You cannot escape evidence of hasty post-war modernisation in Germany, but in Cologne, pre-war history is also much in evidence. Founded in 33BC on the banks of the Rhine, Cologne's many Roman influences remain either in museums or still standing around the city (literally, Cologne means "colony"). Centuries later, the city is still in debt to Italy for an imported infusion of flower blossoms in alcohol: eau de Cologne.
This year, Cologne celebrates "Gothic Year" - the 750th anniversary of the foundation of its magnificent cathedral, the most visited building in Germany. Meanwhile, the city's new Media Park is very much of this century - a shrine to music, film, television and radio. As the country's closest major city to Britain, a mere five hours by train from London, Cologne is ideal for a first taste of Germany.
When to go
Winters are slightly colder than in Britain, with day temperatures often around zero, but December sees the charming traditional Christmas market, the Weihnachtmarkt, which is not as crassly commercial as you might imagine. The long carnival season starts on 11 November and culminates in one mad long weekend in February, just before Ash Wednesday, an excellent time to see the whole city showing off its sense of fun in fancy dress, including one day in which the women run around cutting men's ties off with scissors.
The author travelled with British Midland (tel: 0345 554554), which flies daily from London Heathrow to Cologne/Bonn airport from pounds 87 plus pounds 16 tax (including a Saturday night) or pounds 340 plus pounds 16 tax.
Eurostar (tel: 0990 186186) runs a daily service from London Waterloo to Cologne, changing at Brussels, from pounds 89 (any three-night stay).
From Cologne airport, regular buses take you on a 20-minute bus ride across the Rhine to the main city station (Hauptbahnhof) for 8.50DM (about pounds 3).
What to see
The city itself is compact, so walking around is no problem, the major sights being within the inner ring road and, generally, all south of the cathedral. The medieval centre of the Altstadt (old town) by the Rhine is dominated by the 12 rebuilt Romanesque churches, and is very pleasant to walk around. Public transport - buses, trams and the underground - are reliable and some lines are even integrated with Bonn's network. A three-day city travel pass costs 22DM.
Kolner Dom The beautifully intricate twin spires of the cathedral dominate the city's skyline. They may no longer be the tallest structures in the world, but the climb up to the top is still rewarded with an excellent view. The golden shrine to the three Magi is situated behind the altar. You can also see the stonemasons' workshop, where renovation and cleaning is in progress on the intricate gargoyles and other stonework.
The Roman-Germanic Museum Next door to the cathedral, this museum was specially built to house the million-piece Dionysos Mosaic found on site 50 years ago. It also houses other Roman exhibits that were excavated around the city, and some later Frankish artefacts. All museums are closed on Mondays; admission is 5DM.
Wallraf-Richardt/Ludwig Museum Located near the railway station, this modern gallery is, in fact, two collections in one. The first floor is home to the Old Masters, the second to 20th-century art. Particular attractions are the large Pop Art collection and the two Picasso rooms displaying 90 of his works. The shop sells a good variety of art books and gifts. Admission is from 8DM, although special temporary exhibitions cost more.
The Chocolate Museum Housed in a ship-like building on the banks of the Rhine, this is where you can totally indulge the Roald Dahl fantasies of your childhood, including dipping wafers into a chocolate fountain. The cafe menu is disappointing, but no prizes for guessing what the shop sells. Entrance is 10DM.
Rheinpark Situated on the right bank of the Rhine, on the opposite side to the botanical and zoological gardens, you can take a cable-car across the river to it (April to October only). Apart from green spaces and fields, the Rheinpark includes an extensive sculpture park, fountains, a tented music venue and its own chairlift.
The city's shopping heart has been pedestrianised, the main shopping route starting at the windswept square in front of the cathedral, continuing down Hohe Strasse leading to Schildergasse and Neumarkt. Walk a little and you will come to the Belgian Quarter, Ehrenstrasse and Breite Strasse, the city's bohemian areas with cafes, bars, boutiques and second-hand clothes shops. One snag: many shops close on Saturdays at midday and very little is open on Sundays.
Several manufacturers produce eau de Cologne, all of them purporting to be echt - the original - but the most famous and popular brand is 4711, with its turquoise and gold label. It is widely available in stores and also at the original shop, at no. 4711 Glockengasse. There is a perfume fountain outside, so you will smell the shop before you see it. During the French Revolution, when the French occupied Cologne, it was decreed that all houses be numbered accumulatively, hence the high number despite its position in a small side street.
Where to stay
Cologne is a major trade-fair centre, and during the big expositions, hotel prices can rise alarmingly, so it is worth checking when making a booking. Carnival time isn't usually a problem for accommodation as most visitors only make day trips.
Many of the moderately priced hotels and b&bs are concentrated in the Belgian Quarter and Altstadt.
Dom Hotel, Donkloster 2a (tel: 00 49 221 20240). Centrally located on the square opposite the cathedral, this is one of the city's oldest hotels, with prices reflecting its 130-year history, prestige and locality. Double rooms from 450DM.
Chelsea Hotel, Julicher Strasse 1 (tel: 00 49 221 207150). Situated in the trendy Belgian quarter, this is a very arty hotel. Original paintings hang in the 30 rooms and in the restaurant, and the cafe-bar hosts regular artistic events. The relaxed atmosphere is exemplified by breakfast being served until noon. Doubles start from 169DM, rising to 270DM during trade fairs. Breakfast costs an extra 16DM.
Rhein Hotel, Frankenwerft 31-33 (tel: 00 49 221 2577955). Situated on the very pretty tree-lined banks of the Rhine, the old town, with all its cafes and restaurants, is right on your doorstep. Doubles are from 145DM including breakfast.
Pension Jansen, Richard-Wagner Strasse 18 (tel: 00 49 221 251875). A small b&b on the third floor of a pink 1905 terraced building. A glance at the modern neighbouring buildings illustrates just how much of Cologne was destroyed in the 1940s. Double rooms start from 90DM, including breakfast.
Food and drink
The food tends to be on the heavy side, lunch being the main meal of the day. It is also very red-meat orientated. Dinner (Abendbrot) was traditionally a light affair, just cold meats, cheeses and bread, and the traditional afternoon Kaffee und Kuchen is still very popular.
Restaurant chains include Wienerwald, offering mainly chicken, and Nordsee, serving fish dishes in clean, tidy premises. Wurst (sausage) is available from many street stalls.
The citizens are very proud of the local beer, Kolsch. In fact, when ordering in pubs and beer gardens, you usually only need to say how many you want - it is taken for granted that it is Kolsch you want. Lager-like in consistency and colour but with a head, it is only served in thin 0.2 litre glasses.
There are more than 20 breweries around Cologne, and many have their own cavernous beer halls, which have a far more convivial atmosphere than some of the rather stuffy little corner pubs.
Cafe Zinnermann, Herzogstrasse 11-13 (tel: 257 3978). A well-known and much-loved place for Kaffee und Kuchen. Join the chattering classes upstairs for a slice of Havana, the house speciality, although all the cakes are fantastic.
Lindenhof, Tintgasse 7 (tel: 257 777l). Backing onto a small square in the cobbled old town, this is the archetypal untouristic German restaurant. Eat outside at 6pm and enjoy a bell chorus from the surrounding Romanesque churches. Dinner from 15DM.
Fruh Am Dom, Am Hof 12-14 (tel: 258 0389). Although primarily for drinking, this brewery-owned beer hall also serves traditional Rhineland meals. Best for lunch though, as in the evening it gets very crowded with thirsty locals. Around 20DM for a meal.
Hopper, Brusseler Strasse 26 (tel: 924 40500). Loosely annexed to the hotel of the same name in a renovated monastery, the ecclesiastical mural inside is neatly offset by contemporary furniture and lighting. Small and elegant, with friendly service, it serves a modern European menu, with prices starting from 30DM per person.
Alter Wartesaal, Johannisstrasse 11 (9l2 8850). The old station waiting- room exterior looks unprepossessing, but the dining room inside offers an elegant and well-kept turn-of-the-century ambience. Serving European cuisine, a meal here will cost about 50DM per person.
Out of town
Cologne's main station is Germany's busiest and with over a thousand trains stopping here daily there is no excuse for not exploring more of the country. Train fares are expensive, so do ask about the variety of special deals on offer.
Bonn, Beethoven's hometown, is only 30 minutes away, but compared with Cologne, it feels small and provincial. Between the two cities, near Bruhl, lies Phantasialand (open April-October), a rival to Disneyland. The old part of the park, built before the days of hi-tech rides, is very quaint. Bruhl itself is famous for its castle, Schloss Augustusburg, set in French-style gardens.
Deals and Packages
DER Travel Service (tel: 0171-290 1111) offers a two-night break in Cologne for pounds 169 per person, with b&b accommodation, travelling by Eurostar (pounds 28 per extra night). The German Travel Centre (tel: 0181-429 2900) offers a one-night stay in Cologne for pounds 128 in October, with b&b in a four-star hotel and return flights from London (pounds 40 per extra night).
The tourist office in Cologne is by the cathedral, at Unter Fettenhennen 19, (tel: 221 3345, website http// www.koeln.org). In the UK, the German National Tourist Office has an information line (tel: 0891 600100). Alternatively, call its consumer office (tel: 0171-317 0908).