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Why go now?
The bustling city of Cologne has been transformed into a gigantic Santa's grotto by seven Christmas markets ( koelnerweihnachtsmarkt.com). There are three big markets in the heart of town: outside the cathedral (1), in the Alter Markt (2) and in the Neumarkt (3). They're all equally quaint and atmospheric and are open until 23 December.
Board the Eurostar (08432 186 186; eurostar.com) at London St Pancras or Ebbsfleet to Brussels Midi, then catch the high speed Thalys (00 32 70 79 79 79; thalys.com) direct to Cologne's central station, the Hauptbahnhof (4). Each half of the journey takes around two hours; book through German Railways (bahn.de) for the cheapest deals.
Cologne-Bonn Airport is 15km south-east of the city centre. It is served by Germanwings (0906 294 1918; germanwings.com) from Stansted, Manchester and Edinburgh; by easyJet (0843 104 5000; easyJet.com) from Gatwick and Edinburgh; Bmibaby (0905 828 2828; bmibaby.com) from East Midlands; and Lufthansa (0871 945 9747; lufthansa.com) from Heathrow. Direct trains to Cologne's Hauptbahnhof (4) leave every 20-30 minutes on line S13 and take 20 minutes (€2.50). A taxi into town takes about 20 minutes and costs €40.
Get your bearings
Cologne was badly bombed during the Second World War and rebuilt in a hurry. However, with more than a million inhabitants (including 100,000 students) this is one of Germany's most dynamic, creative cities. The city's focal point is its colossal cathedral (1), which stands right beside the Hauptbahnhof (4) on the west bank of the Rhine.
Most of the main sights are on the west bank, due south of the cathedral. The cobbled Altstadt, between the Alter Markt (2) and the Fischmarkt (5), is the most popular part of town for sightseeing. To escape the tourists, head west towards the Neumarkt (3), where locals shop and socialise. Further south, the dockside district of Rheinauhafen (6) has been redeveloped as an upmarket leisure destination, with sleek shops and restaurants.
The tourist office (7) (00 49 221 221 30 400; cologne-tourism.com) at Kardinal-Hoffner-Platz 1 (9am-8pm daily, Sundays 10am-5pm) is opposite the cathedral (1). The Welcome Card (€9) gives you 24 hours' free public transport, and reduced admission to attractions.
The most stylish place to stay is Im Wasserturm (8) at Kaygasse 2 (00 49 221 200 80; www.hotel-im-wasserturm.de), a suave five-star hotel built within the brick shell of a 19th-century water tower. Its restaurant, La Vision, won a second Michelin star this year. The Bauhaus style bedrooms (many with panoramic views) are serenely understated and start at €190, including breakfast.
The Marriott (9) at Johannisstrasse 76-80 (00 49 221 94 2220; koelnmarriott.de) is a comfortable mid-range choice, a short walk from the Hauptbahnhof (4). Doubles from €109, room only. The Ibis Koeln am Dom(10) at Bahnhofvorplatz (00 49 221 912 8580; ibishotel.com) is a superior two star. Doubles from €88, room only.
Take a view
For the best view of Cologne, take the lift to the rooftop terrace of the Koeln Triangle (11) at Ottoplatz 1 (00 49 221 355 004 100 ; koelntriangle-panorama.de), a modern tower block on the east bank of the Rhine. Offices occupy the lower floors, but the 360-degree panorama from the 103.2m-high top floor makes this a popular visitor attraction. Take the lift to the 28th floor and walk up to the 29th-floor penthouse. Open weekdays noon-6pm, weekends 10am-6pm, admission €3.
Take a hike
From the Koeln Triangle walk south, past the Deützer Brucke (bridge) (12), along the footpath that hugs the east bank of the Rhine. This pedestrianised route gives you a great view of the old town, across the river. You'll pass plenty of other walkers and joggers along the way.
Beyond Severinsbrücke (13) the promenade opens out into a grassy flood plain. It's hard to believe you're still so near the city centre. Cross the river – currently at a very low level – via Sudbrucke (14).
Head north along the west bank, through the revitalised docklands of Rheinauhafen (6), past the Fischmarkt (5), where the pleasure boats depart, and cross the river again at Hohenzollernbrücke (15), bringing you back to where you started. For a shorter hike, cross the river at Deützer Brucke or Severinsbrücke. The waterfront cafe of Cologne's Chocolate Museum (16) at Am Schokoladenmuseum 1a (00 49 221 931 8880; schokoladenmuseum.de) is an ideal place to rest (and refuel) en route.
Lunch on the run
Holtmann's (17) at An der Rechtschule (00 49 221 27 79 88 60; holtmanns.com) is a sedate café in the bowels of Cologne's Museum of Applied Art, which is known as MAKK (00 49 221 221 238 60; makk.de). A plate of filling Eintopftgemüse mit Wurst (vegetable and sausage stew) costs €7.50. Kaffee und kuchen (coffee and a slice of cake) costs €5.50.
Cologne's main shopping streets are Hohe Strasse (18) and the slightly smarter Schildergasse (19), but most of the outlets on these busy boulevards are international chain stores.
For a more distinctive shopping trip, head for the Belgische Viertel, the city's up-and-coming fashion district. Its chic yet scruffy streets are lined with idiosyncratic boutiques, selling fashionable but affordable clothes.
You'll be spoilt for choice: try Claudia Heller (20) at Antwerpen Strasse 50 (00 49 221 508 0401; claudiaheller.de) for women, or Chico Clothing (21) at Maastrichtstrasse 26 (00 49 221 169 11310; chico-clothing.de) for men. Look out for the classy graffiti art along the way.
Cologne has more small breweries than any other German city, and there are countless bierstüben around town where you can try the local brew. The local brew, Kölsch, is a light yet deceptively potent lager, served in slim 2cl glasses at about €1.60 a shot.
Most of the bars are much of a muchness, but Brauhaus Sion (22) at Unter Taschenmacher 5-7 (00 49 221 257 8540; brauhaussion.de) is particularly convivial, with a wide range of local food.
Dining with the locals
For a traditional Rhineland dinner, Peters Brauhaus (23) at Mühlengasse 1 (00 49 221 257 3950; peters-brauhaus.de) is a cut above the usual bierkeller. It occupies a grand fin de siècle house in the old town.
Try the local speciality, Himmel und Ad – literally, Heaven and Earth – which comprises a hearty plate of mashed potato and apple purée (heaven) and black pudding (earth) for €8.80. If you have room, follow it with Rote Grutze und Vanillasauce (forest fruit compote and custard) for €4.70.
Sunday morning: go to church
Cologne's colossal cathedral (1) (00 49 221 17940 200; koelner-dom.de) is open daily 6am-7.30pm, admission free. To see this iconic building in its full glory, go to High Mass on Sunday at 10am. With majestic organ music and heavenly singing, it's an amazing spectacle, even if you don't speak a word of German.
Out to brunch
Fassbender (24) at Obenmarspforten 7 (00 49 221 272 7390; www. fassbender.de) is a cosy corner café in a quiet side street just off Hohe Strasse, Cologne's busiest (and brashest) shopping street. A brunch of salmon, ham, cheese, eggs and rolls, washed down with a glass of Sekt (German sparkling wine) costs €14.95. It's open 11am-6pm on Sunday.
A walk in the park
Cologne's prettiest park is the Rheinpark (25) on the east bank of the river, with lovely views of the cathedral (1) and the old town across the Rhine. Children will relish the adventure playground and the miniature railway.
Grown-ups may prefer the thermal spa in the Claudius Therme (26) at Sachsenbergstrasse 1 (00 49 221 981 440; claudius-therme.de), open daily from 9am to midnight. Prices start at €14.50 for two hours.
Take a ride
Board a Köln-Düsseldorfer ferry at the Fischmarkt (5) and you can sail all the way up the German Rhine, as far as Mainz. However, if you're only here for a weekend there are several short excursions which will give you a flavour of this great river. The two-hour cruise departs at 3.30pm and costs €11.60 including a glass of gluhwein (00 49 221 2088 318; k-d.com).
Museum Ludwig (27) on Heinrich Böll Platz (00 49 221 221 26165; museum-ludwig.de) is one of Europe's most important and invigorating modern art museums, with the biggest collection of Pop Art outside the US. It also has a wonderful array of German Expressionists – particularly the haunting paintings of Max Beckmann and Ludwig Kirchner.
This handsome gallery also houses the biggest haul of Picasso's work outside France or Spain, and until 15 January, there's an absorbing exhibition of photographs of the man himself. Open 10am-6pm daily, admission €10.
The icing on the cake
The German Sport & Olympic Museum (28) at Im Zollhafen 1 (00 49 221 336 090; sportmuseum.de) is a treasure trove of sports memorabilia, housed in an old warehouse in the renovated dockland district of Rheinauhafen.
Lively and informative, the permanent exhibition presents an absorbing picture of Germany's sporting history and how it has been shaped by the upheavals of the past. Open weekends 11am-7pm, weekdays 10am-6pm, closed Mondays; €6.