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Cathedrals, Kölsch & cool things to do in Cologne (Germany)

The best things to do in Cologne from Cathedrals, Kölsch and chocolate to museums, bridges and bird’s eye views.

Hohenzollern Bridge, Cologne
Cologne Cathedral and Hohenzollern Bridge

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.

As someone who organised 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.

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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 on the trip. They were all from The Blogger Course, which is run by Monica Stott from The Travelhack, one of my favourite blogs. Thirteen of us travelling on Friday the 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, lots of lovely surprises await you.

There are some fabulous things to do in Cologne and we had a fabulous time. I’d definitely recommend it for a short city break.

Cologne Cathedral
Cologne Cathedral

What is Cologne known for?

Cologne is most famous for

  • Cologne Cathedral (Kolner Dom)
  • Hohenzollern Bridge
  • The Old town (Altstadt)
  • The River Rhine
  • Romanesque Churches
  • Kölsch beer and beerhouses

The Weather in Cologne

We had fabulous weather in Cologne in July with gorgeous sunshine and 30°C temperatures. But winter in Cologne is good too, with cold, crisp weather and the wonderful Cologne Christmas markets to explore.

The best things to do in Cologne, Germany

So, if you’re wondering what to do in Cologne, here are my picks for the best Cologne attractions:

Koln Postcard
Cologne City Break

Climb the Cathedral for Killer Views of Cologne

Cologne Cathedral, or Kölner Dom, is a UNESCO World Heritage site. It’s one of the most visited landmarks in Germany and 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 €4 to climb the south tower’s 533 steps for a bird’s eye view of Cologne.

Go up the spiral stone staircase, 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, with two-way traffic, but it’s well worth the effort, and you’ll have earned the ice cream you eat afterwards. If you only have time to do one thing in Cologne, make sure you put a visit to the cathedral on your Cologne itinerary.

Visiting the cathedral in a group with a guide is also an option. Check rates and availability.

Check out my guide to Freiburg for another German cathedral with a latticework spire. In fact, the spire on Freiburg’s cathedral was the first of its kind.

View of Cologne from Cathedral
View from Cologne Cathedral

The KölnCard will help you to receive up to 50% discount on some entry prices plus free travel on the city’s public transport network.

Take a Cologne walking tour with a local

A guided walking tour is one of my favourite activities when exploring a new city. 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 provided by Cologne Tourism. We discovered pretty squares at the end of narrow cobblestone alleyways, ancient walls and some of Cologne’s oldest Bierhäuser (beer houses).

Our guide showed us some little-known Cologne classics and intrigued us with tales of the city’s history. He also suggested the best museums, what to eat and where. We packed a lot into our 90-minute tour and I think it was definitely one of the most fun things to do in Cologne.

Take a look at Cologne self-guided walking tours or check out prices and availability for Cologne guided walking tours.

Wander over Love Lock Bridge

Hohenzollern Bridge is the arched bridge which crosses the Rhine river 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 bridge now has tens of thousands of locks covering every available space that pedestrians can reach. 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.

Still, the local railway company is confident that the weight doesn’t pose any problems for the Hohenzollern Bridge, and it’s good to see that romance isn’t dead!

Keep going to the end of the bridge, and you’ll find a viewing platform with stunning views back across the water to the Cathedral.

You’ll visit the lovelocks and many other Cologne highlights on this guided Bike Tour of Cologne, while discovering many fascinating facts about Cologne.

Explore the Altstadt, Cologne’s Old Town area

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

The carefully restored fourteenth to seventeenth-century townhouses in Cologne Old Town have beautiful views across the river Rhine. With the Romanesque church, Gross St. Martin, providing an impressive backdrop, it’s the perfect spot to sit with a coffee and watch the world go by.

You’ll also be able to see Cologne’s twelve medieval city gates, three of which are still in use today. Don’t miss Cologne’s Old Town Hall (Kölner Rathaus), the oldest public building in Germany, and see if you can spot the mooning statue on one of the towers at City Hall in the Alter Markt.

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

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

>>> Looking for somewhere to stay in Cologne? Check rates and availability

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. 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 of Cologne has a modern design side 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 Museum Ludwig near the Cathedral are bound to catch your eye while you’re in Cologne. It was set up by Peter and Irene Ludwig in the 1980s, who donated their own multi-million dollar art collection to the museum.

The modern, purpose-built museum exhibits iconic post-1900 works from Pop Art to Picassos, along with Abstract, Surrealism and Expressionism works.

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

Ludwig Museum, Cologne
Ludwig Museum, Cologne

Indulge at Cologne Chocolate Museum

Cologne Chocolate Museum is a paradise for chocolate lovers and Cologne’s most popular cultural attraction, visited by around 600,000 people each year. Established in 1972 by chocolatier Hans Imhoff, the museum explores the history of this favourite sweet treat through interactive displays and live demonstrations. It guides you on a journey from the bitter drink enjoyed by the Maya, Aztecs and Olmecs right up to modern-day chocolate.

As well as the fascinating displays, you can also enjoy cake and chocolate delights in the museum’s cafe, which has a large terrace overlooking the river Rhine. And the highlight of your visit will surely be the massive chocolate fountain, which is filled with 200kg of smooth, liquid Lindt chocolate. Yum!

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 here, from department stores and small independents to the usual chains seen across Europe.

Schildergasse Shopping Street Cologne
Schildergasse, Cologne

>>> Looking for somewhere to stay in Cologne? Check rates and availability

Take a 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 an excellent way to view the city and its scenery.

You can plan a daytime cruise to float under Hohenzollern Bridge and take in the views of the twin-spired Cathedral and Old Town buildings. There are also evening dinner cruises, which showcase the city all lit up and looking gorgeous at night.

Check out prices and availability for Cologne Panorama City Cruises

Explore Cologne’s Café Culture

Café Reichard opposite Cologne cathedral is an excellent 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 is near the cathedral on the Hohe Strasse pedestrian zone. The building was constructed in the early 1950s and originally housed the local radio broadcasting studio.

Nowadays, the bright and airy café has a ’50s vibe, and I enjoyed an excellent lunch of smoked salmon on rye bread. The Funk Haus bar is a popular evening spot serving Kölsch, wines and a range of cocktails.

Smoked Salmon on Rye Bread
Smoked salmon on Rye Bread

Drink a cold Kölsch in Cologne

Saturday afternoon is beer time in Germany, when it’s traditional to head to the beer houses (Bierhäuser). Some are huge, holding as many as 1000 people, and their outside seating spills out onto the neighbouring squares.

We stopped at Früh am Dom, probably Cologne’s most famous beer house, for a refreshing Kölsch, the traditional Cologne beer. We figured we deserved it after climbing the 533 steps to the top of the cathedral.

The beers are carried to the table in an ingenious metal container holding around 10 glasses. Your glass is refilled on request, and the number of drinks you have is noted on your beer mat. When you’re ready to move on, simply pop your mat on top of your glass, and your beer waiter will bring over the bill.

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

Chill in the Park

Germany has a rich history of creating and maintaining public parks, gardens, and green spaces. At the first sign of a sunny weekend, they fill with families and friends having picnics, birthday parties and BBQs.

We headed to Volksgarten Park in the south of the city for some blogger chat and lunch in Hellers Beer Garden. The park has plenty of cool, leafy shade and a large boating lake dotted with ducks, geese and pedalos.

The KölnCard will help you to receive up to 50% discount on some entry prices plus free travel on the city’s public transport network.

I chose Schnitzel for lunch, and the German guy serving us got quite exasperated as I was about the fifth of us in the queue to order that. He told us in rather ripe terms that Schnitzels aren’t German and we should choose and Austrian dish. I’m glad I didn’t because I really enjoyed that Schnitzel and the beer I had with it!

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

>>> Looking for somewhere to stay in Cologne? Check rates and availability

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 (the love lock bridge), and the 103-metre tall Köln Triangle will be straight ahead of you. For €3, you can take the lift to the observation deck at the top of the building and enjoy 360° panoramic views over the Rhine river and the city.

There’s a glass wall right around the top of the deck, so some reflections will show up on your photos, but the view’s a stunner. The observation deck is open until 11pm, so if you visit later in the day, you can watch as the sun sets and all the famous landmarks begin to light up for the night.

The Travelbunny, Cologne
Views from Kolntriangle

The KölnCard will help you to receive up to 50% discount on some entry prices plus free travel on the city’s public transport network

Delve into history at the Romano-Germanic Museum

The modern city of Cologne is built on the site of the Roman settlement of Colonia Claudia Ara Agrippinensium, and the Romano-Germanic Museum is dedicated to preserving this rich cultural heritage.

It’s one of the top attractions in Cologne and more than 20 million people have visited the Römisch-Germanisches Museum since its new home was opened in 1974. Before this, many artefacts were housed in the Wallraf-Richartz Museum and in temporary buildings.

The museum’s exhibits include archaeological artefacts, mosaics, Roman jewellery and the world’s largest collection of Roman glass. In addition to this, the Romano-Germanic museum also preserves the original site of a Roman town villa. The museum’s basement contains a large Dionysus mosaic in its original location, which was discovered in 1941 during the construction of an air raid shelter.

It provides a unique glimpse into Roman life in the Rhineland that should definitely be on your list of things to do in Cologne.

>>> Looking for somewhere to stay in Cologne? Check rates and availability

Relax at Cologne Botanical Garden

If you’re looking for a little peace and quiet during your visit to Cologne, the Cologne Botanical Garden is a true oasis in the heart of the city. Despite the city location, you can enjoy a tranquil walk through nature, admiring the exquisite landscaping and rare plant species.

The garden covers a massive 11.5 hectares (16 football pitches!) and is home to over 10,000 plant species from the themed outdoor gardens to the exotic plants of the tropical greenhouses and elegant Palm House.

The Cologne Botanical Garden is a wonderful opportunity for relaxation in the middle of the busy city, and you can learn a little about the world of flowers and plants at the same time. Admission is free, so this is also one of the best free things to do in Cologne.

This is the oldest and most traditional public park in Cologne, which was established in 1863 and now welcomes over a million visitors every year.

Take in the art at Wallraf-Richartz Museum

The Wallraf-Richartz Museum is one of Cologne’s most important museums. It’s home to a remarkable collection of European art covering 700 years of art history, from the medieval period to the early 20th century.

The museum has one of the world’s most impressive collections of medieval paintings. The highlight of this collection is the Madonna of the Rose Bower by Stefan Lochner, who lived and worked in Cologne in the 1440s.

You can also view works by Baroque artists like Rubens and Rembrandt, see Germany’s widest collection of Impressionist art including exquisite paintings by Manet, Monet and Renoir, and marvel at Modernist works by van Gogh, Gauguin and Munch.

If you’re an art lover, this museum is definitely not to be missed, so I recommend putting it high up on your Cologne itinerary.

The KölnCard will help you to receive up to 50% discount on some entry prices plus free travel on the city’s public transport network

Visit Gross St. Martin, the Romanesque church

Gross St. Martin, or Great St Martin’s, is one of the twelve Romanesque churches in the Old town area of Cologne. This imposing Romanesque church dominates the skyline of Cologne’s Old Town with its distinctive crossing tower. The stunning architecture, modest decoration and rich history make Gross St. Martin one of the must-see Cologne attractions.

The original church was built between 1150 and 1250 and was altered several times through the centuries before being badly damaged during World War II. Extensive restoration works in the post-war period revealed the church’s Roman foundations, which can now be seen when you visit Gross St. Martin.

Explore the Belgian Quarter of Cologne

With its unique atmosphere and lively street scene, Cologne’s Belgian Quarter is the perfect destination for a leisurely stroll, shopping, or a night out.

The Belgian Quarter is a trendy, cosmopolitan neighbourhood in Cologne, known for its vibrant mix of boutiques, galleries, cafes, and bars. The Belgisches Viertel is a world away from the main shopping boulevards of Hohe Strasse and Schildergasse. It’s a place to linger a while and enjoy some laid-back shopping.

Instead of international chains and department stores, you’ll find historic buildings housing quirky independent stores, innovative fashion designers and local artisanal jewellers. And when you’ve had enough of shopping (is that possible?), you can take a break and revive yourself in one of the many cafés, pubs and restaurants that bring a taste of Brussels or Liège to Cologne.

>>> Looking for somewhere to stay in Cologne? Check rates and availability

Breathe in the scent of Cologne Fragrance Museum

As the birthplace of Eau de Cologne, you might expect to find a fragrant visitor attraction in the city of Cologne. And sure enough, the Fragrance Museum offers a fascinating journey into the world of perfume. Here, you can explore nearly 300 years of fragrance history and learn about the life and work of Johann Maria Farina, the inventor of the original Eau de Cologne.

The Fragrance Chamber takes you into the world of a perfumer, explaining the processes and essences of their trade and giving a rich impression of their work. You can journey down into the original vaults where Eau de Cologne was first produced in the 1700s and see a replica of the distillery that helped turn perfume production into an art.

Cologne’s Fragrance Museum can only be visited on a guided tour, so book your Fragrance Museum tickets online and get swept away into the world of fragrance.

Enjoy Cologne Christmas Markets

Cologne’s Christmas markets are supposed to be some of the best in Germany. The little huts (Buden) 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 one in front of the Cathedral, which must look magical with the Dom as the backdrop. Cologne also has around 110 Nativity scenes at different places in the city. You can find more info on Cologne’s Christmas Markets. in this guide.

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

>>> Looking for somewhere to stay in Cologne? Check rates and availability

Where to eat in Cologne

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

We had a delicious 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.

Old Town, Cologne
Cologne’s colourful houses

>>> Looking for somewhere to stay in Cologne? Check rates and availability

Cologne Flights and Transfers

Our flights to Cologne were with Ryanair. 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), and German trains are known for being efficient and punctual, so our Cologne airport transfers were easy.

free travel on the city’s public transport network

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

Our Hotel in Cologne

We stayed at the 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 the city have been useful and has given you lots of ideas for things to do in Cologne. Hopefully, you’ll be able to slip some of these ideas into your own Cologne itinerary if you plan on visiting the city.

If you enjoy visiting cool Germany cities then you might want to learn about the maritime city of Bremerhaven on the northern coast of Germany.

Ready to plan a visit to Cologne?

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

Comments are closed.