I didn’t expect to visit Cologne on my last European trip, but sometimes your flight from Berlin to Paris is cancelled and while rearranging plans to get to Paris as quickly and inexpensively as possible, your best bet is to take a train to Cologne for the evening and head out from there the next morning. I had a deadline so I wasn’t able to leave my hotel until around 4 and left Cologne right after breakfast. My time was limited, but I saw enough to make me want to return one day.
Crane your neck at the Cologne Cathedral
Right next to the train station stands Cologne’s most popular attraction – the Cathedral, aka Hohe Domkirche St. Petrus or Kölner Dom. I knew immediately that it had to be one of the tallest cathedrals I’d ever seen, but I didn’t know until writing this post that it actually *was* the tallest cathedral I’d ever seen – the 4th tallest in the world, to be exact.
It is the tallest Roman Catholic cathedral and has the largest facade of any church in the world. While various Christian buildings had been on location since the 4th century, construction began on the current cathedral in 1248, stopped in 1473, and was finally completed in 1880, making it the tallest building on Earth until 1884. Like many others, it was damaged in World War II but repaired.
I admired the cathedral from the outside during the day, with a gelato cone in hand. At night, after dinner, I walked by and realized people were still going in and out so I stopped in, where a mass was going on. My mother taught me at a young age that you’re allowed to make a wish in every new church you visit, so I have made many wishes all around the world, especially in the last few years. Some of those wishes have even come true. Including the one I made that night in the Cologne Cathedral.
Try potentially the Best Gelato I’ve Ever Had
Maybe it was because I’d had a tough day due to a terrible train ride there and just three hours of sleep the night before, but when I stopped at Don Gelati across the way from the cathedral and ordered banana and chocolate gelato in a waffle cone, it was the absolute BEST gelato I’ve ever had. I’m no stranger to sweets *or* to gelato – my family and I ate gelato at least once a day while in Rome and Florence, so I would trust me if I were you.
Visit the Heinzelmännchenbrunnen
Heinzelmännchenbrunnen is probably the longest word I’ve ever typed on this blog. It translates to “Hedgehog Fountain” but Heinzelmännchen is actually the name of a race of creatures in local Cologne legend. They used to do all of the work at night for the people of Cologne so that they could relax all day, until a curious woman tried to see them by spreading peas on the floor so they would fall. The Heinzelmännchen were obviously annoyed by this, so they never came by again and now, the people of Cologne have to do all of the work.
There is a fountain (dry, when I was there) with statues depicting the Heinzelmännchen and the woman who made them disappear about a block away from Don Gelati. The jury’s still out on whether man or hedgehog built it.
Take in Great St. Martin Church
Great St. Martin Church was first built on the remnants of a Roman chapel in the 10th century, completed in 1250, and (once again), badly damaged in multiple bombings during WWII. Its location is thought to have formerly been an island in the Rhine, though it is now connected to the mainland. I thought the exterior was pretty but I couldn’t get inside this one.
Check out City Hall & the surroundings
Since I didn’t get out of my room until later due to deadline, when it started to get a little darker out, I followed the sun. I walked around the Cologne Archaeological Zone without realizing that it was not a construction zone but instead the ancient Roman governor’s palace and a ritual Jewish bath. I missed those important pieces of Cologne’s history, because I was looking up, at the sunlight on the buildings around me, and it was beautiful. When I did look down, I found pieces of heart-shaped confetti, left specifically so that I could find them, I presume. The confetti helped me with the above photo of City Hall – the oldest city hall in Germany, at 900 years old.
People-watch in Alter Markt
Every European town has a square for people-watching and in Cologne, that square is Alter Markt or “Old Market.” Though you might have seen jousting matches back in the day, currently, there are restaurants spilling out onto the sidewalks and people gathering over some Kölsch. There is a big statue in the middle of the square (whose restaurants include an Irish Pub, coffee shops, and a pizza place), to celebrate a hero of the Thirty Years War, Jan von Werth.
Stroll along the Rhine
Cologne has a beautiful path and small park (Rhine Garden) along the Rhine which many were enjoying the afternoon I was there. It was from here I could see the bridge I’d come in on, on the train – Hohenzollern Bridge, which is triple arched, a quarter-of-a-mile long, and was (you guessed it) blown up by Germany when Allied troops were approaching in WWII.
Drink the Local Beer
Cologne is known for its local beer, Kölsch. It’s advised that you don’t order this beer outside of the Cologne region as you may insult people that their region’s beer is not as good. It’s a light pilsner, served with some foam, in smaller glasses than you typically find. I drank one of Früh’s brews on their patio, right in front of the cathedral, where they’ve been since 1904.
Eat the Local Food
While maybe I should have gone somewhere else to experience an additional establishment in my short time in Cologne, I went inside Früh for dinner after my beer. They don’t serve food outside, but I was also kind of chilly, so I didn’t mind making the move.
I went down into the Brauhauskeller area and then went down one more level, into the cellar’s cellar. Surrounded by stone in a medieval vault, I felt like I had gone back in time, something I loved about so many places I visited in Europe. I asked my waiter for a traditionally Cologne meal and he directed me to the Rheinischer Sauerbraten, or marinated beef with dumplings and homemade stewed apple sauce. While it’s not the most photogenic dish, it was rich and hearty – a perfect meal for me, as I still needed comfort from my tough morning. I ordered a few more beers to go with it since I might not be allowed to order Kölsch elsewhere.
Walk in Napoleon’s footsteps at the Medieval City Wall
On my way to breakfast in the morning, I walked right by Eigelsteintorburg, one of four gates of the medieval city wall still intact. This gate was built in the 1300s and Napoleon himself (who happened to be a big fan of Eau de Cologne) walked through it in 1804.
Wake up at a Cologne Cafe
Breakfast at Jlöcklich was the perfect way to end my time in Cologne. I enjoyed a Flat White (my new favorite beverage, even though I’m behind on the trend) and a warm panini with salami, pesto, tomatoes, and greens – which I recreated for my family the other week.
If only my trip to Cologne had ended with this sandwich and not with a visit to all three of Cologne’s bus stations, two expensive cab rides, and me missing my bus to Paris. (See the final section of this post so you don’t follow my mistakes.)
What I didn’t have time for, but you might:
Chocolate Museum aka Schokoladenmuseum: Down the river from Old Town, you’ll find a charming museum about the history of chocolate from the Mayans and Aztecs to today, a production facility tour, and, obviously, some samples.
Botanical Garden Flora: More than 10,000 species of plants and the feeling of being “in the midst of a rainforest” (at least, according to the Cologne board of tourism) await you in the northern Riehl district of town, .
Eau de Cologne: If you, unlike me, enjoy buying and wearing perfume or cologne, you may be interested in the city for that reason. Eau de Cologne was first mixed here in 1709, and the most famous place to buy it is still at Glockengasse 4711. My skin is allergic to fragrance and I often become nauseous around people who wear too much, so please stay away. There’s also a Fragrance Museum. Achoo.
Learn from two of my mistakes (& one success):
Bus Stations: There are at least three bus stations in town and they aren’t close to one another, which I found out the hard way. If you’re taking a bus out of Cologne, do more research than just Google, which directed me to the wrong one and caused me to miss my bus to Paris. When I rescheduled buses, I had to visit the third one.
Taxis: In my dramatic bus station mix-up, I had to spend €50 for about 20 minutes in a cab two times in an hour. The meters were on for both rides but they went up quickly. If you have time to figure it out, take public transportation instead.
Stay: I only spent about 4 minutes deciding what hotel to stay in, but I had a fine experience at Appartel am Dom, which I was delighted to find out was only a 5-minute walk from the train station and had awesome wifi. The hotel *did* advertise a kettle as a “full kitchen,” but aside from that, go for it.