Explore Cologne, Germany
Explore Cologne, situated on the river Rhine, the largest city in North Rhine-Westphalia and the fourth largest city in Germany with more than 1.000.000 inhabitants (greater area <3.500.000 inhabitants). In medieval times it was the largest city of the Holy Roman Empire. It is one of the nation’s media, tourism and business hotspots. Cologne is known to be one of the most liberal cities in Germany.
The distinctive flavor to the city of Cologne is often linked to the city’s inhabitants, or Kölsche, who take an enormous amount of pride in their city. Cologne is a traditionally Ripuarian-speaking city, though this has mostly been replaced by German, which is now the main language of the city. English-speaking guides and information are available for many of the landmarks of the city. For tourists who speak German and wish to practice it, the citizens usually have a lot of patience with those trying to come to grips with the language. Cologne’s citizens are very friendly and jovial people, welcoming tourists of all types and with all interests.
Away from the landmarks, workers of the Deutsche Bahn (German railways) often speak English reasonably well, and ticket machines have a language selection feature. In general, older people in Cologne tend to have little or no knowledge of English, while younger Germans and those working in the business world tend to be reasonably proficient. Language is rarely a strong barrier, so this shouldn’t be too much of a worry for the average tourist. Just approach a friendly native and use a smile on your face.
Cologne has an excellent public transport network consisting of trams, local trains and buses. Bicycles are also available for hire on the northern side of the Hauptbahnhof. Local transport systems rarely provide announcements in English, but network maps are commonly available to assist with your journey. Those wishing to explore area away from the central city should plan their journey and potential connections before leaving. The KVB (Kölner Verkehrs-Betriebe) website is a good source of public transport information.
The climate of northwestern Germany is changeable, with seasonal changes and day-to-day weather often comparable to that of south-east England or Northern France. Travelers to Cologne can expect the hottest time of the year to be July and August. Temperatures can be above 30°C (86°F) for several days, but can be significantly cooler with barely 20°C(68°F) as well. The coldest month is January, with temperature between 0°C (32°F) and 11°C (52°F) during the day. Most precipitation falls in June due to showers and thunderstorms. The climate moreover tends to be rather gloomy, especially during fall and winter.
German is, of course, the language of this city but it is very easy to find information in French and English, also sometimes in Spanish and Japanese. Due to a large number of immigrants, Persian, Turkish, Polish and Russian are also widely spoken. Announcements in the main railway station (Hauptbahnhof) are in German though some long distance and international trains have additional announcements in French and English.
Cologne requires all cars to have a “Low Emissions” sticker in order to drive around in the city centre (Low Emission Zone, “Umweltzone”). Information on obtaining a sticker which must be done at least several weeks in advance.
Cologne has, like Berlin, Munich and Frankfurt, a Call A Bike system. After you register for an account on-line, it will charge your credit card a per minute fee. You can pick up or drop off one of the silver-red bikes anywhere in the city. It is also possible to rent a bike at many different places; by bike is maybe the best way to go around in the city.
But, on the whole, the centre of Cologne is not that big for a city of one million. It is entirely feasible to walk from one end of the centre, say, the Rudolfplatz, to the other end, say, the Dom, on foot in half an hour.
What to see. Best top attractions in Cologne, Germany
Kölner Dom. Monday – Sunday: 6.00 – 19.30. Protected by UNESCO, Cologne’s Dom is the first sight you will notice when taking the main exit from the central station. (If you don’t see it, you’ve taken the back exit.) If you are in good shape, take the 509 stairs to the top of the south tower. It takes about an hour, so wear comfortable shoes, but it’s worth the hike. Touring the Cathedral is forbidden during Mass. Entry into the cathedral is free but you will be asked for a donation. Admission to the tower costs. Admission to the treasury costs, however, a combined ticket granting you admission to the treasury and tower can be purchased.
12 Romanesque Churches: St. Kunibert (with wonderful stained glass windows), St. Severin, St. Maria Lyskirchen, St. Andreas (with 14th century frescoes and a 10th century crypt, being the burial place of Albertus Magnus), St. Aposteln (with controversial paintings from the 1990s), St. Gereon, St. Ursula, St. Pantaleon, St. Maria im Kapitol, Groß-St. Martin, St. Georg and St. Cäcilien.
Die Kölner Synagoge, Roonstraße 50. The synagogue is notable for its architecture that looks, well, right out of Gotham City. The Torah within the synagogue was rescued by a Catholic priest from another synagogue as it was being burned during Nazi rule. In August of 2005 Pope Benedict XVI visited the synagogue, becoming the second pope to ever visit a synagogue.
Veedel – City Quarters. Cologne is well known for its “Veedel” or traditional neighborhoods. Here, most notably in the bohemian Agnesviertel, you can find independent designers, bookshops, bars, and art galleries. There are also historical monuments, such as the North City Gate or Eigelsteintorburg in the Agnesviertel, very near to Fort X, built to protect the city from French attacks, and Agneskirche, a late neo-gothic church on the boulevardesque Neusserstrasse. Neusserstrasse also has a yoga school, an Aikido school, a Japanese restaurant, a well-stocked bookshop, and a range of pubs. Nearby you will find the Alte Feuerwache, where there are regular exhibitions on political topics and a surreal flea market every four weeks in summer. Opposite Alte Feuerwache is the Artclub, with regular exhibitions of contemporary art, and on Ebertplatz there is a cinema (Metropolis) which shows films in the original(Mostly English, but sometimes also french or spanish). On nearby Lübeckerstrasse, you will find the uncompromisingly Arty Filmpalette cinema.
Hohenzollern Bridge: Also called the Locking Bridge. If you walk to the back of the Kölner Dom along a straight path, there is a bridge on the Rhine to your right that is covered in padlocks. The locks are placed there by couples to show their loyalty to each other. Couples often have their names and a significant date inscribed on the locks. There are other places across the world that has “love padlocks”.
Rheinauhafen (Harbor): This completely rebuilt area combines modern extravagant architecture with historical harbor buildings. The old Rheinauhafen opened in 1898 and became necessary due to increasing amount of freight traffic. The new Rheinauhafen is a mix of office buildings and apartment buildings and restaurants. Directly located on a peninsula at the Rhine (1 km southern of Heumarkt), it is an invitation for a beautiful walk along the river or for having lunch or dinner.
Parks: Cologne has 2 park areas (Grüngürtel) encircling the city (immediately outside the medieval city limits) and nearly the entire town, respectively, which were set aside as public recreation areas after World War I. The inner Grüngürtel is probably more easy to reach for tourists who only stay a few days. Most notably are Volksgarten, Rheinpark, Hiroshima-Nagasaki- (colloquially known as Aachener-Weiher-) and Stadtgarten parks where thousands of people come together to enjoy the sun, play and barbecue when the weather is fine. All these parks have an associated beer garden. Be aware to dispose any packaging, charcoal etc into the wastebins (which are unfortunately few and far between), as the city has begun to employ anti-littering patrols that will levy a stiff fine on anyone seen littering. Metro: Eifelplatz for Volksgarten, Universitätsstraße for Hiroshima-Nagasaki-Park, Hans-Böckler-Platz/Bahnhof West for Stadtgarten, Bahnhof Deutz for Rheinpark.
Museums and Galleries
Cologne has one of the world’s best collections of museums and galleries for a city of its size. As well as world class museums of art and archaeology, Cologne boasts two museums of ecclesiastical art, both housed in architecturally stunning buildings. There is also an ethnographic museum, a chocolate museum, the German Sport Museum and an abundance of Roman remains. One can purchase a Museums Card from one of the municipal museums (such as the first five listed below). The family card, entitles 2 adults and 2 children (under 18) free admission to each of the municipal museums during two consecutive opening days. On its first day of validity, it can also be used as a ticket on all buses and trams on the local transportation system VRS.
Museum Ludwig, Bischofsgartenstraße 1. Tuesday to Sunday: 10AM – 6PM.
A museum of modern art, near central station and the Dom hosts a worthy regular exhibition, as well as temporary exhibitions.
Museum für Angewandte Kunst (Museum of Applied Art). Tuesday – Sunday: 11AM – 5PM. Museum für Angewandte Kunst has a collection of popular design items, as well as temporary exhibitions.
Wallraf-Richartz-Museum & Fondation Corboud, Martinstraße 39. Tuesday to Sunday: 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., Every Thursday till 9 p.m.
The Wallraf-Richartz Museum is an art gallery with a collection of fine art from the medieval period to the early twentieth century.
Römisch-Germanisches Museum, Roncalliplatz 4 (Adjacent to the Cathedral’s right side from its main facade. Tuesday – Sunday 10 AM – 5 PM.
Römisch-Germanisches Museum explores the history of Roman history in Cologne and the surrounding area. The museum’s tour guides are exceptionally dull and can make any visit seem like it lasted just as long as the Roman Empire. If you can, wander around the museum by yourself.
Rautenstrauch-Joest-Museum – World Cultures, Cäcilienstraße 29-33. Tuesday to Sunday: 10PM – 6PM Thursday: 10AM – 8PM.
North Rhine-Westphalia’s only ethnological museum, it has a fine collection of Amerindian and Australian-Polynesian artifacts.
Museum Schnütgen, Cäcilienstraße 29-33. F-Su & Tu-W 10:00-18:00, Th 10:00-18:00 (until 22:00 on the first Thursday in the month). Religious and sacred art mostly from the Middle Ages, located in a large building from 2010 that also incorporates the former church of St Cäcilia.
Kolumba – Diocesan museum, Kolumbastraße 4 – 50667 Köln. A Christian art museum. An architectural wonder and a feast for the senses; this museum, built in concordance with the ancient foundations of the shrine of Mary in the rubble contains a selection of historical and contemporary religious art. Worth visiting just to explore the spiritually inspiring spaces and the beautiful walkway through the ruins of the past.
NS-Dokumentationszentrum (Documentation center for the National Socialism)
Schokoladenmuseum (Museum of Chocolate), Am Schokoladenmuseum 1a, D-50678 Cologne. Opening hours: Tues. to Fri. 10AM to 6PM Sat., Sun., holidays* 11AM to 7PM closed on Mondays (* see visitors’ information) Last admittance one hour before closing. Chocolate Museum in Cologne. It’s a short visit but very interesting exhibits.
What to do in Cologne, Germany
Cologne’s strong side is its cultural life.
Kölner Karneval (Cologne Carnival ) – The biggest festivity in Cologne is the Winter carnival (or Fastelovend) in February. According to the official Cologne tourism website: “Its highlight is the street carnival taking place from Weiberfastnacht (Women’s Carnival Day), the Thursday before Ash Wednesday, traditionally the day on which women take control of the city to Karnevalsdienstag (Shrove Tuesday). On Rosenmontag (Shrove Monday) more than one and a half million people line Cologne’s streets to watch the parade with the mad triad – the prince, farmer, and virgin – every year.” Dates for Carnival: 2016 Feb 4th to Feb 9th
Kölner Lichter (Cologne Lights) – light up the sky in flames between the Hohenzollern and Zoo bridges.
Kölner Seilbahn; Riehler Straße 180. Hours: April – October 10 AM – 6 PM; Take a ride with the Aerial tramway across Rhine river, Germany’s only cable car crossing a river!
The Zoo; Riehler Straße 173. Hours: Summer: 9 AM – 6 PM, Winter: 9 AM – 5 PM, Aquarium: 9 AM – 6 PM.
Phantasialand -Berggeiststr. 31-41 (In the town of Brühl). Hours: 9 AM – 6 PM, Rides open at 10 AM, Ticket office closes at 4 PM; – Phantasialand is a fun place for children and has some fun rides for adults too. Even the Colorado Adventure roller coaster was sponsored by Michael Jackson. Two day passes available.
Claudius Therme, Sachsenbergstraße 1. 09.00-24.00. just below the Kölner Seilbahn is the Claudius Therme. Spend a very relaxing few hours unwinding in both indoor and outdoor pools, saunas, cold plunge pools, etc. Several areas are naturist (not clothing optional). Towels are available to rent and food and drink is served on-site.
Metropolis Cinema, Ebertplatz 19. 15.00-24.00. If you want to go to the movies while visiting Cologne and you don’t know German, this is the cinema for you. In the evenings it shows movies in their native language, but mostly English.
Christmas Markets. In December, there are many Christmas markets around Cologne, the most famous being the one close to the cathedral and the one at Neumarkt (Markt der Engel – Market of Angels), but there are also smaller, specialist ones such as a fairytale market and a medieval market.
Cologne Tourist Office, Unter Fettenhennen 19. M-F 09:00-22:00, Sa-Su 10:00-18:00. The Cologne Tourist Office offers a wealth of information for the traveller who wishes to fill their itinerary with activities around the city. Ask about guide books that are available, most of which provide invaluable information for free.
Spa and Massage
Just be aware that in typical German style, all sauna areas (referred to as Saunalandschaften, i.e. Sauna landscapes) are mixed (apart from the odd Damentag) and that bathing costumes are banned from them for hygienic reasons. Do take a bathrobe (to keep you from the cold outside the saunas) and a large towel (to put under you in the saunas) with you, though. Do not draw hasty conclusions either: mixed nudity does not make those places dens of sin, quite the contrary. Nudity is considered as the only appropriate outfit in saunas, and it all happens in a disciplined, wholesome, safe and respectful atmosphere. Possibly one of the highest forms of German civilization one can experience. Gawkers and bathing costume-wearers will be expelled by the staff without qualms, so don’t even think you can get away with playing the tourist who didn’t know, it won’t make a difference.
What to buy
Globetrotter, a huge store selling simply everything connected to traveling (clothing, backpacks, hiking & climbing gear, books, tents, sleeping backs…) They offer all the huge brands, but also have a more affordable home brand. Three floors and a swimming pool where you can try out canoes, a wind room and an ice room. Restaurant and toilets.
There is an abundance of record stores in Cologne, but most are hidden in non-tourist quarters.
Skating became very popular and there are many skaters in Cologne.
Cologne has a wide variety of restaurants, both German and otherwise.
One can eat pretty well in most traditional-style Kölsch restaurants, and in fact as a visitor, you should try some of the local food, which is quite rustic, but tasty, hearty fare.
The brewery taps (Früh, Sion, Pfaffen, Malzmühle etc. in the old town south of the Dom) are worth taking note of to that respect, although they tend to be expensive for what you get.
You’ll mostly find typical Rheinland dishes in those traditional Kneipen. Classics include :
- Halver Hahn : nice big slab of dutch gouda with a rye roll (Röggelchen)
- Himmel und Äd mit Flönz : fried blood sausage with mashed potatoes (“earth”), apple sauce (“heaven”) and fried onions.
- Soorbrode / Sauerbraten : joint marinated in vinegar with raisins, usually served with red cabbage and a kloss (potato dumpling). The joint may be beef or horsemeat, so you may want to ask first…
- Dicke Bunne mit Speck : boiled white beans with hefty boiled bacon slices on top.
- Schweinshaxe (grilled); Hämchen (cooked): pig’s leg, usually a bit of a monster (ranges from 600 to 1400 g, including the bone)
- Rievekoochen / Reibekuchen : flat fried potato cakes usually on offer once a week, and served with a variety of sweet or savory toppings, which may include apple sauce, Rübenkraut (the beet-sourced equivalent to black treacle) or smoked salmon with horseradish cream.
The Mustard museum (located just across the Chocolate museum) featuring a very short free exhibition about mustard is a great place for a stop by visit.
If you are looking for a snack, you can head for one of the Middle-Eastern or Asian places. Italian restaurants in Cologne seem to attempt to aim for a higher quality than in the UK, though it is debatable whether they achieve it, and whether their prices (often 150-200% of UK prices) are justified. There are several Indian restaurants across the city, which serve a fair fare, though the visiting Brit may be slightly disappointed to find that German ‘curry culture’ is rather akin to that of the UK in the 1960s: menus are neither large and varied, nor regionalized and specialist, and although ingredients are fresh, the food without exception appears to be tamed-down for the conservative German palate and the cooks are rather hesitant to spice it up even if you ask for it. More recently, Japanese and Thai restaurants have become more common; both are quite expensive.
What to drink
Typical Cologne beer is called “Kölsch” and served in bars around town in small glasses, called “Stangen”, of 0.2l. That way the beer is always fresh and cold. Don’t worry; waiters will be fast to bring you a new one once your old one is (almost) finished. In more traditional bars and especially the breweries, the waiter (called “Köbes” in local language) will even hand you a fresh Kölsch without being asked, so it is easy to lose track of how much you drank. He will put a pencil line on your coaster for each beer that you drank, this will be the basis for your bill, so do not lose it! To stop the beer from coming, leave your glass almost half full until you have asked for the bill or put your coaster on top of your empty glass.
If you buy bottled Kölsch, take either “Reissdorf”, “Früh”, “Gaffel” or “Mühlen”, which are rated highest by Cologne citizens. Those looking for a beer with a little more bitterness might like to try Küppers (there are about 30 more brands).
There are so many bars and pubs to choose from that you could spend most of the night going from one bar to the next
Beer & Bike
Like in other cities in Germany you can pedal around the city while you drink a beer with BeerBike and have fun.
For traditional breweries, head to the Altstadt around the Dom, where the “Früh Kölsch” brewery is the most famous, both with visitors and locals. You will find a younger crowd at “Hellers Brauhaus” on Roonstraße, near metro station Zülpicher Platz or “Brauhaus Pütz” on Engelbertstraße close to Rudolfplatz. Furthermore the “Päffgen”, on the all-bar street Friesenstraße close to the Friesenplatz, and the “Mühlen” near Heumarkt are traditional brewery pubs but less touristy than the “Früh”. Also recommended is “Sion”, which is a lesser known brand, but hailed to be very good, although some beer enthusiasts have found it lacking character from 2007 on. Most Altstadt pubs are somewhat scorned as “tourist traps” by locals, however: prices here are usually higher than e.g. on Zülpicher Straße.
There are a lot of modern bars and lounges all around town. More mainstream ones are on Zülpicher Straße. For something more independent and funky on this street, try Umbruch (funky) or Stiefel (punky). The Low Budget on Aachener Straße next to Moltkestraße metro is a nice, unassuming, punky bar which features a fine selection of drinks and often hosts concerts, poetry or cabaret sessions.
A lot of stylish places are in the so-called Belgian quarter between Aachener Straße and the Ring.
Tourists should be particularly careful around the trainstation, the nearby square and the Cologne Dom which is a notorious pickpocketing and drug abuse hotspot with young male street gangs. Also, be careful on the Ring, which is full of clubs and night-time crowds in the streets. During both day and night, it is advisable to be careful in outlying neighborhoods like Chorweiler, Porz, Seeberg, Ostheim, Bocklemünd, Ossendorf, and Vingst. In general, avoid getting into fights and stay away from drunken people, and that women should not be unaccompanied during nighttime around the central station.
Nearby places to visit
Bonn, the former capital of West Germany is located due south and easy to reach by train or Stadtbahn.
Brühl, almost a suburb of Cologne, contains the Augustusburg Palace which has been placed on the UNESCO World Heritage List. The palace is one of the key works of Balthasar Neuman, and contains one of the finest Rococco interiors in the world, the highlight being the main staircase. Also in the grounds is the magnificent hunting Lodge of Falkenslust. Brühl can be easily reached by train in around 20 minutes from Cologne. The theme park of Phantasialand is also in Brühl.
Königswinter A small town on the Rhine River reachable by train. Famous for its ruined castle atop the “Drachenfels” (Dragon Rock) with stunning views across the Rhine (towards Bonn and even Cologne).
Ruhr (Ruhrgebiet) If you are interested in heavy industry this might be a worthwhile trip. It is located about 100 km north of Cologne. The region, which was the center of montan (coal and steel) industry in Germany, is going through a structural transformation and proudly presents its industrial past on the Industrial Heritage Trail.
Zülpich — a small town southwest of Cologne dating from Roman times. It has a newly opened museum centered on Roman baths and bathing culture. It is also a gateway to the forested hills of the Eifel region.
If you want to explore Cologne and the surroundings, Cologne’s proximity to the German/Belgian/Dutch border weekend trips to foreign destinations are easy to arrange. Thalys operates high speed trains to Paris and Brussels, and Deutsche Bahn to Amsterdam, making each city only a few hours away. You can also travel to Maastricht (a city in the Netherlands with a beautiful city centre where the Maastricht Treaty of the European Union was signed in 1992) for a low cost by taking a train to Aachen then by bus to Maastricht.