Cologne, Germany Travel Guide: Top Things to Do and See in Cologne
Cologne is a fascinating place, renowned across Europe for centuries due to its revolutionary architecture and as a place of pilgrimage. The city lost many of its standing buildings during the Second World War, but despite this Cologne has grown into a vibrant and cosmopolitan place, especially popular for its shopping, dining, and festivals.
HIGHLIGHTS: WHAT TO DO & SEE IN COLOGNE
- It is impossible to visit Cologne without going to one of the many breweries scattered about the city. Many of them are historical sites as well as being popular places to eat and drink a traditional glass of Kölsch.
- The architectural highlight of the city is Cologne Cathedral, which dominates the cityscape from almost any viewing point. The Gothic church is a UNESCO World Heritage site, and is impressive whether viewed from the outside or inside. It is worth climbing all the stairs to enjoy the panoramic views from the top. Make sure you also see the shrine of the Three Kings, which is said to contain the relics of the famous nativity figures, and which made Cologne a centre of pilgrimage for centuries.
- Walk across the Rhine on the Hohenzollern Bridge where, for the last decade, lovers hang padlocks from the steel superstructure. This is a great place to get photographs of the river and Rhine promenade.
- Go north to the Riehl District to visit the Cologne Zoological Garden or the Flora Botanical Gardens. Both are great options for a family day out.
WITH A LITTLE MORE TIME: WHAT TO DO & SEE IN COLOGNE
- Take your time just wandering the throughout the Innenstadt (historic Old Town) – you never know what surprises you might find amongst the historic buildings and intimate streets.
- For art-lovers go to the Wallraf-Richartz Museum (which contains a brilliant collection of Medieval and Baroque art), or the Museum Ludwig (which possesses one of the largest collections of Picasso art in the world).
- Although it can be grim, a visit to the NS-Dokumentationszentrum (National Socialism Documentation Center) can be a fascinating and thought-provoking experience. The museum is housed within a former Nazi prison.
- For something a bit more niche try the Fragrance Museum in Farina House (where you can learn about three hundred years of perfume history, in the town made famous by Eau de Cologne), or the Schokoladen Museum (where you can learn everything you ever wanted about the cultivation, creation, and tasting of chocolate).
- Those who want to know more about Cologne’s Roman origins should visit the Archäologische Zone, where you can see the remains of a Roman governor’s palace, the Roman sewage system, and various other public buildings.
- When you are in need of some relaxation go to the sports and spa club Neptunbad on Neptunplatz. Soak in the cedar-scented sauna, paddle in the indoor pool, or enjoy a massage. This is best enjoyed in the evening, when they light candles and play live saxophone music. Tip: bring your own towel, bathrobe, and flip-flops or you will have to hire them at the venue.
Whether you are looking for the most exclusive designer stores or a special gift to bring back home, Cologne has it all. With modern shopping arcades alongside unique small businesses, going shopping in Cologne is a holiday experience in and of itself:
- It is impossible to miss the Schildergasse, Germany’s busiest shopping high street. Most of the familiar stores one might find anywhere else in Europe can be found here and along the nearby Hohe Straße. If it starts raining you can escape the weather in one of the city’s many covered shopping arcades; try the Neumarktpassage or Olivandenhof near the Schildergasse.
- Fashion-conscious shoppers gravitate towards the Ehrenstraße, where well-known brands can be found together with independent stores selling traditional German gifts and unique clothing. This is also a great place for people-watching, especially whilst sipping a coffee in the Cafe Waschsalon.
- One of the most charming shopping streets is Pfeilstraße, where you can find fashionable boutique stores, art galleries, and a range of useful services.
- The quintessential department store of Germany is the Galeria Kaufhof, which can be found on Schildergasse. The Cologne-branch is situated in an historic building, and has served the city’s population since 1891. You can purchase almost anything there.
- Children will love the Lego Shop on Hohe Strasse (where you can also pick up that one, essential piece that got lost from the kit), or the Pattevugel store on Zülpicher Straße (where you can get unusual kinetic objects like kites, marble-runs, and Frisbees).
- If you need some inspiration for unique gifts, look out for the Klosterfrau Melissengeist (a tonic used across Germany for a variety of ailments, sold in its iconic blue box decorated with Gothic nuns), or the unusual kitchen equipment and cutlery sold at Besteckhaus Glaub on Komödienstraße, or some original Eau de Cologne (Kölnisch Wasser) sold at the House of 4711 on Glockengasse.
- You can also spend a sunny morning strolling through one of the many flea markets in the city. Some of the best include the Stadtflohmarkt on Luxemburger Straße every Saturday, or the antique-market along the Rhine promenade in the Old Town in the spring and summer months.
- Had an emergency and need some cheap clothes quickly? Go to Primark on Schildergasse.
FOOD AND DRINK
Cologne is one of the most exciting places to eat and drink in Germany, but with more than three thousand eateries to choose from it can be difficult to find the right place. Here are some of my favourite places to eat and drink:
- One local delicacy is the Kölsche Kaviar, a delicious smoky blood sausage served with fried onion rings and a Röggelchen (rye bread roll). If you ask for the Himmel un Ääd (literally “Heaven and Earth”) you will be served something similar, except with apple sauce and mashed potatoes – this is my favorite thing to have with a glass of beer. For a very reasonably priced meal try the Lommerzheim Restaurant on Siegesstraße, in the Deutz neighbourhood. The portion sizes are enormous, and they serve all of the traditional Cologne dishes. Their pommes (French fries) and pork chops are excellent.
- An excellent choice for a quick snack or accompaniment to beer is the Halve Hahn (literally “half a rooster”). Despite its name, you are not served half a roast bird, but instead a buttered Röggelchen with thick slices of Gouda cheese, German mustard, raw onions, and occasionally a pickle. Look for this in the Päffgen brewery on Friesenstraße, only a few minutes’ walk from the Friesenplatz U-Bahn station. This is also the oldest brewery in the city, and continues to brew Kölsch according to their historic recipe.
- For something more hearty and filling try the Hämmche/Hachse (boiled ham hock) or Sauerbraten (beef that has been marinated for several days in vinegar before being braised, usually served with red cabbage and a rich sweet and savory sauce). The Gilden im Zims on Heumarkt is a splendid restaurant to try these, as well as being a location steeped in history (ask a member of staff for the story of the Wishing Well).
- The perfect thing to wash down all this delicious German food is a traditional glass of Kölsch. If you are used to having your German beer served in a Maßkrug (litre beer mug), then you might be surprised at the smaller glasses they use in Cologne. However, you don’t have to worry about not getting enough beer; at the traditional Brauhaus (beer brewery and pub) you are automatically served glass after glass of Kölsch until you say no by placing your beer mat on top of the glass. You can get Kölsch in pretty much every single pub in the city, but if you are looking for somewhere a little less mainstream then try out the newly-opened Bierchen on Bismarckstraße, in the Belgian Quarter. There you can try specialty beers from all the regions of Germany, as well as cheap glasses of Kölsch.
- If all you desire is a big plate of Schnitzel (fried pork or veal), then go to Bei Oma Kleinmann on Zülpicher, close to the Dasselstraße U-Bahn station in the student quarter. The pub itself is rustic and traditional, and they serve Schnitzel in over a dozen variations.
- Cologne’s gastronomic scene goes far beyond simply German cuisine.
- If you are looking for something different, try out the trendy Shaka Zulu streetfood restaurant and cocktail bar on Limburger Straße, where you can enjoy South African-inspired tapas.
- For beautiful plates of delicious Chilean-Kölsch fusion cooking, go to Don Kölle on Mauritiuswall.
- A new food trend that is spreading all over Germany is the Hawaiian Poké Bowl – a dish of rice served with marinated fish and vegetables. You can try these at Kuromakupoke on Aachener Straße, who also have their own special variation: the Poké Burrito.
- If you ever get lost, look out for the twin spires of Cologne Cathedral. They can be spotted from almost every part of the city, and will guide you back to the Innenstadt and Rhine.
- Where to stay (budget): One of the most unusual and budget-friendly places to stay overnight in the city is the Wohngemeinschaft Hostel on Richard-Wagner-Straße. Each of its sixteen rooms has its own unique style, ranging from the “Emilia” amber palace to the space-age “Juri” room, to the Shakesperantos dormitory (where each of the bunks can be closed to the outside world with theatre curtains).
- From the airport: It couldn’t be easier to reach downtown Cologne from the Cologne Bonn Airport; all you have to do is take the train to Cologne Central Station, a journey of approximately fifteen minutes. You can also go by taxi, which will cost between €25 and €30.
- Cologne is famous throughout Germany for its festivities. The biggest event of the year is the Kölner Karneval (November 11th at 11:11 until Ash Wednesday). If you are lucky your trip will coincide with one of the “crazy days” that take place in the week preceding Ash Wednesday, when the city explodes with colour and action, with the climax being the big street parade of Rose Monday. Be warned – this is one of the busiest times of the year to visit Cologne, and you may find it difficult to find accommodation.
- Getting Around:
- It is very easy and safe to walk around Cologne, but for longer distances it is recommended to take the U-Bahn or bus service. The Köln WelcomeCard includes 24-hours of public transport, or you can buy day- and multi-journey tickets from ticket vending machines at tram stops, train stations, and the U-Bahn stations.
- Looking for a different way to see the city? Try out a guided bike tour or rent your own bike from Colonia Aktiv on Gereonswall, or go on one of the many boat trips offered along the West bank of the Rhine.