An ancient city with plenty of character and modern attitude, Cologne is delightful to visit in any season. In summer, life happens outside, with crowds mingling in parks, at festivals and bars. Winter kicks off with the famous Christmas markets and ends with carnival parades that attract a million spectators. With 2000 years of history and culture, Germany's fourth largest city has a long-standing culture of tolerance that is reflected in pleasant encounters with the Kölners.
There's no better way to arrive in Cologne than to travel across the Rhine bridge on a train bound for Hauptbahnhof main station, where you alight right beside the iconic Kölner Dom. The city's towering cathedral sits in the heart of the Altstadt-Nord district, the northern half of the old town, where sights, shops and entertainment venues are packed close together. You can spend days browsing the collections of Cologne's finest museums in this area, including Roman mosaics and glasswork at the Romano-Germanic Museum, incredible medieval art at the Wallraf-Richartz Museum and modern artworks at the Museum Ludwig. Catch your breath at the Farina Fragrance Museum or the House of 4711 museum store for a whiff of the original Eau de Cologne perfume.
The attractive Alter Markt square in the oldest part of Cologne – restored after wartime devastation – is perhaps the best place to have a coffee or beer on a terrace, with the spiky Romanesque towers of the Groß St. Martin church peeking over the facades. The Haxenhaus restaurant nearby serves typical regional Rheinish food, and dishes to try here include the roast pork knuckle, which comes in 14 variations, and the home-made Bratwurst.
The Rheingarten park along the river bank beside the Old Town is perfect for a stroll, with great views of the bridges and busy shipping lanes. One of the best things to do is see Cologne from the water, so head for jetty number 3 and take a short trip up and down the Rhine on a Köln-Düsseldorfer Rheinschiffahrt ship.
Just north of the station, the Eigelstein Veedel (neighbourhood) is well worth exploring for the contrasts between its traditional bars, modern clubs and the sounds and smells of the Turkish shops and restaurants along Weidengasse, known locally as Little Istanbul. There's no better snack in town than the döner with fried vegetables at the Mangal Gemüse Kebap takeaway, while a more traditional option is the chicken with mustard accompanied by a Mühlen Kölsch malt beer at Em Kölsche Boor, one of the oldest breweries in town, with a quirky skittle alley in the basement.
Nearby, the stylish 236-room Courtyard Cologne hotel is one of the best places to stay. It’s an oasis of calm in the heart of the district, with excellent food options at the Bistro restaurant. Closer to the main train station, the best place to stay is in one of the 365 suites and rooms at the upmarket Cologne Marriott Hotel – some with Dom church views – though anyone is welcome to enjoy meals at the Cast Iron Grill restaurant, or settle down for drinks and light bites laid-back Plüsch Bar & Lounge.
The southern half of the city centre is still guarded by the gates and parts of the medieval city wall. At its southern end, the Severinsviertel area, Vringsveedel in local dialect, is one of Cologne's most charming corners, the traditional starting point of the annual carnival parade on Shrove Monday, and scene of a popular street festival in September. A great place to eat here is the traditional Früh Em Veedel restaurant, while just around the corner Lotta is a wonderful bar for downing Kölsch beers with the locals and watching FC Köln football matches.
Down by the river, around the Rheinauhafen harbour, modern architecture meets taste sensations at the Schokoladenmuseum chocolate museum as well as in the cantilevered Kranhäuser buildings where the Michelin-starred Ox & Klee restaurant serves exquisite new German cuisine. Wandering west, the impressive early Romanesque St. Pantaleon church is worth a look. On weekend nights, gravitate towards the Bermudadreieck (Bermuda triangle) around Schaafenstraße, Cologne's most famous nightlife district, where a thriving LGBTQ+ scene welcomes all revellers. Special places to visit include the bright pink party bar Mumu with its happy hour and crowded dance floor, the popular ExCorner bar and the Iron cocktail lounge.
Beyond the former medieval city walls, Cologne's 19th-century districts are the city's green lungs and creative breeding grounds, with several worthwhile destinations in the district of Neustadt-Nord. Parks encircle much of the city centre, with the Skulpturenpark at the northern riverside end displaying a large collection of outdoor sculpture. A short walk away stands Fort X, the best preserved remnant of a ring of fortresses, now integrated in the park and home to a beautiful and fragrant rose garden.
Further west, the Osman30 restaurant in the 148-metre high KölnTurm tower, offers fine views from its 30th-floor terrace. The liveliest part of the district is the Belgisches Viertel area around Brüsseler Platz, where you could comfortably spend a day browsing the shops and trying out the restaurants and bars. Shop for books and gifts at Siebter Himmel, interior design and decoration at Things We Like or Boutique Fraukayser, light artworks at Kunst&So and fashion at Fashion Magasin 2 or Fairfitters.
Breakfast is served until 4pm at Balthasar, you can have your cake with an excellent coffee at the Heilandt roastery, a vegan treat at cafe Vevi – or head to the Art-nouveau style Bar Schmitz ice cream bar. For something heartier later on, try the steak or flammkuchen at Noa and then head for drinks at the 1960s-themed Hallmackenreuther bar or the modern Joode Lade before dancing the night away at Zum Scheuen Reh.
Set between the old town and the university, the 19th-century district of Neustadt-Süd is predictably youthful. The Hiroshima-Nagasaki Park is filled with sunbathers on warm days, with the Biergarten am Aachener Weiher beside the lake a definite highlight in summer. On Rathenauplatz, the beautiful Synagogue was rebuilt after its destruction during Kristallnacht in 1938, and offers kosher meals at its Mazal Tov restaurant.
Neustadt-Süd's youthful vibe is most apparent in the so-called Kwartier Latäng, or Latin Quarter, around Zülpicher Straße. Besides favourites such as falafel at Habibi and homemade hamburgers at Freddy Schilling you can enjoy affordable Michelin-starred cuisine at La Société before heading to Rosebud for cocktails, the Stiefel carnival bar for Kölsch beer or to Stereo Wonderland to dance.
Leaving the inner city districts and crossing west into Ehrenfeld is like entering a different world; in the post-war boom years this residential and industrial area attracted migrant workers from across the world, resulting in a plethora of Italian, Portuguese and Turkish restaurants and the remarkable dome of the Zentralmoschee mosque at the eastern end of the district.
Ehrenfeld has become increasingly popular in recent years as creatives move in and exciting venues pop up in rough industrial locations. It's easiest to explore the district from Ehrenfeld train station: head for the iconic Heliosturm lighthouse to view quirky street art along Heliosstrasse and in the nearby Leo-Amann-Park, relax with a book at the Goldmund Literaturcafe Biergarten, have a Braustelle beer at Cologne's smallest brewery, try the roast beef in mustard crust at Haus Scholzen, or catch an intimate concert at Loft, one of the best jazz clubs in Europe. There's vintage furniture and home decoration at Tutu et Tata and eco-fashion at Shipsheip.
For more industrial vibes, head to Herbrand's, a restaurant and club in a former rail wagon factory, or Schrotty, a concert and event venue in a scrap yard, complete with wrecked cars. Odonien, in the adjacent Neuehrenfeld district, is a beer garden with bizarre metal sculptures, hosting everything from concerts and electro parties to flea markets.
Drinking the local top-fermented Kölsch beer is an essential part of the Cologne experience. When you finish your 200ml stange glass, the köbes (waiter) will replace it with a full one and add a mark on your beer coaster. Place the coaster on top of your empty glass to indicate you want to pay.
Carnival in Cologne is a fun thing to do when you're dressed like a jeck (fool) – the more colourful the better. You can't go wrong with the traditional choice of a red-white striped shirt and a Köln FC football club scarf. It can get very cold in February, so dress warm on a winter break.
Published: July 26, 2022