A beautiful, beer-loving city perched on the banks of the Rhine and dominated by a Unesco-listed cathedral, Cologne combines all of Germany’s best bits. But it is often (unfairly) overshadowed by Berlin and Munich. Here’s how to make the most of a weekend in North Rhine-Westphalia’s largest, liveliest metropolis.
What to do
Summit the Dom
Climbing the southern tower of the cathedral (known as the Dom) is a great way to get your bearings. You’ll also get brilliant views of the Hohenzollern Bridge (a beautiful rail, pedestrian and cyclist bridge which is Germany’s most heavily used railway bridge, with more than 1,200 trains crossing every day) and of the Rhine snaking past the city centre. The cathedral was completed in 1880, over 600 years after construction started.
Some of Cologne’s best museums surround the Dom, too. Our pick is the Roman-Germanic museum – until recently, it could be found in the shadow of the cathedral, on the former site of a Roman villa, but its collection has been moved to the nearby Belgian House at Cacilienstrasse 46, where it will remain until 2025. Exhibits focus on the archaeological heritage of Cologne and include a stone arch engraved with the city’s one-time initials, CCAA, which stood for Colonia Claudia Ara Agrippinensium (try saying that after a mouthful of Kolsch, Cologne’s local beer). Don’t miss the bust of Emperor Augustus, carved out of black glass and finished with a turquoise coating.
Admire its concrete masterpieces
Cologne is often written off as a concrete jungle, but for a different perspective on the destination, opt for an insight into the German Brutalism movement, courtesy of the architects-turned-guides who lead Guiding Architects specialist tours. Over two hours, you’ll see the city’s concrete behemoths in a different light. Our favourite stop is St Gertrud church, which was inspired by soaring mountains and designed by Pritzker-prize-winning architect Gottfried Bohm.
Learn about Cologne’s most famous scent
Centuries ago, eau d’Cologne was a combination of urine (chucked out of windows) and sweat (washing was once frowned upon). This stench led to the creation of the fragrance 4711 Eau de Cologne. In 1792, Wilhelm Mulhens obtained the recipe for fragrant water from a monk, before setting up shop in the early 1800s on leafy Glockengasse, which is where you’ll find the House of 4711 (4711.com), a boutique and museum. Exhibits include the slimline 4711 bottles designed to slot into the boots worn by Napoleon’s troops, and the enormous range of perfumes on sale is a reminder of the brand’s modern makeover. Our advice? Skip the original scent and pick up a bottle of 4711 acqua Colonia goji and cactus extract instead.
Where to stay
As a base for riverside wandering, you can’t beat the Hyatt Regency Cologne, perched on the banks of the Rhine and a short walk from the cathedral and old town. Make sure you stop by its Legends Bar, where the walls are lined with photos of musical icons – try the Forever Young cocktail, a blend of bourbon, basil and ginger beer. Sounds odd, but it works. Doubles from £134, B&B. hyatt.com
We’re also fans of Ruby Ella, a design hotel that opened in Hohenzollernring (Cologne’s entertainment district) in early 2021. There’s a packed calendar of events too, ranging from cabaret shows to poetry slams. Doubles from £82, room only. ruby-hotels.com
Where to eat
Cologne has some fantastic beer house restaurants where waiters dash from table to table carrying circular trays with slots for beer glasses. One of the oldest is the 700-year-old Brauhaus Sion. It’s famous for its beautiful stained glass, vast expanses of ornate wood panelling and hearty braumeister-tellers (beer master plates), which include pork knuckle drenched in a mushroom and beer sauce.
To crank up the cosiness, head to Bei Oma Kleinmann (which roughly translates to “with grandma Kleinmann”), a living room-like restaurant that dates back to 1949. The name pays tribute to its first landlady – the late Paula Kleinmann, whose grandson ran the bar until 2003. The current owners have hardly changed a thing, so expect chintzy wallpaper, antique chandeliers and framed quotes from granny Kleinmann. The schnitzel selection is legendary; we recommend the one drenched in mushroom cream sauce.
Where to drink
Kolsch is a delicious, golden beer brewed in Cologne and the best place is to enjoy it is at the Kolsches Brauhaus, in the shadow of the cathedral. The beer is served in 200ml glasses (bartenders will scrawl the number you’ve had on your beer mat), and you can dine in the beer garden or in rooms such as the Wappensaal, where the walls are covered with the coats of arms from Cologne’s guilds.
For cocktails, consider the Belgian Quarter’s Little Link, where creations are made with everything from porcini mushroom whiskey to blackberry caviar. And you can sign up for one of the bar’s cocktail-making courses.
Where to shop
You’ll find the high street brands on Schildergasse and Hohe Strasse – wide, pedestrianised boulevards close to the cathedral. Mittelstrasse is the place to go for luxury labels, and Ehrenstrasse has a combination of everything, ranging from independent boutiques to Kasehaus Wingenfeld, a cheese specialist which dates back to 1896, is home to 300 types of cheese and cheese-themed frescos. You can sign up for workshops here too.
For homeware and fashion accessories, head to the Fairfitters concept store, where you’ll find beautiful, sustainable pieces made by German designers. Our favourite items are the handbags made by Pikfine, a Cologne-based label founded by sisters Nora and Clara – their leather items are vegetable-tanned and their jewellery is made from recycled precious metals. Plus, almost everything is made in Germany.
Or stop into the Keep Loving boutique founded by Elmira Rafizadeh, a German actress with Iranian roots and a huge Instagram following. On the southern edge of the city centre, it’s where you’ll find beautiful bags, sunglasses and jewellery. A lucky few can snap up one of the items from her collaborations with luxury brands like handbag label Aigner.
Nuts and bolts
What currency do I need?
What language do they speak?
German, although English is widely spoken.
Should I tip?
About 10 per cent is standard for good service in restaurants.
What’s the time difference?
Cologne is one hour ahead of the UK.
How should I get around?
It’s walkable, but you can choose from trams, buses or the underground network for getting further afield. Buy a KolnCard (€9 for 24 hours) to get transport for a good price, as well as 50 per cent off several attractions.
What’s the best view?
From the open-air observation deck on the 29th floor of the Koln Triangle, across the river from the cathedral.
If FC Koln is playing, you can’t beat the atmosphere at the Geissbockheim (“Billy Goat”), a bar and restaurant on Franz-Kremer-Allee which owes its name to the football club’s horned mascot. There’s a definite goat theme here, adorning everything from napkins to bar stools, and archive photos give an insight into the club’s history.
Trying to fly less?
You can get from the UK to Cologne by taking the Eurostar – simply change at Brussels-Midi/Zuid before taking an ICE train onward to the city’s main station, Koln Hauptbahnhof. Alternatively, take the ferry from Harwich or Hull to the Hook of Holland and hop on the train to Cologne.
Fine with flying?
Ryanair and Eurowings both fly direct between the UK and Cologne.
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