Everyone knows about the Dom in Cologne, but that can be viewed from the train platform. What makes the church really special is The Shrine of the Three Kings, said to contain the bones of the Biblical Three Wise Men. Since the shrine attracted pilgrims in the Middle Ages, it was decided that a cathedral had to be built to house them properly, and the Dom was finished 800 years later.
Cologne seems to have a slight obsession with bones. Basically, according to legend, somewhere between AD 300 and 600, Saint Ursula went on a European tour with 11,000 of her closest virgin friends. After stopping in Rome and collecting the Pope, the posse was captured in Cologne by a band of roving Huns and murdered. Their remains (supposedly) were uncovered in a mass grave in 1155. What to do with thousands of unclaimed bones? Decorate the inside of the church, of course, in what became known as the Golden Chamber at the Basilica of St. Ursula. Cologne was already a prime site on the medieval pilgrimage route, and tourist trappers worked as hard to get customers in the door as they do now. These days though, it costs just €2 to step inside the church.
While tourists can buy a bottle of Eau de Cologne from the city’s two famous perfume houses, 4711 and Farina, heading to 4711’s flagship store in Glockengasse and designing a signature scent makes for an extra-special souvenir. Hour-long workshops are held every Thursday from 3 to 4pm, usually in German (though a private English tutorial can be arranged).
Cologne’s sewers were first built by the Romans, so they have seen a lot and, more importantly, worked just fine until a population boom in the 19th century pushed the 1,800-year-old infrastructure past its capacity. The new system, unveiled in 1890 was so impressive, Kaiser Wilhelm II decided to visit – naturally, a sewer worthy of royalty needs a chandelier. Ultimately, the Kaiser didn’t show, but the chandeliers (Kronleuchtersaal) stayed; in fact, in the 21st century, the sewers are often toured host an annual concert since 2000.
Germans love mustard, particularly the sharper-than-Dijon style that sits on the table in every Brauhaus or Kneipe. Those expecting it to taste like American mustard will remember their mistake for a long time to come. For a good anecdote to tell later, the Cologne Mustard Museum is one of those weird little places that’s good to pop into, buy exotic mustard to take home or just learn a little bit more about its production.
There are a few spas in Cologne but none quite as charming as Neptunbad. Changing rooms are mixed and open, though separate facilities for women are available, and clothing is banned in the spa itself. Most people walk around in a towel or robe and remove it to get into the sauna or one of the many heated pools. The saltwater pool under the dome and rooftop saunas are particular delights.
Local bookstore Taschen puts out anything from $40 books about record covers or iconic t-shirts to super-deluxe $15,000 books about Muhammad Ali. Its eponymous owner started out as a comic book collector and decided early on to devote his business to super-niche markets. While a single book will take up nearly all of a baggage allowance, even just looking around is still a sumptuous feast.
In one way or another Kölsch, the much beloved dialect of Cologne (sound-wise, a sort of slow, Dutchified German), is spoken by 25% of the city’s population and understood by many more. Unless speaking with someone’s grandmother or engaging a tradesman, you’re mostly likely to hear Kölsch at Carnival or in the pub.
Kölsch is more than just a beer. It represents a certain attitude towards life and is an important part of coming together with friends or colleagues at the end of the work day. Rhinelanders are proud of their easy, open and fun culture and need little reason to head to the kneipe for a beer or two and a chat.
The Rhine sees about 7,000 cargo ships a day whizzing up and down, carrying goods from Basel to Amsterdam, so there’s certainly no reason not to cross it in a tiny homemade boat, Krokodil, which crosses the Rhine in the south of Cologne after making a bend towards Bonn. The trip takes approximately 10 minutes and cuts straight across the river.
Cologne has been welcoming tourists and pilgrims for nearly 1,000 years, and its citizens are well known for finding the flimsiest excuses to have a party. Best of all, we genuinely love our city and sharing our relaxed way of life – and a beer – with visitors. Bis bald!