Cologne, is Germanys fourth largest city, located on the Rhein river. Although the city was almost destroyed by bombing during World War II, it has been the subject of heavy regeneration and rebuilding in the intervening decades. It now has a contrasting mix of old and new architecture that can be both jarring and yet strangely beautiful at the same time. Home to one of Europe’s oldest and largest universities, the large student population brings a lively buzz to what would otherwise be a fairly relaxed city. Here are our top recommendations for 10 best things to do in Cologne!
Note: The German name for Cologne is Köln (pronounced as Koeln)- the two names may be used interchangeably in this article.
- 1 Visit the Cathedral and Climb the Tower
- 2 Drink a Kölsch
- 3 Marvel at the Wall of Lovelocks across the Hohenzollern Bridge
- 4 Visit the Lindt Chocolate Museum
- 5 Take the Cable Car over the Rhein River
- 6 Take in a Sunset Shot from the Top of the KölnTriangle
- 7 Enjoy the Peaceful Rheinpark
- 8 Take your Insta-snaps at Fischmarkt and Groß Sankt-Martin.
- 9 Join a Bicycle Tour
- 10 Sample Cologne’s Local Cuisine
- 11 Resources: Where to Stay in Cologne
Visit the Cathedral and Climb the Tower
The twin-spired cathedral in Cologne – the Kölner Dom – is utterly awe-inspiring. As well as being a symbol of the city itself, it is a UNESCO World Heritage site, and is one of Germanys most visited tourist attraction. Construction dates back to 1248 although was stopped, and eventually completed in 1880. It is a near-miracle that although it sustained heavy damage, the structure survived 14 aerial bomb assaults during World War II.
As well as walking around the visually stunning interior, one of the best ways to enjoy the Dom is to climb the south tower. There are 553 steps leading 100m to the top. The views out over the city and the Rhein are spectacular. You will also pass the bell chamber containing St Peters Bell – 24,000kg and the worlds largest free-swinging church bell. There are so many reasons why a visit to the mighty Dom tops every list of the 10 best things to do in Cologne.
Drink a Kölsch
As die-hard beer fans, drinking the local brew has to feature as one of the 10 best things to do in Cologne! Kölsch (pronounced Koelsh) is a speciality beer brewed only in Cologne itself. It has a designation of origin, meaning that beers brewed elsewhere even in the same style cannot be called true Kölsch.
Kölsch is a light ale, quite easy to drink. Booze it up in the traditional style by visiting a Brauhaus where the beer is both brewed and served. The beer will come to you in a cylindrical 0.2l glass. Lighter drinkers beware – the waiter will keep filling up your glass every time it is empty without asking for permission! Local tip: the signal to stop is to put your beer mat on the top.
Marvel at the Wall of Lovelocks across the Hohenzollern Bridge
The Hohenzollernbrücke is the most-used railway bridge in Germany. Its current construction dates back to post World War II. Surprisingly, the structure was not damaged by the Allied forces. However, it was blown up by the Germany military as a strategic move, to ensure that the Allies didn’t capture it.
Although the structure itself is pretty impressive, one of the most impressive reasons to visit is the thousands (or even millions) of love locks that have been placed on the bridge since 2008. The bridge holds so many, they stretch on further than the eye can perceive. Although the Deutschebahn threatened to have them removed, the public opposition won, and more are added every day. This site is quite a spectacle, and deserving of a place on the 10 best things to do in Cologne. If you want to see more stunning photos of this site, check out my Cologne photo diary for more travel inspiration.
Visit the Lindt Chocolate Museum
The Chocolate Museum is the product of a labour of love by its founder, Hans Imhoff. Although this visionary chocolate maker passed in 2007, his legacy lives on. The Chocolate Museum is located in a 4,000 square meter exhibition space in the Rheinau harbour. The building architecture in itself is a marvel, designed to look like a boat. Although the museum is now called the Lindt Museum, this is a relatively recent partnership. The Lindt-Sprüngli group is a Swiss chocolate giant. The chocolate now made at the Cologne chocolate museum is done so under the direction of Lindt. After browsing the main exhibit telling the history of chocolate, you can have your own personalised Lindt bars made by the master chocolatiers at the chocolate workshop. For any chocolate fan, a visit to this beloved institution of Cologne should be a standout on the 10 best things to do in Cologne.
Take the Cable Car over the Rhein River
Carrying up to 2,000 people at a time over the river, the cable car also offers some awesome city views. It links Cologne Zoo on the east side of the Rhein, with the Rheinpark on the west side. It is only open during the summer months, April to October. If you are looking for panoramic river views, then the cable car is a must-do and is worth doing for the views alone.
Take in a Sunset Shot from the Top of the KölnTriangle
I am not going to pretend there is anything particularly spectacular about the KölnTriangle tower by itself. It is a 103m tall, cylindrical tower that is mostly offices. However, the tower does have an 360-degree observation deck at the top. This is the absolute best viewpoint over the cityscape to include the mighty Dom, and at sunset it offers some truly spectacular vistas. If you want to capture the best Insta-worthy shots over the city, then take a trip there. The tower is open to the public for a small fee – you just have to show up.
Enjoy the Peaceful Rheinpark
The Rheinpark is accessible via the cable car. This is a 40-hectare urban park on the west side of the river and has previously enjoyed the title of Germanys best park. As well as many green areas and gardens, the park boasts a beach club, an open-air theatre and a Roman-style public bath. Our favourite however, is the toy train (Kleinbahn) that does a circuit of the park during the summer months. It is too cute to resist!
Take your Insta-snaps at Fischmarkt and Groß Sankt-Martin.
Great St Martins Church is a Romanesque church that is visible on the Cologne skyline next to the Dom. It was originally a Roman chapel, however, its history is firmly established as a Benedictine monastery. It is situated next to the old Fischmarkt (fish market), which today is a colourful row of Insta-worthy houses. Because we all need to show off our best travel pics, right?
Join a Bicycle Tour
Biking enthusiasts can easily rent a bike in Cologne. The Deutschebahn (German rail service) offers a Call a Bike scheme that is cheap and easy to use, with multiple pick-up and drop-off points around the city. You can register online. Once you have your bike, you can enjoy the city itself on two wheels via the many cycle paths. For the more hardcore cyclists, there is a 300km circuit called the Three Rivers Tour. Aptly named, it takes in the Rhein, Air and Erft rivers. It passes through Bonn, the Ahr valley, also known as Red Wine valley, and ancient Roman ruins. If you have some extra days to spare and enjoy cycling, this is a fantastic route to take in some of the highlights of the local area.
Sample Cologne’s Local Cuisine
Sampling the local Cologne cuisine should be on any foodies list of the 10 best things to do in Cologne. The local food scene offers many different types of restaurants. However, to enjoy the most famous of the local dishes, order yourself a plate of Himmel und Ääd. Literally translated as “Heaven and Earth” (in the local dialect), this dish is comprised of apples, from the “heavens” and potatoes, from the earth. They are mashed together and fried, served traditionally together with blood sausage. Many of the larger central beer halls will serve this dish.
Other specialties include Schweinshaxe (crispy pork knuckle) and Mettbrötchen (raw sausage meat on a small bread roll – not as scary as it sounds!), as well as Schnitzel. If you are a fan of hearty, stomach-filling dishes, you will love the cuisine of Cologne.
Cologne is a great city for a short break for any kind of traveller. It is very safe for solo travellers, has the love locks and sunsets views for romantic couples, and has plenty of attractions for kids and families too. The city is lively with locals and not overrun with tourists. If you are looking for a break in a smaller and less-trodden European city then check out Cologne. Remember this though: if you start drinking Kölsch, follow our tip with the beer mats. This way, you can ensure you can leave Cologne with some memories intact!
Resources: Where to Stay in Cologne
As in most big cities, there are heaps of option when it comes to accommodation. Here are a few recommendations that will suit your budget.
Budget Hostels in Cologne:
Station Hostel for Backpackers: Located in the heart of the city, this hostel is one of the original places to stay and is located right smack in the center. Being located 150 m to the famous Cologne Cathedral (Koelner Dom) and just a few steps from Germanys busiest shopping street, as well hundreds of bars, clubs, and restaurants, this hostel is a great pick for location and convenience alone.
Smarty Cologne City Center: Located right in the student district of Cologne, expect a fun and lively atmosphere in this hostel. Popular areas like Neumarkt and the Schildergasse (the main shopping area of cologne) are just 10 or 15 minutes away by foot.
Mid-Range Hotels in Cologne:
Hostel die Wohngemeinschaft: Located right in the heart of Cologne’s trendy Belgian Quarter, this hotel is an ideal place to stay for a couple of nights while exploring the rest of Cologne. The rooms are uniquely decorated with easy access to subway stations to take you all over the city.
Köln Appartement: Want something with a more homey feel? These apartments are great places to relax and enjoy the city. Located in the Zollstock district of Cologne, you can find comfortable rooms, a full functioning kitchenette, and everything else that you might need for a comfortable nights stay.
Luxurious Hotels in Cologne:
The Courtyard by Marriott Cologne: For those looking to splash out a bit, the Courtyard by Marriott is a great place to base yourself. Featuring super modern decorations with all the amenities you could ever want from a hotel, this place comes well recommended.
Romantik Hotel im Wasserturm: If you’re looking for something luxurious yet unique, why not stay at the Romantik Hotel im Wasserturm which is built on an old historic water tower. Featuring modern rooms and delicious restaurants, this place is definitely one of the best places to stay in Cologne.