Exploring Roman Ruins in Trier, Germany, UNESCO World Heritage Site

Ante Romam Treveris Stetit Annis Mille Trecentis. Trier stood one thousand three hundred years before Rome.

So says the inscription on the front of the Red House in the heart of Trier’s Hauptmarkt square. It’s a bogus claim, one invented by some medieval resident centuries ago.

Porta Nigra, Trier, Germany (Photo credit: Amy S Eckert, c 2013)

Porta Nigra, Trier, Germany (Photo credit: Amy S Eckert, c 2013)

But looking over the wealth of ancient ruins in Trier, I could see how plausible the claim seemed. There were ruins around every corner.

In a region where UNESCO World Heritage Sites are more densely packed than anywhere else in Europe, the city of Trier is especially blessed. This university town just east of Germany’s border with Luxembourg lays claim to eight UNESCO World Heritage Sites. Nine if you count the Roman burial marker just 5 miles upriver. All of this and a location in the heart of one of the world’s great wine regions makes Trier a fascinating getaway.

In Your Bucket Because…

  • You want to visit as many UNESCO World Heritage Sites as possible.
  • History + a super-cute German town + good wine = your idea of a great time.
  • A great stop for those who love European history and culture.
Imperial Baths, Trier, Germany (Photo credit: Amy S Eckert, c 2013)

Imperial Baths, Trier, Germany (Photo credit: Amy S Eckert, c 2013)

Roman Ruins

Trier’s true foundations are Roman and date back not to 1300 BC, as that inscription claims, but rather to 17 BC making this Germany’s oldest city.

The Romans left their fingerprints all over Trier. The city’s most impressive landmark is the Porta Nigra, the best preserved Roman city gate north of the Alps. Towering 5 stories overhead, it’s impossible to take in the monument up close without craning my neck but I walk up close anyway to fit my fingers in the gaps between the 2,000-year-old blocks.

Trier owes a debt of gratitude to the Greek monk Simeon, a hermit who made his home within this gate in the 11th century. His death six years later inspired two churches to attach their buildings to the gate and near his remains. Those churches have long since been razed but their presence alongside the “Black Gate” (darkened from a pollution patina) prevented its demolition in the Middle Ages.

No Roman settlement worth its salt skimps on bathing facilities and Trier was no exception. In fact, the city’s Barbara Baths were the Roman Empire’s largest when they were constructed in the 2nd century. The nearby 4th-century Imperial Baths have been more thoroughly excavated and reveal more of the Romans’ engineering prowess.

I walk through the elegantly-arched 60-foot (19 m) walls of the Imperial Baths trying to imagine how they must have looked 1,700 years ago. Remains of the hot water baths alone are large enough to stage modern-day operas and theatrical performances with seating for 650. Farther along I explore cold water reservoirs and their adjoining boiler rooms tucked within a rambling underground labyrinth of brick tunnels.

Constantine's Basilica, Trier, Germany (Photo credit: Amy S Eckert, 2013)

Constantine’s Basilica, Trier, Germany (Photo credit: Amy S Eckert, 2013)

Ancient Churches

Emperor Constantine himself was impressed by Trier. Enough so that he built an Imperial Throne Room here early in the 4th century. Constantine Basilica, as it is called today, ranks as the largest surviving single-room structure from Roman times, measuring 90 feet (27 m) wide by 108 feet (33 m) high and 220 feet (67 m) long. In 1856 the throne room was converted to a Protestant church, the first Protestant house of worship in Catholic Trier.

Trier Cathedral (Dom in German) traces its roots back to Roman times as well. A collapsed chunk of a Roman column marks the entrance to the church whose foundation rests on a 3rd-century Roman structure, a Constantine-era palace that was demolished in the 4th century. In its place early Christians constructed a sprawling Roman church complex around 360 AD. The religious site included four basilicas joined by a common baptistery and covering two city blocks. Today’s Cathedral has an old, solid, Romanesque look to it, a result of centuries of additions and expansions to the original Roman building.

Cathedral and Frauenkirche, Trier, Germany (Photo credit: Amy S Eckert, c 2013)

Cathedral and Frauenkirche, Trier, Germany (Photo credit: Amy S Eckert, c 2013)

The Church of Our Lady (Liebfrauenkirche) is connected to the Cathedral by a cloister and sits on its own assortment of Roman ruins. The only church in the world whose architectural footprint resembles a rose, the Church of Our Lady was constructed in the 13th century and is Germany’s oldest Gothic church.

Trier was granted UNESCO World Heritage status in 1986.

Museums, Markets and Wine

Trier’s Roman monuments and edifices are visible throughout the city. Smaller Roman artifacts sit within the exhibit halls of Trier’s landmark Archaeological Museum (Rheinisches Landesmuseum Trier). Colorful 2,000-year-old mosaics, stately burial monuments and the largest treasure trove of Roman gold coins ever discovered help paint a picture of Trier’s ancient past. Other museums in town focus on medieval history (Stadtmuseum Simeonstift), religious art (Museum am Dom) and Trier’s most famous resident (the Karl Marx Haus).

In contrast to Trier’s Roman sites, the city’s medieval marketplace (Hauptmarkt) seems positively modern. The center point of the market is the Red House—the building with the false age inscription on it—and the Steipe, a towering white municipal building whose ground floor bears a series of arcades. The Steipe is a reconstructed building—sadly, the original was destroyed in 1944—but the old-looking structure adds to the broad appeal of a square that has changed little in appearance in centuries.

Hauptmarkt Square, Trier, Germany (Photo credit: Amy S Eckert, c 2013)

Hauptmarkt Square, Trier, Germany (Photo credit: Amy S Eckert, c 2013)

It was a square where I wanted to linger, sipping a coffee under a colorful umbrella table, enjoying a dinner of roasted potatoes and locally-grown vegies on a cobbled street, browsing the shops that lay behind window boxes brimming with red and pink geraniums.

Or relaxing over this region’s most famous export: wine. Trier lies right on the Mosel River, after all. An octagonal kiosk sets up shop on the Hauptmarkt twice a week, each time staffed by a different winery pouring samples of Rieslings, Gewürtztraminers and Pinot Noirs from the Mosel Valley and from nearby Luxembourg and Belgium.


  • Trier is 30 miles northeast of Luxembourg City, about 10 miles east of the Luxembourg/German border.
  • Trier’s Porta Nigra and other Old City sites are an easy ½-mile walk from the city’s main train station (Trier Hbf).
  • An Antiquity Card offers reduced admission to multiple attractions.
  • Info about other German UNESCO sites.

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