This majestic structure is one of the world's great cathedrals -- the spiritual and geographical heart of the city. It's the largest Gothic cathedral in Germany. From the top of the south tower, you get panoramic views of the city and surrounding area.

Construction began in 1248, in order to house the relics of the three Magi brought to Cologne in 1164 by Archbishop Reinald von Dassel, chancellor to Frederick Barbarossa. After the completion of the chancel, south tower, and north-side aisles (around 1500), work was halted and not resumed until 1823. In 1880, the great enterprise was completed, and unlike many time-consuming constructions that change styles in midstream, the final result was in the Gothic style, true to the original plans.

At the end of the war in 1945, this great cathedral appeared relatively unscathed, even though the entire district around it was leveled. According to legend, Allied bombers used the Dom as a landmark to guide their flights to more strategic military targets and could not bring themselves to destroy such an architectural triumph.

For the best overall view of the cathedral, stand back from the south transept, where you can get an idea of its actual size and splendor. Note that there are no important horizontal lines -- everything is vertical. The west side (front) is dominated by two towering spires, perfectly proportioned and joined by the narrow facade of the nave. The first two stories of the towers are square, gradually merging into the octagonal form of the top three stories and tapering off at the top with huge finials. There is no great rose window, so characteristic of Gothic architecture, between these spires -- nothing detracts from the lofty vertical lines.

Entering through the west doors (main entrance), you are immediately caught up in the cathedral's grandeur. Although this portion of the church is somewhat bare, the clerestory and vaulting give a feeling of the size of the edifice. The towering windows on the south aisles include the Bavarian windows, donated by King Ludwig I of Bavaria in 1848. Like most windows in the nave, they are colored with pigments that have been burned on rather than stained. In the north aisles are the stained-glass Renaissance windows (1507-09).

In the center of the transept is an elegant bronze-and-marble altar that can be seen from all parts of the cathedral. Behind the high altar, in the chancel, is The Shrine of the Three Magi, the most important and valuable object in the cathedral. It's designed in gold and silver in the form of a triple-naved basilica and decorated with relief figures depicting the life of Christ, the Apostles, and various Old Testament prophets. Across the front of the chancel are two rows of choir stalls divided into richly carved partitions. The oak choir dates from 1310 and is the largest extant in Germany.

Surrounding the chancel are nine chapels, each containing important works of religious art. The Chapel of the Cross, beneath the organ loft, shelters the oldest full-size cross in the Occident, the painted, carved oak cross of Archbishop Gero (900-976). Directly across the chancel, behind the altar in Our Lady's Chapel, is the famous Altar of the City Patrons painted by Stephan Lochner (1400-51). When closed, this triptych masterpiece shows the Annunciation, and when opened, it reveals the Adoration of the Magi in the center, flanked by St. Ursula, the patron saint of Cologne, and St. Gereon.

English-language tours are given Monday to Saturday at 10:30am and 2:30pm, and Sunday at 2:30pm. German-language tours are conducted Monday to Saturday at 11am, 12:30, 2, and 3:30pm, and every Sunday at 2 and 3:30pm. Tours last an hour and cost 7€ for adults and 5€ for students and children.