Germany’s fourth-largest city can often be overlooked in favour of some of the country’s other locations, but Cologne (Köln in German) is a fantastic place to visit. Probably most well-known for its annual Carnival, the city also has plenty of things to see and do. Although it’s had a turbulent history (most notably, much of the city was destroyed in World War Two), it’s a great place for a European city break whether you’re interested in sightseeing, history, chocolate, beer or family-friendly activities. Here’s a guide to ten great things to do while visiting Cologne.
Admire the views from Cologne Cathedral
Imposing and awe-inspiring, Cologne Cathedral dominates the city’s skyline and is a must-see for any visitor to the city. Although it was damaged during World War Two, it did survive and has been restored – although due to its age, it regularly requires care and attention. Construction work began in 1248 and it was finally completed in 1880 after a break of some 300 years.
The Cathedral’s main highlight is the South Tower which offers stunning views across the city. Although you have to climb 533 steps to reach the top, it’s definitely worth it.
See the love locks on Hohenzollern Bridge
One of Cologne’s most eye-catching sights is the rows and rows of love locks that adorn the Hohenzollern Bridge. Placed by locals and tourists alike, many of the love locks are very elaborate and quirky – I saw one that even had an image of the couple on it although many are much simpler with just initials and dates. If you’re looking for space to leave your own, the side that faces towards the Zoo/Cable Car has more room.
Explore the Old Town
During World War Two, around 90% of Cologne’s Old Town was destroyed but some of the older streets did manage to survive and have been restored. It’s full of quaint streets and picturesque buildings and is a great place for a stroll.
Drink Kölsch in the city’s beer halls
Beer is an important part of German life, and Cologne has a very vibrant beer heritage. The city is home to the Kölsch style of beer which is only made in the city (it’s protected so similar beer made elsewhere may be called Kölsch-style beer but not officially Kölsch) and there are plenty of beer halls to try it. The beer is served in a small 0.2l glass and the waiters will generally bring a tray around and give one to anyone who has an empty glass and a tally of your beers is kept on a coaster. When you’ve had enough, place your coaster on top of your glass to signal that you’re done. Along with the big names such as Gaffel and Früh, there’s also plenty of small places and my favourites were Malzmühle and Gaststatte Lommerzheim.
(There’s more on Cologne’s beer halls over on my other blog.)
Ride the Kölner Seilbahn (cable car)
The Rhine snakes through the city but if you want to see it from above, the best way is by cable car. It’s a fairly short journey but it can be teamed up with visits to other attractions such as the Rheinpark and the zoo.
Explore the Rheinpark
Located on the banks of the river, the Rheinpark provides 40 hectares of greenery in the heart of the city. In the centre, there’s a thermal spa while the park itself also has a mini golf and a small train travelling through it. I also really enjoyed finding a trampoline built into the ground which is great fun for kids and big kids!
Meet animals at Cologne Zoo
One of the oldest zoos in the world, Cologne Zoo is home to more than 10,000 animals including big cats, primates, aquatic creatures and insects. It’s a large park with plenty to see but highlights include the elephant house and the Hippodom which is a walk-in replica of an African river.
Visit the Chocolate Museum
Learn all about the history of chocolate and how it’s made at this family-friendly museum on the banks of the Rhine. Highlights include the small rainforest section, a replica of a German chocolate shop from yesteryear and the chocolate fountain – where the staff give you some to try.
The gift shop features chocolate moulded into a range of weird and wonderful shapes to take home with you – including Kölsch bottles!
Have a coffee with a feline friend at the Cat Café
Cat Cafés have sprung up in cities across the globe, and Cologne is no exception. Cafe Schnurrke is located slightly away from the city centre and we stumbled across it while looking for a nearby beer hall. Unlike other cat cafés I’ve heard of, at Café Schnurrke you don’t have to book a slot or pay to visit – you simply show up, order food and drinks (it’s all vegetarian) and enjoy the company of the cats. All of the cats have been rescued and they have their own private room out back for when they don’t fancy hanging out with humans.
Café Schnurrke, Ritterstraße 27 – cafeschnurrke.de
Explore the surrounding area
Cologne is an ideal base for exploring other nearby destinations – and has excellent rail links with Cologne Central Station (Hauptbahnhof) located in the heart of the city next to the Cathedral. The city of Düsseldorf is only about 30 minutes away by train (in fact, we flew in to Düsseldorf Airport as it was cheaper than landing at Cologne-Bonn) and we also spent a day visiting the picturesque town of Königswinter and the nearby hill of Drachenfels complete with its historic funicular railway and ruined castle at its peak. Long distance trains provide connections to Berlin, Hamburg, Brussels, Vienna, Amsterdam and more.