Wikipedia | Google | Google Images | FlickrCologne is Germany’s 4th-largest city and one of Europe’s most significant cultural, historical and social hubs, home to more than one million inhabitants. Initially founded as a Roman enclave, it is nowadays home of the continent’s oldest university and one of the most magnificent Gothic cathedrals ever built. Moreover, this German treasure is often considered Europe’s most avant-garde, gay-friendly city; boasting a vibrant nightlife, amazing art scenes, and a seemingly endless list of cultural and historical attractions. Fantastic art galleries, an abundance of pubs, museums, Romanesque churches, medieval city gates, and amazing shopping make this a phenomenal destination in Germany. Of course, the fact that Cologne is charmingly set along the shores of the River Rhine also makes it one of the country’s most stunning cities.
Old and young, traditional and modern, fun and educational. That’s Cologne in a nutshell.
Brief historyColonia was founded by the Romans in the 1st century AD and many of their ancient remains are still visible in the city’s oldest quarters. By the third century AD the trading port became a very prominent business center, home to various imperial governors and the seat of Roman Bishop. The city gained relative independence in the 13th century (as a Free State within the Roman Empire) and continued to flourish not only in trade but also in religious significance. Its stupendous cathedral boasted imported relics which continued to attract waves of faithful pilgrims.
During Napoleon’s reign, Cologne fell under the rule of the French Empire for almost an entire century, until it was once again handed over to yet another kingdom (Prussia ). The city was fortified and its military independence, which had been established when Free State status was granted, grew exponentially. This made the city a clear target during both World Wars, although damage and destruction during WWI wasn’t nearly as catastrophic as that imparted during WWII. Cologne was incessantly bombed during more than 250 Allied raids, which resulted in massive destruction and colossal loss of life. Unlike most other cities, however, most of the bombing here occurred at the beginning of the war. By 1945 Cologne’s population, and city, was already on its way to full recovery, a situation eased by the fact that control by the Nazis here had always been somewhat superficial.
Despite suffering extensive damage, to more than 80% of its center, Cologne transformed itself from a ‘priceless heap of rubble’ to one of the most thriving German cities of all. Nowadays, this is one of Europe’s most thriving business, cultural and social centres.
- The Cologne Cathedral took more than six centuries to build. For just a short time after completion, this was the highest building in the world.
- The city boasts 12 Romanesque churches, over 100 art galleries, and almost 50 museums, one of which is dedicated entirely to chocolate. Amen to that.
- Cologne hosts one of Europe’s largest Gay Pride festivals in July every year.
- Schildergrasse is the most-visited shopping street in Europe. More than 13,000 walk its length every hour.
- Famous Eau de Cologne was invented here by an Italian expat and is still produced today.
- The Cologne Cathedral can hold 40,000 worshippers.
City OverviewCologne is a hip and happening city with both its core and outer suburbs brimming with fantastic eateries, pubs, and museums. Having said this, most tourists find that sticking close to the historic quarter is the best choice.
Altstadt-Old City CenterCologne is effectively dissected in two by the Rhine, with the western side (Links-left) being the oldest and home to the Old Town Center (Altstadt) and most of its historic attractions. Just behind the historic center is where you’ll find the main train station (Hauptbanhof), which is where you’ll be arriving, is coming overland from elsewhere in Germany. Enclosed within this first major ring road is the ideal place to be. If you’re looking for supreme convenience, with walking streets, attractions, museums, restaurants, beer gardens, and shops right at your doorstep, then book your accommodation here, particularly if traveling with children or if you don’t have many days up your sleeve. Pick the Cathedral as your most central point of reference and you’ll have the best of Cologne right under your nose; river boat rides included.
Ehrenfeld-North-WestIf you’re after a more budget-conscious option, then stick to the north-western suburbs of the city, on the other side of the railway tracks. Ehrenfeld is a great option as it’s a hub for university students (so food & accommodation is much cheaper) yet right by the S-Bahn railway line making getting in and out of town superbly easy. Just a 5-minute train ride, barely two stops away, and you’ll be in vibrant Cologne suburbia. Venloer Strasse is the epicenter of all fun activities here, with lots of bars, restaurants, clubs, and cinemas open till very late every night.
HighlightsWhere to start in Cologne? How about with the most iconic landmark of all...
Cologne CathedralThis magnificent architectural masterpiece has very few rivals in Europe and certainly gives the striking domes of Milan and Barcelona a run for their intricately ornate spires. Religious aptitude is about the last thing you’ll need to fully admire what can only be described as a work of art. Take in the whole view from afar and take your time absorbing all the intricate details which make this cathedral so impressive. Sure, it may have taken 632 years to finish, but boy was it worth the wait. Building started in the 13th century, was halted several times, and was not completed until the late 1800s. Over 20,000 people wander through this UNESCO-listed treasure every single day, with many making the pilgrimage up the 500-odd steps to the top for spectacular city views. The Cologne Cathedral is 157m high, 145m long, and 88m wide. Behind the altar is where you’ll find the Shrine of the Three Kings , where the bones of the Three Wise Men are reputedly buried.
Cologne ZooThe fact that the city’s zoo is its second most popular attraction says a lot, considering the city boasts some of the most superb cultural and historical attractions. The zoo is set on a sprawling estate of 20 hectares, home to more than 7,000 animals belonging to 700 different species. It’s internationally renowned for its conservation and breeding programmes, boasts an excellent aquarium, rainforest and an extensive primate and elephant sections. This is one of the oldest and largest animal sanctuaries in Germany.
Twelve Romanesque Churches of CologneCologne’s historic center is home to a dozen historic Roman Catholic churches, ranging in age from 900 to 1,700 years. All these abbeys are treasured not only for their architectural styles and ages but, perhaps more importantly, for the priceless religious relics they harbor. All 12 churches suffered extensive damage during the bombing raids of the 1940s yet all had been meticulously restored by the late 1980s. St.Gereon, Gross St. Martin, and St. Kinubert are the most famous, most visited and, perhaps, the most enticing; boasting high towers and intricately carved façades. The beautiful stained glass windows and bone-filled Golden Room of the Basilica of St. Ursula also attract a healthy dose of interest.
Museum LudwigThe best modern art museum in town, Museum Ludwig displays an outstanding collection of modern, surrealist and abstract art. As with all things modern art, this museum really aims to please aficionados; those who don’t mind walking into a semi-empty room with just a few installations and sculptures. If you’re one of those who prefers to have a lot of background info on the artist and his/her interpretation of their work you may want to grab an audio guide.
Romano-Germanic MuseumGermany has, in one time or another, been part of all of Europe’s greatest empires, from the Roman to the Prussians and French. At the Romano-Germanic Museum you can admire archaeological relics from the time when Cologne was barely an inconspicuous trading village. The wonderful thing about this museum is that it is set within ancient Roman ruins which were the foundation for Colonia so, in effect, a visit here is a superb walk back through an archaeological site, in both form and content. You’ll find this treasure right nearby the Cathedral so you can visit both in a day, but plan to have a few hours free when visiting as the collections are very extensive.
Cologne Cable CarA wonderful ride and fantastic views are what the Cologne Cable Car has to offer. You’ll find the most convenient base station right in front of the Cologne Zoo and a ride can certainly be included on a day trip to the animal park. A gondola ride lasts only 5 minutes or so, but considering the low cost ( €6 ($6.90) for a return trip) it’s definitely worth doing (on a crystal clear, sunny day). Don’t worry if you happen to see a long queue, the line moves in classic German efficiency: fast.
Cologne TowerAfter the Cathedral, this is Cologne’s tallest building, a wonderful 150m high modern skyscraper boasting an observation deck and restaurant (Osman30) on its 30th floor. Enjoy a splurge Sunday brunch here on a sunny Sunday morning and you’ll enjoy amazing food and killer views.
CuisineCologne offers an eclectic mix of gastronomic delights, from delectable street food from mobile carts to haute-cuisine served in some of the city’s 5-star restaurants. The city boasts thousands of beer gardens, restaurants and cafés (really!) so finding a top spot for a meal and a drink is infinitely easy, no matter where you stay.
Here are the most traditional specialties you ought to try when visiting Cologne:
Kölsch BeerEvery German town, and every German citizen for that matter, is quite partial to its own drop, yet in Cologne the beer-devotion is taken to a whole new level. Kölsch is sweeter and perhaps lighter than the great majority of beers in the country and it is beloved for these very reasons. Served in much small glasses then you’ normally find at the Munich Oktoberfest , you’ll find yours constantly refilled by waiters in any pub, unless you put your drink’s coaster over the top.
Himmel und ÄädThe literal translation of this dish is ‘heaven and earth’ and, if you like your mashed potatoes flavored with the sweet taste of apples, you may indeed think it tastes like heaven on earth.
MettbrötchenFresh, dark rye roll topped with a tasty raw sausage, onion and chive pâté? Yes please! Don’t be alarmed at the raw state of the topping! If there’s one country you can trust to prepare raw meat and prevent cholera, it’s Germany. Mettbrötchen and a Kölsch on a hot summer’s day, in a lovely beer garden by the Rhine is about as good as Cologne can get.
Halve HahnA mouth-watering Gouda cheese and mustard rye roll in any other language, Halve Hahn is the staple sandwich of all good Cologners. Served with pickles and raw onions for that extra kick, you’ll find this snack offered in all traditional inns and beer gardens.
SchweinshaxeLovers of all things cooked in Bavaria will no doubt be familiar with the ginormous servings of crispy pork knuckle served in many authentic German beer gardens and restaurants. In Cologne, this carnivorous feast is usually served with bread dumplings (to soak up the sauce) and thick, delicious gravy. If you can manage to finish a whole serving on your own, you’ll be doing the locals very proud.
Rheinischer SoorbrodeA most traditional stew of the region, this dish is slow-cooked in a sauce of raisins, red cabbage, vinegar, spices and served with bread dumplings. To be very specific, the meat used traditionally is horse, although beef is most often used nowadays.
NightlifeCologne boasts quite the pumping nightlife and most visitors are surprised at just how ‘young’ the city appears, considering it is so very old. Being a thriving university city, Cologne boasts a wide array of bars and nightclubs, plus a host of cool cafés, live music joints, and outdoor party venues. This city has more pubs than any other city in Germany and has developed an entire nightclub scene around it. Come for dinner, stay for a few drinks and you could well end up partying and dancing ‘till the wee hours of the morning. Older visitors should never feel out of place here, even in the ‘hippest and youngest’ section of town. German university degrees last much longer than most in North American, so students can range in age quite considerably. Besides, there are plenty of Germans who prefer to hang out with the cool kids, listen to great music, and pay half price for beers, so crowds are rarely as age-selective as they tend to be elsewhere.
It should then come as no surprise that if you’re after a place with a chilled-out vibe, casual dress code, and inexpensive beers, you’ll need to stick to the area near the main University of Cologne a few kilometers west of the Old Town Center. Zuelpicher Strasse, in particular, is home to a vast array of pubs and nightclubs, so head here for a bite to eat a drink and a boogie on any night of the week. You’ll find more nightclubs than you could ever visit on a single vacation, and a vast choice of music and crowd.
If you want a similar scene closer to Old Town, check out Friesenstrasse instead. You’ll find this vibrant street between the cathedral and Ring Road, and you’ll discover it chock full of great bars, this is the ideal pub-crawl street close to the tourist center. If you’re looking for something a little more fancy, then head down to Rudolfplatz where you’ll find classier establishment, where you’ll pay more for drinks and will need to be dressed the part too.
ShoppingThere are four major shopping avenues in Cologne, each offering a different ‘take’ on a common theme: clothing, accessories, and home-wares. Many foreign visitors to Cologne will be surprised to discover how few places accept credit cards; not only shops mind you, but restaurants and museums as well. They may also be surprised to see how quiet the city is on Sundays. Trading on the ‘holy day’ is still very much frowned upon in these parts, so plan to visit museums and parks on the weekend instead.
SchildergrasseThe premier shopping strip in town, Schildergrasse runs perpendicular to the Rhine, starting in Newmarkt to the west and ending in Hohe Strasse, to the east. This spot is more of a full day destination, with a number of shopping malls, churches and attractions dotted in between the seemingly endless array of boutiques and department stores.
Hohe StrasseCologne’s High Street starts at the south-western end of the Cathedral and runs for about half a kilometer towards Augustinerstrasse. Here, you’ll find recognizable brand stores like H&M, Esprit, and even a few Starbucks. This is the ideal address for the most comprehensive retail therapy session in town.
ErhenstrasseIf you’re between the ages of 15 and 25, love all things funky, trendy and brand-named, then this is the address for you.
Breite StraßeMuch as in Erhenstrasse, this is where you’ll find an eclectic mix of trendy and funky gear, except most are local designers, mono-labeled boutiques which aim to attract a slightly older and more sophisticated crowd.
How to get inCologne is an amazingly convenient hub in central Europe and connected to all major cities by air, road and rail. When it comes to ease of access, it also could not be any easier. The city is serviced by three major airports and all are connected by rail to the Central Train Station which is, in itself, right in the heart of the centre.
By AirCologne’s domestic airport is used by low-cost carriers, so if flying with GermanWings or TUIfly you will be landing here. This airport is only 15 minutes out of the city center. The International Airports of Frankfurt an Düsseldorf take the bulk of the foreign visitors and both are within relatively short train rides from Cologne (one hour and 45 minutes respectively).
By TrainHigh speed rail connections offer services to Amsterdam, Brussels, Paris, Hamburg and Berlin, with further connections all the way to London, Rome and beyond. The main train station is just west of Old Town and flanked on all sides by hotels and hostels. Check out the Eurostar website for great deals on long-distance train tickets. Those on a short stay-over can leave their belongings securely locked at the station for a maximum of 72 hours ( €3 ($3.45)).
How to get out and aboutThe city is serviced by a wide range of buses, trams and subways. You can print or download transport maps from the KVB Website.
Before you buy your first ticket however, do have a look at the Köln Welcome Card, which offers not only unlimited rides on the public transport, but a vast array of discounts on admission prices and purchases in over 100 places, all over town.
Köln Welcome CardJury is still out as to whether the Köln Welcome Card is a worthwhile investment for most tourists, who tend to stay within the old city quarter, get around mostly on foot and see perhaps two museums, the cathedral and a couple of churches. The way we see it is that it is indeed an absolute bargain, as long as you see a lot, do a lot and use it to get discounts on the various restaurants, tours and shops of participating partner establishments. Tickets range from €10 ($12) (24hrs) per person to €112 ($129) for a group coupon which covers the entire region for 48 hours. More info here.
AccommodationThe world is your varied oyster in Cologne, with the city offering a very generous dose of everything, from cool backpackers hostels to flash 5-star digs. By and large, the closer you stay to the Cathedral, the more you’ll pay, yet this is a very basic generalisation. The immediate city center boasts plenty of cheap and cheerful places, and some of the better hotels, which necessitate space, are a little way off.
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Author: Laura Pattara. Last updated: Jul 14, 2015