It’s because of the Three Kings or Wisemen that Cologne exists at all in the modern world. The Shrine of the Three Kings, said to contain the bones of the three wise men from the Bible, brought pilgrims to town in the Middle Ages, and it was decided that a cathedral had to be built to house the shrine properly. Every January 6 (Epiphany in the Church Calendar), members of the public are allowed to process alongside the ossuary (bone box) and pay their respects.
Reach for the heavens in a different way and cross the Rhine by cable car. First opened in 1957, the Seilbahn has carried more than 15 million passengers. Photo nerds will love the excellent views of the Old Town and Cathedral. The best plan is to get on the cable car at one end and walk back into town over the Deutzer Brücke.
After World War II, with nearly 95% of the city in ruins, Cologne had the chance to rebuild itself in a modern way. The city boomed as a media hub, which prompted an ambitious development on the banks of the Rhine that is now home to offices, residences, shops, restaurants and cafés. Architecture fanatics will love the three Kranhäuser buildings that are designed to look like old ship-loading cranes. You could end the afternoon with a stop at the Chocolate Museum, as it’s in the same area.
Cologne’s Old Town Hall was the focal point of the ruling classes for more than 900 years. It was completely destroyed by a bomb during World War II and was later completely restored. These days, it’s popular for weddings. In terms of style, the building is a mishmash. The main building is 14th-century, the tower 15th and the loggia and cloister 16th. The building has a full carillon that is played three times a day.
For those interested in shopping for one-of-a-kind items and sourcing the best in vintage, leaving the main shopping streets, Schildergasse and Hohe Strasse is essential. The Belgian Quarter, between Friesenplatz and Rudolfplatz, is home to an array of handmade, high-fashion and unique items.
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 the mistake for a long time to come. The Cologne Mustard Museum is one of those weird little places that are good to pop into just so that you have a good story to tell later. Buy exotic mustards to take home or learn a little bit more about its production.
Every city in Europe seems to have a Christmas market or two these days. Cologne’s Christmas market season runs from the last Monday before Advent until December 23, during which time the air around town is full of mulled wine, roasting chestnuts and raclette. There are seven major markets in the town centre, each with its own theme, and its own range of food and products on offer.
The Rhine is central to Cologne, and indeed German, culture and identity, so why not take a ride on it? There are several companies that offer cruises from Cologne to Dusseldorf, or much longer journeys from Amsterdam to Basel. Short journeys cost between €10 and €20, depending on the company. If the weather is nice, there is little finer than whiling away the afternoon on the river, drink in hand.
Most cities in Germany have an old town. Cologne’s is smaller than most, because more than 80% of the city was destroyed in the war and most landowners either chose not to rebuild in the traditional style, or material wasn’t immediately available. Still, there is plenty to love about the few streets that remain on the banks of the Rhine, not the least of which is the architectural gem that is the Groß Sankt Martin church.
Cologne has two famous perfume houses: 4711 and Farina. It is possible to buy a bottle from either, but for a special souvenir, head to 4711’s headquarters in Glockengasse and design your own signature smell in one of the workshops. Given every Thursday at 3pm and lasting one hour, the workshops are usually in German. If that’s a bit too much adventure, it’s possible to arrange a private English tutorial.
House in a modern building behind the Cologne Cathedral, Museum Ludwig focusses on modern and contemporary painting and has one of the largest Picasso collections in Europe. Recent exhibitions have included Reena Spaulings, Trish Donnelly and Wolfgang Hahn. The museum is open until 10pm every first Thursday of the month. Keen photographers will love the Agfa-Foto-Historama with artefacts from as early as the 1840s.
It’s corny, but adorable. If you’re in Cologne with your loved one, join the thousands of others who have left a symbol of their love – a padlock – on the Hohenzollern Bridge. It’s about 10 minutes’ walk from the main station and, crucially, is one of the busiest rail bridges in the world. The bridge has so far been strong enough to take the weight of the world’s love, estimated at 2 tonnes (2.2 tons). Be sure to throw the key in the river after you’ve added your part to this charming tradition.
In the north of Cologne, on the left bank of the Rhine, lie Cologne’s stunning Botanical Gardens. More than a million people visit the 10,000 plant species in the gardens every year. There are few better places to take a break from the city without breaking the bank. Take the 16 or 18 line from the Barbarossaplatz, Neumarkt or the main station and enjoy Cologne’s little bit of Eden.
In Cologne, Carnival isn’t a season or a party, it is life. Starting the Thursday before Ash Wednesday and lasting a full week, Cologners, who need almost no reason to put on a costume, get dolled up and let loose. Millions of glasses of Kölsch are drunk, kisses are stolen and tons of candy is thrown into the crowd at the many parades. Despite all the alcohol, the vibe is safe and friendly.
Housed in an armoury built in the Dutch Renaissance style, the City Museum tells the story of Cologne’s 2,000-year history. It covers the spiritual (Cologne once had more than 600 churches), economic and everyday life of the people that have lived in the city from the Middle Ages to modern times. Lean about Klüngel (social networking), Kölsch (the local beer), Carnival and Eau de Cologne, as well as Cologne’s puppet-theatre tradition.
When seeing churches and other old buildings gets a bit tiresome, it’s time to head to Phantasialand, Cologne’s own theme park. Located in Brühl, 15 kilometres (9 miles) from Cologne, visitors can fill themselves to bursting at the buffet, get drenched on the Mexican log flume and screamed themselves out on the many roller coasters.
When travelling around gets a bit hectic, it’s time to get your kit off and relax at Neptunbad in Ehrenfeld. There are other spas in the city, but none are quite as charming as this. Changing rooms are mixed and open, though separate facilities for women are available. Clothing is a 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 the rooftop saunas are particularly special.
Founded in 1860, the Cologne Zoo is one of the oldest in the country and provides an interesting look at how zoo-keeping philosophy and design have changed over the years. There’s a 19th-century menagerie and a wildlife reserve without bars that is popular in the 21st. The Moorish-inspired elephant house is a particular gem, as is the birdhouse done in the style of a Russian basilica. With more than 500 species, including a terrarium, insectarium and aquarium, there’s something for everyone.
Located in Brühl, a cute town 15 kilometres (9 miles) south of Cologne and easily accessible by Ubahn and train, Schloss Augustusburg is an 18th-century palace that belonged to the Archbishop of Cologne. It is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the most famous part of which is the ceiling of the entrance hall staircase, a fabulous trompe d’oeil mural. Take a guided tour, and go on a sunny day so you can visit the magnificent gardens.
Small but perfectly formed, the Wallraf Museum in Cologne is a great antidote to hit-and-miss contemporary galleries or the endurance-testing leviathans typical of most city centres. It’s about five minutes’ walk from the Cologne Cathedral, contains an excellent cafe and is located opposite the Farina Fragrance Museum.