Thinking of visiting Cologne, Germany? Here’s what you really need to know before you go!
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Cologne, Germany was the first stop on my two-week Christmas market trip in 2021. I chose my destinations around the markets, but each city also had to offer something unique to draw me in.
When it comes to markets, the Cologne Christmas markets were one of my favorites! The level of attention to detail in the booths was second to none. I highly recommend it as a destination for Christmas market trips.
In German, the city name is Köln. Cologne is the French spelling but for whatever reason, that’s the one the English-speaking world uses. It was part of France for a few hundred years, but nowadays the city feels far more classically German than French.
Cologne is a decently large city but still walkable. It takes about 30 minutes to get from the Cathedral to Stadtgarten (a local park by the furthest Christmas market). There’s also a metro, but if I can cross town in half an hour I tend to just walk.
Planning Your Time in Cologne
The eternal question when planning a trip: how much time do you need to enjoy the city?
Generally, I hate to spend less than 48 hours in a place, purely for food reasons. Day trips or quick turnarounds mean if you have one less-than-stellar meal, you’ve missed so many good options!
That being said, I don’t know that you need more than 2 days in Cologne. You could do it as a day trip from Aachen or Dusseldorf if you’re there too. The ideal amount of time for me would be a day and a half to get a good feel for the city and see the major highlights. If you’re like me and incorporating Christmas markets, two days feels just right for an unrushed visit.
When I visited I was traveling solo, and my priority was a cheap, no-frills hotel near the action. I stayed at Hotel Engelbertz and it was perfect for what I needed! Nothing fancy, but a comfortable bed in a single room with breakfast included and 24-hour staff.
Germany is full of great beer, but each region has its specialties and serves almost exclusively that one type. Cologne’s beer is Kolsch, a light, slightly hoppy beer. It’s very mild – milder than most American versions I’ve tried – and served in small skinny glasses.
Locals tend to go to breweries after work, so the lunch crowds are mostly tourists even at the best places. That being said, it’s the same food for both meals, so go whenever suits you!
Peters Brauhaus is a Cologne institution. The brewery has been running for hundreds of years and it’s a great place to get lunch or dinner! The feel is classic cozy brauhaus, perfect for getting into the German spirit. They offer all the local classics like pork knuckle. Make sure to ask what the specials are!
Gilden im Zim
Gilden im Zim is another great brewery to try! It sits in Heumarkt and feels a bit more upscale. Their menu is pretty extensive as well. I opted for the altstader (potato soup) and a trio of appetizer bites to get a taste of local delicacies. The biggest surprise of the trio was mettbrötchen, a piece of bread topped with raw pork. I’m going to be honest, eating raw pork was weird, especially considering it didn’t have a ton of flavor. But it’s a thing here, and I’m glad I tried it! If you’d rather skip the raw meats, the halve hahn (cheese crostini) and meatballs were tasty and probably more universally appealing.
Looking for more Cologne restaurant recommendations? I offer travel planning services and can recommend more great Cologne breweries and restaurants! Email me for more info, or check out more examples of my travel lists on Thatch! Or grab this guide in an interactive version for free right here.
What to Do in Cologne
Since it’s so walkable, I highly recommend spending a few hours walking around the historic part of town. Cologne is a great example of one of those cities that builds modern buildings right alongside the historic ones, so you get some contrasts that often surprise Americans.
Also, walk along the river for great views. In peak tourist season, this is also where river cruises disembark and can be crowded. But if you come in the morning or evening, it’s quiet and beautiful!
Cologne is also referred to as the Cathedral City, so that’s an obvious first step! It’s the tallest twin-spired cathedral in the world and is Germany’s most-visited landmark. The site is most known for being the final resting place of the three magi.
As you know, I live in Italy so I see a lot of cathedrals. This region of Germany offers a unique style of church architecture, different than most Italian churches. It’s classic Gothic architecture with the Germanic style of simple white ceilings.
One aspect I found interesting in the Cologne Cathedral was the decorative style of tombs. Most of the alcoves in the back of the nave contained tombs each intricately carved. Most featured sculptures of the deceased but were adorned with castle-like battlements, or an iron cage of sorts fitted over top. I’d seen effigies of the dead on top of tombs, but not a full castle recreation!
Visiting is free and unticketed as of December 2021. Simply show your green pass or covid documentation to enter!
One of the most popular stops in Cologne has to be the Chocolate Museum! Sitting on the edge of the river, it’s easy to find and has a Christmas market right in front during the holidays.
You can learn about how cacao is grown, chocolate is made, and of course enjoy plenty of samples. If you want to skip the museum, you can also head for the cafe and enjoy all the chocolate you want along the banks of the Rhine!
This area is also known for mustard! Random, I know. But take a few minutes and check out the Mustard Museum! Even if the exhibit is closed for Covid reasons (it happens off and on right now), the staff are happy to offer samples and explain the process from the shop. I happily tried most flavors and ended up coming home with three jars! Bonus: they don’t need refrigeration, so you can easily take them home for a long-term souvenir to savor!
Basilica of St. Ursula
If you want something just a little bit weird, head to Basilica of St. Ursula. The church itself is unremarkable visually, but if you ask the staff and pay a euro, they’ll unlock a side door to the ossuary, also called the Golden Chamber. The walls are covered with human bones, said to be those of St. Ursula and her virgins killed by the Huns. It’s definitely… strange.
If you like modern art, this one’s for you. Museum Ludwig has an extensive collection of pop art, abract, and modern art, and includes one of the biggest Picasso collections anywhere. Modern art’s not my thing, but it’s here if you love it!
Another spot that worth a quick buzz by is the Hahnen Gate. It’s one of the gates of the old city walls, restored in the late 19th century. One of the best of the Christmas markets is here too!
Looking for more Germany travel guides? I love Munich, Berlin, and exploring Bavarian castles!