Germany’s fourth largest city may be often overlooked in favour of Berlin’s hip neighbourhoods and Munich’s Oktoberfest extravaganza. But Cologne is its own kind of cool that’s distinct from Germany’s other metropolises.
For example, did you know that Cologne airport is also an emergency landing site for NASA shuttles? Engineers at NASA call up Cologne’s airport before every mission to make a runway available and share important mission details. Cologne is also home to the most visited landmark in Germany. Cologne, or Koln if you are a German speaker, is full of surprises. It’s up to you to discover them.
Whether you drop in on a tour of Germany or you’re spending a week or two in the heart of the Rhineland, you’ll find there’s no shortage of things to do in Cologne. Here are 15 sites to get you started.
Wander at Old Town Cologne
Old Town Cologne is unique among Europe’s historic neighbourhoods. Particularly for its medieval neighbourhood that was almost entirely rebuilt from scratch in the 20th century. Dating its history of World War II, 72 per cent of Cologne city lay in ruins, including the city’s Old Town. In the years after the war, historians, architects, and archaeologists went through years of painstaking work to restore it to its exact pre-war condition.
Wandering Old Town is free, and it’s a great introduction to the city. For more background information, make a reservation with Freewalk Cologne’s pay-as-you-will tours. Alternatively, make a trip to the historic city hall and the Great St. Martin Church on your own. When you tired of wandering the streets, plop yourself down in one of Old Town’s traditional brewhouses (Brauhaus), a historic brewery that serves up German sausage & beers to hungry tourists and locals alike.
Tour Cologne Cathedral
Cologne’s famous cathedral welcomes six million tourists each year, which makes it the most popular of all of Germany’s landmarks. One glimpse at the enormous Gothic cathedral, and you’ll see why it tops travellers’ lists of things to do in Cologne. Completed in 1880 and now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the Cologne Cathedral is one of the city’s most recently completed religious structures. It is also the most sacred site around Cologne. Among its visitor include Christian pilgrims from around the world who come to see The Shrine of the Three Kings.
According to the church, The Shrine of the Three Kings contains the bones of the three wise men who visited the Virgin Mary upon the birth of Jesus Christ. Whether you long to see the reliquaries or love a stunning view, the cathedral and its views over the river Rhine make it a must-visit destination. Take note: The Cologne cathedral is free to visit and open daily. However, guided tours take place at 10:30 PM and 2:30 PM from Monday through Saturday and cost 8 Euros ($9 USD).
Visit the Botanical Garden
Cologne is a cosmopolitan German city, but you don’t need to rent a car to escape the hustle and bustle of the city. A visit to the Flora Botanical Garden transports you directly to the German countryside. Designed in 1864 by Peter Joseph Lienne, the gardens contain elements from English, Italian, and French gardens. The builders hit it away in what is now known as Cologne’s green belt.
A trip to the gardens perfectly complements visits to both the Cologne Zoo or Sculpture Park, both of which sit directly across the street. Entry to the gardens is free between 8 AM and dusk.
Saint Gereon’s Basilica
Cologne is home to 12 Romanesque churches. If you only see one, make it the exquisite St. Gereon’s Basilica. Built between the 12th and 13th century, the basilica is the most unique of the city’s church in part because each of the four phases of construction is visible inside the building. Spot them all in what feels like a game of architectural hide-and-seek.
The original structure was built in 380 AD on the site of Saint Gereon’s grave, which was then outside Cologne. Construction on the building you see today ended in 1227. The pope designated it a minor basilica in 1920. Its unique decagonal dome is the largest of its kind. It’s also different from other churches as it suffered less war-time damage. Visit the basilica any day of the week. Book ahead if you want a guided tour.
Shop Schildergasse Street
Back in the heart of the city, Schildergasse Street is a pedestrianized shopping street that is not only the beating heart of Cologne city but one of the most popular shopping streets in Germany. Unmissable stores for Germans and tourists alike include Galeria Kaufhof as well as the city’s mammoth Peek & Cloppenburg.
Schildergasse Street is one of the top things to do in Cologne, and it’s incredibly busy. Over 13,000 people pass down it each hour. Don’t be afraid to leave the crowds behind and venture down the side streets for even more shopping opportunities. Some of the essential stops in the area for fashionistas include:
- Boutique Belgique
- Keep Loving
- Goldig Köln
- Monsieur Courbet
Note, most stores in Germany are open from 10 AM until 8 PM.
Smell the Eau de Cologne
You recognize the words from your own perfumes or aftershaves. But did you know it takes its name from the city where it was invented?
You can visit the site of the oldest intact perfume factory and the birthplace of Eau de Cologne – on a 45-minute guided tour. As you descend into the world of the factory’s original owner, Johann Maria Farina, you’ll learn about the original laboratory equipment and barrels used to make this famous fragrance. If not, bring home some of the famous 4711 Original Eau de Cologne for its unique characteristic and pleasant fragrances.
Sail Down the Rhine
Visit Cologne between late March and the beginning of November, and you have the chance to see Cologne from the water. The Rhine river runs through the city and past the Old Town. There is no end of pleasure boat day cruises available for tourists, including hop-on-hop-off sightseeing tours and day tripping boats.
A day on the water is one of the top things to do in Cologne, and it frees you from the summer crowds that clog the city streets. If you want a real adventure, book a touring boat that heads out of the city. Boats take you from Cologne to Boon, Koblenz, or Linz. You can then spend the evening or even the night at your destination. Alternatively, hop back on the Deutsche Bahn train to Cologne the same day.
Visit the Cologne Christmas Market
Every festive season, the centre of Cologne plays host to one of Germany’s most iconic scenes: the Christmas Market. Traditionally, German Christmas markets open the last Monday before Advent and carry on until Christmas Day.
The traditional Christmas markets are one of the best things to do in Cologne and Germany as a whole. In each market, you’ll find interesting arts and crafts, traditional Christmas decorations, bars and seatings. Don’t leave without trying the Lebkuchen (gingerbread) and roasted chestnuts. If you’re 18 and over, try the traditional Gluhwein (mulled wine) on offer in many stalls across the market. Alternatively, do as the locals do and stand out from the tourist crowd, try Feuerzangenbowle (German Fire Punch). It’s to Gluhwein, but it also includes a sugar cone doused in high-proof rum and then set alight.
Cologne Christmas markets pop up seemingly overnight each year in. Take note of the location of where it held— Old Town (Alter Markt), Cologne Cathedral, Neumarkt (overlooking the Rhine), Harbour Market and Heavenue Cologne (the gay Christmas market). Don’t forget to wrap up warm. Cologne, Germany weather forecasts for the Christmas period include a high of 43 degrees and a low just above freezing.
Check Out the Pop Art in the Ludwig Museum
The museum building put on its first exhibition in 1900. But in the 1980s, it officially became the Ludwig Museum, named after its benefactors. Both the permanent collection and rotating exhibits are worth a look. The Ludwig Museum boasts the most comprehensive Pop Art collection (outside the U.S.) and the third largest Picasso collection in the entire world. Some of the best-represented artists in the museum include— Jackson Pollock, Andy Warhol, Marcel Duchamp, Pablo Picasso and Roy Lichtenstein.
Arrive between 10 AM and 6 PM for entry. If you want a guided tour of the museum highlights, arrive before 3 PM. Admission is 11 Euro ($12.54 USD) for adults and free for anyone under 18. Are you looking for a more traditional museum? Substitute the Ludwig for Cologne’s oldest museum for the Wallraf-Richartz Museum. It hosts works by Monet, Rembrandt, Munch, Rubens, and Renoir.
Taste the Sweets at the Cologne Chocolate Museum
‘The Schokoladenmuseum’ is a great kids’ destination because it’s both educational, delicious, and directly across from the Cologne Cathedral.
As you work your way through the museum, you learn everything you ever wanted to know about the global history of chocolate. It covers chocolate used by the Mayans and Aztecs and works its way up to the Lindt chocolate we know and love today.
You expect some samples at an attraction like this in Cologne, and the Schokoladenmuseum doesn’t disappoint. Its pride and glory is the chocolate fountain filled with 200 kilograms of warmed, liquify Lindt chocolate. The fountain stands at three meters high, and visitors are welcome to enjoy as much chocolate as they like.
Entrance to the Cologne Chocolate Museum costs 12.50 Euro ($14.50 USD) per adult on weekdays and 13.50 Euro ($15.50 USD) on the weekend. If you bring the kids, buy a family ticket for 31.50 Euro ($24.50 USD) and 34 Euro ($38.50 USD) respectively.
Eat at Peters Brauhaus
Each German region and city has its own culinary specialities. Peters Brauhaus located not too far from Cologne’s Alter Markt is the perfect place to sample some of Kolsch or Kölsch in Deutsch.
Not only is Peter’s one of the best bars in the city, but it serves food that locals love. Try the Himmel und Ad, German blood sausage with an apple and onion sauce and mashed potato. Don’t forget to order apple strudel for dessert. Wash everything down with a pint of Kolsch. Trust us, it’s as satisfying as it can be. If you only have a few days in the city, consider making a reservation in advance, especially if you want to go during meal time.
See Cologne by Night on a Pub Crawl
There’s no end of things to do in Cologne by day. But the city truly comes alive at night. A pub crawl is a perfect way for night owls to see the city lights – and all the best beer bars.
Many of the official pubs’ crawl promote themselves among young people, usually Interrail students and other backpackers. Pub Crawl Cologne definitely falls in the category of catering to the young or young at heart. If you aren’t a student, but you don’t quite have a 9’oclock bedtime, try the Koln Brauhaus tour. It skips the test tube shots found on other tours and instead offers a look in four breweries. You have enough beer to have a good time that night, but you’ll also feel fine the next morning.
Visit the NS Documentation Center
So far, our list of things to do in Cologne has avoided the inevitable: the war. While Cologne itself is an enduring reminder of World War II, you’ll find yourself more intimately acquainted with the city’s role during the 1940s at the NS Documentation Center.
The building was the former headquarters of the Gestapo from 1935 until the end of the war. A visit to the permanent exhibition describes life in the city during the Nazi period. The cellar is one of the best-preserved spaces of the period, and it serves as a grim reminder of the violence that took place. Over 1,800 inscriptions on the wall stand in memorial of those tortured and murdered here. Finally, the research area includes the files that experts diligently reconstructed after the Nazis destroyed them at the end of the war.
Stroll, Shop, and Sip Your Way Through the Belgian Quarter
Want to live like the locals? Spend an afternoon in the city’s trendiest quarter and far from the maddening crowds of the Old Town and Schildergasse Street. The neighbourhood gets its name from the Belgian street names that dot the area including Brussels, Antwerp, Ghent, and Liege Strasses. Wind your way through the streets of this quarter to shop vintage clothes, drink in hip bars, and buy tickets for performances in the quarter’s thriving theatre district.
Get a Parting Drink at Paffgen
Paffgen is an Old Town brewery as popular with locals as it is with tourists. The staff serves up Cologne style Kolsch in 0.2-liter glasses, which feels less overwhelming for new beer drinkers.
Paffgen is a great place to end your trip and spend your last few Euros because, like many places in Germany, it doesn’t accept credit or debit cards. P.S. Looking for something different from the Brauhaus feel? Spend your change at Stiefel instead. It’s a typical German rock bar with cheap beer, graffiti, and no accordions in sight.