Solothurn, Switzerland's Baroque Jewel

Everybody knows London, where the kings and queens of England were crowned and where the United Kingdom crowns kings and queens to this day. We know Rome where emperors were crowned for a thousand years. Most might know Aachen as the place where the kings of the Eastern Franks were crowned. But do you know Solothurn, where the kings of Burgundy were crowned for over 500 years?

Solothurn is a small city off the beaten track of tourists traveling through Switzerland. The main motorway connecting Basel and Zurich with Bern and Geneva bypasses it which is why it is easily overlooked by tourists. For several reasons, Switzerland visitors should take the opportunity to see it. It is one of those places where history was made. Due to its dwindling importance after the French Revolution, it is a time capsule of baroque architecture. Most of the buildings that can be seen in the city center date from the 16th to the 18th century.

Solothurn started out as a Roman fort guarding a bridge over the Aar River. It became an important staging station for messengers when travelling from Geneva in the South to Vindonissa (Windisch) and Augusta Raurica (Augst) in the North. Later, it formed part of the kingdom of the Franks and eventually fell to the kings of Burgundy. In 932, Queen Berta of Burgundy founded the monastery of St Ursus in the city. Emperor Conrad II of the Holy Roman Empire inherited the kingdom of Burgundy in 1032 from the last childless king. He started to use Solothurn as a convenient place at the northern edge of the kingdom of Burgundy for coronations and meetings. From 1038 into the 16th century, Holy Roman Emperors would travel to Solothurn after their Imperial coronation to be crowned as kings of Burgundy. By inheritance treaty, Burgundy was not a part of the Holy Roman Empire but was ruled in personal union by the reigning Emperor.

Central to the city’s life and self-esteem is the cathedral of St Ursus. It is the cathedral of the Bishop of Basel who has his seat in the city. It forms the eye-catching center piece of one of the most complete baroque cities to be found north of the Alps. Besides the cathedral, there are numerous period buildings all clustered together. They can be reached with an easy walk. Main features are the Jesuit church and the clock tower, while the Basel Gate gives an idea of the city’s impressive wall enclosure. The historic city center will give visitors an idea of how small capital cities were in the pre-industrial era.

A walk through Solothurn is a relaxing affair. There are beautiful shops, cafes and public spaces inviting you to take a rest. Amuse your children with the search for the city’s famous number 11; there are 11 historical churches and chapels, 11 fountains, and 11 museums to be found in the city. Solothurn boasts the only clock tower in the world with a clock showing only 11 hours. If you are up for more things to do with the number 11, try the local beer by that name. The cathedral’s facade is three times 11 meters wide and the tower rises to six times 11 meters. It was also built in 11 years, from 1762 to 1773.

Solothurn can be reached by train from the airports in Basel, Zurich, and Geneva. Driving by car, you would use the main motorway linking Basel and Zurich with Bern and Geneva to get you there; the city is only a few kilometers from the motorway. If you prefer a more leisurely approach, you can travel by boat from Lake Biel/Bienne up the Aar River.