Last Updated on October 1, 2023

On a recent Viking River Cruise, my wife and I thoroughly enjoyed visiting the charming German community of Speyer while joined by friends. This Rhine River city, steeped in rich history, is filled with fascinating cultural attractions, architectural treasures and a myriad of churches.

Speyer resides in Germany’s Rhineland-Palatinate state about an hour away from Heidelberg; it has a population of approximately 50,000 inhabitants. Founded by the Romans in 10 BC as a military camp, Speyer is one of Germany’s oldest cities. The town was originally known as Noviomagus and was later renamed Civitas Nemetum in the 4th century. 

The city was eventually destroyed in the 5th century and was re-established in the 7th century as Spira, named for a nearby Frankish village. In 1990, Speyer celebrated its 2000th anniversary.

Overall, Speyer’s cultural significance is largely tied to its medieval role within the Holy Roman Empire. As one of the Holy Roman Empire’s imperial cities, Speyer once served as a residence of emperors and a seat of government. From this position of power, many important decisions and edicts were made concerning the empire’s governance and policies.

Today, this Rhine community continues to serve as a custodian of the region’s impressive cultural heritage

Main Tourist Sites of Speyer

Speyer is an easily walkable town with most of its major attractions centrally located around the old city center. Here are the sites worth visiting in this medieval city all that can be done in one day’s visit.

Speyer Cathedral (Kaiserdom)

Speyer Cathedral Interior.
Speyer Cathedral Interior. Photo by Michael Kompanik

The Kaiserdom, also known as the Speyer Cathedral, is the city’s premier historical and cultural attraction. The cathedral is considered one of the most important in Europe and widely renowned as one of the best examples of Romanesque churches still standing. This impressive architectural treasure was built in the 11th century under the reign of Conrad II and served as the burial site for Salian, Staufer and Habsburg emperors and kings, making it a powerful symbol of imperial power.

Officially named the Imperial Cathedral Basilica of the Assumption and St. Stephen, this imposing triple-aisled vaulted basilica built of striking red sandstone. Its rich architectural style and historical significance have earned it a place on the UNESCO World Heritage list.

With the Abbey of Cluny in ruins, the Speyer Cathedral remains the largest Romanesque church in existence.

Old City Center

Speyer’s old town is characterized by charming streets, squares and historic buildings. Exploring on foot allows you to discover hidden gems, quaint shops, and local cafes.

After touring the Speyer Cathedral, our group of friends shopped in the Old City Center along Speyer’s main thoroughfare, Maximilian Stadt, linking the Cathedral with Old City Gate and Tower and the shopping areas beyond. This pedestrian thoroughfare is lined with beautifully restored baroque gabled houses.

Maximilian Stadt is one of the most frequently visited shopping streets in Speyer with large chain stores, nationally recognized retailers, and local boutique shops inviting visitors to window-shop, stroll inside, and perhaps make a well-selected purchase.

There are also several eateries, cafes, and bars to satisfy a variety of tastes.

In the very center of the Old City stands its most impressive Baroque tiered building, the Old Coin (Old Mint), built in 1689. Speyer had achieved Free Imperial City status in 1294 thereby earning the right to mint and issue coins. The Old Coin in the Old City Center was the house of the minter and also functioned as the office of the city council. It remained a key commercial building well into the 19th century, serving as a transshipment point for trade and the seat of various authorities.

Another historic Maximilian Stadt structure, the Unicorn Apothecary, featuring a unicorn head on its roof, houses and also remains one of the oldest apothecaries in Germany.

Speyer Old Coin.
Speyer Old Coin. Photo by Michael Kompanik

The Old City Gate (Altpörtel)

This historic structure faces the cathedral and defines the end of Maxmilian Stadt. It was once Speyer’s western city gate and part of the Middle Ages fortification that sported 68 wall and gate towers. While a visit inside is only available through a booked guided tour at the Tourist-Information Office, it remains an impressive and widely photographed site.

Construction of the Altpörtel began in 1230. Three hundred years later, the topmost floors with Gothic balustrades and an arcade arch of the gallery were added. In 1708, its steep roof with a lantern was constructed.

The east and west sides of the old city gate feature two clock dials with pointers on the large dials pointing to the hour and the pointers on the small dials showing the quarter hours. At an impressive 188-feet in height; the Altpörtel and Tower Clock remains one of the highest and most significant city gates in Germany.

Dreifaltigkeitskirche (Holy Trinity Church) and Heiliggeistkirche (Church of the Holy Spirit)

The charming Holy Trinity Church is a Protestant Lutheran and Reformed church known for its Baroque architecture and lovely interior. It was constructed from 1702 to 1717 by master builder Johann Peter Graber and Italian master bricklayer Paul Bagnato after Speyer’s destruction in 1689 by French troops in the Nine Years War. The Trinity Church was officially inaugurated as a Lutheran church on October 31, 1717, the day of the 200th anniversary of the Reformation.

Speyer’s small Reformed congregation constructed the nearby Heiliggeistkirche (Church of the Holy Spirit) in 1700 to 1702. In the second half of the 18th century, rapprochement began between Reformed and Lutheran Protestant Synods and in 1817, the Reformed Trinity Church congregation in Speyer decided to rename its church “Church of the Holy Spirit” to serve a united Protestant community. In 1979, regular church services were stopped in the Heiliggeistkirch and now Protestant church services regularly take place only in the Trinity Church.

The interior of the church is remains original from the time of its construction. Ceiling paintings are medieval representations of biblical events, reflecting their Lutheran theological interpretations.

Memorial Church

This Lutheran Church boasts the tallest church steeple in the Palatinate. At just under 300 feet, it dominates the cityscape, soaring above all of the other buildings in the city, even the Cathedral.

Built between 1893 and 1904 in neo-Gothic style, it was constructed as a monument to the protest action that the imperial evangelical states brought to bear in 1529 at the Reichstag in Speyer. The church’s exterior is constructed of white-gray Vosges sandstone.

The Luther memorial in the vestibule and the other statues of local Protestant rulers serve as reminders of this historic event.

It is currently renowned for its impressive 95 register pipe organ, built in 1979. It remains the largest organ in southwest Germany and the second largest mechanical organ in the world. Organ concerts and matinees take place regularly in the Memorial Church.

Domgarten Park

Speyer Domgarten Park Sculptures.
Speyer Domgarten Park Sculptures. Photo by Michael Kompanik

Linking the Rhine River Promenade with the Speyer Cathedral and Old City, the lovely Domgarten is an attractive urban park with perfect views of the Cathedral. The park features a fountain, play areas, and sculptures depicting ancient Germanic myths and legends of the distant past.

It is a great place for families to relax, play, unwind, and take in nature’s bounty.

The Historical Museum of the Palatinate

A short distance from Speyer Cathedral, this fascinating museum’s displays the comprehensive and fascinating history of the Palatinate region. It covers a wide range of topics, including art, culture, archaeology, and history.

The museum is housed within a beautiful Renaissance palace.

Technik Museum Speyer

This museum is a major draw for technology and transportation enthusiasts. Among its exhibits is a large collection of vintage cars, aircraft, and locomotives. Among the aircraft on display is a retired jumbo jet that can be boarded for viewing.

Jewish Courtyard (Judenhof)

Speyer has a rich Jewish history dating back to medieval times. The city was once home to a thriving Jewish community.

Today, the preserved Judenhof provides insights into the cultural and religious life of the city’s former Jewish population. It includes a mikveh (ritual bath), a synagogue, and other historical buildings.

Sea Life Speyer

A favorite of kids and marine life lovers, Sea Life Speyer is a fun and fascinating destination. The aquarium features a variety of interesting aquatic animals and interactive exhibits.

Wine Culture

As a city in the heart of the Palatinate wine region, Speyer enjoys a vibrant wine culture as a part of its local identity. Speyer is noted for its excellent vintages and visitors to this medieval city are strongly encouraged to take a wine tour or visit some local vineyards to sample some of the regional Palatinate varietals and vintages.

Speyer’s rich history as a key medieval Holy Roman Empire center was the highlight of our short, but fascinating visit. Its cathedral, Lutheran roots, Romanesque and Baroque architecture left a lasting impression on us that this Rhine River city has a proud cultural heritage that is well worth exploring.

Author

  • Michael Kompanik

    Michael Kompanik is a retired Navy CAPT and San Diego freelance journalist. His love of Europe began with his NATO assignment to Naples, Italy in the 90s where he traveled extensively to 17 European countries. Since then, trips to Europe are always on his radar.

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