Cologne or Koln is one of Germany’s oldest cities on the banks of the River Rhine. On quite a few occasions in the past I had transited through Cologne but somehow never had a chance to explore it. However in April this year on my trip to Germany I spent 2 days here and discovered quite a few of its interesting facets. I felt this city has a lot of opposites interspersed really well with each other that lent a unique character and vibe to it. There is a lot of ancient to complement the modern, loads of traditional breweries coexisting with Michelin star restaurants, quaint contrasting with trendy, Romanesque Churches alongside modern creativity, cultural and artistic etc etc. But even more than the city per se, it’s the people of Cologne with their friendly greetings and openness for everyone that left a lasting impression on me.
I spent 2 days here and explored a lot of the city by just walking around (despite a not so supportive weather and a mild snowfall) and visiting some of its famous sites. And based on my experience, I have decided to split my Cologne travel recommendations into 2 posts – the first part will cover the first 5 things one should visit on their first day or time in Cologne and then a second post that will cover things one can see and do more at a leisure. You can also mix and match per your own interests and likes :).
So my recommendation of the first 5 things to see and do in Cologne are below –
1. Cologne Cathedral / Kolner Dom – This is Cologne’s most famous and beautiful landmark and also a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It is located right next to the Cologne train station and as I arrived in Cologne by train, it was my first sight of this beautiful city. It felt like an amazing welcome. Like many German cities, a large part of Cologne including the Cathedral witnessed heavy Allied bombing during the Second World War, but surprisingly it never collapsed and so a lot of its old architecture and structure is still intact. I have visited numerous European Churches but I felt that the Dom is definitely one of the most beautiful churches I have seen. I visited the Church with a very good guide Dr. Ute (she was amazing and I recommend you visit the Dom with her too) and discovered some really interesting aspects of the Church, pieces of Roman heritage, the shrine of the Three Wise Men, the stunning stained glass windows and stories of each of them, etc etc. It actually felt like being in a museum with each corner exhibiting yet another beautiful masterpiece. I loved the Church so much that I decided to visit again early the next morning. I went around 6.30am and was among some 10 people in the church. And as I was walking around admiring and photographing the windows, a priest came up to me and started chatting. And then took me on a private tour of the church 🙂 The whole tour was super amazing and he also recommended visiting the church at sunrise. The 2 oldest and most beautiful stained glass windows in the Church face the east and at sunrise with the light from the rising sun bathes the entire church in a kaleidoscope of colors. Alas there was no sun during my entire stay in Cologne.
2. Eat and Drink at a Brew House – Cologne has a long-standing brewing tradition as in former centuries most people in the city brewed their own beer. Over time and with tourism, traditional brew houses started coming up around the city that serve local food and beer. The city today is famous for its Kölsch beer. Kölsch is a light beer, only brewed in Cologne, and is a top fermented (during fermentation the yeast rises to the top) with its own distinctive taste (a mix between an ale and a beer). And there is an entire drinking culture around the Kölsch. It is served in long cylindrical 0.2litre glasses called “Stangen” and finishing a glass doesn’t mean it’s the end. Waiters called “Kobes” keep walking around the bar carrying filled glasses in a “Kranz”, a round tray with a short pole sticking up in the centre to carry it, and will keep replacing your empty glass with a new one until you place a coaster over the top or leave half the glass filled. I visited the traditional brew house “Gilden im Zims” for lunch and was quite surprised that they had a separate vegetarian section. I had a vegetable strudel that was nice but fell in love with their apple strudel in a vanilla cinnamon cream sauce. It was super tasty and I just sat there for a while enjoying the surreal taste of the apple, vanilla and cinnamon. You just have to eat it to understand what I mean!
3. Visit one of its many Museums – Cologne is one of the most culturally rich cities with more than 40 museums including some very unique and some internationally renowned. Some of its most famous art related museums are – The Museum Ludwig that houses the largest Pop Art collection outside of the USA., Museum für Angewandte Kunst (Museum of Applied Art) presents a close relationship to works of fine art, Wallraf-Richartz-Museum & Fondation Corboud houses amazing medieval paintings and an important collection of Impressionist art, Römisch-Germanisches Museum an impressive glass collection and there are many many more. Based on your interests and time you can choose which one to visit. I decided to visit the Chocolate museum and the Fragrance Museum.
I love chocolate and hence had to visit the Schokoladen museum or the Chocolate Museum. They have quite a few fun things to see like a small running chocolate factory to see how chocolate is made, a 3-metre-high chocolate fountain where an employee dips wafers into the liquid chocolate and distributes it, a small tropicarium, information on the various kinds of chocolates around the world etc. But my favorite part was a small museum that shows the entire history of chocolate making including exhibits of utensils used to make and drink chocolate.
I then went to the Fragrance museum, Farina – House of Cologne and a visit here is a definite must for everyone. Giovanni Maria Farina is considered to be the “father of modern perfumery” and created the iconic “Eau de Cologne” right here in this city. I visited this museum as part of a guided tour and had a lovely time understanding the history of perfumery, historic ingredients, packaging, documentation, understanding how perfumes were sold then etc. It seemed like being a part of another era altogether. There is a small store too with the museum and at the end of the tour every participant received a small bottle of the Farina cologne.
4. Cruise on the River Rhine – A trip to Cologne is incomplete without spending sometime around the River Rhine. It’s like the lifeline of the city and an important route for transporting goods to the city. I went for a highly recommended boat trip with KD River Rhine Tours that lasted for 1 hour. The trip started at the Frankenwerft station on the banks of the River Rhine and went past the Cathedral, the old town, the Chocolate Museum, the German Sports and Olympics Museum, the ultramodern Rheinauhafen with its crane houses etc. I loved seeing the city from another perspective and also understood the importance of this river for Cologne. There are multiple options in terms of timings, routes etc and you can select any tour of your choice.
5. Lock a love lock at the Padlock Bridge – Every major European city has at least one bridge that becomes a kind of monument to commemorate people’s love for each other and Cologne is no different. When I walked towards the river from the Cathedral, I came across the Hohenzollern Bridge also called the “Padlock Bridge”. This is a long bridge with railway tracks next to it and people have put locks of all colors, shapes and sizes, at times with adornments of ribbons, gems etc to on it. It’s quite a pretty sight and if you visit here with your partner then you can get your names engraved on a lock, put it on this bridge and then throw the key in the river below.
During my visit here, I stayed at Wyndham Koln Hotel. My room was nice and spacious but the highlight of this hotel is its fantastic location. It is right next to the train station, an easy walking distance to the Old Town and boasts of stunning views of the Cologne Cathedral. I woke up one night at some ungodly hour and looked out of my window to see the beautiful Cathedral illuminated just in moonlight. The Cathedral somehow looked ethereal and magical. But no matter how much I tried, I couldn’t capture that image on my camera, however that sight will stay in my heart always.
My Cologne trip was sponsored by Germany Tourism but views of the views of the place are my own.