The list of things to do in Cologne varies from the trendy to the traditional, especially in the Old Town, on the western bank of the River Rhine. Among the narrow cobbled streets here, you’ll find 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.

    What are the best things to do in Cologne?

    1

    Cologne Cathedral

    Visit the Three Kings

    • Budget
    • History
    • Photo

    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. The mighty Gothic cathedral can be a little cramped with so many visitors inside, but it still has a real sense of awe about it, both inside and out.

    Aside from the ancient golden reliquary, be sure to look out for the beautiful 16th-century stained glass windows, 10th-century artworks, and a 14th-century altar carved from black marble. 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.

    Location: Domkloster 4, 50667 Cologne, Germany

    Open: Daily from 6 am to 7.30 pm (hours may vary)

    Phone: +49 (0)221 17940555

    Map
    2

    Hohenzollern Bridge

    Lock your heart to the railing and throw away the key

    • Budget
    • Couples
    • Unusual

    The Hohenzollern Bridge is quite an attractive structure in its own right, in an industrial sort of way. The 3-span tied-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.

    Map
    3

    Agnesviertel

    Hang out in Cologne’s trendy and traditional Old Town

    • Budget
    • History
    • Photo

    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 and the arty cinemas of Lübeckerstrasse and Ebertplatz. Many of these places feature the colourful classical buildings and cobbled streets which make the Old Town a great place to explore.

    4

    River Rhine

    See the historical heart of the city from a different perspective

    • Couples
    • Families
    • Photo

    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.

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    5

    Cologne Chocolate Museum

    Taste your own handmade sweets at the Chocolate Museum

    • Couples
    • Families
    • History
    • Food

    A day at Cologne’s Chocolate Museum (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.

    Location: Am Schokoladenmuseum 1A, Rheinauhafen, Cologne, Germany

    Open: Tuesday–Friday from 12 pm to 6 pm, Saturday and Sunday from 10 am to 6 pm, closed on Mondays

    Phone: +49 (0)221 9318880

    Map

    photo by Arminia (CC BY-SA 3.0) modified

    6

    Make your own Cologne

    Learn more about the famous perfume from the experts

    • Couples
    • History
    • Luxury

    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. If you’re an inventive person yourself, you should check out the flagship store of 4711. On Thursdays from 3pm, you can take part in a 90-minute seminar at this historical perfume store. 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.

    There’s also a museum devoted to the city’s signature fragrance near the Rathaus, about a 6-minute walk from 4711. It offers a 45-minute tour of the oldest intact perfume factory in the world.

    Location: Glockengasse 4, 50667 Cologne, Germany

    Open: Monday–Saturday from 11 am to 5 pm (closed on Sundays)

    Phone: +49 (0)221 27099910

    Map
    7

    Globetrotter Mall

    Try before you buy at this outdoor supplies store

    • Shoppers
    • Unusual

    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.

    Location: Richmodstraße 10, 50667 Cologne, Germany

    Open: Monday – Saturday from 10 am to 8 pm (closed on Sundays)

    Phone: +49 (0)221 2772880

    Map

    photo by ZH2010 (CC BY-SA 3.0) modified

    8

    NS Documentation Centre

    Learn more about Cologne’s recent history

    • 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.

    While visiting the museum might be one of the more morbid things to do in Cologne, it is remarkably fascinating. In the basement 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.

    Location: Appellhofplatz 23-25, 50667 Cologne, Germany

    Open: Tuesday – Friday from 10 am to 6 pm, Saturday – Sunday from 11 am to 6 pm

    Phone: +49 (0)221 22126332

    Map

    photo by Bryan MacKinnon (CC BY-SA 4.0) modified

    9

    Cologne’s beach clubs

    • Photo
    • Food
    • Nightlife

    The stylish Cologne Beach Club am Tanzbrunnen sets up on a sandy stretch of the river Rhine, in the Deutz district of Cologne, every summer. Take a glass of Riesling wine to a lounge chair and watch the boats pass in front of Cologne’s skyline; the city’s grand cathedral rises in the background. The Sundown Beach, in the city’s north, serves up summery cocktails next to the popular Escher lake. Cologne’s Citybeach brings palms and sun loungers to the upper deck of the Galeria Kaufhof multi-storey car park every summer.

    10

    Belgian Quarter

    Wine and dine in the trendiest part of the Old Town

    • Shoppers
    • History
    • Nightlife

    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.

    photo by Bordeaux (CC BY-SA 3.0) modified

    Ben Reeves | Compulsive Traveller

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    Attractions and experiences recommended in our guides may be affected. Please check local guidance before you travel.

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