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Cologne old town | © Ed Webster/Flickr
Cologne old town | © Ed Webster/Flickr

11 Things You Need to Know before Visiting Cologne

Picture of Marion Kutter
Updated: 11 September 2017

Germany’s fourth-largest and arguably most cheerful city has some great sights to offer. But some traditions and customs are quite peculiar. If Cologne is on your must-visit list – and it should be – here are some things you need to know before you visit.

The people LOVE their city

The people of Cologne are known for their local patriotism, with football player Lukas Podolski leading the way. Their deep-rooted affection manifests in their loyalty towards their mediocre football team, Kölsch beer, and countless carnival songs that celebrate the city. Tourists and those new to Cologne are often puzzled if not suspicious when teary-eyed locals enthusiastically swoon over every aspect of their hometown. It’s pretty hard to explain. The chorus of a catchy carnival song seems to sum it up.

Et gitt kei Wood, dat sage künnt,
Wat ich föhl, wann ich an Kölle denk
Wann ich an ming Heimat denk!

(No word can describe,
What I feel, when I think about Cologne
When I think about my hometown!)

Don’t mention Düsseldorf

As much as Cologne locals love their city, they hate Düsseldorf with a passion. The rivalry between the two cities goes back to the 13th century and comes to light during football matches, the choice of beer, and general discourse. It’s wise not even to mention Düsseldorf in conversation. You won’t be tempted to order Düsseldorf’s Altbier rather than Kölsch (it’s hardly served anywhere) and never shout ‘Helau!’ during carnival in Cologne. The official battle cry is ‘Alaaf’, and you should stick to that if you don’t want to affront locals.

The city is an architectural eyesore

Cologne isn’t the prettiest of cities, architecturally speaking. Some even claim it’s the ugliest city in Germany. During World War II, the city was heavily bombed and most of its historic buildings were destroyed. In the 1960s, the focus was on rebuilding the city quickly, and urban planners turned towards concrete blocks, which they littered across the town. The architectural monstrosities fail to blend in with the remains of the early Roman settlement. Today, the motley cityscape is best described as chaotic with a dystopian twist. But the imposing Cologne Cathedral makes up for it.

The Philosophy Faculty of Cologne University | © HOWI/WikiMedia Commons

People take fancy dress to the next level

Every year, the entire city jumps head first into a state of madness. During the carnival season, clowns, unicorns, witches, and cowboys take over the city and devote themselves to litres of Kölsch, sing-alongs, and cheerfulness. And it’s contagious. A costume is essential if you want to participate, but note that the people of Cologne take dressing up seriously. Tourists in their Primark overalls often gape at the creative costumes of the local population. The search for the perfect outfit starts months before, and people spend a fair amount of time, effort, and money on a costume, and some even have them professionally tailored.

Cologne Carnival parade | © Marco Verch/Flickr

Don’t swim in the Rhine

The river banks have plenty of spots that appear inviting for a swim, but don’t be mistaken. The river is notorious for treacherous currents and the wake of passing cargo ships pulls swimmers into the deeper waters. No-swim zones are in place for large stretches of the Cologne waterfront, and signs warn of the dangers. If you still want to take the risk, make sure it’s legal to enter the water beforehand and stay in the shallows. The sandy beaches in Rodenkirchen are a great spot for that.

People at the Rhine riverfront | © 13. Stock Online Relations/WikiCommons

Cologne is a shopping paradise

The main shopping district along Hohe Strasse and Schildergasse are in the top 10 of Germany’s most frequented shopping streets. Here you’ll find all the main fashion brands from Adidas to Zara. If you’re after high-end fashion boutiques and designer stores, Mittelstrasse is where you want to go, and if you are looking for the latest trends, your best bet is Ehrenstrasse where hip brands such as COS, Liebeskind, Ben Sherman, and Fred Perry are located. In recent years, independent boutiques have popped up in the Belgian Quarter and the Südstadt. Check out Magasin Populaire, Keep Loving, and Boutique Belgique for carefully selected fashion items.

The pedestrian area in Cologne | © Raimond Spekking/WikiCommons

It’s good to know how to say no

Visiting one of Cologne’s many brewhouses is a must, but there are a few rules you should follow. Don’t try to order lemonade; the chances are that you’ll be served beer, but that’s why you came here in the first place. The disgruntled man serving you is not a waiter but a Köbes, and he takes great pride in his job. As soon as you’ve finished your Kölsch, he’ll get you another one, whether you asked for it or not. If you want to put a halt to the endless refills, just place your beermat on top of your glass.

A Cologne brewhouse | © Eije Werk/WikiCommons

Cologne is the gay capital of Germany

As we know, Cologne loves a good parade. And the general liberal, tolerant, and life-affirming attitude bursts out of locals on the first weekend of July when the Christopher Street Day, or gay pride parade rolls through the city. Cologne embraces the loud, colourful procession, and has been secretly known to be Germany’s LGBT capital for decades. The ‘Bermuda Triangle’ around Schaafenstrasse has the highest concentration of gay bars, cafés, and nightclubs, but the Heumarkt area is also popular.

People at Cologne gay pride | © CEphoto, Uwe Aranas/WikiCommons

People live in Veedels, not districts

Cologne is composed of 86 official districts, but the Veedel is where people feel at home. Rather than a geographical area, the word Veedel describes the part of a neighbourhood where locals are rooted and have everything they need. They buy their newspaper at their Büdchen (kiosk), chat over a glass of Kölsch in their favourite Weetschaft (pub) on the corner, and shop at the grocery store, bakery, and farmers’ market. To the confusion of non-locals, there are often several names that describe the same Veedel – Rathenauviertel, Kwartier Latäng, and Univiertel are all names for roughly the same area – or the borders overlap with the next neighbourhood.

A kiosk in Cologne | © bgeissl/Flickr

Beer portions are measly…

…But not because the waiter, or Köbes, is stingy. The local brew, Kölsch, comes in tall, 200-millilitre glasses called Stange (pole). It might seem odd at first, but local brewers have put some thought into the agreement only to serve Kölsch in tall, narrow glasses. Kölsch is traditionally served with a beer head, but, by nature, the carbon dioxide content of the beer is relatively low, which means that the frothy foam collapses easily and Kölsch quickly tastes stale. Serving it in Stangen ensures that you always have a fresh beer in front of you.

The cathedral will make your jaw drop

At 157 metres (515 feet), Cologne Cathedral is the world’s third-tallest church. The imposing cathedral was spared during World War II bombings, which destroyed 95 percent of the city, and the twin spires stood towering above the rubble. In 1996 the building was added to the UNESCO World Heritage list. Construction began in 1248 to house the reliquaries of the Biblical Three Wise Men, but the shrine is only one reason to peek inside: the abstract glass window designed by Gerhard Richter and a walk up 291 steps to the belfry are worth adding to the list. For a bird’s-eye view of the cathedral, cross the Rhine and take the elevator up the Köln Triangle tower.