Greentraveller's Guide to Cologne, Germany
On the banks of the mighty Rhine, Cologne is Germany's oldest city. Although it has a population of over 1 million and is one of the most important hubs in Northern Europe, over a quarter of the city is made up of green spaces so it's not hard to escape the crowds. Cologne is the most populous student town in Germany so there's no shortage of bars and clubs, and with 36 museums, 120 galleries and an enormous shopping district, it's a great place to go for a city break. From London St Pancras it takes just over 4 hours by train.
Here are a few of things I saw on my recent trip to the city as part of our Great InterRail Adventure with Rail Europe, plus a selection of the many tips that were sent in by readers via our twitter account: @greentraveller and via the greentraveller facebook page. Thanks to all those who sent in recommendations. Next stop is Basel!
What to do
1. Experience the majesty of the Dom Cathedral
Germany's most visited tourist attraction pulls in over 6.5 million visitors a year. Chances are, the cathedral will be the first thing you lay eyes on when you exit the main station. Dating back to 1248, the massive gothic cathedral took some six decades to complete and was once the tallest building in the world. There are some 509 steps to climb to the top of the south tower, but the view of the city at the top is well worth the effort. Entry to the cathedral is free but climbing the tower will cost €2.50. While the cathedral's architecture may be a sight in itself, the treasury contains a wealth of artefacts and artworks and, on bell-ringing days, you can take a special tours of otherwise closed-off areas. koelner-dom.de
2. Cycle around Cologne's green spaces
There is an estimated 75 square metres of green space for each of Cologne's 1 million inhabitants. Certain areas of the city centre have even been designated as 'green zones', only reachable on foot, by bike or by public transport. Cycle between the Rhine promenade in the Old Town, lush 19th century botanical gardens and numerous parks in the city centre easily using the convenient Call A Bike system explained below in the Getting around Cologne section. Cycling is not the only means of exploring Cologne's green spaces - the expansive Rheinpark, which runs alongside the right bank of the Rhine River, can be accessed by both cable car and ferry. Here's the tourist board's guide to Cologne's green spaces.
3. Relax at a Beach Club along the Rhine
During the summer, head to the beach clubs that stretch along the banks of the Rhine to relax on the sand, sip a cocktail and enjoy the famous Rhine panorama of Cologne in style. At the km689 Cologne Beach Club, you can order one of Germany's own Erdinger Champ beers, along with a traditional dish from the restaurant, and pass the afternoon lounging on a chill-out bed on the sand. km689.rhein-terrassen.de
4. Indulge at Cologne's Chocolate Museum
Germans love chocolate... they make nearly 1 million tonnes of the stuff every year. On the banks of the Rhine, Cologne's chocolate museum is a tour through chocolate's 3,000 year history - from the Aztec love of cocoa beans to the most modern brands and recipes and the introduction of fair trade labelling. There's a huge chocolate shop at the exit where you can buy chocolate in all shapes and sizes, including the famous Three Kings Gateau. Admission costs €7.50 per adult, and you can pay extra to take a guided tour (complete with free samples). chocolatemuseum-cologne.com
5. Discover Cologne's Roman Roots
The Romano-Germanic Museum is home to a wide variety of artefacts left behind by the Romans, including the stunning Dionysus mosaic, around which the museum was built following its excavation in 1941. The three floors exhibit a variety of portraits, pottery and jewellery, as well as the world's largest collection of Roman glassware. Admission costs €6 per adult.
Where to eat and drink
1. Souppresso Organic Cafe offers a cheap and tasty menu of impressively organic and vegetarian dishes, such as fennel or tomato soup, salad or fresh carrot and ginger juice. Alternatively, visit the restaurant in the evening for a sumptuous 3-course meal (including lamb stew and truffle ravioli) complemented by a range of organic wines. The on-site delicatessen also has organic olive oils and balsamic creams to take away.
2. Hernando Cortez-Schokoladen specialises in all things chocolate. Located in the bustling shopping area between Neumarkt and Rudolf Place, you can pick out world-class chocolates and presents from the shop or sit in the cafe and indulge in one of the chocolate fondues, cakes, ice creams and other desserts. There are also seminars such as the wine and chocolate evening where you can sample 8 wines, each with its own corresponding chocolate (€39.50).
3. Brauhaus Fruh am Dom is a cavernous brewery tavern sat right behind Cologne's cathedral. Order a local Fruh Kolsch directly from the barrel and head out to the beer garden to bask in the sunshine. Alternatively, sit down to dinner in the Hofbraustuben restaurant and tuck into a traditional Cologne dish and admire the stunning panoramic views of the enormous gothic cathedral. The basement brewery dates back to 1235 and drinks are poured from wooden barrels on the bar.
Where to stay
I stayed at Hostel Koln, a modern, seven-story former office building (with 262 beds in 72 rooms) on a quiet side street between Neumarkt and Rudolph Place. It's just about the perfect place to stay for the flashpacker - rooms are smart, light and minimal, and cost from €19 in a 6-bed dorm, €24 in a 4-bed dorm, €30 per person for a twin room, or €45 for a single room to yourself. Prices include ample breakfast with wide choice of cereals, yogurt and bread.
For more hotels near the main train station, see: Hotels near Cologne train station
Getting Around Cologne
The city has a comprehensive subway and tram system and travel tickets are valid on subway, tram and regional trains depending on your ticket category. If you're going to be exploring Cologne's city centre, opt for the KurzstreckenTicket (short trip ticket), which is valid from your point of departure and up to four more stops (adults €6.40), or the CityTicket, which enables unlimited travel throughout the city (adult day pass €7.30). Bicycles can be taken on select trips and the website also offers comprehensive maps of all subway tram and train networks to help you plan your journey.
> Cologne's travel network
In addition, the Koln WelcomeCard offers free travel within Cologne (on top of numerous offers and discounts for nearby restaurants and attractions) and are a great way to see the city. Adult prices start at €9 for a 24 hour period.
> Koln WelcomeCard
Like Munich, Belgium and Frankfurt, Cologne has a comprehensive Call A Bike system. Once you've signed up on the website or by telephone, you can pay per minute via credit card and then pick up and drop off any of the silver-red bicycles dotted around the city. This makes exploring areas like the Old Town quick and easy - plus there's also a handy iPhone app listing all available bikes in your immediate area.
Registration costs €12 (of which €7.50 acts as bike credit) and subsequent top-ups can be made per minute (€0.08), per day (€15) or per week (€60). If you have a BahnCard (Germany's Country-wide Travel Card) handy, you can get a discount on daily and weekly rates.
> Cologne's Call A Bike system
Getting to Cologne by train
Cologne is served by two major train stations - Koln HauptBahnhof (the central station) and Koln-Deutz and is linked with Amsterdam, Brussels and Paris by Thalys and ICE high-speed trains. Travelling from London can take around 4 hours 11 minutes including a quick same-station change at Brussels. Taking the 0730 train from St Pancras will get you to Brussels by 10.30, allowing for an easy transfer to the 11.28 getting you into Cologne by about 1.15pm. Lunch time!
For more information on the journey to Cologne by train see our Overland Journey Planner: Train from London to Cologne or to book and InterRail ticket through Rail Europe see its excellent guide to InterRail.
Thanks to the Cologne Tourist Board for hosting us.