This year has been designated "Gothic Year" in Cologne with a series of events celebrating the 750th anniversary of the laying of the foundation stone of the city's magnificent cathedral, known generally as the Dom. Throughout the summer there will be exhibitions, music and a medieval market in and around the cathedral.
Cologne airport isn't particularly close to the city, and competition from Heathrow between British Airways and British Midland (also masquerading as Lufthansa) isn't exactly intense. The option of a Debonair flight (0500 146 200) from Luton to Monchengladbach (also known as "Dusseldorf Express"), followed by an hour's bus ride from the airport into the centre of Cologne, may be worth considering. Fares start at pounds 116 including tax.
A cheaper alternative is to take Eurostar (0345 303030) to Brussels and then the connecting train to Cologne, making a total journey time of just under six hours. The lowest fare is pounds 89, for a stay of three nights during the week, or over a Saturday night. Even better, the railway station is right in the centre of the city, next to the Dom.
Get your bearings
Cologne is the largest city on the Rhine. In the Middle Ages it was part of the Hanseatic League, the prosperous trading alliance of northern and Baltic towns. There has been a community here since Roman times, although like many German cities, it was largely rebuilt after heavy Allied bombing during the Second World War. Although the city now extends across both sides of the river, most tourists will stay on the left bank, in an area that fans out from the river in a semicircle, marked by the first of a series of ring roads, following the line of the old city walls.
If you like a bit of uncertainty, you can get excellent bargains through the Cologne Tourist Office (00 49 221 2213345): turn up at this office, opposite the cathedral, any time during the week (8am-10.30pm Mon-Sat, 9am-10.30pm Sun) and see what is available. The office deals with accommodation in all price ranges and will often be able to get you a reduction of up to 50 per cent on the normal "rack rate".
If you prefer to book in advance, the Drei Kronen (Auf dem Brand 6, tel 00 49 221 258 0692) is a pleasant new hotel in the old part of the city with lovely views of the river; a single room will cost around DM139 (pounds 49) and a double is DM159 (pounds 56), including breakfast. If you are prepared to forgo an en-suite shower at the Hotel Berg (Brandenburgerstrasse 6, tel 00 49 221 132 591) you will pay DM75 (pounds 27) for a single or DM95 (pounds 34) for a double, again including breakfast. You can also visit the tourist office website (www.koeln.org/ koelntourismus): this gives a selection of places to stay, categorised according to price, location and facilities. It is worth bearing in mind that Cologne is often host to large international conferences and trade fairs, and hotels are often booked well in advance, so plan accordingly.
Take a hike
The long riverfront is used for cycling, in-line skating, or just walking about seeing who is around, almost in the manner of the Italian passeggiata. When you need something more architectural to look at, turn inland to the narrow streets filling a square created by the river, Hohestrasse, and the roads coming off the Deutzer Brucke and the Hohenzollernbrucke.
Lunch on the run
The old town is full of cafes serving various kinds of sausage with potato salad, as well as pizzas, pasta and other international food. You can also settle for a light snack; there are plenty of cafes, bistros, and bakeries (for takeaway sandwiches and pastries) near the Dom which fit the bill.
The choice of museums in Cologne extends to beer, chocolate and the Beatles, although there are plenty that are more traditional. A modern complex next to the Dom houses the Wallraf Richartz Museum and the Museum Ludwig, two collections of, respectively, ancient and modern paintings that complement each other and the stunning building in which they are displayed. The Romisch-Germanisches museum is a collection covering the history of the city from its Roman roots, including the beautiful Dionysos Mosaic which was found by archaeologists in 1941, as well as a superb collection of Roman glass.
The 24-hour society is slow to reach Germany, at least as far as shopping is concerned. On Saturdays the shops shut at 4pm - and this is an improvement on recent habits - although closing-time is later during the week. Several of the department stores, and many other interesting smaller shops, are on or around Hohestrasse. Cologne's most famous export is 4711, the world-famous eau de Cologne (or Kolnerwasser), on sale in its original home in Glockengasse. The house number is 4711 - not because the street is unusually long, but because in the days when the French occupied the city at the end of the 18th century, the soldiers needed a way of remembering where they were billeted, so all the houses in the city were numbered individually. The building is now an elegant, old-fashioned shop selling every possible variation on the theme, including soap, perfumed sachets and tea towels commemorating the story of the perfume.
The local speciality is Kolsch, a light, rather bitter beer brewed in various breweries in and around the city, which is served in small, elegant glasses. Enjoy some in one of the open-air cafes of the old town, or go to one of the brewhouses that specialise in beer drinking. Brauhaus Sion, near the Dom at Unter Taschenmacher 9, is an unusual combination of a place in the tourist heartland.
Having tried the home brew, you may wish to turn your attention to some of the local wines. One of the most famous winehouses, and among Cologne's finest restaurants, is the Weinhaus im Walfisch, at Salzgasse 13 (00 49 221 219 575). Housed in a beautiful, gabled 17th-century building, it has a pleasant atmosphere and serves most of Germany's most traditional dishes.
Sunday morning - go to church
Churches are hard to avoid here: in the old town alone there is a choice of 12 which survive from the Romanesque period. The foundation stone for the Gothic Dom, meanwhile, was laid in 1248 and it was built over the following 500 years. It was important during the days of the Holy Roman Empire, and is now the seat of the primate of Germany.
The icing on the cake
The opportunity for kaffee und kuchen should never be passed up, and Sunday morning is an ideal time for a bit of self-indulgence. Cafe Reichard, near the Dom at Unter Fettenhennen 11, is a good choice.
A walk in the park
The Rheinpark is on the right bank of the river, in the suburb known as Deutz, and is easy to get to on the tram. As well as being a pleasant place to walk off the effects of some of those cakes, there are excellent views of the city and the twin towers of the Dom.
Not exactly vigorous exercise, but a trip down the Rhine is an enjoyable way of getting a new perspective on Cologne and its surroundings. There is a wide variety of different trips, from an hour-long city sightseeing tour to a cruise of up to a week. If you want something in-between, KD (which stands for Koln-Dusseldorfer; tel 00 49 221 208 8318) runs daily tours upstream to Bonn and beyond.