Cologne is hardly the most popular city for visitors to Germany, but I can’t seem to stay away from it. It may only be Germany’s 4th largest city, but it’s my personal favorite.
What to do and see
I’ve obsessively researched Cologne’s history, from it’s Roman beginnings, it’s days as a thriving city of Jewish culture, and it’s avant garde arts scene. It makes it hard for me to narrow down my favorite places.
You can’t miss the Cologne Cathedral. This is literally true, since it’s the first thing you see when you get out of the hauptbahnhof. This was once the tallest building in the world. Construction began in 1248, but the first house of worship on the site was a 4th century Roman temple.
The current incarnation of the cathedral was built to house the remains of the three magis, symbolized in the city seal by three crowns. The eleven tears on the seal symbolize Saint Ursula, who was martyred by Atilla the Hun, along with eleven virgins. Their bones are said to be buried below St Ursula Church, behind the hauptbahnhof.
Cologne is officially Holy Cologne, one of only four cities to have that designation from the Roman Catholic Church.
I don’t know why people in Cologne think the Hohenzollern Bridge is known for love locks, since you’ll find them on anything even vaguely bridge-like these days. The Hohenzollern (which you’ll recognize from postcards and stock photos) does have quite the collection of them.
The Museum Ludwig has an excellent collection of modern art. If their current exhibitions don’t draw you in, there are numerous galleries and public art pieces around the city. If you’re looking for classic art, make your way to the Wallraf-Richartz-Museum.
One of my favorite spots is the Taubenbrunnen, or pigeon fountain. Sounds gross, but it’s quite lovely. You can dip your feet into the water while enjoying a view of the Rhine and the cathedral.
Hohe Strasse began as a Roman main street. It’s Cologne’s main shopping street and was Germany’s first fully pedestrianized roadway. Schildergasse is another major shopping street. If you follow it to Neumarkt, you’ll see Claes Oldenburg and Cloosje van Bruggen’s Dropped Cone on top of the Neumarkt Gallerie.
You can still see several of Cologne’s old city gates. If you walk around the ring, you can see Severinstorburg, Ulprefort, Hahnentor, and Eigelsteintorburg.
Cologne was the center of the German chocolate trade up until the end of the 20th century. The chocolate museum is hugely popular.
If you look down, you’ll notice gold cobblestones with names engraved on them. These Stolperstiene, or stumbling blocks, are a project by Gunter Demnig, marking the homes of people murdered by the Nazis.
Where to work
Cologne is dotted with wireless hotspots. Many coffee shops offer wifi this way, for better or for worse. You might want to try connecting to the wifi before you settle in with your latte and scope out a spot with a plug.
Even if you don’t have T-mobile, you can still use their wireless hotspots. Pretty much every plaza, T-mobile shop, McDonalds, and hotel has one. If it’s a nice day, this means you can do your work while basking in the sun, so long as your laptop battery holds out.
If you have T-mobile, you’ll rarely have to deal with the 2G that comes with their unlimited international plans. We had 3G or 4G most of our time in Germany.
If you don’t have the patience for coffee shops and want to get in with Köln’s startup scene, Startplaz is happy to give you a day pass.
Where to eat & drink
The official drink of Cologne is kölsch, served in tiny, tall glasses called Stößche. You can drink it anywhere in Cologne, but Früh am Dom is the place to go. If you had family in Köln, this is where they’d take you. There are 20 types of kölsch and each brewery has a public house where both tourists and locals can be found.
Where to stay
Cologne is a compact city with great transit, so most neighborhoods are a safe bet. Anything inside the grungurtel is an easy walk to downtown. Deutz is a bargain and a short tram ride away.
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Köln is Germany’s most gay friendly city. Plenty of people would argue that Berlin should deserve the title, but if you’re looking for something beyond clubbing and furtive hookups, I disagree. Berlin’s scene has a very underground vibe to it. If you’re looking to live fully outside of the closet, Cologne is the place to be.
Cologne’s Christopher Street Day Parade was my very first pride parade. It’s one of Europe’s biggest pride parades. This city of a million swells to twice its size every year for CSD (and let’s not even talk about Karneval).
Yes, Cologne has lots of gay bars and clubs. Plenty of people come to town for Schaafenstraße. Much like Brooklyn and Toronto, gay bars are for hooking up (or for out-of-towners).
All of Cologne’s hip bars are queer friendly, there’s no need to hide away unless you’re looking for the fetish scene, the sauna, or a hookup (but we have apps for that). Check Facebook (and ask your friends’ friends) to see what queer dance parties are hot at the moment. Fort X is a popular spot for queer dance parties.
People will give you all sorts of information on what neighborhood is the gayborhood in Cologne. Lots of people hang out near Rudolphplatz and are attracted to the cheap rent of Severinstrasse, but you’ll find queers pretty well distributed throughout the city.
It’s a little confusing that the Holy City of Cologne (really, we’ll get to that in another post) is Germany’s gayest city, but Cologne is a complex place.
Köln is easy to get to — in fact, it’s hard to avoid. The Cologne central train station is a major rail hub for Europe, with well over a quarter of a million people traveling through the station each day. They keep promising direct London-Cologne services, but right now you still have to transfer in Paris.
Once you’re in Cologne, there’s the U-bahn and streetcars to get you around the city. The city is very walkable (and bikeable!). The S-bahn can get you out of town for fresh air or to Bonn.
There are luggage lockers at the Hauptbahnhof and Neumarkt. There are also lockers at most of the museums.
If you find yourself in need of a toilet, the Museum Ludwig and Globetrotter are your best bets.