Let me tell you how awesome Cologne really is. This compact city, packed with fun things to discover, makes it a perfect city break or a connecting destination. We explored Cologne on our way back to the UK from Bangkok and completely fell in love with the German capital of culture.
Clean, organised, welcoming and friendly Cologne is easy to navigate for anyone. The food scene is great, prices very reasonable for Europe, efficient transport and of course, German beer. More accurately, Kölsch, the local beer that is a pretty good attraction in itself.
Why should you choose Cologne as your city break?
Well, that’s easy: location, size, beer, food, culture, architecture. Whether you are a foodie, a history and culture buff or simply love to wander around and explore, Cologne is a great choice.
If you only have a weekend to spare, Cologne is perfect for a quick, 48 hour city break. The city centre is so compact and neat that you will only need a day to explore it. Most of the attractions are within walking distance from each other. Leave the second day to explore the Belgian Quarter to the west of the center and catch that chilled, local vibe.
It’s easy to get to Cologne
First things first, it’s so easy to reach Cologne via air or railway. The city centre is only 15 minutes away from Cologne Bonn Airport, the 4th largest international airport in Germany. Just hop on the local, and ever so efficient, S-Bahn train for a comfortable ride to the city. It can’t get any easier than that.
Two warnings here however:
- Make sure you have some cash ready. There are no ATMs near the ticket machines so make sure you grab some Euros before making your way down from the airport into the train station. You will see self-service ticket machines, however not all cards work. Ours didn’t. Once you got your tickets sorted, it’s an easy ride. Wait at the platform on the left hand side when ascending the staircase.
- Beware of scams at the airport. You might come across a nicely dressed man near the tickets machines who will look slightly lost. The poor guy will approach you with a compelling story that he was separated from his friends and now needs a few euros for a ticket. We’d like to say we didn’t fall into his trap, but being considerate and compassionate travellers, we gave him €5 money. The more we thought about his story, the less sense it made. Unless you are absolutely sure it’s real, don’t give away your hard earned travelling pennies.
Day 1 – explore the heart of the city
Grab some breakfast at your accommodation and start your day early, with a morning walk along the river Rhein. Take time to admire the narrow streets in the Old Town and beautiful German architecture.
While walking along the river bank, check out the Kölner Pegel, the Cologne water level meter, installed in 1951. It displays the current water level in the river Rhein to warn of floods.
Pop into to the Old Marketplace near Cologne’s City Hall. Maybe have that second cup of coffee while admiring the Renaissance buildings, the elegant City Hall tower and the Jan von Werth Fountain.
Chocolate Museum. We didn’t really know what expect from this museum, but we absolutely loved it and spent a good 2 hours here. Located literally in the river Rhein, this modern museum/factory is a wonderful source of information about chocolate and its history. It’s bigger than it looks and cleverly designed to take you on a chocolatey journey.
The biggest attraction, of course is the silky chocolate itself. The ‘production room’ is full of machinery and action so you can see the making of a chocolate bar.
In the centre of the room, there is a golden imitation of a cacao bean plant. Come closer to see the stream of soft milk chocolate rushing into the pool of sweet goodness. A staff member will dip a piece of waffle into this chocolate river for the visitors. Don’t hesitate, it’s divine!
Here you will also be able to customise your own chocolate and stuff it with any ingredients you want. Definitely better than a regular souvenir if you are thinking of bringing something back for your friends and family.
As you walk out of the museum, look to your left. You will be hard pushed not to sit down in their cafe for a slice of that freshly baked chocolate cake paired with a cup of coffee or tea.
Lunch time – potato mash and cold beer
Relax, you are on a city break, have a cheeky beer. Besides, the traditional Cologne beer Kölsch comes in small glasses, to keep it cold at all times.
However, watch your glass, it might be refilled before you even blink! Kölsch is pleasant and easy to drink so you might quickly lose count of how many you’ve just had!
The lovely local chap told us to place a beer mat on top of the glass to avoid the refill, that is if you had enough of the drink. That said, in more touristy places you will probably be asked if you’d like any more. But keep your eyes peeled, just in case. Also, pay attention to the Kranz or the ‘wreath of Kölsch’. It’s quite cool the way it’s made with the holes for the small glasses.
A great place to come for lunch if you are in the city centre is Fruh am Dom, located on Am Hof 12-18. Even though it’s a buzzy place in a touristy location, the food quality here is still great. We were especially impressed with the service, the staff was very attentive and friendly. Overall we had a very pleasant experience.
If it’s warm outside, you might want to sit in the sunshine, but we wanted to have it all, so sat in one of their atmospheric brewery rooms with massive wooden tables, medieval chandeliers and cathedral like stained glass windows.
The menu is reasonably priced with a 3 course set menu for €18 – €22. Be sure to try their speciality – potato mash with apple sauce, topped with fried shallots, it’s absolutely delicious. It comes with 2 massive pieces of black pudding, which I totally didn’t expect when browsing the menu with my very limited German language skills. If you are a vegetarian, still try the apple mash on its own, it’s really good.
There is no doubt that the magnificent Cologne Cathedral, dominating the heart of the city is one of the main attractions in town. The grandiose Gothic style five-aisled basilica draws people to this very spot from all over the world. Cologne is worth visiting for this UNESCO World Heritage Site alone.
The interior of this marvelous cathedral is as grand as the exterior. Don’t hesitate to step inside, look up to the ceiling and stained glass windows, light a candle and wander around. However, once the mass takes place, you will kindly be asked to put down your camera and respect the service. You can stay for a mass or carry on exploring elsewhere.
Hohenzollern Bridge and the Love Locs
And it wouldn’t be a city break if you haven’t come across a bridge with love locks, would it! A mega 2 tons of them you will find on the beautiful Hohenzollern Bridge. Just make sure to stop for a second to admire the solid construction stretching across the river, it’s lovely.
For a more dramatic or even romantic experience, visit the ‘Love Locks Bridge’ later in the day. The lighting will provide great picture opportunities for that perfect bridge and the cathedral night shot.
For some lovely panoramic views, head to the top of the Köln Triangle building. The platforms opens up to lovely panoramic views across the river. If you are a train geek like Charlie, you will love the view from above onto the busy railway tracks.
Cologne is the culture capital of Germany for a reason. For a chilled evening, pop into one or two of many Cologne’s museums. Ludwig Museum is a great choice, not only because of its fantastic exhibitions, but also the location. Like I said, Cologne is very compact, nothing is too far away to visit.
Day 2 – enjoy a chilled day at the funky Belgian Quarter
On your second day in Cologne, take your time to explore the Belgian Quarter to the west of the city centre. Boutique shopping, cafes, bars and restaurants will keep you busy all day.
For a hearty lunch, we can recommend Herr Pimock bar. The lunch was so big, we didn’t eat anything else until we arrived to the airport that evening.
Also check out the homemade quiches at Salon Schmitz, a little further along the street. It might be a little challenging to find a table as it is always packed with locals. A good sign, right!?
For a cheeky after lunch cake and tea by the lovely Aachener Weiher lake, stroll to the Hiroshima-Nagasaki Park.
Even though you might be feeling tired by the end of the second day, still make the effort to come out for one last beer in town. The Belgian Quarter is packed full with lots of lovely places to eat and drink. The evening vibe here is also youthful and lively.
If you, like us, are on a lookout for friendly and unique places to stay while travelling, we might just have the two best places for you. If you are looking for a centrally located hotel, check out the fabulous Stern am Rathaus Hostel on Bürgerstraße 6, Altstadt-Nord. The hotel sits on a quiet street, round the corner from the wonderful Cologne Cathedral.
During our visit, the owners were away, but the staff was very friendly and helpful. We even picked up some local tips while chatting away, always a bonus!
With only 8 rooms and splendid reviews, the hotel gets booked up pretty quickly so make sure you reserve your room well in advance.
If you are looking for a quirky and extremely friendly place to crash, we highly recommend our top choice in Cologne, Die Wohngemeinschaft Hostel in the hip Belgian Quarter. This is some truly unique accommodation in the city with caring staff and really tasty breakfast.
All the rooms are themed and fun to stay in. If you like unusual places on your travels, this hostel is definitely for you. We really enjoyed our stay here and found the hostel clean and comfortable. You can read our full review of it on the Cologne’s funkiest rooms post.
The location of the Die Wohngemeinschaft Hostel is another bonus. You will not be disappointed with the opportunity to discover the delights of the Belgian Quarter.
The great food options, parks, beautiful architecture, street art and the local vibe made us fall in love with this area of Cologne. The city centre is within walkable distance from the hostel, however, if you are feeling lazy, it’s just a ride away via a very efficient tram system.
Have you been to Cologne? What did you enjoy the most? Let us know in the comments below…