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12 of the Best Things to Do in Cologne, Germany
It’s the city known for its soaring cathedral, an iconic part of the skyline, and seen from many a nearby town. It’s Cologne, the city nestled in almost the center of Germany, known for its cathedral, its shopping, and the multi-colored annual spectacle that is the Cologne Carnival. There are so many things to do in Cologne, you should definitely add it to your list for your next trip to Germany.
So, if you’re set on visiting the city of Köln, where do you start? Whether you plan to spend 1 day in Cologne or more, you won’t get bored, we promise! We count down all the best things to do in Cologne as well as a bit on the history and, of course, the best time to go!
Extra Tip: Consider getting the Cologne Card. It costs less than $10 per day and gives you free public transport and lots of discounts around the city. Those savings can add up quickly and it will help you save some money. Click here to buy the Cologne Card>>
A word on the history of Cologne
Now before we dive right into all the wonderful attractions and key sights that you’ll find in this modern German city, it’s worth taking a quick dip into its history, which has of course made the city what it is today. The city found its beginnings in Roman times, founded in 50AD, and given the name, ‘Colonia’.
The home of many an imperial Roman governor, over the years Cologne grew to become a major trading hub for the Romans. Later, it fell to the French in 785, and was dubbed an archbishopric by Charlemagne. If you want to learn more about the Roman history in Cologne, you can take an interesting walking tour.
Cologne continued as a key trading post for many centuries as well as a center of enlightenment, with Europe’s first city university constructed there, and of industry, with many large industries settling in the city’s confines.
Unfortunately, World War II decimated the city. Around 90 percent was destroyed (although luckily the Cathedral remained mostly intact), and the city had to be rebuilt from almost the ground up. This reconstruction is very telling when you visit Cologne nowadays. The city – while it does have some beautiful buildings and churches – is pretty marked by post-war architecture.
Check out the Cologne Cathedral
No Cologne itinerary is complete with spending at least an hour (or two) walking around the magnificent Cologne Cathedral. It’s the most visited attraction in all of Germany for good reason!
Located right at the heart of the city, the Cologne Cathedral is a soaring gothic-style church which is actually still the tallest twin-spired church in the world, plus the second tallest church in Europe. First constructed in 1248 (but only finished in 1880), the church – known as the Kölner Dom – is a historic landmark in the city.
And while it’s beautiful from the outside, it’s equally exquisite on the insider. With a series of gorgeous stained glass windows, a high altar constructed out of black marble, and a series of tombs. There is so much to see that you need at least an hour inside. Definitely make sure you visit this iconic German landmark.
Shop til you Drop
Now while this might not seem like a good claim to fame, it’s said that Cologne is home to the ‘busiest shopping street in Europe’. The two streets of Hohestrasse and Breitestrasse are central to the city’s bustling trade. You will find everything from large department stores to small boutique affairs flanking both streets.
Go there on a Saturday and you’ll be jostling for space but you could always take time out at one of the many café’s. Stop to tuck into a takeaway pretzel while watching the masses meander by.
Walk around the Fischmarkt
It’s now relatively ‘famous’ as one of the most Instagrammable places in Germany, but the Köln Fischmarkt (Cologne Fishmarket) Is more than just a good photo op.
This small district, set in the shadow of the nearby St Martin’s Church is where the fish market was located back in the 13th century. Boasting a few buildings with brightly-colored facades, the area is a great place to take time out for lunch, or even just to sit on the banks of the nearby Rhein (Rhine) river.
Get yourself an ice-cream from one of the many gelaterias, sit in the sun, and relax. Have a seat at Herings Im Martinswinkel, one of the best little restaurants tucked away there, to eat a pot of herrings for lunch.
Meander around the museums
Like it’s nearby counterpart, Bonn, Cologne loves delving into its history, and so has a number of wonderful museums sprinkled across its suburbs.
There are really three major ones that you need to visit, with the best one usually considered the Museum Ludwig. The Ludwig is more of an art museum, featuring both classic and contemporary German artists. You can also find some other collections, including a wonderful series of Picasso works as well as pop art pieces by Warhol and Lichenstein.
Art fans should also check out the Wallraf Richartz Museum which is more dedicated to pieces from the medieval period.
Those with more of a history bent might enjoy the Roman-Germanic Museum. It is an archaeological museum where you can trace the beginnings of Cologne, from the Roman settlement of ‘Colonia’.
Visit the Home of Perfume
Did you know that perfume or ‘eau de cologne’ was invented in Cologne? Directly translated as ‘water from Cologne’ an Italian living in the city in the 18th century created it. He started to sell it from around 1792 out of a small store in the city center.
The store – 4711 – is still there today and you can not only go there to grab your bottle of the stuff but can also sign up for a tour if you have the time.
Put a lock on the Love Lock Bridge
While the Hohenzollern Bridge, which spans the enormous Rhein river, might not be as famous as love lock bridges elsewhere in Europe, its still a great activity to walk over it and affix your custom padlock to the grate.
You can buy a lock at one of the many little stores within the train station, situated right next to the Cathedral, who will engrave and personalize it for you.
Kick it at the Karneval
For about a week each year, usually around the end of February, the city of Cologne is turned into a brightly-tinted, fancy dress spectacle as it is the epicenter of ‘Carnival’ or ‘Karneval’.
Nearly everyone in the town dresses up in spectacular costumes from the Thursday (Weiberfastnacht) until the following Ash Wednesday. The celebrations start early in the morning each day. There are hundreds of parades and festivities, and go late into every night, sometimes 24/7.
Even the gelaterias replace their tubs of ice-cream with bottles of beer, as revelers stop by to fuel up before their next party. If you can make it during the February season, do try to book well ahead. The city of about 1 million inhabitants swells to about 2 million during the Karneval period.
Go Brewery Hopping
Now Cologne is very, very serious about its city brew: Kolsch. This golden nectar, served in uniquely small 200ml glasses called ‘stanges’ is a matter of pride for the city, and many come from surrounding towns just to drink it.
If you’re a beer fan, then definitely carve out some time to hop between then different ‘brauhaus’ in the city. Top of the list are Goffel Brauhaus, Früh am Dom and Peter’s Brauhaus. Actually the last one is a great place to eat lunch; a traditional brewery with a massive restaurant where you can tuck into famous dishes like Schweinhaxe (pork knuckle), with a gigantic dollop of mashed potatoes and a side of sauerkraut.
You can also go on a Brewery tour, if drinking alone does not sound like a lot of fun. Book your tour here>>
Learn about Chocolate at the Lindt Museum
Its official name is the Imhoff-Schokoladenmuseum but most locals know the riverside museum as the ‘Lindt Chocolate Museum’. You will find the Swiss chocolatier’s branding (and delicious products) prominently featured throughout. Perched on the edge of the Rhein river, the museum was first opened back in 1993 by Hans Imhoff but later forged a partnership with Lindt in 2006.
A tour of the museum takes you through the history of chocolate, including some fun interactive exhibits. The museum even has an indoor greenhouse to replicate the best conditions for chocolate to grow. You can even get your own custom chocolate made! Then, kick back with a toasty hot chocolate or a slice of very rich cake at the on-site café or just browse through the many sweet treats at the store.
Eat Kebabs on Keupstrasse
You might not know it, but Germany has a huge Turkish influence. About 3 million people of Turkish descent live in the country and many in Cologne. Turkish immigrants flocked to the city as traders during the Ottoman Empire. More recently, they came to help the country’s labor crisis during the 1960’s.
If you’re a fan of Turkish culture and cuisine, it’s worth winding your way across the river to Mulheim. It is considered a key bastion for the Turks in the city. There you just need to walk down the main street, Keupstrasse, to find Turkish bakeries, dressmakers, and kebab stores. You can sit for a few hours, drink sweet Turkish tea, and take in the atmosphere.
Take a River Cruise
So much of Cologne’s trading history but also its current activities are tied to the mighty Rhein River that runs through it. So its definitely worth getting onto the water of the river itself, by taking a cruise.
Many depart from the banks near the Cathedral, and usually take around an hour or two. You’ll be able to see the major attractions like the Kölner Dom, the chocolate museum and the churches of Altstadt (Old Town), from a different angle.
Many river cruises also go further afield. You can hop off in Dusseldorf to do some more shopping and eat sushi, or to Bonn to learn about the birthplace of Beethoven.
Eat Zimtbrezeln and drink Glühwein at the Christmas Market
The city of Cologne is usually best enjoyed during the summer when the beer gardens and cafes swing into action. However, there is something unique about going in the wintry December period, if only for one of the amazing Christmas markets!
The Cologne Christmas market (Kölner Weihnachtsmarkt), is one of the largest in Germany and attracts visitors from nearby cities as well as international visitors.
You’ll have all the stuff you expect from a German festive market: German gingerbread (Lebkuchen), mulled wine and lovely little trinkets and handicrafts to buy. But you should definitely be trying the signature Zimtbrezeln. They are essentially a mix between a salty pretzel and a cinnamon roll that will have you queueing up for more!
Browse the Boutiques of the Belgian Quarter
If the main shopping streets of Cologne didn’t scratch your shopping itch, then you should definitely make a turn at the Belgian Quarter or “Belgisches Viertel”. Possibly the ‘coolest’ place to be seen in Cologne, you’ll be rubbing shoulders with very trendy locals, all sipping their flat white coffees and eating Belgian frites.
The Belgian Quarter is known for its small, eclectic art galleries like KUNST&So, a smattering of lovely pubs and bars and loads of high-end, designer boutiques. Here you’ll find the latest threads from German designers, to put into your luggage for your return trip.
When to go to Cologne
Now if you can’t make it to Cologne for the Carnival, and don’t want to brave the wintry weather to see the colorful Christmas market in action, you should definitely go in the spring or summer months.
The beer gardens and cafes usually open in May, which means that you’ll find a city buzzing with activity yet never really overrun with tourists. The city is therefore usually best visited between May and July, with August being slightly humid.
Now that you’re convinced that you need to go to Cologne to soak up all the sights, your challenge will be which to prioritize first! Whether it’s rambling along the Rhine to take in the spectacular river views, stuffing your luggage with your newly-purchased wares from the shopping streets or just people-watching from the steps of the Cologne Cathedral, as the masses walk on by, Cologne is a German city with something for everyone.
Best things to do in Cologne, Germany was written by Lee Nelson. Lee is a wandering writer and one half of the Travel Scribes, a blog dedicated to travelling, writing and everything social media. When she’s not quenching her thirst for wanderlust, she is most often found behind her laptop, bashing out blog posts and bingeing on cheesy cat videos. Find her on Instagram, Pinterest, and Facebook here.