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For straightforward souvenir shops, try anywhere in the immediate vicinity of the Dom or main train station. There’s a popular gift shop in the basement of the Dom, the lobbies of the two big museums nearby will have arty stuff in addition to the standard fare and, of course, the immediately adjacent shops selling nothing but souvenirs.
The main themes are of the Dom, the Three Kings (Wisemen), beer, the Kölsch language, the city crest – which is three crowns (for the Three Kings) – and the tears of 11,000 virgins (it’s a long story).
Also, anything red or white possibly with a shark or a goat on it. The Sharks are the local hockey team and the goat is Hennes, the Köln FC mascot.
In December, the various Christmas markets in town are a good spot to buy something more imaginative (and well-made). A Christmas star lamp is something Cologners hang in their windows and is a little bit more special than a chocolate wiseman. The electrical parts are usually sold separately though, so don’t forget these!
Depending on your itinerary, a case of beer could be the right choice. Kölsch doesn’t travel especially well, but it is bottled and easily bought in singles or a case at any grocery store in the city. Cologne’s own Rewe chain, which is liberally dotted around the city, is usually open ’til midnight – perfect for the last minute panic purchase.
Perfume is always good, considering the stuff is literally named after the city. Also, it lasts for a long time – so the recipient can remember your thoughtfulness every time they wear it. There are two to choose from: Kölnische Wasser No. 4711 and the slightly more refined Farina. Souvenir shops will definitely have 4711. The Farina is best grabbed straight from the museum shop in the old city.
Buy some mustard. Seriously. 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, which makes it the prefect prank present for the friend or sibling on your list. The standard stuff can be procured at any grocery store or go fancy at the Cologne Mustard Museum. It’s worth it simply to have a good story to tell later and you might just learn something.