You have probably heard of the Cologne Cathedral, but did you know that Cologne in Germany is also a city with a vivid modern art scene, atmospheric neighbourhoods, perfect for peaceful urban strolls and boutique shopping, but also a place of an amazing food culture? Our Cologne City Guide will provide you with the necessary travel tips and lead you to the most interesting contemporary and historical spots!
This ultimate travel guide to Cologne will show you all the most beautiful places in Cologne, what to expect when visiting, where to stay in Cologne and things to do in Cologne which will help you in planning a trip to Cologne.
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Table of Contents
How to get to Cologne
A few major international airlines like Swiss, Lufthansa and TAP Portugal fly to Cologne Bonn International Airport. If you want to fly to Cologne from another European city, we recommend looking into budget flights with airlines like WizzAir or EasyJet. Cologne city centre can be easily reached from the airport by either bus or high-speed train.
Trains to Cologne run 24/7, so even if you arrive late at night, you don’t have to worry about getting to the city cheaply and conveniently. There are several train lines that you can take (eg. S13 and S19 to Düren Bahnhof or RE6 to Minden Hauptbahnhof). The fare for a one-way ticket to Cologne is as low as 2.90 €, and the trains depart every 10-15 minutes from the train station at the airport.
Inter-city trains in Germany are much more expensive, yet very reliable, and it is also possible to get to Cologne by train from eg. Berlin. Direct trains depart several times a day, the journey from Berlin is approx. 5,5 hours long, and the fares begin at 125 €, which means that in some cases the price for a budget flight might be lower than the train fare!
What to expect in Cologne
Even with its historical vibe, Cologne is a very modern city that attracts many young people and university students from abroad. You will be able to communicate in English with people and at the hotels and restaurants, but expect signs and services to be mostly in German.
Even though all major credit cards are widely accepted, and there are ATMs all over the city, it is safe to have some cash on hand, as some places might have minimum spending before they let you pay with the credit card. In Europe, most credit cards operate with PIN codes, so make sure your card has issued a PIN number, since businesses may not accept only your signature.
Prices that you see in German shops and restaurants have the VAT and service fees included. That said, it is common to leave a small tip for the services you receive. Without deciding on a certain tip percentage it is rather common to “round up” and pay your bills to a full Euro amount, leaving a small fee to the staff.
How to get around Cologne
Within the city centre, we recommend getting around on foot. The main attractions in the centre are located close to each other, and walking around is a nice way to experience the unique architecture of the city. If you don’t feel like walking, you can try looking into bicycle rental! Getting around on a public city bike is quite popular among tourists in Cologne. Radstation Köln offers both bike rental as well as guided city tours on two wheels! Why not give it a try?
Cologne’s public transportation system works very efficiently. Remember to buy tickets, either one-trip (Einzelfahrten) or day ticket (Tages Ticket) in advance or simply purchase KölnCard which will give you unlimited travel on public transportation for 24 or 48 hours and it will guarantee a discounted admission price to some of the city’s main attractions.
Going out of town or travelling with suitcases? Remember that Uber works well in Germany so you might save a couple Euros calling an Uber instead of a taxi! That said, German taxis are very reliable and nowadays most taxis have the option to pay by credit card.
The best time to visit Cologne
If you are going to Cologne with the mere purpose of sightseeing, we recommend visiting in spring (April and May) or Autumn (September to November). The weather is pleasant, it is not too hot, and the tourist season either hasn’t fully started or has already ended, which means that the main city attractions will be less crowded. In spring, the beer gardens start opening up around the city; spending time and socializing in those is a big part of the city culture.
The beer culture becomes even more vivid in the Fall which is the time of the traditional “Oktoberfests” held every year all over Germany. For an event like this, you want to be in a Cologne beer hall! It is also worth remembering that when you choose to visit Cologne outside of the summer season, you can expect cheaper accommodation prices, so take note of that if you are travelling on a budget!
Summer in Cologne (from late June to August) is hot, it can even get slightly humid. It is the time of school holidays too, so do expect beautiful and warm weather, but prepare to share your travel experience with other tourists.
Things to do in Cologne Germany
Visit the city’s many museums
In the city centre, close to the main train station you will find Museum Ludwig – the most popular art museum in the city. It is devoted to modern art and it houses the biggest collection of Pop Art outside of the USA. The museum also presents carefully curated temporary exhibitions, so prepare at least a few hours to explore the institution and its comprehensive program. If you prefer traditional arts, the Wallraf-Richartz-Museum might be a better choice for you. It is an impressive institution with European fine art from (among others) the Gothic, Renaissance and Baroque period.
If you’re travelling with children, it can be difficult to bring them to a fine art museum, but the Chocolate Museum will for sure be a hit! The Imhoff-Schokoladenmuseum opened in the early 1990s and presents the history of chocolate but also shows some of the contemporary production methods. Loads of tasting-opportunities too!
Shop in the Belgian Quarter
Called “Belgisches Viertel” by the locals, the Belgian Quarter is an incredible place for your Cologne shopping. The boutiques offer high-quality products, present off-mainstream fashion labels and handcrafted jewellery. Go there both for extraordinary items and special souvenirs, but also for the shopping experience itself! The architecture is very intriguing: prepare for a treasure hunt, as many shops are hidden in historical buildings and building arcades.
Pay a visit to Cologne Cathedral
Cologne Cathedral is probably the most well-known landmark of the city and it has been listed as a Unesco World Heritage Site since 1996. The cathedral is stunning architecturally, but it is also a strong religious and cultural symbol.
During World War II the city of Cologne was bombed, and the cathedral severely damaged, but in spite of the bombing, it survived! Now the Cathedral is open daily; from November through April 6 AM – 7.30 PM, and from May through October 6 AM – 9 PM, but note that opening hours may change around Sundays and important Catholic holidays!
“Meet and Eat” with the locals
If your stomach is craving international dishes, but you want to enjoy the unique atmosphere of the city, we recommend paying a visit to the weekly Cologne Street Food! Every Thursday, between 4 – 9 PM “Meet and Eat Markt” at Kölner Rudolfplatz pops up.
The event is popular among tourists and locals, so even with an international food selection, you are in for a very authentic experience. The market does not only offer food (the organizers are known for being very selective with their vendors!) but also presents stalls selling locally made goods, turning the event into a market for both food and unique handcrafts alike.
Count the love locks on Hohenzollern Bridge
Experts today estimate that the weight of padlocks hung on Hohenzollern Bridge in Cologne exceeds two tonnes! Couples from the city as well as tourists pilgrim to Hohenzollern Brücke (as it is called in German) to declare and seal their love.
On the magnificent bridge over the Rhine River, you will not only find regular padlocks but also custom made, sometimes engraved, designer love-locks and even bicycle chains – all without a key, as the key is supposed to be thrown into the river, for the sealed love-lock never to be unlocked again.
What to eat in Cologne
Have you ever heard of “Heaven and Earth”? The German name of the dish is “Himmel und Erde” and its main ingredients are potatoes (coming from the ground) and apples (coming from the “sky/heaven”). The potato mash is distinct for its fruity sweetness, and it is mostly served with blood sausage (black pudding) and fried onion. The apples are either mixed in the potato mash itself or added on top in form of a sauce.
A very affordable, traditional snack in Cologne is the “Mettbrötchen”. It is a bun served with raw pork sausage meat, topped with chopped raw onions and seasoned with simple spices. The thought of having raw pork chop might be challenging, but you will see that people in Cologne can eat Mettbrötchen for all of the day’s meals. Do give it a try, and you’ll feel like a local!
It’s wrong to think that all traditional dishes in Cologne include meat! “Halber Hahn” which directly translates to “half a rooster” is a meat-free open sandwich made of a thick slice of gouda cheese arranged on rye bread, topped with raw onions and/or chives. In bars and pubs around town, it is common to be served a plate with all the ingredients, and the customer can build their sandwich on their own.
Where to stay in Cologne
The Old Town area is a great neighbourhood to stay in Cologne for both sightseeing and shopping. Everything is conveniently located in the area, and that also includes the railway station! Centrally located hotels may not be suitable for budget travellers, so if you need to watch your spendings, try looking for an Airbnb or check into a small, family run Bed and Breakfast.
If you are visiting town looking for things to do in Cologne at night, staying in Ringe (the area between Friesenplatz and Rudolfplatz) is recommended. The neighbourhood is famous for its nightlife with many bars, pubs and lesser known, yet very atmospheric local breweries.
If you are visiting Cologne on a budget, try booking an Airbnb in Zülpischer Platz, known as “the student area”. It is a vibrant and interesting neighbourhood with pubs and bars that will serve you drinks at lower prices than other places in town!
Tours to do in Cologne
In a city with a rich and unique beer culture like the one of Cologne, we recommend joining a Brew House Walking Tour. Led by a local, English-speaking tour guide, you will be introduced to four traditional pubs in the old town and learn about the brewing processes and the local beer culture.
Only spending a weekend in Cologne Germany? Make sure to check out all the main city attractions by booking a private tour of Cologne City Highlights. Led by an English-speaking guide, you will see the Cologne Cathedral as well as some of the other, well-known Romanesque churches like the Great St. Martin Church. A Cologne hotel pickup and drop-off are included in the price, and you will travel around conveniently in a mini-van.
Day trips from Cologne
There are less than 30 kilometres from Cologne to Bonn, a 2000 years old city, very well known for the Beethoven House, now a museum as well as a cultural memorial of the composer’s birthplace. The city used to serve as the capital of West Germany after World War II, and even today Bonn houses several ministries.
In Bonn, you will also find “Museumsmeile” – a group of five museums dedicated to natural history, science, technology and art! With a wide palette of things to do, a day trip to Bonn is highly recommended especially for travellers with children!
Recommend budget tours in Cologne
- Skip the Line: Hard Rock Cafe Cologne Including Meal
- Small-Group Bike Tour of Cologne with Guide
- Rhine River Evening Panorama Cruise in Cologne
- The Kölsch Guys Brew House Walking Tour in Cologne
- Farina Fragrance Museum in Cologne Admission Ticket
- Cologne Rhine River Dinner Cruise
- Cologne Hop-On Hop-Off Bus Tour and Rhine River Sightseeing Cruise
- Pub Crawl Cologne: Experience Unique Pub Crawl Moments in Cologne
- Cologne Christmas Lights guided bike tour
- The Chocolate Museum Cologne Entrance Ticket
- Bonn City Private Tour (Day trip from Cologne)
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