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WHY GO NOW?
The Dom (1), Cologne's magnificent cathedral, is beautifully lit every night, but even more so during "Cologne Lights" (Kölner Lichter), which is on 11 July this summer, when a huge firework display on the Rhine is watched by thousands of candle-carrying citizens and visitors.
What is arguably Germany's friendliest big city has won plaudits for the eating, drinking and shopping on offer: the breadth and depth of cuisine overturns the notion that eating out in Germany can be a bleak prospect, and the local beer should win over the most devoted oenophile. City-wide reconstruction continues apace but hasn't swamped Cologne's cultural wealth.
By rail, the fastest connection by Eurostar (0870 518 6186; eurostar. com) gets you from London St Pancras via Brussels to the splendid Hauptbahnhof (2) (main station) in around three hours; German Rail (0871 880 8066; bahn.de) has a lowest fare of around £90 return.
Lufthansa (0871 945 9747; lufthansa.com) flies from Heathrow to Cologne-Bonn airport; easyJet (0905 82 1 0905; easyJet.com) flies from Gatwick; Germanwings (0871 702 9987; germanwings.com) flies from Edinburgh and Stansted; and Tuifly (0870 606 0519; tuifly.com) flies from Manchester.
Cologne airport's rail station, beneath Terminal 2, has frequent trains taking 14 minutes to the main station (2); fare €2.40. A taxi to the centre costs about €25.
GET YOUR BEARINGS
The Dom (1) acts as a focal point from wherever you are in the city. Handily located opposite the cathedral is the tourist office (3), Köln Tourismus (00 49 221 2213 0400; koelntourismus.de). It opens 9am-8pm, Monday-Saturday, and 10am-5pm on Sundays. The rambling Altstadt (Old Town) spreads south from here. To the west lies a busy shopping district, and beyond it the main nightlife areas: the "Latin quarter" and the "Belgian quarter".
Cologne is a city designed for walking – except for a few locations where main roads intrude – but if you wish to hop aboard a tram or U-bahn (underground), trips in the central area cost €1.60.
The Hotel im Wasserturm (4) occupies a large and historic water tower at Kaygasse 2 (00 49 221 200 80; hotel-im-wasserturm.de). The rooms themselves are meticulously minimalist, and the structure astounding. Rooms normally go for €233-385, but prices fall at weekends; you may be able to get a double from €225, including a five-star breakfast (normally €28 per person). Significantly cheaper – and more central – is the Hotel Cristall (5) at Ursulaplatz 9-11 (00 49 221 163 00; hotelcristall.de). Crisply stylish, it offers a special summer rate valid until 2 August for €89 for a double including breakfast. A drawback is that half the rooms face on to a busy dual carriageway. The budget choice is Station Backpackers (6) at Marzellenstrasse 44-56 (00 49 221 912 5301; hostel-cologne.de), which shares premises with the German Rail lost property office. Doubles with private bathroom cost €55, or a bed in a dorm is €17. Prices include free internet access; breakfast is extra.
TAKE A VIEW
Climb the bell tower of the Dom (1) any day between 9am and 6pm (May-September; closing at 4pm from November to February, 5pm in October, March and April. Admission is €2.50, which entitles you to take the 533 steps to the top; you can pause halfway up to admire the Glocken (bells). You can rest again at the foot of the metal staircase that was erected to ease congestion.
From the public gallery at a height of 97m, you get a fine view of the old town – and some ungainly modern buildings, erected after the Second World War when 90 per cent of the city was destroyed.
Hohe Strasse and Schildergasse are the main shopping streets, with the big Kaufhof department store (7) at the point where they meet. For electronics, head for Media Markt (8) at the corner of Hohe Strasse and Minoritenstrasse – one of the biggest electronics stores in Europe. Designer shops are sprinkled along Mittelstrasse, which runs between Neumarkt (9) and Rudolfplatz (10) – site of an öko (organic) food market every Wednesday and Saturday. Less upmarket than Mittelstrasse, Ehrenstrasse is also worth a wander.
LUNCH ON THE RUN
They aren't exactly local specialities, but the crêpes at Engelbät (11) at Engelbertstrasse 7 (00 49 221 24 69 14; engelbaet.de) come in almost 50 varieties and make a quick and filling lunch. Most are around €7.
TAKE A HIKE
Start a tour around the Altstadt facing the main west entrance of the Dom (1), where you will find a replica of the finials (huge stone ornaments) that sit atop the towers. Aim diagonally to your right past the south transept and Dom-Hotel and across the somewhat bleak square to Am Hof. At the Artothek (12) on the corner of Unter Taschenmacher turn right, past the Brauhaus Sion restaurant (13) then left into the Alter Markt (14) which forms the hub of the old city. Head along Lintgasse, the start of a warren of cobbled lanes. It emerges at Fischmarkt (15) with a fine pastel-painted façade.
Turn right along Buttermarkt and right again along Salzgasse – where Cologne's highest concentration of eating and drinking venues can be found. Go west past Heumarkt (16) into Rathausplatz (17). On the far corner of "Town Hall Square" you will see the Farina complex at Obenmarspforten 21, where eau de cologne was first concocted in 1709. The glass pavilion in the middle of the square covers the underground remains of the medieval Jewish bath, or mikvah, which is thought to date from when the Jewish community thrived in this area.
Conclude your walk at the Rathaus in the north-east corner of the square. If your timing is good, you may catch the glockenspiel performance from the tower at 9am, noon, 3pm or 6pm each day.
Rathausplatz is the location for the Wallraf-Richartz-Museum (00 49 221 221 211 19; wallraf.museum), a dramatic structure housing art from medieval to 19th-century in uplifting surroundings. It opens from 10am-6pm Tue, Wed and Fri, 10am-10pm on Thu, weekends 11am-6pm; admission varies between €6 and €9.
The Museum Ludwig (18), adjacent to the Dom at Bischofsgartenstrasse 1 (00 49 221 221 261 65; museum-ludwig.de), is awkwardly designed but full of modern artworks by the likes of Dalí and Warhol. The museum is open 10am-6pm daily except Monday, until 10pm on the first Thursday of the month, admission €9.
If you consider chocolate to be cultural, don't miss the Chocolate Museum (19) by the river at Rheinauhalbinsel 1a (00 49 221 931 8880; schokoladenmuseum.de). You'll learn the story of chocolate from bean to bar; visit the greenhouses in which the museum's cocoa beans grow; and see liquid chocolate gush from a fountain. It opens 10am-6pm from Tuesday to Friday, 11am-7pm at weekends, admission €7.50.
Kölsch beer is one of the tastiest in Germany, light and well-hopped. The locals celebrate this fact by supporting an absurd number of beer halls. Favourites include Brauhaus Reissdorf (20) at Kleiner Griechenmarkt 40 (00 49 221 21 92 54; brauhaus-reissdorf.de) and Brauhaus Gaffel at Altermarkt 20-22 (00 49 221 257 7692; gaffel-haus.de). Near Neumarkt, Café Gloria (21) at Apostelnstrasse 11 (00 49 221 660 630; gloria-theater.com) is a good café/bar housed in a former cinema. It often hosts performances of live music.
DINING WITH THE LOCALS
Brauhaus Sion (13), Unter Taschenmacher 5-7 (00 49 221 257 8540; brauhaus-sion.de), has functioned as a restaurant since 1912. Try the local version of German speciality sauerbraten, melt-in-your-mouth beef which has been marinated for days before being pot-roasted. A large plateful costs €13.50. Like many German cities, Cologne has a sizeable Turkish population and Turkish food is superb at upmarket Bosporus (22) at Weidengasse 36 (00 49 221 165 265; bosporus.de).
SUNDAY MORNING: GO TO CHURCH
The Dom (1) owes its magnificence to the relics of the Magi, which promoted Cologne to the premier league of pilgrimage destinations. Begin by admiring the dramatic, soaring façade, then walk in to be overwhelmed by the sense of space. The wise men's remains occupy the casket that glitters from the east end as soon as you enter at the west door. Construction of the cathedral began in the 13th century, and ended 125 years ago. When finished, it was the tallest building in Europe – until the Eiffel Tower was completed nine years later. It opens 6am-7.30pm daily, admission free.
OUT TO BRUNCH
Head for Café Extrablatt at Alter Markt 28 (14) (00 49 221 257 2107; cafe-extrablatt.com). The Sunday brunch (9.30am-2pm) will fill you up until supper for €9.45.
TAKE A RIDE
Western Europe's most important waterway provides an excellent alternative view of the city. Competing companies offer one-hour tours from just north of the Höhenzollernbrücke (23) (the railway bridge) for around €6. You will see the smarter areas downstream (north) and the handsome Altstadt, and – here's one for property speculators – many jaded warehouses ripe for revitalisation.
ICING ON THE CAKE
Contrast the city lights with dinner in total darkness at unsicht-Bar (24) Im Stavenhof 5-7 (00 49 221 200 5910; unsicht-bar-koeln.de). All the waiting staff are blind or visually handicapped. As well as serving you they act as guides, helping you find the food on your plate. The food (€30-50) is fine, the experience incredible but you'll need to book two to three months in advance for dinner at weekends.