Hidden away in the western fringes of Germany and straddling the Rhine River is the city of Cologne, a historic Cathedral-rich city boasting more than 2,000 years of history. With roots tracing back to the first century CE, you’ll find nods to the city’s rich past all over Cologne, particularly in its fascinating collection of Romanesque churches.
One of Germany’s cultural powerhouses, there are endless things to do in Cologne, and we’re here to showcase the best of them. From the grand Cologne Cathedral and captivating Romano-Germanic Museum to the popular Cologne Zoo and Chocolate Museum, Cologne caters to every interest.
Read on for our top picks of the best things to do in Cologne. Cologne is one of the stops on my Germany travel itinerary where I visited all the highlights of this beautiful country.
1. Admire the view from Cologne Cathedral
Arguably one of the most famous tourist attractions in the city, the Cologne Cathedral is not to be missed when you’re in the city. Towering 157 meters above sea level, this Gothic cathedral is the largest of its kind in Europe. Now a UNESCO heritage site, many come to admire its 13th-century stained glass windows, 10th-century crucifix and staggering black marble altar. Once you’ve finished exploring inside, don’t forget to walk the 500 steps past the Cathedrals bell tower to enjoy panoramic views of the city.
2. Marvel art collections at Museum Ludwig
Not far from Cologne Cathedral, you’ll find the equally as impressive Ludwig Museum. Although much more modern in its architecture, The Ludwig Museum was, in fact, established in the 1980s and, when it first opened, featured a large collection of 20th-century art. Still focusing on modern and contemporary paintings, you’ll find works by the likes of Picasso and Warhol, as well as Erich Heckel and Karl Schmidt-Rottluff.
3. Sample Lindt’s finest at the Chocolate Museum
Said to be one of the finest chocolate museums in the world, the Imhoff-Schokoladenmuseum offers up both an interesting and delicious experience. Make your way through the educational exhibits, learning all about where chocolate comes from and how it is grown before moving on to the tasting room. Here, you’ll find a three-meter-high chocolate fountain which can be sampled on a simple wafer. A tasty way to end your tour of the museum.
4. Meet the residents at Cologne Zoo
Opened in 1860, Cologne Zoo is one of the oldest in Europe and has maintained its reputation as an excellent institution for over 150 years now. Creative and spacious animal enclosures are interspersed with 19th-century buildings, including the chimp house that looks akin to a Russian church. Home to nearly 800 species and with countless enclosures to explore, it’s worth setting aside a whole day to explore the Cologne Zoological Gardens.
5. Wander through Old Town
To get an authentic feel for Cologne’s ancient history, why not take a stroll through the city’s Old Town? A staggering 75% of Cologne was destroyed during the Second World War, and this small section of the city is all that remains. Known as Alstadt in German, it’s easy to get lost in the maze of traditional houses and old cobblestone streets, many of which have been converted into boutiques, local cafes and lively bars.
6. Take a break in the Botanical Gardens
Encompassing 28 acres, Cologne’s Flora and Botanical Gardens have become a popular spot to visit on a sunny day. The space consists of open green lawns, landscaped gardens and an architecturally-renowned glass palace. Originally built as an orangery, this enormous greenhouse-type structure no longer houses plants but concerts and private events. Still, you can marvel at its excellence from the outside while passing through flora and fauna from across the world.
7. Cruise along the Rhine River
With parts of Cologne sitting on both sides of the Rhine, there’s no better way to see the city than from the water. Luckily, plenty of boat tours run along the river, leaving from the Hohenzollern Bridge. Run by three companies, Colonia, Koln Dusseldorfer and Koln Tourist, you can enjoy an hour-long cruise along the river, taking in the sights of the Old Town, Cologne Cathedral, the city’s numerous bridges and more.
8. Uncover the city’s rich history in Romano-Germanic Museum
History buffs should not miss the opportunity to visit the Romano-Germanic Museum, located at the city’s heart. The museum was originally built to protect Roman ruins that were found underneath the city and have been dated as far back as the 1st century BC, around the time that Cologne was founded. However, over the years, the museum has built up an impressive collection of artefacts and archaeological wonders that have been found hidden beneath Cologne.
9. Smell the roses at the Fragrance Museum
Synonymous with Eau de Cologne, no visit to this German city is complete without some time spent at the Fragrance Museum. Housed in the very building where Eau de Cologne was invented in the 1700s, you can enjoy a 45-minute guided tour that will take you through the ins and outs of the oldest perfume factory in the world. Discover how the cologne-making process has evolved over the years, and even get the chance to mix botanicals into your very own scent.
10. Explore a darker past at the NS Documentation Centre
Visiting the NS Documentation Centre in Cologne isn’t an easy experience; in fact, it is one of the most chilling in Cologne that allows you to revisit one of the most harrowing times in the city’s history. The NS Documentation Centre is the former HQ of the Gestapo, otherwise known as the Secret Police during the Nazi regime. As well as a permanent exhibition showcasing what life was like during the 1930s and early 40s in Germany, you can walk through the cellar which was once used as a prison, complete with etchings from the prisoners on the walls.
11. Take to the skies in Cologne’s Cable Car
If you look up while you’re in Cologne, you’ll notice a network of cable cars riding high above the city’s walls. Built in 1957, this cable car has been in operation for over 50 years and has welcomed an impressive 15 million passengers onboard. Otherwise known as Rhein-Seilbahn, the cable car takes passengers from one side of the river to the other, providing unique views on the way. At just over 930 meters long, the journey takes just six minutes and is a great way to get to know the city from every angle.
How to find accommodation in Cologne
Whether you’re in Cologne for a short time or a long time, you’ll need somewhere to call home during your visit. From budget hostels to luxury hotels, short stays are well-catered for in Cologne. However, if you’re hoping to stay for a little longer and get to know the city better, it can be worth looking into apartments in Cologne for temporary stays through websites such as Homelike or Airbnb..
Serviced apartments are akin to short-term apartment rentals, where all the furniture and household amenities are included in the cost. Generally, monthly fees also cover the cost of Wi-Fi, utility bills, and even a regular cleaning service. For those staying for a month or longer in Cologne, serviced apartments can be a more cost-effective accommodation option.
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