Travel: City to city - Give me a break: Cologne on pounds 250

It's noon on Friday. You are in the centre of London, at Charing Cross, with pounds 250 for a weekend away. Claire Gervat prescribes how to spend your time and money in one of Germany's most gracious cities.

Down payment

Thanks to the new high-speed link through Belgium, central London to central Cologne takes just six hours including check-in time. From Charing Cross, walk briskly across the Hungerford footbridge to Waterloo. Eurostar (0345 303030) has a train at 12.27pm on Friday (change at Brussels, arrive at 6.57pm local time), returning on Sunday at 6.02pm, for pounds 89 return. This leaves pounds 161 to spend in Germany's fourth-largest city.

Instant briefing

The German National Tourist Office in London (65 Curzon Street, W1Y 5NE; 0171-493 0080 for a live operator) dishes out brochures and recorded information on its premium-rate service (0891 600100). Save money by waiting until you reach Cologne; the tourist office is a short walk from the station, in the shadow of the city's most obvious landmark, the Dom (cathedral). No need for them to point you towards the centre, though; you're already there.

Rest assured

The weekend before Lent (21-22 February) is the high point of the local carnival. This is a huge, riotous event: museums close, the bars stay open, and rooms are in short supply. It can also be tricky to find reasonably priced accommodation when one of the city's frequent trade fairs is taking place. Fortunately the tourist office in Cologne has an efficient room- finding service for which it charges only a nominal fee (pounds 1.60 to pounds 2). When there's no fair in town, expect to pay around pounds 50 a night for a double with en-suite bathroom in a reasonable central hotel such as the Rhein Hotel St Martin (00 49 221 257 7955; fax 00 49 221 221 3320).

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Night moves

Head a little way out of the centre to the trendy bars and cafes of the Quartier Lateng or Severin to sample something of Cologne's less traditional side. But for sheer novelty value, it would be hard to beat the nightly drag-queen cabaret show (1am to 4am) at the Hotel Timp in Heumakt. There's something about it that suggests the decadence of Berlin in the Thirties, and even if you are unlikely to be fooled as to the performers' gender, it's still a good way to pass a few night hours. Entry is free, though drinks are more expensive when the show is on; there is also a minimum charge of pounds 8 on Fridays and Saturdays.