Cologne is a beautiful historical city on the River Rhine in the west of Germany. Its atmosphere is a fascinating combination of traditional and trendy, especially in the Old Town on the west bank of the river. Among the narrow cobbled streets here, you’ll find most of the interesting things to see and do in Cologne, including many of the city’s coolest pubs, boutique shopping streets, museums, and historical buildings.
There’s something for most tastes in Cologne, from rowdy bars to contemplative galleries, big-brand malls to independent stores, simple pleasures to extravagant luxuries, and lots in between. A university city, a culture capital and one of Germany’s largest and most liberal cities, Cologne is a great place for a laidback city break.
Cologne CathedralVisit the Three Kings
Cologne Cathedral is the single most-visited landmark in Germany, partially because it's popular with Christian pilgrims. Since 1164, the site has been the home of the reliquary of the Three Kings – the wise men who travelled from the east to deliver gifts to the baby Jesus. Construction of the mighty gothic cathedral in the heart of the Old Town began in 1248 and took centuries to complete.
Close to the city’s main train station, Cologne Cathedral attracts over 20,000 people per day. There is no entry fee, but donations are welcome. Alongside the ancient golden reliquary, the cathedral houses beautiful 16th-century stained glass windows, 10th-century artworks, and a 14th-century alter carved from black marble. Thanks to local laws and customs, the cathedral’s 157-metre spires remain among the tallest structures in Cologne, and an iconic feature of the city’s skyline.
For a small fee, you can climb the south tower of the cathedral but, with 509 steps, it takes a good level of physical fitness, some comfortable shoes and about an hour to reach the top! It’s worth it for the view, though.
- Opening Hours: Mon – Sun 6am – 7:30pm
- Location: Next to Cologne Train Station, Colonge Old Town
Globetrotter MallTry before you buy at this outdoor supplies store
Globetrotter is a popular chain of malls across Germany, specialising in outdoor clothing and supplies. However, the outlet in Cologne’s Old Town stands out for its unique facilities. If you want to buy a new jacket, how do you know you’ve found the right one for you? You can test the waterproofing in the walk-in shower and see how effective it is in cold weather in the freezer room. You can also try out kayaks in the pool on the ground floor of the 4-storey building.
Globetrotter Mall hosts most of the big-name brands in outdoor equipment, as well as several cheaper options. They stock a very wide range of supplies, from boots, jackets, and backpacks to guidebooks, bicycles, and mountain climbing gear. There’s a small restaurant and regular special events, including workshops and guest speakers, making it a must-visit for anyone keen on exploring the great outdoors.
- Opening Hours: Mon – Sat 10am – 8pm (closed Sun)
- Location: Richmodstraße 10, Cologne Old Town
- Tel: +49 221 2772880
Try Kölsch und Halve Hahn in AltstadtTaste local beer and a simple Rhineland specialty
The top local dish of Cologne is what you'd expect of a major German city: beer and bread. Specifically, it is Kölsch – a locally brewed straw-coloured pilsner – and Halve Hahn which, despite literally translating as ‘half a rooster’, is actually a soft, dark rye bread roll and a big chunk of gouda cheese, usually with sliced onions and mustard on the side.
The best place to try this simple but solid snack is in the Old Town – Altstadt. Here you’ll find many traditional Kneipen (pubs) and even several of the original breweries where the pale lager is made. German drinking establishments are famous for their fun and lively atmosphere, and Cologne’s Altstadt pubs are absolutely no exception.
- Opening Hours: Varies for pub to pub, but mostly 11am to late
- Location: Around Cologne Old Town
Make your own CologneLearn more about the famous perfume from the experts
One of the things Cologne is especially famous for is…well, cologne. Eau de Cologne, to be precise – the iconic perfume invented by Johann Maria Farina in the 18th century. There’s a museum devoted to the city’s signature fragrance near the Rathaus, which features a 45-minute tour of the oldest intact perfume factory in the world. However, for something a bit different, we recommend a visit to the flagship store of 4711, about a 6-minute walk away.
On Thursdays from 3pm, you can take part in a 90-minute seminar at this historical perfume store for €38 per person. Resident experts will show you how to blend the city’s fragrant water with other scents to create your own unique perfume. These public tutorials are held only in German, but you can arrange a private session in English or French. Alternatively, just take a stroll around the store and sample fragrances developed over the brand’s 2 centuries.
- Opening Hours: Mon – Sat 9:30am – 6pm (Closed Sun)
- Location: Glockengasse 4, Cologne Old Town
- Tel: +49 221 270999 10
Cruise along the River RhineSee the historical heart of the city from a different perspective
The mighty River Rhine has been vitally important to Cologne for centuries. While there is a lot less river trade than there used to be, boats still offer a great way to view the historical heart of the city. The typical route will take you south from Hohenzollern Bridge, past Cologne Cathedral, the charming Old Town, and the renovated old harbour district of Rheinauhafen, with its chic modern buildings designed to resemble the old cargo cranes. Finally, after about an hour of gentle cruising, you reach the old fishing community of Rodenkirchen.
Rhine cruises mostly depart from the jetties on the left bank of the river, near to the Hohenzollern Bridge. Tickets cost between €10 and €20, depending on the company and package you choose. Many of the sailings come with a tour guide, who’ll share interesting facts and trivia about the sights you can see along the way.
- Location: Near Hohenzollern Bridge, Cologne Old Town
Show your Love at Hohenzollern BridgeLock your heart to the railing and throw away the key
The Hohenzollern Bridge is quite an attractive structure in its own right, in an industrial sort of way. The 3-span tiered-arch bridge carries pedestrians and trains across the Rhine for nearly 400 metres between the cathedral and the modern office complex of KölnTriangle. However, unlike the other bridges in the city, this one has been taken over by the ‘love lock’ craze which has swept across Europe.
Couples come to the bridge to attach an initialled padlock to the grating by the footpath. They then toss the keys into the river below, making it impossible to remove the lock without the help of heavy-duty tools. This is an expression of enduring love which has seen lesser bridges around Europe collapse under the sheer weight of all the padlocks. Hohenzollern Bridge is made of sturdier stuff, though and, in spite of already carrying an estimated 2 tonnes of locks, it shows no sign of strain.
- Opening Hours: All day
- Location: Between Cologne Cathedral and KölnTriangle, Cologne Old Town
Imhoff-SchokoladenmuseumTaste your own handmade sweets at the Chocolate Museum
A day at Imhoff-Schokoladenmuseum isn’t quite like a tour of Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory, but it isn’t far off. Run in collaboration with Lindt & Sprüngli, it is considered one of the world’s best chocolate museums, covering everything from the history of the bitter cocoa bean to the process of transforming it into delightful sweet treats. You can even see the process in action as the museum includes greenhouses where cacao trees are grown and small versions of many of the machines involved in turning it into chocolate.
You can arrange a 3-hour group lesson for up to 12 people at the museum, where you’ll spend the afternoon learning and practising how to make your own chocolates. These lessons cost between €85 and €35 per person, depending on the size of the group, and you’ll need to contact the museum in advance to arrange it.
- Opening Hours: Tue – Fri 10am – 6pm, Sat – Sun 10am – 7pm (Closed Mon)
- Location: Am Schokoladenmuseum 1A, Rheinauhafen, Cologne
- Tel: +49 221 9318880
AgnesviertelHang out in Cologne’s trendy and traditional Old Town
Walking around the Old Town at the heart of Cologne is certainly an interesting experience, but the neighbourhood of Agnesviertel is especially noteworthy. It somehow manages to be both trendy and traditional, combining historical monuments with a bohemian atmosphere. Check out the independent bars, galleries, designers and bookshops alongside the North City Gate, Fort X and striking Agneskirche.
Arriving at the Ebertplatz U-Bahn station will put you right in the middle of the attractions in the best of Cologne’s Veedel (traditional neighbourhoods). Within a short walk, you can find the political exhibitions and exotic flea market of Alte Feuerwache (which only runs every 4 weeks during the summer months), the boulevard of bars on Neusserstrasse, the arty cinemas of Lübeckerstrasse and Ebertplatz and the trendy coffee shops of Lapidarium. Many of these places feature the colourful classical buildings and cobbled streets which make the Old Town a great place to explore.
- Location: Northern part of Cologne Old Town, around Ebertplatz U-Bahn
Belgian QuarterFind one-of-a-kind fashion in this cool part of Cologne
If you like shopping for one-of-a-kind souvenirs and unique fashion items, you’ll find them in Cologne’s Belgian Quarter. All of the streets between Aachener Straße and Friesenplatz, in the eastern part of the Old Town, are named after places in Belgium, in honour of the German victory in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71. Those streets are now lined with trendy boutiques, galleries, live music venues, and theatres.
The Belgian Quarter is easy to reach, with Rudolfplatz and Friesenplatz U-Bahn stations both conveniently close. Once you’ve done your shopping, be sure to head to Brüsseler Platz, right in the heart of the area. The square around the charming Saint Michael church is lined with bars and restaurants and is a popular hangout for the young people of Cologne.
- Location: Eastern part of Cologne Old Town between Aachener Straße and Friesenplatz
NS Documentation CentreLearn more about Cologne’s recent history
While the cathedral is a good introduction to Cologne’s glorious distant past, the NS Documentation Centre tells the much grimmer story of the city’s relatively recent history. The non-descript building on Appellhofplatz was once the local HQ of the Gestapo secret police, and contains a permanent exhibition showing Cologne under National Socialism.
In the basement of the museum is one of the best preserved prisons and interrogation centres from this brutal period of German history. You can even still see about 1,800 inscription on the cell walls, made by the inmates. The upper floors, meanwhile, contain examples of the documents the Gestapo kept on the city’s citizens. There’s also an extensive library and document collection.
- Opening Hours: Tuesday – Friday: 10am to 6pm, Saturday – Sunday: 11am to 6pm
- Location: Appellhofplatz 23-25, D-50667, Cologne
- Tel: +49 221 2212 6332