Green Traveller's Guide to Cologne
Updated: Feb 21
As part of our series of Green Traveller's Guides to European cities, here we focus on Cologne, one of Germany's oldest cities.
Sheltering on the banks of the Rhine, Cologne was founded by the Romans in 38 BC. A vast Gothic cathedral, the city’s best-known landmark and most visited site in the country, presides over an architectural patchwork of Roman towers, medieval churches and post-war office blocks. Around the cathedral is the Altstadt, or Old Town, where hops-loving visitors indulge in Kölsch, the distinctive local brew. With over one million inhabitants, and a lively student population, Cologne is a vibrant metropolis: The Cologne Opera, Cologne Philharmonic Orchestra and numerous theatres are just some of the cultural events and attractions on offer.
Although Cologne 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 under 5 hours by train (via a simple platform change at Brussels) - see our guide to how to take the train from London to Cologne.
Getting around Cologne by public transport
Cologne Central train station (Hauptbahnhof) is in the centre of the city, so it’s just a short stroll from the station to the magnificent Dom Cathedral, the city’s main tourist office, and many shops, bars and restaurants. The city also has an excellent public transport network to take you across the city and further afield. Cologne’s handy Welcome Card (€9) enables you to travel on any public transport for up to 24 hours as well as discounts on many of the city’s main attractions, tours and facilities, including the Cologne City Museum, the Chocolate Museum, and the Rent a Bike service. As part of the huge Rhine-Ruhr urban region, Cologne is served by several lines of the local S-bahn rail network, and its Hauptbahnhof is a major hub thereof: here is a map of the S-bahn in Cologne and the surrounding area, the website also offers ticketing information (in German, can be translated).
Cologne’s underground (U-bahn) is run by KVB, you can download network maps on their website, as well as ticket information and a journey planner. Trams and buses are operated by VRS, and have uniform tickets and fares; the VRS site offers a journey planner to find routes useful for you. If you’ll be travelling around a lot, it might be worth investing in the KölnCard, which offers unlimited travel and a range of discounts across the city.
Places to eat in Cologne - for local, seasonal, organic food
There are few better ways to spend a Sunday morning in Cologne – or to seek out the best regional food - than tucking into a civilised brunch. Café Vreiheit, Café Feynsinn, Café Bauturm, Café Stanton and Café Lichtenberg are a co-operative of certified organic coffee shops and restaurants across the city and are all part of the local Slow Food movement. All do great breakfasts and brunches as well as other meals. Or head to Café Sehnsucht, an independent café with pretty tiled walls, mismatched wooden furniture and a commitment to organic produce. It does everything from cakes to evening meals but it’s especially known for its elaborate monthly Sunday brunches. 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.
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. A few other great places to eat are: Café Vreiheit, Wallstraße 91; Café Feynsinn, Rathenauplatz 7; Café Bauturm, Aachener Straße 24-26; Café Stanton, Schildergasse 57; Café Lichtenberg, Richmodstraße 13; and Café Sehnsucht, Körnerstraße 67.
What to see in Cologne
Germany's most visited tourist attraction pulls in over 6.5 million visitors a year. Chances are, the cathedral - or Dom - 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. Its treasury also contains a wealth of artefacts and artworks. Just beside it is the Romano-Germanic Museum, where exhibits include the famous Dionysus mosaic and the world’s largest collection of Roman glassware. There are many other wonderful local attractions in Cologne (many of which you can see from the top of the cathedral!). Here are a few more suggestions:
If you’re seeking solace outdoors, the 40-hectare Rheinpark is one of the most easily accessed green spaces in Cologne. It runs alongside the right bank of the Rhine River, can be accessed by both cable car and ferry and is home to all manner of distractions from children’s playgrounds to the sophisticated Claudius thermal spa (claudius-therme.de). But there are plenty of other parks to explore. For plant lovers there’s the Flora and Botanical Garden and the Forstbotanischer Garten, for picnickers and ramblers the 14-hectare Volksgarten park and for families the Finkens Garten nature-based theme park.
A blend of ancient and modern, the Kolumba Museum in Cologne was previously known as the Diocesan Museum but changed its name when it moved to its current location, on the site of the former St Columba church, in 2007. Though many visitors come purely to enjoy its collections of religious art and artefacts, others are attracted by the building itself. Designed by Modernist Swiss architect Peter Zumthor, and integrating the remains of several churches into its fabric, it is an extremely peaceful and appropriately contemplative space. Sustainability is also at work here, with rooms heated geothermally.
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). Right: Not quite Charlie's Chocolate Factory, but oodles of Lindt chocolate tumble out of a fountain at Cologne's Chocolate Museum. Photo Richard Hammond.
A must for anyone interested in contemporary art, the bold and airy purpose-built gallery at Museum Ludwig houses works in a huge range of styles, from pop art to surrealism via the abstract movement and expressionism. Highlights including one of the largest Picasso collections in Europe and an impressive compilation of early avant-garde Russian works. A thoughtfully curated programme of exhibitions keeps visitors coming back, as does the café-restaurant attached to the museum, which specialises in farm-fresh produce sourced from local, often organic, suppliers.
Green Places to stay in Cologne
A personal service is all part of the draw at Hotel Domstern – a spick and span three-star 16-room hotel right by the cathedral. So, too, is sustainability. Electricity comes from a green energy supplier and breakfasts are sourced ethically: organic, fair trade coffee comes from a small local roasting company; eggs, honey and more come from farmers around Cologne – the owners discovered their fruit juice supplier on a bicycle tour in the surrounding “Bergische Land”. Other items they make themselves, including yoghurt, jam, bread, butter and cream cheese.
Art’Otel has artistic sensibilities and a modern outlook. Its 218 guest rooms are bright and largely white, its restaurant serves pan-Asian food, it hosts a permanent exhibition of collages by Korean-born artist SEO and its terrace overlooks a harbour that was recently gentrified as part of the Rheinhaufen urban redevelopment project. Set in the southern reaches of the city’s Old Town, it’s also one of the city’s greener hotels with water-saving showers, sophisticated ventilation systems and energy-efficient lighting.
Radisson Blu Hotel Köln is an ultra-contemporary, four-star property in the city’s Deutz district, this 393-room hotel is a popular choice among business visitors. Free wifi, extensive gym and sauna facilities and easy access to the city’s leafy Rheinpark help guests unwind after hours, as does the hotel’s Feng Shui-inspired architecture. Motion detector lighting and green cleaning supplies help boost the hotel’s eco credentials.
Hostel Kohn is 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.