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Fun and interesting things to do in Cologne, Germany
As wonderful as it was to visit Cologne during our first visit several years ago, we were thrilled to get a second “sniff of Cologne” during our Viking Rhine Getaway cruise. Gliding along the Rhine on a sunny morning, we watched the city and its landmark cathedral and bridges come into sight as we enjoyed breakfast on the Viking Tialfi. We arrived at our dock (directly in front of the city center with easy access to many attractions) at about 9:00 a.m. eager to explore.
What’s in a name?
“What’s in a name? That which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet.” — Romeo and Juliet, Shakespeare
Is there a connection between perfume and Cologne (Köln in German)? Of course! Eau de Cologne was created here by Johann Maria Farina, an Italian, over 300 years ago. But the name of the city is derived from “colonia“, a status given to towns under Roman law, upon the request in 50 AD by the wife of the Emperor Claudius, Agrippina the Younger, who was born in Cologne. A visitor can find out all kinds of interesting facts on a historical tour of Cologne.
Fragrance sniffing tip: You can visit the House of 4711, the flagship store of the 4711 cologne on Glockengasse 4 to sniff and purchase fragrances. There is also the Farina Fragrance Museum with exhibits relating to three centuries of fragrance history, including the creation of Eau de Cologne.
Some of our favorite things to do in Cologne
Cologne is the fourth largest city in Germany with a vibrant atmosphere in some part due to the University of Cologne being located here. This combined with important historic elements and rich cultural traditions make it a fun and interesting place to visit. There are plenty of activities to indulge all of the senses in Cologne. But don’t forget that the best thing to do, especially on a first visit, is to just roam around through the city center streets and market places to soak up the ambiance.
Here are a few of the things to do and places to visit in Cologne that we especially enjoyed and can recommend.
Kölner Dom (Cologne Cathedral)
Although we had toured Cologne Cathedral, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, on our first visit we loved a second time through to admire the gorgeous architecture, stained glass windows, works of art and relics. This amazing Gothic cathedral was built between 1248 and 1880 and is so large and striking that from the outside it’s almost too imposing to take in. It’s always a joy to gaze upon the cathedral from many vantage points around the city. We still remember how awed we were at first sight as we emerged from the train station on our first visit.
The city of Cologne was heavily bombed during World War II, but the cathedral was left largely undamaged. It’s said that it was not targeted because it was such a large prominent navigational landmark for pilots and in respect for its cultural significance.
View tip: Go to the top of the cathedral to get panoramic views of Cologne. Go a little further up to an observation deck to step outside and really have a perspective to take your breath away. But be prepared, there are 533 steps to the top. I found that the stairway to the indoor observation area was wide and open enough that even a claustrophobic like me didn’t have a problem. However, I didn’t take the final climb to the top as the staircase narrows considerably at that point. Mr. TWS went all the way.
Nearby museum tip: Adjacent to the cathedral, is the Römisch – Germanishes (Roman – Germanic) Museum which has exhibits of many Roman and pre-Roman era artifacts that were discovered in Cologne and other parts of the Rhine Valley. We didn’t have time to stop in during this visit, but we were very impressed with the extensive collections in the museum on our previous visit to Cologne.
Kölsch beer is unique to Cologne and is a significant part of the city’s identity. In 1986 the Kölsch Convention was signed by 24 breweries declaring that Kölsch was not just a kind of beer, but a designation of origin with specific about how it must be brewed in accordance with the 1516 German Beer Purity Law.
We stopped in at Bierhaus am Rhein, a beer house and restaurant at Frankenwerft 27 that we passed on our morning tour to have a taste of the refreshing cold Kölsch. I might usually opt for wine, but when in Cologne …
The temperature had warmed up and the sun was shining so we relished a chance to sit outside, enjoy the scenery, and sip our brews. It was a very pleasant setting for watching bicyclists ride by in the park between the brauhaus and the Rhine. The köbes (servers in a brauhaus) place distinctive short narrow .2 liter/6.76 fl. oz. glasses called stangen in a circular tray holding several glasses. The small glass size ensures that the beer stays cold and foamy.
Drinking tip: The köbes will continue to bring you glasses of Kölsch (marking the number served on a coaster) until you indicate you are finished by placing the coaster on top of your glass.
Language tip: Language and beer have a connection in Cologne. Besides being a beer, Kölsch happens to be the name given to the local dialect.
Hearty German Food
Food is always on the top of our list wherever we go and in Cologne you can find some great places for traditional German restaurant ambiance and hearty dishes. Our Viking guide recommended a few places and we chose Peters Brauhaus for lunch. It was an excellent recommendation and we had local specialties — and, of course, Kölsch. The beautiful stained glass ceiling in one of the dining rooms is also a good reason to stop in here.
Cologne is a city where fun-seeking locals and visitors can find festivals throughout the year. Its Christmas markets are considered to be among the best in Germany. We were lucky to arrive in time for the Kölner Weinwoche (Cologne Wine Week) where 30 German family wineries set up their tents and tables throughout the Heumarkt square. There was a very friendly atmosphere with friends and strangers alike sitting at tables or standing at the counters talking and tasting the wines. The beautiful sunny afternoon and the perfect setting in a tree-lined square beneath the spires of Great St. Martin Church (partially seen in the background of the photo below bottom right).
There were also vendors cooking up local food specialties — sausages, potatoes, and lots of other mouth-watering dishes.
Schokoladenmuseum (Chocolate Museum)
How convenient for us that the Lindt Chocolate Museum was a short walk from our where our ship was docked! The light and airy museum produces its own chocolate and visitors can watch the process in glass displays. There is much information about the 5,000 years of chocolate history, culture of chocolate, and production methods of the past and present. There is also a large area to sit and enjoy chocolate treats and beverages with nice views of the Rhine and the city.
There’s more than chocolate tip: On a tour of the Lindt Chocolate Museum you will also see a tropical greenhouse with species of cocoa plants and more exotic flora.
Hohenzollernbrücke (Hohenzollen railway bridge)
The first time we visited Cologne, we arrived from Frankfurt by train traveling on the tracks over the Hohenzollen Bridge crossing the Rhine. On this beautiful sunny day, we walked across the bridge as the trains were arriving and departing Cologne’s Central Station catching great views of the Rhine and the city.
It is apparent that the love lock trend increased tremendously in the meantime. Certainly the Hohenzollern Bridge is an extreme example compared to other places we’ve seen this trend. Even though I’m not a big fan of love locks when they cover so much of a bridge, but there are many more who love them. In fact, there was attempt by the bridge operator to remove them, the effort was quashed by public opposition.
What do you think about love locks — romantic or a nice idea that has gone too far?
View from KölnTriangle
A tip from our Viking walking tour guide provided us with a fantastic panoramic views of Cologne and the surrounding area. Following his direction, we crossed the Hohenzollen Bridge from the city center to KölnTriangle, an office building with a great observation deck open to the public. In the photo below, you can see the Hohenzollern Bridge leading to Central Station with the cathedral just beyond.
Art, statues, and fun decor
It would be easy to miss some of the art and architecture surprises like those our guide pointed out as we took our walking tour. So take time to take a closer look at the fountains, statues, and building facades.
There’s a quirky sense of humor seen in quite a few places, such as some of those shown in the photo below. These are some of the examples we saw on our tour.
Photos above clockwise from top left:
- The distinctive orange facade above (top right) is the Brauerai zum Pfaffen Max Paffgen, a restaurant and brewery. This quirky sculpture of a monk with a young (possibly quite tipsy) man on his shoulders is on the side of the building.
- Cologne City Hall (center) is located between the two squares of Rathausplatz and Alter Markt. Another example design humor is seen on the tower. Beneath the clock is a figure of a man whose tongue sticks out as the clock strikes on the hour.
- Above top right, in a style common in centuries past, the hanging sign and lamp with a whale identifies the Sünner im Walfisch historic brauhaus.
- Creating a chalk portrait of Jesus Christ, an artist showcased his talents at the entrance of Cologne Cathedral.
- I might not normally take time to examine the facade of a rather plain modern building, but our guide gave us the good tip to look up to see a surprising sculpture called the Kallendresser (created by Ewald Mataré in 1956) on the building on Alter Markt in the photo above (bottom left). Some say that it was a political statement aimed at the city hall across the square.
Cologne at night
And then there’s the beauty of Cologne at night with its shimmering lights and dramatic sights. The Viking Tialfi cast off from our dock after nightfall enabling us spectacular views of the city at night as we cruised. In the photo below, the lights of the Hollenzollen Bridge, Cologne Cathedral, Musical Dome Köln, and boats along the bank reflect on the Rhine.
Excursion tips: As in other ports on our cruises with Viking, we found the included city tours to be well worthwhile. Our guide for the morning tour of Cologne’s old city center was a native of Cologne and able to provide many interesting insights about Cologne and its people and customs. He also gave some great tips for other things to and see.
Optional excursion tips: Besides the included walking tour, there were two other optional excursions — a beer culture dinner tour and a visit to the Bruhl UNESCO palaces. We heard positive feedback from other passengers who took those tours.
Cologne holds many treasures to enjoy and I look forward to a chance to return for a third time — maybe for the Christmas markets!
Thanks to Viking Cruises for the hospitality and tour in Cologne.