On the Rhine River, about 100 kilometres south of Frankfurt and before it hits the French border, is the largest Romanesque church in the world – Speyer Cathedral
Although the town of Speyer only has a population of about 50,000 people and is rarely on the tourist trail in its own right, its cathedral has been one of the most important churches in Europe for almost a thousand years!
Architecturally, Speyer Cathedral is an impressive building – not just for the sheer size of it but because of the influence it has had on architecture in Europe.
And inside it holds a host of treasures – sculptures, frescoes, stained glass windows. Plus some of the most important items, the tombs of emperors and kings.
Why is Speyer Cathedral significant?
Founded in 1030, Speyer Cathedral is one of the most important monuments from the time of the Holy Roman Empire, with its architecture influencing religious design for centuries. It was also the burial place of the German emperors for about 300 years.
What is the world’s largest Romanesque church?
The largest Romanesque church in the world is in the small German city of Speyer. 132 metres long and with two 71-metre-high towers, Speyer Cathedral is considered a masterpiece of Romanesque architecture.
Is it worth visiting Speyer Cathedral?
A visit to Speyer Cathedral is worthwhile to both see the incredible architecture and art of the church, and to explore its important history and role in Europe in the Middle Ages.
To be honest, I rarely hear people talk about visiting Speyer Cathedral on their travels in Germany, but I’ve now been here twice as I’ve passed through the region.
In some ways, it was my second visit to Speyer Cathedral that I found more rewarding, because I took the time to take in the details.
Learning about the cathedral’s history and its significance for the rulers of Europe is only part of the attraction. Beyond that, the exquisite architecture is a real treat, and the individual artworks are stunning.
Because it is not one of the most famous of the World Heritage Sites in Germany (unlike churches like Cologne Cathedral or Aachen Cathedral) it’s often not crowded, making a visit to Speyer Cathedral an even more moving experience.
History of Speyer Cathedral
The first construction of Speyer Cathedral was in 1030, under the patronage of the Holy Roman Emperor, Conrad II. He wanted to build the Christian World’s largest church – and his own burial place.
Although he never saw it finished, Conrad II was the first emperor to be buried here.
A subsequent renovation not long after, at the end of the 11th century, expanded Speyer Cathedral, making it the first and largest consistently vaulted church in Europe.
The lower floors and the crypt were left as they were, but almost everything else changed – a higher nave, new galleries, and soaring towers.
From this point, over the next few centuries, eight German kings were buried here (many of them also held the title of Holy Roman Emperor), along with some of their wives. The last one laid to rest here was King Albert I in 1308.
There were small changes to the design of Speyer Cathedral, including a Gothic chapel that was added around the 16th century, but no major redesigns or expansions until it was set on fire and badly damaged during a war in 1689.
A part of Speyer Cathedral could still be used, and so that’s where services were held until a restoration project many decades later, beginning in 1748.
Although the nave was reconstructed in the same Romanesque style, the facade was given a Baroque makeover. Eventually this was replaced by a Neo-Romanesque one a century later to restore the original style, inspired by what was once here.
Historically, the cathedral has been a symbol of imperial power and the close links between the monarchy and the Catholic Church. It was used as a tool to take and maintain power – by both the church and the state.
The layout and some of the design is still based on this struggle for authority.
Speyer Cathedral’s important elements
There are plenty of things to see at Speyer Cathedral – from the large to the small – with far too many for me to discuss in detail. But let’s have a look at some of the key architectural features of the building.
Starting from the outside, the most obvious element is the facade of the main western entrance, called the ‘westwerk‘. This large structure is the one I mentioned earlier that has had a couple of major design changes, but now features a Neo-Romanesque style.
The two towers of the westwerk are a key feature of Speyer Cathedral but, at 65 metres each, they are not quite as high as the towers at the back (which are 71 metres high). Once you’re inside, you can climb one of them for incredible views!
Walking in, the first thing that strikes you is how deep the church goes and how the beautiful symmetry creates such a sense of space. The interior is decorated quite simply without some of the grand art in other German churches.
However, look closely – and you’ll see how the bricks of slightly different colours that the columns are built with create a mottling effect that brings the stone to life.
The central part of Spyer Cathedral, the nave provides a focus for this scale. The ceiling is about 30 metres high and the vaults that hold it in place are one of the key engineering features that made the design so revolutionary at the time.
Although the general plan incorporated the same layout of St Michael’s Church at Hildesheim, Speyer Cathedral broke new ground architecturally as the first structure to have a gallery encircling the whole building and an innovative system of arcades.
Today, it doesn’t look unusual – but the construction work done here helped develop techniques that enabled many of the other grand churches in the region to flourish.
Coming off the sides of these areas are a series of chapels, including the double chapels of Saint Emmeram and Saint Catherine on the south, and the chapel of Saint Afra on the north.
One of the most important parts of Speyer Cathedral is the crypt, the largest Romanesque columned hall crypt in Europe, with sandstone blocks alternating in colour between yellow and rust.
As the burial site of the German leaders for almost 300 years, it still has some of the tombs of some of the country’s most important kings and emperors completely preserved.
Above the main entrance to the church is the Emperors’ Hall, which is another standout of the cathedral. These days, a large artwork is hanging there, which you’ll be able to see on your way up to the tower climb.
It’s also worth mentioning that just outside the cathedral, in a separate building is the Historical Museum of the Palatinate, which has a large collection of treasures from the church, including funerary objects from the time of the emperors.
Visiting Speyer Cathedral
The main part of Speyer Cathedral is free for visitors and open every day of the year – but you’ll need to pay to visit some of the special areas, and I think it’s well worth it!
There’s an entrance fee to see the Emperors’ Hall above the main entrance with its large artwork and climb one of the towers to the viewing platform with its vistas across the city.
(There are a lot of stairs to get up there but the perspective of the cathedral from the tower gives an excellent insight into the architectural design and external features.)
Inside the main part of the church, there’s another entrance fee to go down into the crypt to see the tombs of the kings.
Also, there is often an art display at the back behind the altar with a mix of classical and contemporary pieces.
Although it’s easy to explore the cathedral on your own, you can also book a guided tour in advance, or get an audioguide when you arrive.
It’s also worth checking in advance if there are any services planned, because you can’t visit when they’re taking place.
Where is Speyer Cathedral?
Speyer Cathedral Square is just across Maximilianstraße and Das Stadthaus in Speyer.
The address is Domplatz, 67346, Speyer, Germany. You can see it on a map here.
How do you get to Speyer Cathedral?
To get to Speyer Cathedral, catch the train to Speyer and then you can walk there in about 15 minutes. Alternatively, take the City-Shuttlebus Line 565 from the station to Dom/Stadthaus.
If you’re coming by car, there are parking spaces in Speyer within walking distance of Speyer Cathedral.
When is Speyer Cathedral open?
Speyer Cathedral is open at the following times:
November – March:
Monday – Saturday: 09:00 – 17:00
Sunday/holidays: 11:30 – 17:30
NOTE: The Emperor’s Hall and the tower can’t be visited during these months.
April – October:
Monday, Wednesday, Thursday, Saturday: 09:00 – 19:00
Tuesday, Friday: 09:00 – 17:30
Sunday/holidays: 11:30 – 17:30
NOTE: The Emperor’s Hall and the Tower are open from 10:00 to 17:00 (Monday-Saturday) and from 12:00 to 17:00 on Sundays.
Take into account that the Crypt opens 15 minutes later and closes 15 minutes earlier than the regular opening times. (open every month).
What is the Speyer Cathedral entrance fee?
Entry to the cathedral is free but ticket prices to see the Emperor’s Hall and climb to the top cost €6.50 for standard, €3.20 for a concession, and €16 for family ((grand)parents + kids).
Entry to the crypt and emperors’ tombs cost €4 for standard, €1.60 for concession, and €9.50 for family ((grand)parents + kids).
I would recommend getting the combined ticket which includes entry to the crypt and emperors’ tombs and tower and emperors’ hall along with an audioguide. The standard ticket cost €12, €7 for concession, and €30 for family ((grand)parents + kids).
Kids under 7 are always free.
Are there tours of Speyer Cathedral?
While the Cathedral can be visited on your own, there are also guided tours available in a multitude of languages. You have to book these in advance.
If you’d like more background information without going on a guided tour, you can book the audioguide for €8.50 (regular), €5 (concession) or €22 (families). There’s also a special audio guide for kids.
I would recommend this 1.5-hour tour of Speyer if you don’t want to limit yourself to the Speyer Cathedral. It includes the Cathedral, Old Town, and the Jewish Heritage of the city.
For more information, see the official website of the Speyer Cathedral.
Once you’re done touring Speyer Cathedral, the city centre is nearby and there are a lot of other historic landmarks, shops, and cafes for you to visit.
I would recommend Hausbrauerei im Domhof if you want to experience German food. If you want a taste of German winery then I suggest going to the Berzelhof Weinlounge.
THE BEST ACCOMMODATION IN SPEYER
There aren’t a lot of accommodation choices in Speyer but there are some lovely places at relatively affordable rates.
It’s very basic but Boardinghouse La Grotta is probably the cheapest room in Speyer.
For something affordable and comfortable, ibis Styles Speyer is a good choice.
With a modern take on a historic building, Hotel Goldener Engel is a lovely place.
And when it comes to luxury, Lindner Hotel has a large spa as part of the property.