The fourth largest German city, which is known all over the world for its Carnival in February, is a destination that’s often skipped due to its lack of renowned sights and beautiful architecture. Cologne (Köln) should not be overlooked though, the largest city in North Rhine-Westphalia has evolved into an academic, cultural and nightlife hub in the region and should therefore definitely be on your Germany schedule.
History and overview:
Cologne was founded in the first century AD as a Roman city. Throughout the Roman era and the Middle Ages, the city benefited from its convenient location on various major trade routes and prospered as a trading hub.
The city was among the most heavily bombed urban areas during World War Two, these bombings destroyed more than 80% of the city’s buildings and over 95% of the population had to be temporarily evacuated. This catastrophic destruction is the main cause for the disappearance of most of the city’s ancient architecture, which has been mostly replaced by modern architecture although a glimpse of the city’s former architectural beauty has survived in the Aldstadt (Old Town) area.
Today the most interesting areas of the city are situated west of the river Rhine. The eastern areas are of little interest and do not contain an awful lot of sights, except for the nightclub Bootshaus (in the nightlife section of the guide) and the fair hall.
Cologne is a very international city, with a large Turkish and Arab immigrant population. In addition to that, thousands of students from all over the world choose Cologne as their academic destination which makes the city a great place for young and creative minds.
If you want to experience Cologne’s typical Carnival, make sure to head to the city in February (the celebrations take place from Shrove Thursday until Carnival Monday, this year 8th-13th February). Carnival is also celebrated on the 11.11 every year, which is a great day to get a taste on how untamed this city celebrates during this very special period.
We recommend two areas to stay in Cologne. The first one obviously being the city centre around the Dom Cathedral. In this area you are close to all the major sights and attractions. Another area worth considering is around Rudolfplatz where you will be close to some of the best nightlife and restaurant areas. The city is very well connected by tram which means that you can easily stay a few kilometres away from the main touristic centre.
CityClass Hotel Residence am Dom: A small and perfectly located no-nonsense hotel with everything you need for a short stay for reasonable prices.
Steigenberger Hotel Köln: A large, centrally located hotel with all the usual amenities and a good price/quality relation.
The budget option: Hostel die Wohngemeinschaft: A great hostel close to many nightlife areas with a bar that organizes student parties and language group meet-ups
Astor & Aparthotel: A beautiful upper-mid range hotel close to the busy Friesenplatz with crisp and modern rooms and all the usual amenities. Very well connected and very close to some major nightlife areas. If partying is your thing, this is a great area.
Cultural offer and activities:
Kölner Dom: By far the most famous landmark in the city and therefore an absolute must. The first church stood here in the 4th century while the first major Cathedral was completed in the square in 870. Constantly rebuilt and expanded, the Dom is the second largest Cathedral in Germany and a fantastic example of Gothic architecture. It is possible to ascend to the top, keeping in mind that the view will not contain the Dom itself, by far the most impressive building in the city.
Town Hall: (Historisches Rathaus) The Town Hall is another one of Cologne’s remaining ancient buildings and was completed in 1152. The building was nearly flattened during WW2 but later rebuilt as a symbol of Cologne’s willingness to become a new German metropolis. Guided tours can be booked on the tourism website.
Ludwig Art Museum: (Heinrich-Böll-Platz) The contemporary art lover’s favourite thanks to its large collection of 20th and 21st Century art.
Wallraf-Richartz-Museum: (Obernmarspforten) The oldest museum in Cologne houses permanent and temporary art exhibitions and features one of the largest classical art galleries in Germany. The collection includes works of Rembrandt and Rubens, making this a must for art lovers.
Promenade on the Rhine: The quiet promenade along the banks of the Rhine is a refreshing alternative and an ideal spot for a romantic walk.
Römisch-Germanisches Museum (Roman Germanic Museum): (Roncalliplatz 4): An ideal place to learn about the city’s long gone past. A must for history enthusiasts.
Heumarkt and Altermarkt squares: The two squares that are packed during Carnival. They are also recommendable during the rest of the year due to their many breweries, restaurants and pubs.
NS Documentation Centre: (Appellhofplatz 23-25) The Nazi Documentation Centre is the best place to learn about Germany’s atrocious past under the Nazi dictatorship (1933-1945). The museum is located in the former Gestapo building in Cologne and houses a wide range of items documenting Cologne’s fate during the NS dictatorship.
RheinEnergie Stadion: (Aachener Str. 999) The football stadium of Cologne’s FC Köln is one of the largest stadiums in Germany and a must for sports fans. Even though Cologne doesn’t compete for major titles, the atmosphere and loyalty of their fans are astounding. If you don’t manage to catch a game, you can also visit the stadium on tours which can be booked on the club’s website.
Wine & Dine:
Traditional German cuisine as well as the famous Kölsch beer are the local specialities which should not be missed when visiting Cologne. In addition to the many breweries, you can find restaurants from every corner of the world thanks to the large immigrant population. Here are some suggestions.
Hellers Brauhaus: (Roonstr. 33) An excellent restaurant to try out hearty local cuisine and various sorts of Kölsch beer. Heller’s Brauhaus benefits from its location in the student district to create a lively atmosphere with a mixed clientele.
Pfaffen Brauerei Päffgen: (Friesenstraße 64-66): One of the most well known breweries in Köln. A bit touristy yet still a fantastic place to enjoy a few Kölsch beers and traditional food.
El Inca: (Görresstraße 2): One of our favourite international restaurants in Cologne. The Peruvian food is authentic, well made and well priced. Make sure to reserve in advance as it is a very popular restaurant in the student district.
Borsalino: (Zülpicher Str. 7) A well priced, delicious Italian restaurant right on the busy Zülpicher street. An ideal place to gather the calories you need in order to continue your night out in this teeming nightlife area.
Köln has a lively and varied nightlife scene thanks to the relatively low average age of its residents. You can find lots of breweries, small no-nonsense bars, innumerable electro clubs (mostly in Ehrenfeld) but also rock and crossover clubs. A great advantage are the very low prices compared to other large European cities.
Zülpicher Str: The student’s favourite street. Located right next to the Universität zu Köln, Zülpicher street scores points with a sheer endless amount of bars, pubs and snack bars, all very well priced and not fancy at all.
Rudolfplatz: A square which offers an extensive array of restaurant and nightlife options, providing something for every taste and age group.
Friesenplatz: Another square, which like the aforementioned Rudolfplatz, offers a lot of variety.
Arttheater: (Ehrenfeldgürtel 127) One of the most well-known electro clubs in Cologne which also offers different kinds of shows depending on the date and occasion. Not to everyone’s taste but a must-visit nightlife spot for electro/techno lovers.
Gewölbe & Zum Scheuen Reh: (Hans-Böckler-Platz) If you are fond of techno and deep house music, you will adore these two clubs, if not, stay away. Two very alternative and very genre specific electro clubs located right next to each other in the Ehrenfeld area.
KGB Bar: (Rathenauplatz 22) A small, off the beaten path bar close to the Zülpicher Street. In this bar you will feel like in an old Soviet basement with a large selection of Eastern European drinks and a great atmosphere.
Das Ding: (Hohenstaufenring 30-32) If you like a cheap party without too many further requirements, this is the place for you. Dirt-cheap and full of students, the Das Ding is buzzing every weekend and a great place to meet locals.
Roonburg: (Roonstrasse 33) Another well-priced student club close to the universities. This one is located in a basement and has a cool layout giving it the edge over the previously mentioned Ding. It is also one of the only places where you can have a buzzing atmosphere on Mondays.
Belgisches Viertel: (Belgian quarter) An area full of small bars and restaurants which are perfect for a relaxing drink before heading into some of the louder areas.
Bootshaus: (Auenweg 173) Probably the number one club in Cologne. Located a bit further from the centre on the eastern bank of the Rhine, this club will delight anyone who loves to party, be it because of its cool warehouse setting in a former shipyard, the international DJs or the generally great atmosphere.
Final tips & verdict:
The tram/metro network is extensive and therefore the best way to get around in Cologne. Overall the city is extremely well organised and the centre is walkable
English levels are high among the younger generations while basic German will be of great benefit when talking to older locals. Be aware that Cologne has its very own traditional dialect, the Kölsch, which only natives will understand.
Having lived in Cologne for a while we can vouch for the city’s liveability. It may not be the most beautiful city in the world but it is without a doubt a very vibrant city with an enormous student and young professionals population which certainly adds to the city’s popularity.