On the Rhine, Cologne (German: Köln) is a cultural capital and university city enriched with more than 2,000 years of history. In Roman times Cologne was in charge of a province, and ancient vestiges bubble through the city’s surface at medieval Romanesque churches and the gripping Romano-Germanic Museum.
If you love to lose yourself in a great museum for a few hours there’s enough art and history to keep you in Cologne for days. You’re going to have to be ruthless and organised just to fit a few in. And for refreshment in between the Romanesque churches and museums, Cologne is the city with the most pubs per person in Germany. Add to the mix effortlessly cool neighbourhoods, a dynamic new riverside district and a celebrated cathedral and you may never want to leave.
Let’s explore the best things to do in Cologne:
1. Cologne Cathedral
An international pilgrimage site, Cologne Cathedral has held the reliquary of the Three Kings since 1164. In 1248 work started on a new Gothic home for these precious remains, and it was inspired by the ethereal cathedrals of Northern France.
Now a UNESCO site, Cologne Cathedral is the single most visited landmark in Germany and its 19th-century towers are still the second-tallest structures in the city.
There’s a dizzying profusion of invaluable art to see inside, like stained glass windows from the 1500s, the 10th-century Gero-Kreuz crucifix and a black marble high altar from the 1300s carved with niches featuring images from the Coronation of the Virgin.
But the gilded shrine of the Three Kings is what draws the crowds.
This is a triple sarcophagus decorated with 12th-century reliefs of episodes from the life of Christ, prophets and apostles, all by Nicholas of Verdun.
2. Ludwig Museum
Exhibiting art from after 1900, the Ludwig Museum was set up in the 1980s in the modern, purpose-built complex near the cathedral.
The attraction came about during the 1970s after the Ludwigs, Peter and Irene, donated a multi-million-dollar collection of 20th-century art.
Among the many Picassos and the extensive collection of Russian Avant-Garde pieces, there are iconic examples of Pop Art, like Warhol’s “Brillo Boxes” and “Maybe” by Roy Lichtenstein.
This is all alongside the Sammlung Haubrich collection, which covers Expressionist art by Erich Heckel, Kirchner, August Macke and Karl Schmidt-Rottluff to name a few.
3. Romano-Germanic Museum
In the war a Roman villa was uncovered next to the cathedral when a bomb shelter was being built.
This was fully excavated later, and rather than try to move the centrepiece, beautiful Dionysus mosaic, an entire museum was built around the site in the 1970s.
The museum also shows off all of the artefacts found around Cologne from the time of Colonia Claudia Ara Agrippinensium, which was the capital of the Germania Inferior province.
This settlement specialised in glassmaking, and the quantity and workmanship of the shape-blown glass, snake-thread glass and ground glass is mesmerising.
The single most valuable piece is the 4th-century “Cologne cage cup”, which bears Greek lettering that reads “Drink, live well forever”.
4. Wallraf-Richartz Museum
The Wallraf-Richartz Museum was born in 1824 when Franz Ferdinand Wallraf bequeathed a tremendous assortment of Gothic, Renaissance, Baroque and Impressionist art to the city.
Some of the finest Gothic pieces were painted by Stefan Lochner, the Cologne-based 15th-century artist who contributed the Dombild Altarpiece to the cathedral.
The Last Judgment, Madonna of the Rose Bower and Triptych with the Virgin in the Garden of Paradise deserve as much time as you can give them.
But Lochner is only a fraction of what this extraordinary museum has to offer, as the art of Albrecht Dürer, Hieronymous Bosch, Rubens, van Dyck, Rembrandt, Degas, Monet and many more is in store.
5. Cologne’s Old Town
As you saunter from square to square in the historic centre of the city it’s worth remembering that three quarters of Cologne was obliterated in the war.
It can be humbling to wander a cobblestone alley and think that this would have been rubble just 70 years ago.
And yet the old world atmosphere still shines through on streets and plazas like Heumarkt and Altermarkt, even among the newer concrete constructions from the post-war period.
Along Am Hof, look for the Heinzelmännchenbrunnen, a fountain from 1899. You’ll meet the Cologne’s beloved Heinzelmännchen, gnomes who did all the city’s work at night so the citizens could relax (until the gnomes were insulted and left town forever).
Suggested tour: Night watchman tour through the Old Town
6. Groß St. Martin
Part of the skyline since the 12th century, Cologne would be the same without the fabulous crossing tower of Groß St. Martin.
And when this wonderful Rhenish monument was hit by bombs in the war, the reconstruction gave an opportunity to study its foundations, which go back to Roman times.
Beneath the signature trefoil chancel you can now see where the church’s walls merge seamlessly with the walls of a Roman storehouse.
The restoration lasted until the 1980s, and the church’s interior is typical of a Romanesque place of worship, with solemn architecture and understated decoration.
7. St. Maria im Kapitol
In the Kapitol Viertel, this Romanesque church is on the spot where ancient Colonia’s Roman Temple once stood.
The largest of Cologne’s three surviving Romanesque churches, St. Maria im Kapitol dates to the middle of the 11th century and its apses are modelled on Bethlehem’s Church of the Nativity.
Amazingly, the original wooden doors, dated to 1046 are still in good condition and are displayed on the south side of the aisle.
Framed by intricate patterning they have reliefs depicting the life of Christ.
In addition to the church’s tombs and marvellous wooden images, check out the explicit pietà (Christ on the cross) in the northeastern apse, which was carved in the 1300s and is remarkable for its expressiveness.
8. Botanical Garden
In the north of the city, next to the zoo is Cologne’s loveliest park: 11.5 hectares of sprawling lawns, individual gardens and greenhouses around an exquisite glass palace inspired by London’s Crystal Palace and built in the 1860s.
Known as the Flora, this monument was intended as an orangery and after coming through a renovation a couple of years ago now stages concerts, talks and private events.
There are more glass structures around the park, like the Main Greenhouse for tropical rainforest, the Small Tropical House supporting tropical crops like sugar cane, vanilla, cocoa and cinnamon, as well as a Subtropical House and a Cactus House.
Outside there’s a Mediterranean garden beside a pond and a gorgeous Italian Renaissance garden complete with stone vase, pergolas a cascade and temple.
Cologne Cathedral’s World Heritage status means that no buildings are allowed to interfere with the city’s skyline too much.
For this reason the KölnTriangle skyscraper was kept to just over 100 metres.
On the right bank of the Rhine its panoramic observation deck affords a photogenic view of the old town, the cathedral towers and the 266-metre Colonius telecom tower behind it.
Useful descriptions are provided for all the landmarks you can spot from this height.
The platform is open until 23:00, so it’s the best place to see the sun go down behind the cathedral.
10. Hohenzollern Bridge
The tiered-arch bridge between the cathedral and KölnTriangle dates to the start of the 20th century, and when it was rebuilt after the war it was restricted to just rail and pedestrian traffic.
Make a crossing to look over one of Europe’s great rivers towards the tower of Groß St. Martin Church and the towers of Cologne Cathedral directly ahead.
In the last decade the bridge has become another to be taken over by the “love locks” craze.
Couples attach a padlock to the grating beside the footpath and throw the key into the river as an expression of permanence.
These locks now amount to more than two tons, and while love locks have weakened other European structures, the sturdy Hohenzollern Bridge can handle the extra weight.
11. Museum für Angewandte Kunst Köln
This outstanding museum has 100,000 pieces of decorative arts in its collection, leading through history to the present day.
The exhibitions are arranged chronologically and contain furniture, weapons, jewellery, porcelain, puppets, tapestries and modern examples of industrial design.
You can embark on a trip through the development of applied arts, or dip into the parts that suit your taste.
There’s a marvellous 18th-century chinoiserie cabinet by the master cabinet-maker David Roentgen, an allegorical tapestry of Africa also from the 1700s or 5,000 years of jewellery crafted on the banks of the Rhine.
The museum also has masterworks of industrial design by the likes of Frank Lloyd Right, Ray Eames and Philippe Starck, and art by Mondrian and Kandinsky.
12. Kolumba Museum
The museum for Cologne’s Archdiocese is in a structure that was erected over the ruins of the St. Kolumba Church.
This fine Late-Gothic church was razed during the Second World War, a the new building surrounding it was designed by Pritzker Prizewinning architect Peter Zumthor.
You enter via the bombed out church building, which is an eerie experience, before ascending to the art galleries.
The exhibition has been devised to reveal the impact of Christianity on different periods of history and parts of the world, so each new piece is a surprise.
You can browse a breathtaking Rhenish Romanesque crucifix with an ivory Jesus, the gilded bronze Hermann Ida Cross from the 1000s, a Coptic Egyptian tunic dating to the 400s and avant-garde pieces by artists like Joseph Beuys and Paul Thek.
13. St Gereon’s Basilica
One of Cologne’s 12 Romanesque churches, St Gereon’s Basilica is also the strangest.
The reason for its outlandish design is that it was built across four phases in the 12th and 13th centuries, and newer portions were simply annexed to the old ones to form a wonderful hodgepodge.
Where the nave should be there’s a decagonal dome 21-metres across, and if you go up close you can tell how its walls were built into Roman ruins below.
That dome is the largest constructed in the western world in the period between Constantinople’s Hagia Sophia from the 500s and Florence Cathedral in the 15th century.
Students of medieval architecture can inspect this mysterious building to work out where each phase began and ended.
14. NS Documentation Center
You can revisit one of the grimmest periods from Cologne’s past at the former HQ of the Gestapo secret police.
Despite the role it filled from 1935 the EL-DE Haus escaped real damage in the Second World War, making it an interesting if harrowing document of the Nazi period.
The permanent exhibition has more than 30 high-tech multimedia stations giving an account of Cologne under national socialism.
The cellar was used as a prison and is one of the best preserved of the period, bearing some 1,800 inscriptions on its walls that testify to the torture and murder that took place here.
Upstairs in the research area the centre’s files that were destroyed at the end of the war have been forensically reconstructed.
15. Schnütgen Museum
The Cäcilienkirche (St Cecilia’s Church) looks a lot like it did when it was completed in 1160 and in 1956 became the venue for a captivating museum of medieval liturgical art.
Cologne’s position in the medieval Catholic world is underlined by examples of craftsmanship that would each be worth a visit in their own right.
There’s goldsmithery, sculpture in wood and stone, stained glass, painting, carved ivory, textiles and manuscripts.
St Cecilia’s own Romanesque tympanum is part of the exhibition, along with an array of wooden and bronze Madonnas and crucifixes like the stunning Cross of St George, sculpted in the 1000s.
16. Belgian Quarter
Maybe Cologne’s trendiest quarter is situated between Aachener Straße in the south and Friesenplatz in the northeast.
It’s a neighbourhood of galleries, hip bars, cafes, theatres, live music venues and boutiques selling vintage clothes or handmade accessories.
They’re are all on streets named after cities and provinces in Belgium, like Liege, Ghent, Brussels and Antwerp, as well as Maastricht and Utrecht.
These are a holdover from the German victory in the Franco-Prussian War in 1870-71. Brüsseler Platz, traced with bars and restaurants is where the city’s cool young things will come to spend summer evenings swigging beer and chatting under the stars.
17. Rheinauhafen District
South of the old town, two kilometres of the Rhein’s left bank have been turned into new district for the digital and creative industries.
Rheinauhafen is the name for the commercial port that used to occupy the riverside here, and since the 1990s the old cranes and waterside industry have been taken over by fresh and ambitious architectural landmarks.
The boldest of these are the award-winning Kranhaus buildings, 60 metres high and resembling colossal hoisting cranes in the way the upper floors jut out 90° over the water.
Some of the noteworthy historic buildings have been repurposed, like the Siebengebirge granary, known for its sharp gables and now repurposed as offices and apartments.
There’s a growing arts scene in the new district, and plenty of places for a meal or drink beside the Rhein.
18. Fragrance Museum
A whisker away from the Rathaus there’s a museum about perfume in the very rooms where Eau de Cologne was invented in the 18th century.
You’ll be inside the oldest intact perfume factory in the world, belonging to the Italian-born perfumer Johann Maria Farina whose invention made waves in the Rococo period and enhanced the city’s reputation.
You can only visit on a 45-minute guided tour, during which you’ll enter the vaults where a cedar barrel has survived for 300 years and see a copper still and laboratory equipment that are faithful replicas of the kind Farina used.
You’ll also see how cologne is created today, and because the scent wasn’t a registered trademark, there’s a presentation of imitations that you can compare to the real thing.
Operated in collaboration with the Lindt & Sprüngli chocolate brand, the Imhoff-Schokoladenmuseum is one of the world’s top attractions in its field.
The exhibits strike a balance between educational details about chocolate’s origins and how cocoa is grown, and the indulgence of seeing chocolate being made before your eyes.
There’s a three-metre-high chocolate fountain, at which your guide will dip wafers into the liquid chocolate for you to taste.
The museum also has a “tropicarium” growing cacao trees in a glass cube, silver Mesoamerican vessels for chocolate, as well as pared-down versions of chocolate-making machines, demonstrating how everyone’s favourite treat is produced.
20. Cologne Zoo
Established back in 1860 Cologne Zoo has the distinction of being one of the oldest as well as one of the most up-to-date animal attractions.
There are halls that have been here since the 1800s, along with new facilities that are being introduced all the time, like the expansive Asian elephant park.
The zoo has more than 700 species, and specialises in primates like bonobos, gorillas, tamarins, orangutans and the endangered golden-bellied capuchin.
If you check the schedule there are staggered feeding session throughout the day for penguins, sea lions, meerkats, otters, hippos and also the piranhas in the aquarium.
21. 1. FC Köln
After the 2006 World Cup was awarded to Germany 1. FC Köln set about renovating its stadium for the competition.
The current 46,698-capacity RheinEnergieStadion is among the top stadiums in the Bundesliga, both for atmosphere and the way the tiers come right down to the touchlines of the pitch putting spectators on top of the action.
For football fans, attending one of the 17 home games is an all-day experience that begins at supporters’ bars and continues in the stadium where before the match the “Billy Goat” fans belt out their anthem “Mer stonn zo dir FC Kölle” in the Ripurian dialect to the tune of The Bonnie Banks o’ Loch Lomond.
22. Boat Trip on the Rhine
On the left bank of the Rhine at the Hohenzollern Bridge are jetties where you can board a boat for a cruise along the storied Rhine River.
There are three companies offering panoramic tours of the city (KölnTourist, KölnDüsseldorfer and Colonia), but if you book with the tourist board you’ll pay one price and afterwards can choose the company you’d like to ride with.
The route most people take is south to the old fishing community of Rodenkirchen on an hour-long cruise that floats past the cathedral, the spires of the old town, the new Rheinauhaufen district and under a total of four bridges, each with interesting trivia attached.
The Koelnmesse exhibition hall is the where the world’s second-largest trade fair for interactive electronics takes place every August.
Over the course of four days Gamescom receives around 350,000 visitors and hosts more than 900 exhibitors.
The crowds show up for world-first announcements about upcoming releases and the chance to try out games and technology in the pipeline.
There’s all kinds of video game-oriented fun, including concerts and appearances by stars like Wladimir Klitschko and Tony Hawk.
To give a sense of its growing status, Angela Merkel showed up to open Gamescom 2017.
24. Christmas Markets
Most cities put on a market in the build-up to Christmas.
But Cologne goes the extra mile, as there’s hardly a public space in the centre that doesn’t have some sort of Christmas-themed market and activity.
To illustrate, there’s a cluster of booths around the Cathedral, beside a stage for live music.
On Heumarkt the city sets up an ice skating rink, while Markt der Engel (Angel Market) is a little city of chalet-style huts illuminated by fair lights selling goodies on Neumarkt.
That’s nowhere near the end of it though, as for kids there’s a village for St. Nicholas on Rudolfplatz, and just around the corner is a lively gay and lesbian Christmas Avenue Market.
Another market by the Chocolate Museum on the Rhine is a cute place to sip Glühwein and nibble on Lebkuchen.
And even now we’re still at the tip of Cologne’s winter iceberg.
25. Kölsch and Halve Hahn
If you want to impress people at Cologne’s traditional Kneipen (pubs) you could order a Kölsch (beer) and a Halve Hahn (rye bread and gouda cheese). Kölsch is the local brew in Cologne, a top-fermented beer, made from Pilsener malt and with a straw colour.
It will come cold, in small 20cl glasses and is very smooth and drinkable.
Needless to say there are loads of other varieties if you’d like to be more adventurous.
Halve Hahn (literally, half rooster), is usually more artful than it sounds.
Your soft rye roll will come with butter, tomatoes, sliced onions and generous slabs of gouda for you to assemble as you like.