What do you think of when you think of Germany? A lot of people say beer, sausage and efficiency. And actually – that’s not too far off! But there’s also a lot, lot more to it.
I fell in love with Germany as a child – I was lucky enough that my parents took me multiple times to many areas of the country. Some of my earliest memories are picking blackberries in the Black Forest with my Granny, and travelling in a horse and cart up to Neuschwanstein Castle.
Those childhood memories left an impression on me. I’ve returned to Germany most years since, and it never feels the same as other trips. It always feels familiar, safe, like a second home. I have also learnt to speak German and learn more about German culture so I feel totally happy exploring anywhere in the country.
German cities are incredibly diverse. Places like Nuremberg offer everything from beautiful old timbered buildings to Nazi Party rally grounds. Berlin offers an incredible array of museums, and world famous landmarks like the Brandenburg Gate and Reichstag. Munich offers particularly amazing Oktoberfest celebrations, centuries old buildings and close proximity the Dachau concentration camp site.
Unlike a lot of German cities, Cologne isn’t packed with beautiful old timbered buildings. That is because it was bombed almost in to oblivion during World War 2. Over the course of just 3 years, Cologne suffered 262 air raids, had 35,000 tons of bombs dropped on it and suffered at least 20,000 deaths. The human toll of war is truly horrific.
What remains is a stunning Gothic cathedral – the two massive towers of which have dominated the Cologne skyline since the 1880s when the Cathedral was completed. Cologne also sits on the river Rhine, so is perfect if you like boat trips. It is also close to other cities such as Dusseldorf and Bonn so it’s easy to combine multiple cities in to one trip.
So, here are my highlights of Cologne.
ONE. The Cathedral
Wow. Architecturally this catholic cathedral is truly incredible. It’s currently the tallest twin-spired church in the world, the second tallest church in Europe, and the third tallest church in the world! You can walk around the Cathedral inside without paying, and guided tours are run in most languages which meet just inside of the front of the cathedral.
Also worth a visit is The Treasury which houses the cathedral’s relics (think lots of gold and jewels) and also explains a bit about its links to a Roman past. The entrance to The Treasury is on the left hand side of the cathedral, about half way in. You can buy a ‘combi ticket’ there to also then climb the towers.
To start the tower climb you need to come out of the Cathedral and go down the steps outside and to the right of it (down towards the signed toilets). From there you start the climb – it’s 533 steps though so not for the faint hearted!
TWO. Old Town
If you’re all about your Insta account, then this is the area you want to be. There are some really lovely areas to get good shots, especially along the waterfront. I recommend visiting the Town Hall, Alter Markt and then walking along the front of the river to Fischmarkt. Combining this cathedral first thing with this walk through the old town is the perfect way to spend a morning, ending up in a central area full of restaurants for lunch.
THREE. Museums in Old Town South
Just down from Fischmarkt, you can continue walking until you reach the Chocolate Museum and German Sport and Olympic Museum which are on a semi-island which you cross over a little bridge to reach from the Rhine front. Picking one of these museums is a great way to then spend the rest of day 1 in Cologne.
The Lindt chocolate museum is well worth spending a few hours in. You can learn about chocolate – from it’s very beginnings in the Mayan times through to present day. You can also see chocolate being produced from start to finish, create your own chocolate bar and dunk wafers in the chocolate fountain and eat them overlooking the Rhine. Lovely.
The German Sport and Olympic Museum is a must for any sports buff. It tells the story of the Olympics from ancient Greek times through to the present day, with special exhibits focused on the Berlin 1936 Olympics and Munich 1972 Olympics. As anyone who reads this blog knows, I’m crazy about the Olympics so this was heaven for me. The museum is also great for kids, being really interactive – for example you can try the long jump against the world records, ride a bike in a wind tunnel, walk balance beams and even try some 1930s gymnastic exercises. I don’t have kids and still did them all – I was rubbish! There’s also a boxing ring, section on winter sports and an exhibition of sporting idols so if the Olympics isn’t your bag, there’s something for everyone.
FOUR. Hohenzollern Bridge
Built in the early 1900s, this bridge is now a rail and a pedestrian bridge. It is the most heavily used railway bridge in Germany with more than 1,200 trains daily! It’s nice to walk across – bring a padlock to stick to the millions already there – and then to head to the promenade opposite which is a great place for views back to the cathedral.
FIVE. Documentation Centre
I’ve visited Documentation Centres across Germany and they never fail to move me. Most of us know about the Concentration Camps and atrocities committed by the Nazis – and the Documentation Centres across the country deserve credit for the job they do in preserving the memory of the victims, acknowledging the past (which many countries fail to do in spectacular fashion) and helping us learn from history.
Each Documentation Centre in Germany tells the story of the Nazi regime, but always focused on that particular city. In Cologne, the Centre is based at the EL-DE House. This was the former head of the Gestapo during Nazi times and the prison cells were torture rooms. In the courtyard outside, over 400 people we murdered. Surprisingly, the building survived the WW2 bombing, despite 90% of the city being destroyed.
The Museum is so moving, and if you don’t speak German – get an audio guide. It takes you through the rise to power of the Nazis, the political and social climate in which this happened (both with a focus on Cologne), Nazi ideology, Nazi persecution (especially focused on actions in Cologne and families in Cologne), Cologne in war time, and then the prison cells which document the harrowing stories of multiple prisoners.
Overall we spent 5 hours in the Museum, so it was the main thing we spent the day doing. I obviously didn’t take any photos – definitely not the place for selfies!
SIX. Beer Halls & Food (because I can’t not include them!)
Well you can’t come to Germany and not go to a beer hall. Cologne has a couple of really historical beer halls. The first is Fruh am Dom which was founded in the 1900s and is a private brewery for Kolsch. The beerhall itself is underground (take cash, there’s no card reception to pay) and consists of lots of cosy tables and a great atmosphere. Order sausage, drink some beer and you’ll be hours in before you know it.
Another nice beer hall is Gaffel am Dom which is right by the cathedral. They do really nice schnitzel and currywurst. This beerhall is all open so it can be really loud – the atmosphere is a lot of fun. Another great place to spend an evening.
Full itinerary (for those interested)
- Day 1 – Cologne Cathedral, Alter Markt, Town Hall, Fishmarkt, Chocolate Museum and/or Sport and Olympic Museum, Gaffel am Dom
- Day 2 – Walk over Hohenzollern Bridge, Documentation Centre, Fruh am Dom
Thanks for reading! I hope you found this post helpful or that it inspired you to visit Cologne. Let me know in the comments below.