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.
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.
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’s what to see and do on a 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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. Learn more and check the price here.
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.
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…
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.
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.
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!
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.
Where to eat in Cologne
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.
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.
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.
You could also use Aviasales to find the cheapest plane tickets and transfers.
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.
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 and arranged with them by Roma from Roaming Required. All other food, beer, ice creams and pretzels were bought by me!
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Have I missed anything? Let us know in the comments below your favourite things to do in Cologne.