Trier Roman ruins: Germany’s Roman capital

It’s perhaps surprising to hear that there are significant Roman ruins in Germany: in Trier, which is in the eastern part of the country right near the border with Luxembourg. The Trier Roman ruins are particularly surprising just because of how many there are, and how well-preserved some of them are, especially one called the Porta Nigra. The Roman ruins, along with the Cathedral of St. Peter and the Church of Our Lady, together make up a UNESCO World Heritage site.

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A 3-storey building of stone that looks quite dirty with black soot. Two arches on the ground floor straight through the building. The 2nd and 3rd storeys are lined with arched windows with simple half-plllars between them. On the left side of the building there is an additional 4th storey, making that end a short square tower.
Porta Nigra in Trier, Germany.

Why are there Roman ruins in Trier, Germany?

Trier, in the southwest of Germany on the Moselle River, became a Roman city starting from the 1st century AD. It was called Augusta Treverorum; the Treveri were a Celtic tribe that had lived there for centuries and “Augusta” refers to Emperor Augustus.

By the end of the 3rd century AD, the city was an important trading center and gained more significance under Roman Emperor Constantine the Great, when Christianity made its way into this part of Europe. The Franks took Trier from the Romans in 459 AD, and it eventually became part of the early Holy Roman Empire.

The main things to see in Trier have to do with its Roman period, both pre-Christian and under Constantine, and some of these sights are quite remarkable.

The Porta Nigra

The real highlight of the Trier Roman ruins, and perhaps of all Roman ruins in Germany, is the Porta Nigra, which translates as “black gate.” Dating to the 2nd century AD, it was one of four gates in the roughly rectangular wall around the city.

All four gates later became convenient sources of building materials but fortunately this one survived because of a religious hermit called Simeon, who moved into the gate in the 11th century. After his death he was declared a saint and the local bishop ordered that the gate be converted to a church, and it eventually became a double-decker church. The first floor became a church for the masses, while the second (top) level served the religious community of the monastery next door.

In order to turn the gate into a church, the gate itself was walled up using earth. A side effect of this decision was that the earth served to preserve the exterior. When Napoleon briefly conquered Trier, he ordered the earth cleared, and the Prussian rulers who took over next finished the job.

Looking down a hallway with a row of square pillars between the hallway and and open central place. The pillars are quite damaged stone, but carved decorative elements are visible, mostly leafy patterns.
Roman structural elements with carved decorations from the Middle Ages.

What you can visit today is more or less what it was like as a city gate in layout. Yet the signs of its later use as a church are everywhere, particularly in the baroque carvings inside the walls and several changes to allow, for example, an exit to the attached monastery.

The Porta Nigra is only wheelchair-accessible on the ground floor. Make sure if you visit to pick up the information sheet included with your admission; it really helps make clear what you are seeing as you explore the building.

An oval frame carved into the stone, with leafy touches around it. Inside, a bearded man seen from the waist up. He wears a mitre and a cloak and carries a staff with a curved top.
Carved Christian image inside the Porta Nigra in Trier.

Porta Nigra: Simeonstraße 60. Open daily 9:00-16:00. Admission: Adults €4, children 7-18 €2.50. Website.

Three Roman baths

Any self-respecting Roman city had to have public baths. Trier was a significant city, after all, with a population that may have been as high as 100,000 in the Roman period, not much different from its current population of about 110,000. Three of these baths have been excavated and can be viewed:

1. The Imperial Baths (Kaiserthermen)

The Imperial Baths date from the period when Trier was the capital of the entire western portion of the Roman Empire, reaching all the way from here to include what is now Britain and Spain. Begun in the early 4th century, it was meant, as the name implies, to serve the Emperor. However, imperial politics shifted the capital to Arles, and construction stopped, only to restart in 360 AD. Emperor Valentinian I ordered a piece of it torn down, but the rest was completed to serve as a reception hall, not a bath. Other buildings rose on the site over the succeeding centuries, but were destroyed in World War II, which meant that in the 1960s what remained could be excavated and studied.

A jumble of ruin, mostly only the outer shells still standing: empty arched windows in curved walls that go about 3 storeys high in places. Weeds grow on the tops of the walls.
The most impressive part of the Imperial Bath ruins. Notice the use of alternating rows of brick and stone to create a decorative pattern.

The original plan can be discerned in what is left of the original baths. There was a frigidarium (cold bath), a tepidarium (warm bath) and a caldarium (hot bath) as well as two pools. Little remains but some extensive tunnels of the underground service level, where the water was heated for the baths. One rather grand-looking section with a curved wall survives because it was used in the Middle Ages as part of a castle and part of a city gate.

Looking down a dark tunnel, uneven bricks for walls. The tunnel has an arched ceiling and it lit by a ceiling light up ahead. Several further arched doorways are visible ahead.
One of the remaining tunnels in the Imperial Baths.

Kaiserthermen: Weberbach 41. Open daily 9:00-16:00. Admission: Adults €4, children 7-18 €2.50. Website.

2. The Barbara Baths

The Barbara Baths are older than the Imperial Baths, dating to the 2nd century. These were public baths, once the second largest in the whole Roman Empire. Today there’s not very much to see, but a pathway crosses what remains, with informational signs explaining what is visible.

Several remaining bits of walls can be seen, with grassy places between them, but in the center of the picture a section is raised on short square pillars of brick, holding up a section of floor, overgrown with moss or grass.
A piece of the floor of a room, where steam underneath it where the brick pillars are would heat the room.

Barbarathermen: Südallee, in the block nearest the river. Open daily 10:00-17:00. Admission: free. Website.

3. Thermen am Viehmarkt (a.k.a. the Forum Baths)

The Thermen am Viehmarkt is an excavated site inside a modern glass cube of a building. Dating to the 3rd-4th century AD, in the succeeding centuries the site became a source of construction materials and was used as a Jewish cemetery and a monastery garden. Later it was home to a cattle market; viehmarkt means “cattle market.”

One of the Trier Roman ruins is this bath. What is shown here is three sides of a low wall made of uneven stones. Emerging from inside the low wall is a large metal pillar that holds up the roof of the modern building. ON the left is more of the ruin: a stone wall, even more uneven, and about one storey high, with a simple arched doorway.

Today you can walk among the ruins, or rather a small part of them, where signs explain what you are seeing and what it once was.

Thermen am Viehmarkt: Viehmarktplatz 2. Open Tuesday-Sunday 11:00-17:00. Admission: Adults €4, children 7-18 €2.50. Website.

And speaking of baths, there are much more modern thermal spa towns not too far away from Trier. Read about them here:

The Amphitheater

The Roman Amphitheater, which dates to the 1st century AD, could once seat 20,000 people. Earth embankments around the arena accommodated the spectators, who entered through one of two narrow passages called vomitoria leading through the embankments to the stands. A vomitorium isn’t a place to vomit but rather a place that crowds of people packed into, so that they “vomited” out into the stands or back out to go home.

High brick walls rising on either side of a straight path that leads to an arched tunnel entrence, also in a brick wall.
One of the vomitoria.

Both vomitoria led in the direction of the city, which makes sense since that’s where the people who attended events in the amphitheater lived. The Emperor’s box stood on top of the embankment between the two vomitoria. The original Roman city wall ran right along this side of the amphitheater, with a tower on top of each vomitorium. Inside the vomitoria you can still see some traces of Roman wall plaster and paint.

Other rooms and passages under the embankments were used for the gladiators, animals, musicians, and other performers. Under the floor of the arena was a cellar with a lift platform for quick scene changes.

According to an informational sign at the site, events had a very consistent order: first, in the morning, were the animal hunts, in which exotic animals like lions or bears would be hunted within the arena. At midday, executions were carried out. The main event, gladiatorial battles, followed in the afternoon.

Viewed from the top of what was once the stands, the arena has a flat dirt floor and is oval in shape, with grass-covered slopes on both sides and a path leading out of the far end of the oval. People standing on the floor of the arena show that the wall edging the floor is a full storey tall. Some doors are visible along the wall, as are two stairways down into the floor.

Today the seats are missing, removed for construction material in the Middle Ages. Yet enough of the general form remains to give a good idea of how it once looked. You can walk around the top of the embankments and explore the underground cells, cages and passages.

Amphitheater: Olewiger Straße 25. Open daily 9:00-16:00. Admission: Adults €4, children 7-18 €2.40. Website.

The Moselle Bridge

This Roman Bridge in Trier is the oldest bridge in Germany and still rests on nine pillars dating from the 2nd century AD. The upper part of the bridge has been rebuilt twice since then, but it’s pretty impressive that these nine original supports are still intact and doing their job, even supporting vehicle traffic.

Looking across the river, the bridge on the left. It is a red-brick bridge under the roadway, which has metal railings and tall streetlights. The pillars holding up the brick bridge are very large and made of stone.
The Roman Bridge in Trier.

Moselle Bridge: Römerbrücke, which carries the Karl-Marx-Straße. A public bridge, no admission fee.

The Basilica (a.k.a. Aula Palatina)

This Basilica is also known as the Basilica of Constantine because Emperor Constantine I commissioned it in the 4th century. He was the first Christian Roman ruler and was responsible for the increase in tolerance for Christianity within the Empire. Yet the building’s original purpose was to be an Imperial throne room, part of a larger palace complex. It became a church possession in the 10th century, then later became part of a newer palace. It wasn’t converted to a church until the mid-19th century. Today it is home to the Protestant Evangelical Church of the Redeemer.

Looking down the inside of the building toward the altar. The walls are brick and three stories high, with rows of arched windows along the two upper stories. The floor of the building is lined with many rows of pews. Far in the distance is a very simple altar table with a very simple cross hanging above it.
Inside the basilica.

The Basilica impresses based on its sheer size, especially when you consider how old it is. Alterations changed it over ensuing centuries, but a 19th-century restoration returned it to its original shape and size. It’s 33 meters tall and 71 meters long and entirely brick. The walls are more than 3 meters thick too. Originally the inside walls would have been covered in marble and probably highly decorated, but today it’s all plain brick.

Aula Palatina: Konstantinplatz 10. Open April to October, Monday-Saturday 10:00-12:00 and 14:00-18:00; Sunday 13:00-18:00. In November, open Tuesday-Saturday 10:00-12:00 and 14:00-16:00; Sunday 13:00-15:00. Open in December as well, with limited hours. No admission fee. Website (only in German. Use Google translate).

The Trier Cathedral of St. Peter (Trier Dom)

This is the oldest church in Germany, with the oldest part dating to the 4th century. There were many changes over the succeeding centuries, and the church grew to its medieval Romanesque form, much of which is still viewable in the choir screens, some sculptures and the graves. New Baroque additions, including some very ornate altars, came in the 17th-18th century.

Trier Cathedral: Liebfrauenstraße 12. Open November-March Monday-Saturday 10:00-17:30 and Sunday 11:30-17:30; April-October Monday-Saturday 10:00-18:00 and Sunday 11:30-18:00. Free admission. Website.

The left-hand church is asymmetrical, with a rounded shape in the middle and a tower on either side of it, each square with a pointed roof, and each a different height. The entrances are under each tower rather than in the center. On each corner is a smaller turret with a pointed roof. All of the arches - over the entrances and over each window - are Romanesque. The right-hand church has only one short square tower in the middle, but has more gothic lines in terms of the windows' arches.
Trier Cathedral (left) and The Church of Our Lady (right).

The Church of Our Lady (Liebfrauenkirche)

The Church of Our Lady stands right next to Trier Cathedral. It is the oldest Gothic church in Germany, “the earliest church built in French High Gothic style outside France” according to UNESCO. It was completed in the 13th century.

What’s unusual, and quite beautiful, about this church is its shape: it’s round. Excavations underneath the floor of the church – closed to the public – have shown that an early Roman church once stood on this spot.

Over the door of the church is a bas-relief of the Madonna and child and saints. On either side of the door are 3 statues, presumably also saints (though one appears to be a naked woman). IN the carved arch extending over the door from one line of statues to the other are lots more images of saints.
An entrance to the Liebfrauenkirche.

Liebfrauenkirche: Liebfrauenstraße 2. Open Monday, Wednesday, Friday 8:00-12:00; Tuesday and Thursday 8:00-12:00 and 14:00-16:00. Admission free. Website (only in German. Use Google translate).

The Rheinisches Landesmuseum

This is not a Roman ruin. It’s a museum, but with lots of artifacts from the Trier Roman ruins and surrounding areas. I didn’t get very much time in the museum, but I saw enough to know it’s a great place to see the archeological finds culled from the various Roman sites. It has everything from Roman coins to statues and bas-reliefs, but the real highlight, to me, is the collection of mosaics from local sites. Some of them are in astoundingly good condition.

A mosaic in the museum comes from Trier and is divided in 9 squares. Each square shows a bust of one of the 9 muses.

Rheinisches Landesmuseum: Weimarer Allee 1. Open Tuesday-Sunday 10:00-17:00. Admission: adults 8, children 7-18 4. Includes audio guide. Website.

A close-up of one of the squares depicting a muse. The mosaic tiles are squared and only a few are missing to the side of the face.
A detail from the mosaic pictured above.

Igel Column

The Igel Column is the only item in the UNESCO property that is outside of the city of Trier, so it requires some travel to get to its home in the village of Igel. Built of sandstone in the 3rd century and carved with various images, it was a funerary monument for two brothers from a wealthy cloth-merchant family.

The column stands in a small open plaza between two 3-story buildins and is nearly twice as tall as they are. It is square and carved with a variety of images.
Igel column.

Igel is on the ancient military road between Trier and Reims, and apparently that meant that the monument served as an advertisement of sorts for this prominent family. The images show the merchants’ daily lives as well as some mythological scenes.

Igeler Säule: in the town of Igel, right next to the Hotel Igeler Säule on Trierer Straße 41. It is in a public space, so no admission fees or hours.

The bas-reliefs seem to show people at work: One seems to be working on something at a table, while two more are doing something with what looks like a fireplace.
A detail from the Igel Column. While some of the bas-reliefs are quite clear, like this one, parts are very badly eroded to the point of being unrecognizable.

Which Trier Roman ruins should you see?

My husband and I stayed in Trier for two nights and were able to see all of these sights in a day and a half, except for the Igel Column, which we saw after our stay as we left the city. I would recommend a bit more time; in the one late afternoon and one full day that we had, we saw all of the sights well except for the museum. An extra half a day would have allowed a more relaxed and complete visit to the museum.

I should also add that Trier is a pretty little city in its own right.

On a plaza in Trier, a row of pretty buildings, each painted a different color and of varying height. Behind them a tower is visible of a church. An ornate little entrance to the church is between two of the buildings.
In the center of Trier.

All of the Trier Roman ruins are within walking distance of each other, so your best bet is to find a place to stay within the center of town. I’d suggest three nights so you can have two full days to see the the sights at your leisure.

Booking.com

On the other hand, if you don’t have much time or only want to see the highlights, here are my top recommendations for Trier that you could see in a single day:

  1. The Porta Nigra is the real “must-see.” Don’t just look at it from the outside; pay the admission and see the inside too.
  2. Trier Cathedral and the Church of Our Lady are right next to each other so you might as well see both. It’ll show a range of early to late-medieval architectural detail, plus some Baroque-period artwork.
  3. The Museum has all of the best pieces from the Roman ruins of Trier. The mosaics alone are worth the trip.

Have you been to Trier? Do you have any advice or recommendations you could share? Leave a comment below!

Text: Trier, Germany: An impressive collection of Roman structures (and the Rachel's Ruminations logo). Image: a person's face, made in mosaic.
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about Rachel

Hi, I’m Rachel!

Rachel’s Ruminations is a travel blog focused on independent travel with an emphasis on cultural and historical sites/sights. I also occasionally write about life as an expatriate. I hope you enjoy what I post here; feel free to leave comments! Read more...

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Good summary of some of the highlights of my hometown. One of my favorites is the Basilica. It is absolutely impressive to imagine standing in the throne room of Emperor Constantine.

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