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Cathedrals, Kölsch & cool things to do in Cologne

Have you ever got to the airport not knowing where you’ll be touching down at the end of the flight? I hadn’t until a few weeks ago when I went on a weekend away with WowTrip who organise surprise city breaks in Europe.

For someone who organises corporate group travel months in advance this kind of blew my mind but I rolled with it and had a blast. Our surprise destination was a weekend in Cologne, Germany.

Hohenzollern Bridge, Cologne
Cologne Cathedral and Hohenzollern Bridge

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Cool things to do in Cologne, Germany

On departure day I arrived at Stansted airport and met up with the other bloggers from The Blogger Course run by Monica Stott from The Travelhack one of my favourite blogs. Thirteen of us travelling on Friday 13th. What could possibly go wrong! By this time we all knew we were taking a city break in Cologne, Germany.

I’ll admit that Cologne (Köln in German) wouldn’t have been my first choice but then I didn’t know much about the city. That’s one of the good things about WowTrips; you can’t research your trip before you go so when you arrive there are lots of lovely surprises awaiting as you explore.

Cologne Cathedral
Cologne Cathedral

We had a fabulous time in Cologne and I’d definitely recommend it for a short break. Think cathedrals and coffee shops, bridges and bierhauses, pretzels and parks.

We had fabulous weather in Cologne in July at 30 degrees with gorgeous sunshine. Winter’s good too, cold and crisp and the wonderful Cologne Christmas markets to explore.  Here are my picks for the best things to do in Cologne.

Koln Postcard
Cologne City Break

Climb the Cathedral for Killer Views of Cologne

Cologne Cathedral or Kölner Dom is a UNESCO World Heritage site and the most visited single landmark in Germany and this is top of my list of things to do in Cologne.

After you’ve gazed up in wonder at its gothic exterior and taken a look inside pay your €4 to climb the south tower’s 533 steps for a bird’s eye view of Cologne.

The spiral stone staircase will take you up the tower, through the bell tower (ear defenders are provided on Sundays) and into the spire for some killer views of Cologne and across the Rhine.

The staircase is a bit narrow in places and there’s two-way traffic but it’s well worth the effort and you’ll have earned the ice cream you eat afterwards. If you do one thing make sure you have a visit to the Cathedral on your Cologne itinerary.

There is also an option to visit the Cathedral in a group with a guide. Check rates and availability.

Check out my Freiburg post for another German cathedral with a lattice work spire. In fact the spire on Freiburg’s cathedral was the first of its kind.

View of Cologne from Cathedral
View from Cologne Cathedral

Take a Cologne walking tour with a local

One of my favourite activities when I’m exploring a new city is a guided walking tour. Give me a food walking tour and I love it even more! We explored the area around the Cathedral and the Old Town with a local English-speaking guide which was organised with Cologne Tourism.

We discovered pretty hidden squares at the end of narrow cobblestone alleyways, ancient walls and some of Cologne’s oldest brauhauses (beer houses). Our guide showed us some hidden Cologne classics and intrigued us with tales of the city’s history. He suggested the best museums and what to eat and where. We packed a lot into our 90 minute tour.

Find Cologne self-guided walking tours here or check out prices and availability for Cologne walking tours 

Wander over Love Lock Bridge

Hohenzollern Bridge is the arched bridge which crosses the Rhine between the cathedral and KölnTriangle. In the last ten years the bridge has become another of the ‘love lock’ bridges. Couples lock their padlocks onto the bridge and chuck the key into the river to demonstrate their devotion and love.

The locks on the bridge cover every available lockable part accessible to pedestrians. Hopefully Hohenzollern Bridge can handle the extra weight. I’m really not a fan of love locks and the cynic in me thinks it was dreamed up by some hardware shop owner based near a bridge somewhere but it’s good to see that romance isn’t dead!

Keep going to the end of the bridge where there’s a viewing platform and stunning views back across the water to the Cathedral.

On this guided Bike Tour of Cologne you will visit the lovelocks and many other Cologne highlights where you’ll learn many interesting facts about Cologne.

Explore Cologne’s Old Town – Altstadt

Wander down cute cobblestone alleyways and past pastel-coloured buildings now home to restaurants, boutiques, galleries and cafes.

The carefully restored fourteenth to seventeenth century town houses have beautiful views across the river Rhine and are the perfect spot to sit with a coffee and watch the world go by. The Romanesque church, Groß St. Martin makes an impressive backdrop.

Old Town, Cologne, Germany
Altstadt – Cologne’s Old Town

Don’t miss Cologne’s Old Town Hall, the Kölner Rathaus, which is the oldest public building in Germany. See if you can spot the mooning statue on one of the towers at City Hall in Alter Markt. Three of twelve Medieval city gates in Cologne are still in use today.

The best way to explore these historical sights is with a guide, who will help you to discover not only the obvious, but also the more unusual and less well-known sites. This multi-award-winning Cologne city tour is a great choice

Pick up a Pretzel

I didn’t know it at the time but the Pretzel I bought on the last afternoon was a life-saver. It was also probably the most German thing I ate all weekend. Apparently Currywurst and Schnitzel are Austrian.

Our flight was delayed for three hours so that soft doughy pretzel was delicious to nibble on at the airport and kept me going until the flight.

Giant Pretzel, Cologne

Explore New Cologne

As well as gothic architecture the 2000 year-old city has a modern design side that’s worth exploring. Rheinauhafen is one of the newest districts and home to the Crane Houses which reflect the area’s history as a dock area and contrast with the historical buildings. The disused port area has been converted into a creative zone with cool buildings and converted warehouses.

Visit the Ludwig Museum

The curving lines of the Ludwig Museum near the Cathedral are bound to catch your eye while you’re in Cologne. The museum was set up by Peter and Irene Ludwig in the 1980s who donated their multi-million dollar art collection. 

The modern, purpose-built museum exhibits post 1900 iconic works from Pop Art to Picassos along with Abstract, Surrealism and Expressionism works. The KölnCard will help you to receive 20% off entry price, excluding special exhibitions.

Ludwig Museum, Cologne
Ludwig Museum, Cologne

Shop on Schildergasse

Schildergasse is one of Europe’s busiest shopping streets with over 13,000 people passing through every hour. You’ll find every kind of shop from department stores to small independents and the usual chains seen across Europe.

Schildergasse Shopping Street Cologne
Schildergasse, Cologne

Explore Cologne’s Café Culture

Café Reichard opposite Cologne cathedral is a good place to indulge in a spot of people watching while enjoying coffee and cake in the shade. The café also serves breakfast, a buffet lunch, gorgeous pastries and enormous ice cream sundaes.

Check out the décor inside and definitely go downstairs to the Café Reichard toilets which are very modern and have a very unique feature. I won’t spoil the surprise…

Cafe Reichard Cologne
Cafe Reichard, Colgone

Funk Haus café, bar and restaurant served up a good lunch of smoked salmon on rye bread. Near to the cathedral on the Hohe Strasse pedestrian zone the café is bright and airy with a 50s vibe.

The building originally housed the radio broadcasting studio built in the early 1950s after the war. The bar is a popular evening spot and serves Kölsch, wines and a range of cocktails.

Smoked Salmon on Rye Bread
Smoked salmon on Rye Bread

Rhine Boat Trip

I didn’t have time to do this but it’ll be the first thing on my to do list next time I visit. A Cologne sightseeing cruise would be a wonderful way to view the city and its scenery.

I’d go during the day to take in the views of the twin-spired Cathedral, the Old Town buildings and float under Hohenzollern Bridge. There are dinner cruises in the evenings as well which showcase the city all lit up and looking gorgeous at night.

Check out prices and availability for Cologne Panorama City Cruises

Drink a cold Kölsch in Cologne

Saturday afternoon is beer time in Germany when it’s traditional to head to the beer houses (brauhauses). Some are huge holding as many as 1000 people and spill out onto the squares with outside seatubg. We stopped at Früh am Dom, probably the most famous beer house in Cologne, for a refreshing Kölsch.

We figured we deserved it after climbing the 533 steps to the top of the cathedral. The beers are carried to the table in a metal container which holds around 10 glasses. Your glass is refilled and a tally is recorded on your beer mat. When you’ve had enough you cover your glass with your mat and your beer waiter will bring the bill.

You could take a Cologne Brewery Tour and learn about brewing and drinking Kölsch

Chill in the Park

Germany is known for its parks and at the first sign of a sunny weekend they are full of families having picnics, birthday parties and BBQs. We headed to Volksgarten Park in the south of the city for some bloggery chat and lunch in Hellers Beer Garden. The park is full of leafy shade and has a large boating lake with ducks, geese and pedalos.

The KölnCard will help you to receive 20% off entry price, excluding special exhibitions.

I chose Schnitzel for lunch and as I was about the fifth of us in the queue to do that the German guy serving us got quite exasperated. He told us in rather ripe terms that Schnitzels aren’t German. I really enjoyed that Schnitzel and the beer I had with it!

If you like German food you might want to try this recipe for German Lebkuchen biscuits.

Soak up a sunset from the top of KölnTriangle

Watching the sun go down behind the iconic spires of the cathedral with golden views across the city is a Cologne must do. Cross Hohenzollern Bridge (love lock bridge) and KölnTriangle is straight ahead. For €3 take the lift to the observation deck at the top of the 110m building for 360° panoramic views over the Rhine and the city.

There’s a glass wall right around the top so photos do get some reflections but otherwise the view’s a stunner. The observation deck is open until 23:00 hours so you’ll get to see the sunset and watch as all the famous landmarks light up for the evening.

The Travelbunny, Cologne
Views from Kolntriangle

Where to eat in Cologne

After watching the sun go down from KölnTriangle Sharmeen from Britpakgirl and Daisy from Pretty Green Tea and I walked a few minutes to nearby restaurant Bona-Me on Kennedyplatz 2.

We had an excellent Turkish/Kurdish meal of Pidé (Turkish Pizza) and Kofte (meatballs with bulgar and herb quark). The indoor part of the restaurant was a fabulous setting but as it was a warm evening we sat outside on the communal benches. The food was delicious.

The KölnCard will help you to receive 20% off entry price, excluding special exhibitions.

Cologne Christmas Markets

Cologne’s Christmas markets are supposed to be some of the best in Germany. Buden (the little huts) are decorated with foliage and light up the evenings as the aromas of mulled wine and roasting chestnuts fill the air.

There are seven Christmas markets in Cologne including the Cathedral one which must look magical with the Dom as the backdrop. Cologne also has around 110 nativity scenes laid out at different places in the city. This year’s markets run from 26th November – 23rd December 2018. More info on Cologne’s Christmas Markets.

I’ve visited Munich’s Christmas Markets and the ones in Bruges so Cologne’s are definitely going on the wish list along with Amiens in France.

Old Town, Cologne
Cologne’s colourful houses

Cologne Flights and Transfers

Our flights to Cologne were with Ryan Air. Airport transfers weren’t included but getting from the airport to Cologne city centre was a doddle. There’s a train station at Cologne airport (Köln/Bonn Flughafen). German trains are known for being efficient and punctual so our Cologne airport transfers were easy.

 I use Skyscanner to find the cheapest plane tickets and transfers.

The KölnCard will help you to receive 20% off entry price, excluding special exhibitions.

Our Hotel in Cologne

We stayed at the newly refurbished Holiday Inn Express on a bed and breakfast basis. It’s a popular hotel with a fresh, modern vibe and is around a 15-20 minute walk to the city centre. The nearest train station is just a few minutes’ walk away which makes airport transfers easy.

Check rates and availability for Holiday Inn Express, Cologne

I hope these tips for visiting Cologne have been useful. Hopefully, you’ll be able to slip some of these ideas into your own Cologne itinerary if you plan on visiting the city.

Many thanks to WowTrip for sending us on our surprise city break to Cologne which included flights and hotel on a B&B basis. The walking tour and Cologne Card was kindly provided by Cologne Tourism. All other food, beer, ice creams and pretzels were bought by me!

Pin it for later…

Have I missed anything? Let us know in the comments below your favourite things to do in Cologne.


Thursday 20th of September 2018

Once again have you made something interesting out of a something I didn't find that exciting, maybe it was because I was there with a man that was working all the time. Been more than twice. If you where there only 2 days, you where busy (wouldn't be able to keep up with you). Cologne has changed a bit since I was there in 70's. Great images again. Riverboat I done from Bonn. No padlocks in my days. Love the images from inside the cathedral and the one of you at the top of the world. Great photo.

Suzanne Jones

Saturday 22nd of September 2018

Top of the world is my favourite place! It's interesting how we all have different perspectives on a place and how we can see a place in other ways when we visit more than once and how our mood affects our perceptions of it. Feeling philosophical today :)

Kathryn @TravelWithKat

Tuesday 11th of September 2018

This does sound a fun way of doing things! While I wouldn't want to do this for every trip, I'm sure it's an exciting way to take a break without having to spend ages researching where to go! Perfect for when live gets too hectic and a quick escape is needed. And Cologne looks fabulous! I would love to visit one day.

Suzanne Jones

Tuesday 11th of September 2018

I think it'd be good to do annually but I wouldn't want to do it too often. I might suggest my bookclub does it as nobody has to do all the organising and we can all just pitch up! Cologne was lovely, we had a fantastic trip.

Christina Conte

Tuesday 11th of September 2018

I LOVE Cologne, but that's probably not surprising. I spent a week there at Christmastime and the markets were fabulous. I'd totally do a WOWTrip! Sounds like so much fun to be surprised!

Suzanne Jones

Tuesday 11th of September 2018

I'd love to go back for the Christmas markets - always good to get you into the Christmas spirit. WowTrip's great for visiting somewhere you might not usually consider :)


Sunday 9th of September 2018

I remember standing in front of the cathedral in Cologne and thinking "hey I can't see the top of those spires!" Unfortunately I only had a few hours in the city as I and a few other people who was traveling with me were only there for a short transit before continuing our journey to Brussels. We did go to the shop where eau de cologne was first invented, though.

Suzanne Jones

Sunday 9th of September 2018

We did a lot in two days in the city and climbing the Cathedral was a highlight. I didn’t make it to the 4711 shop though or the chocolate museum. Might have to go back!

Lucy Dodsworth

Saturday 8th of September 2018

Cologne was one of my first ever trips abroad – I went out with my gran when I was about 10 to stay with my aunt and uncle who loved nearby! Can't say I remember a lot but it looks like a great city – I love the German parks, pretzels and beer gardens summer traditions.

Suzanne Jones

Saturday 8th of September 2018

It's a lovely city to explore - especially when the sun's shining. There's a great buzzy atmosphere about the city too