Cologne was the first overnight stop on our trip around the world without flying before moving on towards Moscow. We spent the day exploring this historic German city and discovered that there are plenty of things to do in Cologne. Whether, like us, you’ve just got one day or have longer to spend, I’m sure you’ll also enjoy this compact and walkable city. Despite only having one day, we packed quite a bit in. These are the things we did on our day out in Cologne. Hopefully, they’ll inspire you to visit for yourself.
The top things to do when in Cologne
- Cologne Cathedral
- National Socialism Documentation Centre
- Walk along the Rhine
- Take a boat ride on the river
- Love Locks
- Explore the Old Town
- Picnic in the Park
- Chocolate Museum
- Ride the S-Bahn
- Sample the local beer
Undeniably one of the most iconic buildings in the city, the cathedral stands between the central railway station and the old town. Parts of the cathedral date back to the 13th century although its construction took place on and off over hundreds of years. Famous for its twin spires, Cologne cathedral is also one of the oldest Gothic churches in Europe.
The cathedral was heavily bombed during the Second World War and despite being severely damaged in places, the twin spires survived. Extensive repairs were made so that we can all still experience this beautiful building. It was listed as a UNESCO World Heritage building in 1996 because of its cultural significance. Fortunately, its listed status helped prevent plans to build high rise buildings next to it. I’m so glad that wasn’t allowed as that would completely ruin the Cologne skyline.
Inside the cathedral, you’ll see some beautiful stained glass windows. Particularly striking when the sun catches them. The black marble altar, which you can just make out in one of my photos above, is another gem worth a close-up look. Also impressive is the golden Shrine of the Three Kings.
The Cathedral is open from 6 am to 7 pm on weekdays and Saturdays year-round and later in summer. However, on Sundays and some holidays, it is only open in the afternoon. Entry to the cathedral is free of charge. If you want to climb the tower then the cost is 5 Euros per person. Note that the entrance to the tower is from outside the cathedral not inside. The tower also does not open until 9 am.
National Socialism Documentation Centre
The National Socialism Documentation Centre is located in the building which was the headquarters of the Cologne Gestapo or Secret Police, before and during the Second World War. It is a building with a chilling past and many people were murdered here by the Nazis. Today, the museum seeks to memorialise all the victims of the Nazi regime.
As you walk through the museum rooms you are especially aware that this is no ordinary museum. In fact, this is actually the site of some of the atrocities it depicts. It is both unsettling and also very educational. You can view videos of survivors talking about their experiences while you look around at where it took place. Read their notes, some scratched on the walls of the building itself.
The museum is open from 10 am to 6 pm from Tuesday to Friday. It opens slightly later in the morning on the weekends and public holidays: from 11 am to 6 pm. If you are in Cologne on the first Thursday of the month the museum stays open late until 10 pm (as long as it’s not a public holiday).
Admission costs 4.50 Euros per adult, 2.50 Euros for concessions. Children under 6 years old are free. Additionally, special rates apply to local Cologne residents.
Walk Along the Rhine
Surely one of the great joys of a day in a city with a river is the chance to stroll along the river banks and admire the view. The river Rhine flows through Cologne and it’s a wide, majestic river so well worth taking the time to see some of it. You’ll find a wide paved walkway right along the river for some distance which makes taking a walk even easier.
Take a boat trip on the Rhine
Alternatively, you could take one of the tourist boats and while away some time on the Rhine itself. The Rhine accommodates many different tourist boats and in summer you’ll see the river cruise boats drifting past. You’ll also find day trips on offer and shorter sightseeing tours. A sightseeing cruise from Cologne to Königswinter and return makes a lovely day out. If you prefer a shorter trip on the water then the one-hour sightseeing trip is ideal. Another great alternative, or perhaps as well, is an evening cruise on the river. This 2-hour evening boat cruise offers great views of night-time Cologne with the option to dine or have a drink on board.
It seems to have become a bit of a trend in European cities for lovers to attach locks with their names on them to various city landmarks. This is not always a popular activity with the local authorities, however. I’ve seen photos of the bridge in Cologne with a lot more locks on it than this but the local authority had removed a lot of them before we arrived. Still, many more had been attached. Cologne is certainly not the only place to see this but it’s worth taking a stroll up onto the railway bridge to take a look. You’ll also get a great view of the river and the cathedral while you’re up there!
Explore the Old Town
While you’re in Cologne you should take some time to explore the old town. Especially as it so close to the river area. Here you can wander through picturesque streets and alleyways at length. Admire the colourful architecture and discover some of Cologne’s excellent museums. It’s also a great place to take a break for lunch or just coffee at one of the superb cafes and restaurants. In summer you can sit outside at one of the pavement cafes but there’s plenty of cosy indoor seating for when it’s cooler.
We found the Cologne Chocolate Museum (Schokoladenmuseum) quite by chance as we walked along the river. Inside you can learn all about the chocolate-making process and also its history. You can even see actual cocoa trees growing in the greenhouse. For an extra chocolate indulgence, they have a lovely cafe with views over the Rhine.
The Chocolate Museum is open from 10 am to 6 pm every day except in winter when it is closed on Mondays. Tickets cost 12.50 Euros per person on weekdays and an extra 1 Euro per person on weekends. Children under 6 years are free and those over six pay 7.50 Euros on weekdays and 8 Euros on weekends.
Picnic in the Park
If the weather is kind while you’re in Cologne then spend some time walking and relaxing in the riverside Rhine Park. This lovely green space is the perfect place for a picnic. You’ll even get a view of the iconic cathedral. Here you’ll find playgrounds for the children as well as plenty of space for some ball games.
In the summer, you can also catch the cable car from here as well. You might remember that we didn’t get to ride it when we were there. I love cable cars but as we travel out of season quite a lot I do often miss out. You’ll get a great view of the city if you do take a trip though.
Ride the S-Bahn
Now, oddly enough, this is one of the few German phrases I remember from school. Tram is Strassenbahn in German. So, putting two and two together, I’m going to say that S-Bahn probably stands for Strassenbahn. Anyway, trams are a great way to get around the city if your feet get tired.
Using trams is easy. Buy your tickets from the machine at the tram stop (Strassenbahnhaltestelle). This is the best place to buy them as they come ready validated so you don’t have to worry about it. Alternatively, you can buy tram tickets at newsagents but these do need to be validated when you first use them. There are big fines for travelling on an unvalidated ticket so make sure you get it right.
Sample the local beer
The local beer is called Kölsch and you’ll find plenty of brew houses in Cologne which will allow you to sample a glass or two. Be warned that it is quite strong. Something to do with the brewing process used, I believe. Once you sit down you’ll be served your drink in a special Kölsch glass called a stange. The waiters walk around with glasses of the beer on a special tray and when they see you’ve finished one glass they’ll provide you with a replacement. It’s very easy to drink far more than you expected this way. Rest assured they know exactly how many you’ve had and will give you the bill when you’ve finished.
If you’d like to see more of Cologne’s brewhouses then consider taking a small group tour. This guided tour will take you to four different brewhouses. You’ll get the opportunity to taste the local Kölsch and gain fresh knowledge about Cologne and its people. It’s a great chance to meet fellow travellers as well.