When it comes to Christmas, the Germans know a thing or two. During the month of December, traditional Christmas markets spring up all over the country.
Why go now?
When it comes to Christmas, the Germans know a thing or two. During the month of December, traditional Christmas markets spring up all over the country. Some date back to the 16th century. Cologne, a city famed for its revelry, has four in the old medieval quarter, or Altstadt. The fairs take place every day from 11am-9pm until 23 December. You can stock up on handmade presents, meander along the cobbled streets and soak up some Christmas spirit.
I travelled with Eurostar (08705 186 186, www.eurostar.com), which currently has fares of £84 return from London Waterloo to Cologne and Aachen (change at Brussels), for travel before 24 December. You must book at least a week in advance, so the earliest you can travel on this fare is next Saturday, and you must be back by Christmas Eve. Trains pull into the Hauptbahnhof, in the centre of the city close to the Dom, Cologne's magnificent Gothic cathedral. If you want to get there sooner, British Airways (0845 77 333 77, www.britishairways.com) currently has flights from £94 from Heathrow, while Trailfinders (020-7937 1234) has flights from Heathrow with Lufthansa for £82. Both fares specify a minimum Saturday night stay. From Manchester, Trailfinders has a fare of £107 with KLM via Amsterdam, and from Glasgow for £127, also with KLM. Cologne/Bonn airport is half an hour away by bus. The shuttle runs between the airport and bus station every 15 minutes and costs DM10 (£3.20). A taxi costs about DM45 (£14.50).
Get your bearings
Climb the 509 steps to the top of the cathedral's south tower, and you can see the city spread out beneath you. Cologne, straddling the banks of the Rhine, is Germany's fourth largest city. It was heavily bombed during the Second World War, but has been virtually rebuilt. The Altstadt, however, is still atmospheric, with a maze of cobbled streets and squares. The Dom rises above the city, dominating the skyline, and forming a useful point of reference wherever you are. The tourist office, Unter Fettenhennen 19 (00 49 221 19433, www.koeln.de) is opposite the Dom. During the winter, opening hours are Mon-Sat 8am-9pm, Sun 9.30am-7pm. You can pick up a free map and buy a Cologne Tourist Card (DM18 or £5.75), a voucher booklet valid for three days, which gives you free public transport for one day, reduced admission prices to certain museums and other attractions, and a guided bus tour.
Cologne's hotels are largely geared towards the trade-fair clientele and accommodation can be relatively expensive. The best-value options can be found on the outskirts of the Altstadt. The Dom-Hotel, Domkloster 2A (00 49 221 20240), is a grand old 19th-century hotel overlooking the cathedral. Doubles start from €250 (£156). Hopper et cetera, Brussler Str 26 (00 49 221 924400, www.hopper.de), a designer hotel converted from an old monastery, has double rooms from DM179 (£57). For a cheaper option try Brandenburger Hof north of the train station on Brandenburger Str 2-4 (00 49 221 122889), which has doubles from DM150 (£48).
Take a hike
Cologne has 12 outstanding Romanesque churches built between the 10th and 13th centuries, within the original medieval city walls. For a manageable circuit, start at the Dom then head south to Gross St Martin, the tower of which is surrounded by four eye-catching turrets. Continue on past the Alter Markt, one of the three squares in the Altstadt, and you come to St Maria in Lyskirchen, with its beautifully frescoed ceiling, nicknamed the sailors' church, by the fish market. Cut back up to St Maria im Kapitol, famous for its ornate interior. Then follow the road round to Neumarkt and St Aposteln before heading up to St Gereon and St Ursula.
Lunch on the run
As you wander through the Christmas markets, the pungent aroma of hot sausage meat from the traditional wurst stands mingles with smoky roast chestnuts and sweet gingerbread. Another local delicacy is the Rievkoche (potato fritter), made from grated potato, flour, salt and onions and sold on street stalls, called Rievkoche-Bud.
As you walk into 4711 Glockengasse, a building that looks like a cross between a castle and a wedding cake, douse yourself in cologne from the fountain at the door. This is where Eau de Cologne was invented. Above the shop (selling the original cologne, soap and gifts) on the mezzanine level, the story is told in an exhibition. In 1792 a monk presented a young couple with the secret formula for "aqua mirabilis", or miracle water, which was originally used both internally and externally. Open Mon-Fri 9.30am-8pm, Sat 9.30am-4pm. South of the Dom is the main shopping area, the tacky but buzzing pedestrianised Hohe Strasse and Schildergasse.
It's Christmas, so unless you're craving intellectual stimulation (see the archaeological Romisch-Germanisches Museum Roncalliplatz 4, 00 49 221 22124590, or postmodern art in Museum Ludwig Bischofgartenstrasse 1, 00 49 221 22122370), head instead to the Chocolate Museum Rheinauhafen 1a, (00 49 221 9318880). Displays outline the story of the cacao bean, after which you emerge into a scene resembling Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory – with opportunities to taste wafers dipped in chocolate. Entrance DM15 (£4.80). All museums are closed on Mondays.
Cologne has two dozen breweries all producing the local speciality, Kolsch. Light and bitter, Kolsch is drunk in tall, narrow glasses holding only a fifth of a litre. As such, the beer revered in Cologne is despised throughout the rest of Germany. The area around the Altstadt is littered with Brauhausers, or beer halls. Try Sunner im Walfisch, Salzgasse 13, down a narrow cobbled street close to the river, in a tall half-timbered building dating back to the 17th century. Wandering around the Christmas markets, a glass of spicy gluhwein costs DM5 (£1.60), while a mug of hot punch (orange liqueur, white wine, topped with whipped cream and cinnamon) can be had for DM7 (£2.25, plus a DM4 deposit on the cup).
Dinner with the locals
Brauhaus Sion, Unter Taschenmacher 5 (00 49 221 257 8540) is down a side street close to the Dom, but is still more a stomping ground for locals rather than tourists. The décor is rustic (read basic rather than twee) and the restaurant and bar peopled by grizzly old men and large German families. The Fruh am Dom, Am Hof 12-14 (00 49 221 261 3211) is more polished (if you can call a beer cellar polished). Its cavernous interior has vaulted ceilings and alcoves, and it's packed to bursting with both locals and tourists. Gamy roast goose cost DM34 (£10.90).
Sunday morning, got to church
In Cologne's colossal Gothic cathedral you'll find the Shrine to the Three Magi, (supposedly) containing the bones of the three kings who followed the star to Bethlehem and found Jesus lying in a manger. Once the tallest building in the world, until the Eiffel Tower stole its thunder, the Dom is widely regarded as one of the finest examples of High Gothic architecture, with its soaring twin spires and flying buttresses. The foundation stone was laid in 1248. In 1880 it was finally completed. Mass is held on the hour on Sundays from 7am-10am and then at 12pm, 5pm and 6.30pm.
The Latin Quarter to the south-west of the city has a handful of offbeat cafes. Café Orlando, Engelbertstr 9 (00 49 221 237523), offers health food and breakfast, or try Café Fleur, Lindenstrasse 10 (00 49 221 244897), a traditional Viennese-style coffee house which serves breakfast and brunch.
A walk in the park
Cross the river to the Rheinpark, 150 acres of landscaped gardens, lawns and sculptures, and the Tanzbrunnen, or Dance Fountain, where cultural events and concerts are held from May to October. In the summer you can get a cable car from here to the Botanic Gardens.
Write a postcard
Take your postcards to Reichard, Unter Fettenhennen 11, just opposite the cathedral (00 49 221 257 8542), a sprawling pink and beige Art Deco coffee house where old ladies in hats and pearls treat themselves to a selection of mouthwatering cakes and chocolates.
Take a ride
If you can't get enough of Christmas markets, the historic city of Aachen is less than an hour away and, if you are travelling by Eurostar, on the way home; it's possible to stop off for a couple of hours on the way back to Brussels. Alternatively, a return from Cologne costs £13.70. Once the seat of Charlemagne's court, Aachen's centre is bewitching, with its higgledy-piggledy streets and sprawling Christmas market around the Dom.
The icing on the cake
In Cologne's Christmas markets you can gorge your senses and wallow in nostalgia. The market in front of the cathedral has 160 wooden pavilions or stalls selling everything from handmade Christmas decorations to sheepskin slippers and chocolate-dipped bananas. In the Alter Markt in front of the town hall, the half-timbered stands mirror the surrounding narrow gabled houses. Neumarkt is the oldest of Cologne's markets, while Rudolfplatz has a fairytale atmosphere.