about as close as you can get to Roman ruins outside of Italy. At an impressive 769 miles (1238 km) from Rome, it shows just how far the influence of the Roman Empire reached. Be sure not to miss this city in western Germany!