Cologne may not be the most picturesque city in Germany, but it’s certainly one of the most vibrant. Explore the Museum Ludwig’s world-famous art collection; admire the Magi bones at Cologne Cathedral and refresh with a cold glass of native beer – Kölsch.
What Cologne lacks in beauty, it certainly makes up for in history. After World War II, the Rhineland city was almost completely destroyed. Today, it’s a hodge-podge of Renaissance architecture like the Rathaus, alongside the gleaming skyscrapers of the Rheinauhafen district. From old masters at the Wallraf-Richartz Museum to the Dufthaus 4711 perfumery, these are Cologne’s unmissable attractions.
You can’t visit Cologne without creating one of your own. The House of 4711, where world-famous colognes have been produced since 1792, is definitely the place to do it. Take a guided tour of the brand’s flagship store at Glockengasse and stop for a sniff at the fragrance fountain of Original Eau de Cologne. You can then learn how to understand the different ingredients before creating a scent that is exclusively yours.
Set aside from the usual shopping boulevards, the Belgian Quarter is the place to find more unique, one-off pieces. Here, young fashion designers and local jewellers clamour to stock their wares; you can even get your hands something custom made. There are also trendy pubs, restaurants and cafes where you can soak up the charm of old Brussels in the heart of Cologne. Refresh with a slender glass of Kölsch – a pale hoppy beer only made in the city.
Every winter, the centre of Old Town Cologne is lit up by the twinkling lights and red-roofed buden (huts) of its bustling Christmas market, set against the backdrop of the cathedral. Soak up the spiced scent of mulled wine and gingerbread as you browse the festive crafts on offer. You can also watch wreath binders and glassblowers in action. There are six other Christmas markets in the town centre too, each with their own theme.
One of the best ways to view Cologne Old Town is from the river itself. Choose one many boat excursions along the Rhine, from night cruises to a Sunday brunch trip. For a short overview, book a harbour cruise, which includes a guided tour; you’ll sail past the cathedral, the Chocolate Museum and the German Sports and Olympics Museum before reaching the former fishing village of Rodenkirchen. Several companies also offer excursions from Cologne to Dusseldorf.
Wandering the narrow alleyways of Cologne Old Town will throw up plenty of surprises as you stumble across delights including the Farina Fragrance museum and the eccentric Pixies’ Fountain. Take in the cathedral and historic city hall of this storied part of town. Be sure to stop for a craft Kölsch beer and a traditional Halve Hahn sandwich (a split rye roll with gouda cheese, pickles and onions).
More than a million people visit the Flora and Botanical Garden in the Riehl district each year – and it’s easy to see why. Home to 10,000 species of plants, you’ll feel like you’re in the middle of a rainforest as you wander around 11.5ha (28 acres) of gardens and tropical greenhouses. The glass palace at the centre of the estate is worth a visit alone.
If you’ve had your fill of Cologne’s culture, then visit Phantasialand for high-octane adventures. The amusement park is split into themed areas, including Berlin, Mexico and Fantasy – home to fairy creatures called the Wuze. Feeling brave? Strap into the Taron rollercoaster, which reaches top speeds of 117kph (73mph), or thunder down the Chiapas log-flume ride. Stay for the evening to catch one of the mesmerising acrobatic shows.
It’s because of the Three Kings that Cologne exists at all in the modern world. Inside the city’s gothic cathedral, you’ll find the Shrine of the Three Kings, said to contain the bones of the Three Wise Men from the Bible, which brought pilgrims to town in the Middle Ages. The priests 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 carries half a million passengers across the river every year. Get your camera ready for a bird’s-eye view of the Old Town and cathedral. Board the cable car north of the river and walk back into town over the Deutzer Brücke. If you’re lucky, book one of the quarterly night rides from sunset to the early hours.
Germans love mustard, particularly the sharper-than-Dijon style that sits on the table in every brauhaus (brewhouse) or kneipe (pub). Don’t expect it to taste like American mustard, it’s a much stronger flavour. The Mustard Museum is one of those unique places that are good for a story afterwards. Situated on the site of a 200-year-old mustard mill, you can learn about its production and buy an unusual souvenir to take home.
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, 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.
Feeling frazzled after sightseeing? Get your kit off and relax in the historic Neptunbad, a 100-year-old bathhouse in Ehrenfeld. There are other spas in the city, but none are quite as charming as this. 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. Changing rooms are mixed and open, though separate facilities for women are available. The 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 with over 500 species inside. It provides an interesting look at how zookeeping philosophy and design have changed over the years. The big cat enclosure was renowned when it first opened because it allowed visitors to view these giant felines behind a glass screen with no bars obstructing the view. Highlights today include hippos in the African-themed landscape; Philippine crocodiles in the Terrarium and the lively Jungle House – home to a lively monkey population.
Natasha Holt contributed additional reporting to this article.